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The Union that Shaped the Confederacy: Robert Toombs and Alexander H. Stephens

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One was a robust charmer given to fits of passion, whose physical appeal could captivate women as easily as cajole colleagues. The other was a frail, melancholy man of quiet intellect, whose ailments drove him eventually to alcohol and drug addiction. Born into different social classes, they were as opposite as men could be. Yet these sons of Georgia, Robert Toombs and Alexander H. Stephens, became fast friends and together changed the course of the South.

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Overview

One was a robust charmer given to fits of passion, whose physical appeal could captivate women as easily as cajole colleagues. The other was a frail, melancholy man of quiet intellect, whose ailments drove him eventually to alcohol and drug addiction. Born into different social classes, they were as opposite as men could be. Yet these sons of Georgia, Robert Toombs and Alexander H. Stephens, became fast friends and together changed the course of the South.

Writing with the style and authority that has made him one of our most popular historians of the Civil War, William C. Davis has written a biography of a friendship that captures the Confederacy in microcosm. He tells how Toombs and Stephens dominated the formation of the new nation and served as its vice president and secretary of state. After years of disillusionment, each abandoned participation in the government and left to its own fate a Confederacy that would not dance to their tune.

Davis traces this unlikely relationship from its early days in the Georgia legislature through the trials of secession and war, revealing how both men persevered during the war and developed a deep animosity for Jefferson Davis. He then chronicles their postwar lives up to the emotional moment when Toombs stood eulogizing his long-time friend at his funeral, just four months after Stephens was elected governor of the Georgia they had loved as much as one another.

Drawing extensively on primary sources, including Stephens's voluminous letters and Toombs' widely scattered papers, Davis tells how two men of different temperaments remained friends, out of step with all but a few and occasionally even with each other. He concentrates on their Confederate years, when the fraternity they shared had its greatest impact, to show how they embodied both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Confederacy.

While there are biographies of each man, none convey the significance—or the depth—of their friendship. Davis shows us how they loved the South as it once was, the Union as they thought it ought to have been, and the Confederacy of their dreams that never came to be. They lost all three, but through five decades of crisis, they never failed each other.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From its beguilingly clever title to its concluding quotation from Wordsworth, this study of a Civil War friendship is captivating. Virginia Tech's Davis, author of more than 40 books about the War Between the States, charts the friendship of two leading Confederate statesmen, Robert Toombs, who was nearly made president of the Confederacy, and Alexander H. Stephens, who became its vice-president. The pair met as young lawyers, but they were as different as could be: Stephens, a frail, bookish sort, clawed his way up to the law from a humble background, while Toombs, a tall, powerful hulk of a man, was to the manor born and a touch dissolute. But the two became fast friends, rising in the ranks of Georgia politics together. Although their friendship was threatened by their disagreements about secession Stephens thought it imprudent, while Toombs did not once the South actually seceded, the two men reconciled and were among the founding fathers of the New South. Nevertheless, as the Confederacy foundered, Stephens and Toombs set themselves increasingly in opposition t0 Jefferson Davis's leadership and "rebelled against their own revolution, not because they rejected its ends but because they could not stomach the means necessary to achieve that goal." After the war, Stephens was arrested and Toombs fled the country, but, under the lenient rule of President Andrew Johnson, both men were allowed to return to their homes in Georgia. Significantly, as the author demonstrates, though their cause failed, their union remained intact. There are a few nits to pick with this book one wishes the author would stop referring to Stephens intermittently as "Little Aleck." But on the whole this is an engrossing read that will stand out in the crowded field of Civil War studies. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Prolific author Davis (The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy) has written more than 40 books on the Civil War. This time out, he has compiled a dual biography of two Georgian politicians. The "Union" of the title refers to the important friendship between these two men, from their days in the Georgia legislature in the 1830s, to the U.S. Congress, and, after secession, to the Confederate government, in which Toombs would serve as secretary of state while Stephens served as its vice president. Davis skillfully explains their unique bond and how it was affected by the political, social, and historical events leading up to and through the Civil War. Here, the reader is exposed to the raw emotion of this tumultuous time, when politics brought these men together to play key roles in the Confederacy and the postwar South. The author analyzes and criticizes the numerous mistakes made by Confederate leaders and military commanders in this important contribution to Civil War literature. This thought-provoking political biography is recommended for its authoritative narrative and meticulous research. Public, academic, and special collections should consider. David M. Alperstein, Queens Borough P.L., Jamaica, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Based largely on primary documents, Davis (history, Virginia Tech) has written a biography of the friendship between Toombs and Stephens, presenting it as a microcosm of the Confederacy. He follows the friendship from its origin in the Georgia legislature to Toombs' eulogy for Stephens. He tells how Stephens and Toombs dominated the formation of the CSA and served as its Vice President and Secretary of State. He also recounts the disillusionment which led them each to renounce participation in the Confederate government. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700610884
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 4/1/2001
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.33 (w) x 9.29 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

Disunion and Reunion


In lives heavy laden with irony, the greatest one was that it took the destruction of their Union to bring them back together. Out of ruin came reunion. United as they were in their opposition to the election of the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the two still veered further and further apart in their opinions as to how the slave states should react to that inevitable event. Alexander H. Stephens always felt a stronger tug of loyalty to the idea of the Union and a greater confidence in the ability or willingness of the peoples of North and South to make some accommodation short of eternal separation. His closest friend during his adult life, Robert Toombs, was at once more impulsive and more erratic, more prone to be swept along by the tide of his own arguments. Like so many others of his time, his own eloquence in advocacy could seemingly take the lead of his judgment. More than once Toombs had talked himself into a near-duel, and his style of rhetoric and impatience with compromise naturally aligned him with compatriots in their native Georgia who crossed the line to support secession after Lincoln's victory.

    As late as October 1860 the two men were still close in spite of the strains of the campaign. They had started their political lives as Southern Whigs, which united them until the sectional controversy went on the boil. Even then they both supported Democratic opponents to Lincoln, but the difference was crucial. Toombs backed the candidate of the avowed secessionists, John C. Breckinridge, a Kentuckian and himself no secessionist atall, while Stephens supported Stephen A. Douglas. The latter was a Democrat to be sure, but an apostate in most of the South, thanks to his popular sovereignty doctrine. It would allow the settlers in new lands to decide the issue of slavery for themselves prior to applying for status as a territory, instead of recognizing the constitutional right of slaveholders to go with their property where they pleased in the commonly held territories and thereby have a chance themselves to influence a new state's position on slavery right up to the moment of admission. In that issue lurked the crucial balance of power between North and South, free and slave. Yield or be beaten in that contest, and the slaveholding states would be doomed to perpetual minority, and eventually, to the anticipated inevitable attack on slavery where it existed. Political, economic, and social vassalage seemed to many Southerners the inescapable result. The only alternative—secession.

    When Douglas actually braved threats and came to Georgia to make a few campaign speeches, Stephens stood by him on the dais to show his support, coming out ever stronger himself against the extremists who would lead the state and the South to secession and, he felt certain, disaster. Stephens won himself few friends in so doing. At the very same time, Toombs took the stump for Breckinridge, though with little expectation of success. Rather, soon after the Democratic Party split and fielded two candidates, thus all but ensuring Lincoln's victory, Toombs addressed himself to what Georgia and the South should do after the inevitable defeat, and he put himself in the camp of the disunionists, to which his impulsive and sometimes hot-tempered nature led him.

    Political differences strained their friendship in those fevered days, but the two Georgians remained cordial, though their separate involvements in the campaigns necessarily meant that they saw little of each other that summer and fall and had scarce time or opportunity even to correspond. They did appear together once at a political barbecue west of Atlanta, but that may have been their only time on the same stump. Perhaps sensing their drift apart, or fearing it, Toombs invited Stephens to spend a week or two with him at his plantation late in October. Toombs also may have had an ulterior motive in the invitation, for had Stephens accepted he would have missed accompanying Douglas on his brief Georgia tour, presumably thus weakening him even more. Beyond that, Stephens would have been with Toombs on election day itself. It would be an opportunity for them to bury their differences, or just as well it might have allowed Toombs a few minutes of gloating, for theirs was a friendship in which Stephens's gift of political forecast had been far more often right than Toombs's. In the event, Stephens did not accept, but accompanied Douglas and later delivered a speech on his own in which he denounced those who would break up the Union. By election day he was back home at Liberty Hall in Crawfordville, to receive the inevitable result. "We are going to destruction," he confided to his brother Linton after learning the poll results. "Nothing can arrest our course." Just a day later his melancholy, with him even at the best of times, plunged him further into the gloom. "So we go," he moaned. "I really apprehend that no power can prevent it. Our destiny seems to be fixed."

    Toombs agreed, but instead of destruction coming out of dissolution, he foresaw a bright future for a new Southern slaveholding nation. Still, his friend's attacks on secessionists in general—among whom he now numbered himself—stung at least enough that Toombs was in the mood for a cold dish of revenge when the legislature asked the two of them as well as other prominent leaders to come to the capital to present their views on what the state should do. The addresses opened on election day November 6, but the real fire came six days later with an earnest appeal for secession from the smug, self-important, generally intolerable Thomas R. R. Cobb, who already foresaw himself as an influential man in any new confederation of seceding states. Despite their growing differences, Toombs and Stephens remained united in their mutual loathing of Cobb and felt little less distrust for his much more affable brother Howell. Nevertheless, Toombs followed the next night with a secessionist harangue of his own. Tracing the indignities and injustices suffered at the hands of the Northern majority, he reminded the legislators of the incendiary raid by John Brown just a year before, and how it betokened a Yankee intent to foment servile insurrection with rape, destruction, and ruin. How could they not love such fellow countrymen, he shouted in envenomed sarcasm. "Oh, what a glorious Union,' he sneered, once more pronouncing the adjective "gullorious" in derision as he had throughout the recent campaign?

    Stephens listened silently as the one friend he had loved more than any other assailed the Union he had himself revered since youth. Toombs did as he often did and went beyond rationality as his passion rose, accusing the North of incendiarism and even of attempting to poison Southerners. When Lincoln took office in March he would have all the might of the federal government, its army and its navy, to use for his fell purpose. "Will you let him have it?" he shouted amid the uproar produced by his words. "Then strike while it is yet today," he demanded. They must secede, take their sons from Yankee regiments and ships, buy their own armaments, and "throw the bloody spear into this den of incendiaries and assassins, and let God defend the right." He went far beyond just a call for secession. Consumed by his own rhetoric, he seemed to be asking for an offensive war. "Strike," he cried. "Strike while it is yet time," and should the North resist, then Southerners must emulate their forebears and "make another war of independence." He said even more, imploring the legislature to put the sword into his hand, "for if you do not give it to me, as God lives, I will take it myself."

    Stephens's turn came the next night, November 14. As Toombs glowered down from his own seat on the dais, his diminutive friend rose to speak for patience, forbearance, and moderation. Unlike his friend, he refrained from sarcasm or the play of wit. A moderate editor in Georgia responded to Toombs's boast of taking the sword by suggesting, "Let him take it, and, by way of doing his country a great service, let him run about six inches of it into his left breast," but there would be none of that for Stephens. Still, in a pointed reference to Toombs's overblown emotionalism, Stephens warned that "good governments can never be built up or sustained by the impulse of passion." He came to speak to their intellect, not to their emotions. The Union was like a ship, tempest-tossed and perhaps leaking badly, but built still of sound timber and worth saving for the rich cargo of democracy that she bore. "Don't give up the ship," he urged, "don't abandon her yet." Lincoln might have won the White House, but the Republicans would not control Congress, and by staying in the Union the slave states, with the help of only a few Northern Democrats, could hamstring virtually all Lincoln's legislation, prevent him even from getting senatorial consent on his cabinet choices. They had but to stay in the Union to save it, and themselves. However much they deplored the recent election, it had been in every way legal and was after all the result of their own folly when slave states bolted from the Democratic convention and split the party. It thus ill became them—and he meant Toombs—to cry foul and threaten secession or worse when they had themselves authored this latest misfortune.

    Stephens was no more than five or six minutes into his address when Toombs began to interrupt him, and though Stephens calmly asked any who differed with him to remain quiet and "on some other occasion give your views," Toombs thereafter broke in repeatedly, often for nothing more than gainsaying, his points invariably overcome by a logic in Stephens that was considerably superior to Toombs's mere banter. In all, he interrupted Stephens ten times, increasingly toward the end of the address, severely taxing the speaker's patience. Before the close, it became almost a joke, the audience anticipating Toombs's next interruption and his friend's riposte. In the process Stephens made something of a fool of Toombs, who seemed not to realize it at the moment, when the former used his own words to suggest that the latter did not trust the will of the people of Georgia, and further suggested that some of their present difficulty arose not from matters of political consequence but from disappointed personal ambitions. Everyone, Stephens better than any, knew that Toombs had ambitions that in the present confederation could never take him beyond his current seat in the U.S. Senate. In a new Southern nation, however, he might well come to stand even taller.

    Once more Toombs revealed his excessive zeal and new-found militancy, when Stephens reminded the legislature of his friend's declaration the night before that if the state would not put a sword in his hand, he would take it himself, and in yet another interruption Toombs shouted out, "I will" to great applause. The whole tone of Stephens's address was to draw the line between the disunionists on the one hand, and the calm patriots on the other, and he allowed Toombs by his own words and behavior to paint himself as not just a secessionist but a hothead and an extremist. In a seriously divided state like Georgia, where Breckinridge gained less than half the recent vote, the more the disunionists could be depicted as irresponsible, and perhaps self-serving, the better the chance that the moderates could gain control and repudiate secession. Stephens knew that passion could not remain high indefinitely, for he had seen this sort of fire before in South Carolina and even in Georgia, and it had never shown enough heat to sustain itself. "This will pass off with the excitement of the hour," he counseled, referring to Toombs's expressions as nothing but "excessive ardor." And yet he later confessed that the great shout from the crowd at Toombs's defiant cry, "I will," gave him his first real fright that Georgians and the South might really be heading for a collision of arms.

    Toombs could not resist the compulsion to have both the last word and one more jab at his friend, for as Stephens sat down, he rose to his feet and called for three cheers for "one of the brightest intellects and purest patriots that lives." It was no compliment, however, for when another on the dais congratulated Toombs on the generous motion, he replied by quipping, "I always try to behave myself at a funeral." Yet beneath the apparent good humor, Toombs soon may have come to realize that Stephens had bested him and made him look unstatesmanlike, if not foolish. Worse, Stephens actually said nothing critical of his own but let Toombs convict himself with his own words. Georgia's decision on secession was likely to be close, and if it failed it would be even more bitter if Toombs had unwittingly been himself made an agent of its demise, and with it any ambitions he may have had for his own advancement.

    Beyond this disagreement something else may have rankled. Although Stephens worshiped Toombs as his friend and ideal, in his admiration frequently overestimating the larger man's intellect, the fact was and always had been that despite his physical strength and power of personality, Toombs almost invariably came around to Stephens's side of an argument. Though he may never have admitted it, Toombs stood in silent awe of what he had to recognize as the superior mind of his small friend. Certainly others saw it. "I have always understood that Aleck governed Toombs much more than Toombs did Stephens," declared one who knew them both. Just days after the speeches before the legislature, in which he gave the clear victory to Stephens, A. W. Redding commented, "I never had any difficulty in awarding very superior ability in Stephens over Toombs." Privately, Toombs no doubt recognized it, too, and no matter how close friends become, when one is too repeatedly revealed to dominate the other, whether in contests of the body or the mind, resentment almost inevitably erodes even the strongest bonds of brotherhood. The North had too often and for too long outdone the South in strength and unity, and resentful slave states were about to abandon the Union. So often in the public shadow of his almost shadowless little friend, Toombs had perhaps had enough. With a new cause that suited his temperament, and associated with men of equal emotion and recklessness, he was ready to emerge to stand alone in the light. Within days of their speeches to the legislature, Toombs and Stephens were known throughout Georgia virtually to have severed relations.

    Ironically, partisans in both camps were pleased. "I am glad that Aleck is separated from Toombs," a moderate declared on December 1. "I have more confidence in his ability and his intentions to do right when I know he is freed from the influence (if any) of Robert Toombs." At the same time, the ardent secessionists like Thomas Cobb welcomed the rift, for however much some may not have liked Toombs, they still recognized his power, and an estrangement from Stephens meant freeing him from the restraining influence of one too closely attached to the Union. Just the past spring Toombs had still been side by side with Stephens in trying to heal the national Democratic Party in order to defeat Lincoln and keep the Union together. His popularity with Georgians was such that his addition to the ranks of secessionists might well help make the difference, and a break with Stephens and removal from his influence was all to the good.

    Yet Stephens, too, came away from the capital harboring resentments. Superficially he no doubt felt chagrined at Toombs's behavior during his address, though that sort of irritation should have been transitory. Far more distressing was the realization that his closest friend sat solidly in the enemy's camp. They had disagreed before, but never on an issue approaching this importance, and Toombs's action well may have seemed disloyal, on top of a much more subtle betrayal. Standing in awe as he always had of Toombs physically in the drawing room and the legislative chamber, Stephens at least had felt the compensation of leading his friend intellectually and politically. It was what had equalized them, and with that now seemingly gone, the always insecure little Georgian became even smaller in his own eyes, even more a "malformed ill-shaped half finished thing," as he called himself sometimes in the depths of self-loathing.

    No wonder, then, that within a few weeks Stephens was thinking the worst of Toombs, even when the latter acted just as the former had predicted and in mid-December apparently began to moderate his bellicose tone by addressing a letter to constituents in which he suggested that secession could be averted by a constitutional amendment guaranteeing slaveholders' rights in the territories. If Congress would pass such a measure, then Toombs would support postponing secession until there was time to see if the Northern states would join the Southern ones in ratifying such an amendment. If Congress should not enact guarantees, however, then he counseled seceding before Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861.

    On the surface it seemed that Toombs was holding out one last hope for peace and the Union, and Georgia's secessionists felt betrayed for a few days, but Stephens saw in it nothing but dissembling and craft. This sudden show of conciliation, he suspected, was only to lure undecided and moderate men to Toombs's notion of an amendment, which all would in fact welcome. Yet Toombs well knew, thought Stephens, that no such amendment would ever pass this Congress, and especially not in less than three months. In short, Toombs was setting up Georgians who longed for a peaceful settlement for a disappointment he knew would come, assuming that in their shattered hopes they would see there was no alternative left but secession and resistance. "I look upon it as a masterstroke to effect his object," Stephens wrote cynically on December 22. Despite their estrangement, still Stephens acknowledged that Toombs "has more sense than any man in this movement." He fully expected Toombs to try to erect, and presumably lead, a new Southern government after secession, yet marveled that his friend could not see in the fickle reaction of secessionists to his proposed amendment the basic instability of his new associates. The moment anyone disagreed with them, on the slightest grounds, they would turn on him for straying from the new orthodoxy. Such doctrinaire attitudes would cripple any new movement if these men were in charge. "If the violent cannot now see his motive, how shall they appreciate his efforts hereafter?" he wondered.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Preface

1. Disunion and Reunion

2. The Making of a Friendship

3. The Breaking of a Friendship

4. Founding Fathers

5. Disillusionment

6. Loyal Opposition?

7. Enemies Front and Rear

8. Uncivil War

9. Exultations, Agonies, and Love

Notes

Index

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