Bill Kirby began his career with The Augusta Chronicle 40 years ago and has held just about every job in the newsroom. He and his wife Carla spend their spare time doting on their West Highland terriers, Lil' Bow Wow ("Buddy") and Snoop Dog. He writes several local columns each week, as well as YouTube videos on local history called "Kirby's Augusta." From 1998 until 2001 he was editor and publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Over a 40-year newspaper career he has won more than 100 state, regional and national awards for reporting, editing, column writing, editorial writing, sports writing, business writing, investigative reporting, layout and design.
Posted January 31, 2010 07:25 am - Updated February 1, 2010 10:34 am

The carpetbagger who became governor

This is Sonny Perdue's last year in office as Georgia governor. He was the first Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction.

But let me tell you about a predecessor -- Georgia's first Republican governor, Rufus Bullock of Augusta.

Most Georgia legends portray Bullock as a shifty carpetbagger who looted the treasury, then hustled out of town one step ahead of the law.

In her epic Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell writes of the scandals of the Bullock administration and has Scarlett O'Hara actually mortified to discover that Rhett Butler and the Scalawag governor are friends.

But that Bullock image is much like Mitchell's work - mostly fiction.

The Augusta businessman, who once lived on Greene Street and attended St. Paul's Church with his family, was by most accounts an honorable, principled gentleman, who got into trouble when he refused to play politics.

Born in rural New York, Bullock came to Augusta for a business opportunity before the Civil War. When the fighting began he stayed, volunteering his expertise to the Confederate quartermaster service. He did a job so commendable The Augusta Chronicle thanked him in an editorial in 1864.

After the war, Bullock gravitated to the Republican Party. He was popular, he was articulate, and he was elected governor in 1868 - his first and last run for office.

According to historian Russell Duncan's 1994 biography of Bullock, the new governor could have avoided the wrath of the Democrats if he had only agreed to deny voting rights for newly enfranchised black Georgians.

Bullock refused, and the Democrats filed fraud charges against him in a deal involving state bonds.

Realizing his political effectiveness was gone, Bullock quietly resigned in 1871 and left the state.

What they didn't teach us in Georgia history class was that Bullock returned to Georgia six years later, had the charges against him dropped and proceeded to spend the next quarter-century as one of Atlanta's most popular businessmen.

His proposals on regional industrialization were adopted by Henry Grady, the celebrated newspaperman, who made speeches on his vision of a "New South."

By the time Bullock died in 1907, The Chronicle wrote: "He did not loot the state nor benefit from it, but was sincere in his efforts."

He was forgiven, but then forgotten.

Actually Bullock was not Georgia's last Republican governor. That honor belongs to Benjamin Conley, also of Augusta, who was president of the state Senate when Bullock resigned, and assumed the governorship to finish out the term.

So when Sonny Perdue leaves office next January, he will do so not only as Georgia's first Republican governor in 130 years, he will have been the state's only Republican governor not from Augusta.