On his deathbed, Robert Toombs is reputed to have said these final words: “I would not blot out a single act of my life.”
This is an extraordinary assertion for a man whose life is marked by a series of singular triumphs and an equal number of setbacks.
Born in 1810 just outside of Washington, Ga., Toombs was to become a major figure in antebellum politics in Georgia and in the early days of the Confederacy.
Intermittently from 1838 to 1844, he served in the state legislature until called to national service, first in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1844 to 1853 and then in the U.S. Senate from 1853 to 1861.
Toombs’ manner, alternately convivial and imperious, did not encourage political alliance, except perhaps for his fellow Georgian, Alexander Stephens, whose home in Crawfordville is now, like Toombs’ former residence, an historic site.
However, while Stephens went on to win the vice-presidency of the Confederacy, Toombs’ often volatile temperament may have lost him the bigger prize.
He had set his eye on the presidency but lost to Jefferson Davis, who nonetheless appointed Toombs as his secretary of state. The less-than-grateful Toombs, however, fought with his new boss and resigned from his new post within a matter of months.
After a stint of military service – he procured a commission as brigadier general and served with the Army of Northern Virginia in a number of important campaigns – Toombs returned to his home state where he resumed his stance as an outspoken critic of the Davis administration. In fact, his public opposition was so virulent at times that certain representatives of the Confederate media came close to calling him a traitor.
At the end of the war, he was back in Georgia in the imposing mansion in downtown Washington that he has purchased in 1837.
Built earlier in the century in the more modest Federal style with a two-over-two floor plan, the house was given a more impressive facade in 1854 when Toombs added a temple portico featuring four stout Doric columns.
At the time of the War Between the States, the Toombs House featured a ground-floor law office – he had a very lucrative practice – and dining room, two first-floor parlors with a wide hallway in between, and two second-floor bedrooms above.
This was the configuration of the house in 1865 when federal troops came knocking on the door to arrest Toombs as a prominent Confederate.
As the story goes, while the Yankees were at the front door, Toombs was escaping through the back. His escape route finally led to France where he lived until 1867, largely on money that his brother sent him, the profits from the sale of Toombs property in Texas.
Upon his return to the land of his birth, Toombs presented himself to the authorities; he was offered a pardon, which he refused. Thus, his suffrage was revoked, and he never again held any political office.
He did, however, continue to wield considerable influence. He became a very active trustee of the University of Georgia and a major player in the state constitutional convention of 1877.
Profits from his lucrative law practice allowed him in 1878 to build a large addition to the back of his house; in this new space, he installed his office and a formal dining room and butler’s pantry, moving both of these out of the ground floor of the original structure to far grander, more commodious accommodations in what is now called the west wing.
Today’s visitors to the Robert Toombs House enter through the ground floor, which now contains exhibition space dedicated to the owner’s biography and including some his personal items, such as his dueling pistols and ceremonial sword.
From this space, one ascends a side stair to the first-floor rooms with their lofty ceilings and period furniture.
Between the separate gentlemen’s and ladies’ parlors in the original structure, one passes through an arched doorway to the “new” rooms in the Victorian addition.
The house is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 4; adult admission is $5, but there are discounts for children.
For more information, call (706) 678-2226 or visit the house on the web at www.historyofwilkes.org.
To drive to Washington, Ga. – the Robert Toombs House is located at 216 E. Robert Toombs Ave. – take I-20 to Exit 172 and then Highway 17 north.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” has just been published by The History Press (Charleston, SC and London, UK).