Monday, November 20, 2017

Robert Toombs house in Georgia reopens: Here lived a charismatic, volatile, unreconstructed firebrand of the Confederacy

Property before renovation (Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

The home of Robert A. Toombs – lawyer, congressman, U.S. senator, slave owner, vocal secessionist, Confederate official and general, prominent figure in 19th century Georgia politics and, perhaps most notably, an “unreconstructed” rebel -- has been repaired and renovated and reopens this week.

Beginning Tuesday, visitors can see the entire residence at Robert Toombs House State Historic Site in Washington, Ga., about 50 minutes east of Athens.

Problems with a leaky roof damaging plaster and other features closed the second floor in 2011 and the remainder was shuttered this past April. A new roof was installed and interior plaster was repaired and repainted, with work extending to the entablature at the front of the home.

Wilkes County officials are excited about the reopening, which comes right before the annual Christmas holiday tour of homes.

“In his era, the home was very elegant. He was a very wealthy man,” said Marcia Campbell, who works for Wilkes County, which took over operation of the site in 2009. The state owns the property.

(Georgia DNR)
Most visitors come mainly for the stately house itself, said Campbell. A foundation garden and camellias adorn the outside, while a walk through the daylight basement and two floors provide a window to upper-class life before and shortly after the Civil War.

Many original furniture pieces remain, including a sofa, two side chairs and an arm chair made by renowned craftsman John Belter.

The residence, described as plantation plain style with a Greek Revival front, is the crown jewel of Washington’s large inventory of antebellum homes. The local Chamber of Commerce has this tout: “Washington-Wilkes is the epitome of a Southern small town complete with charm, beauty and of course hospitality which is usually exhibited in the form of a tall glass of iced sweet tea on the veranda!”

(Library of Congress)
Those more interested in history and politics tend to focus on the legacy of the influential Toombs, celebrated during his life for his oratory and political skills and charm, but remembered also as a volatile figure who had unyielding convictions and sniped at critics. He became a key figure in the secession movement.

Toombs “had a my way or the highway” approach to the law, said Campbell, a thinking that might have applied to other matters.

The story of the controversial firebrand has no shortage of interesting anecdotes: He left the University of Georgia under a cloud, made a lot of money as a lawyer, resigned from the Confederate army after leading troops at Antietam, fled to Cuba and Europe after the war, and refused to become an American citizen once he returned to Washington. He helped craft the 1877 state constitution, which held for nearly 80 years but disenfranchised newly gained rights for African-Americans.

So there’s a lot to cover. “I don’t go deeply into anything until I know what that person is interested in,” said Campbell.

Roof work during restoration (Wilkes County)

Impressive law practice and residence

Toombs was born in Wilkes County in July 1810 to a prosperous family. “He was a native son. His father was a major in the Revolutionary Way and came to settle in Wilkes County on bounty land,” said Campbell.

At 14, he entered Franklin College (now the University of Georgia) but left when he got into trouble for indifference and conduct during a card-playing game. Toombs studied law in the North before returning to Wilkes County to begin his hometown practice.

Toombs was elected to the Georgia House when he was 27 and became an expert in fiscal matters. His political acumen and skills grew quickly.

(Library of Congress)
About that time, he purchased the home that he would own for nearly 50 years. The central core of the residence was built in 1791 by Dr. Joel Abbot. The current front of the home was constructed in 1810. Toombs installed its familiar façade in 1854, and added the east and west wings in the mid-1870s.

While his true passion may have been politics, Toombs excelled in his law practice. He earned a princely $30,000 to $50,000 a year in law practice, land speculation and cotton production (the family also owned a plantation in southwest Georgia).

The Toombs house presided over about 300 acres and he owned about 30 slaves to run the plantation and home, Campbell said. “He was not a cruel slaveholder at all.”

The bulk of the estate is long gone, and the house is surrounded by Victorian era and later dwellings. The Toombs site has a few outbuildings but they are not open to the public.

The daylight basement has a lower ceiling than the rest of the house and was built in a practical English style. The family ate in this cooler area during the summer.

(Georgia DNR)

Toombs’ law office is on the first floor, along with the main hall, two parlors, the formal dining room and a guest bedroom, which was informally named for his longtime friend Alexander Stephens, another famous Georgia politician who became vice president of the Confederacy.

The second floor has three bedrooms, one for a daughter (the couple had three children) and one each for Toombs and his wife Julia.

From moderate to secessionist

Beginning in 1844, the Toombses spent much of their time in Washington, D.C., where he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

He was a states’ rights advocate, and while he believed slavery should be allowed in newly acquired territories, he supported the Compromise of 1850. He eventually moved away from moderation and toward radicalization and Southern secession.

Toombs (right), other leaders (LOC)
"Defend yourselves, the enemy is at your door," he said on Senate floor on Jan. 24, 1860. Toombs was a captivating figure and powerful speaker, his visage topped by a shock of unruly hair.

Auburn University history department faculty member Jacob Clawson, who reviewed Mark Scroggins’ 2011 biography ofToombs, said the author “provides a rendering of both the public and private Toombs that paints the Georgian as a bullish politician whose blend of acerbic wit, fiery demeanor, and political tact aroused the full spectrum of emotions from his constituents and colleagues.”

An entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia said the politician “helped to lead Georgia out of the Union on the eve of the Civil War … This was surprising; although Toombs was a slaveholding planter, he had dedicated the majority of his political career to preserving the Union.”

Toombs called for the move after the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. The senator telegraphed Georgia leaders, saying secession “should be thundered forth from the ballot-box by the united voice of Georgia."

1860 secession meeting in Charleston (LOC)

Campbell, who gives tours of the home, says Toombs and other landowners believed secession was their constitutional right, a view many historians challenge.

“When he realized it was inevitable, he joined forces with the Georgia citizenry and drafted the first Constitution of this new country,” said Campbell. “In his mind, it was a new country.”

Never sought a pardon

Toombs is in center in cartoon (Library of Congress)

Toombs had dreams of becoming the Confederacy’s president, but that fell to Jefferson Davis. He served for a time as secretary of state, but he became increasingly critical of Davis.

In later life, Toombs said of his rival: “He would have been a successful magazine man, but in the practical, everyday life he was utterly lost. There was never a moment during the war when Davis actually appreciated the situation. He was as jealous as a Barbary hen, and once started to have me arrested for ridiculing him.”

Toombs soon resigned the secretary of state post and joined the Army of Northern Virginia as a brigade commander of Georgia troops. The temperamental officer’s military experience was mostly undistinguished, though he did take a bullet in his left hand in September 1862 at Antietam while holding a position near Burnside Bridge.

While popular with his men, he quarreled with his superiors and resigned in March 1863 after he was passed over for promotion. He returned to Georgia. “He stayed out of the war until near the end, and he continually criticized Davis’ leadership and Confederate policies -- especially conscription, suspension of habeas corpus, and reliance upon credit to finance the war effort,” a biography in the Encyclopedia Brittanica says.

At the end of the war, Federal troops swept through the South, arresting top Confederate leaders.

When soldiers came to Wilkes County to arrest Toombs, “there was quite a stir in town. In local folklore it was frightening. He was given word and escaped, Campbell said.

The former general flew to Cuba, then Europe, before returning to the United States in 1867. He was “unreconstructed” to the end, declining to seek a pardon from Congress that might restore his citizenship. He resumed his law practice and contributed to the Georgia Democratic political scene, including effective work on the sweeping 1877 constitution that supplanted Reconstruction policies.

That document increased the power of the Legislature, brought about state taxes and its white supremacy portions put new burdens on African-Americans by imposing separate schools and a poll tax.

(Library of Congress)
Within a few years, Toombs’ age and years of heavy drinking were catching up with him.

“The year 1883 was traumatic for Toombs,” said the New Georgia Encyclopedia. “His lifelong friend and political comrade Alexander Stephens died suddenly after serving brief as Georgia’s governor. Within a few months his wife, Julia, suffering from a prolonged illness, also died.”

A depressed Toombs sank into self-neglect and he died on Dec. 15, 1885, age 75.

House needed TLC, a little more

Toombs’ favorite niece and her descendants owned the home until the state acquired it in 1973. It was operated as a state historic site until 2009, when severe budget woes left it in peril. The county’s commission chair, Campbell said, said “it would just have been devastating to lose the Toombs house.” It’s been managed by Wilkes County since.

Campbell has obtained several grants to help make repairs and upgrades to the facility, and state money has gone to much of the work, including challenging work to build a roof on an older design.

(Georgia DNR)

“The house was in need of a new roof even when the county took it on,” she said. Water caused all kinds of problems, including cracking plaster.

Campbell said floor joists and beams beneath the Alexander Stephens guest room had become weakened over time. “You felt like you were on a trampoline.” That area has been reinforced by state contractors.

The center of the residence includes a timeline of Toombs’ life. Visitors can use a self-guided pamphlet or take a guided tour when available.

While most people don’t get into the politics and controversy regarding secession, some do ask about the slaves who ran the plantation and root causes of the Civil War. The backdrop to this is the national debate and discussion about memorializing the Confederacy and its leaders.

But most are curious about the house’s history and belongings. “They are very interested in who built what. They are interested in what their eyes are seeing,” said Campbell.

The Robert Toombs house reopens on Nov. 21. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. A holiday open house will be held from 10-4 on Dec. 9. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children 6-12, and $1 for children 3-5.

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