Local lawyer led troops at Antietam

A fellow lawyer once called Robert Toombs "an honest hater but steadfast friend."


What that means exactly is best understood by examining the friends and enemies of Toombs.

Toombs was born in a small farmhouse outside Washington, Ga., in 1810; his father had been a major during the Revolutionary War.

His first instance of making enemies was at the University of Georgia, where he matriculated at the age of 14, a "plantation-bred upstart who looked askance at all rules."

His freshman year passed without incident, but he picked a fight with two brothers during his sophomore year, who gave him a sound "thrashing."

Toombs responded by attacking the brothers twice: once with a pistol, then a knife and hatchet, only to have the weapons wrested away. He was expelled from the school, but reaccepted after he sent a letter of apology.

Toombs next traveled to the University of Virginia where he studied law and was later accepted in the Georgia state bar. He made a friend in Julia Ann Dubose, whom he married, and they had three children together.

He was also close friends with another area attorney, Alexander H. Stephens, who would later become vice president of the Confederate States of America.

Toombs excelled as a lawyer, and "as an advocate before juries, he was without peer," as one contemporary put it. He was adept at improvisation, not just as a lawyer, but in everyday life.

A neighbor once related how Toombs colored his drawers with ink to hide the fact that he had ripped his pants.

Success in Wilkes County politics served as a doorway to the state Legislature from 1837 to 1843. In his run for Congress that year, he debated South Carolina Democrat George McDuffie in Augusta for more than two hours.

Even more than a decade from the Civil War, the festering tension between North and South was cropping up in politics. Toombs proclaimed equal rights under the Constitution for everyone.

"We have lived under the present order of things for fifty years, and can continue to live under it for one thousand years to come, if the people of the South are but content to stand upon their rights."

Toombs left for Congress the next year and joined Stephens there. His first speech was on the topic of the joint occupation of the Oregon Territory by Britain and the United States.

Three years after his election as representative, a Mississippi senator's wife described him as a gentleman and "university man."

"One could scarcely imagine a wittier and more agreeable companion," wrote Varina Howell Davis.

She described Toombs physically as "over six feet tall, with broad shoulders; his fine head set well on his shoulders, and was covered with long, glossy black hair."

Others said Toombs had a habit of shaking that hair during debates like a lion.

And there were plenty of debates on the horizon.

By 1860, the rumblings about secession and states' rights had become a roar.

Toombs at first supported keeping the Union together, but later changed his stance and threw his support behind secession.

Toombs had clearly picked his enemy, calling out the newly-elected President Lincoln in a fiery speech to the Georgia Legislature in November 1860.

"Will you let him have it?" Toombs said of the army and navy at Lincoln's disposal. "Strike while it is yet today."

"Throw the bloody spear into this den of incendiaries and assassins, and let God defend the right," he thundered. Then later, "Defend yourselves, the enemy is at your door."

Toombs was elected secretary of state of the Confederate States, then later resigned to lead troops into battle at Antietam, in Maryland. He was wounded and returned home to Washington, only to barely escape the federal troops sent to arrest him.

He spent two years in exile abroad, escaping to Havana, by way of New Orleans and refused a political pardon on his return.

"I am not loyal to the existing government of the United States and do not wish to be suspected of loyalty," he declared in 1880.

His old friendship with Stephens had its ups and downs, but Stephens was always welcome at Toombs' home and Toombs welcome at Stephens' home near Crawfordville, Ga.

Toombs always kept an open house in Washington and opposed a proposal to build a hotel in his hometown.

It was just one other way he chose his friends and enemies.

"If a respectable man comes to town, he can stay at my house. If he isn't respectable, we don't want him here at all," he said.

Toombs died in 1885.

Georgia congressman was outspoken on states' rights
Confederate soldier still stands tall