In February 1861, delegates from the six seceded states—South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana met in Montgomery, Alabama to craft a new nation. In order to do so, a leader, a provisional president, would be elected as the new government was established.
As the delegates traveled to Montgomery, word leaked out amongst the seceded states that Georgia was looked at as the favorite to provide a native son to assume the mantle of provisional president of what would become the Confederate States of America. In particular, one of her more politically-distinguished sons, Robert Toombs, seemed to be a name in the forefront of some of the delegates.
Toombs was considered, according to historian William C. Davis, a “perfect fit, moderate enough not to frighten away the large Unionist element in the seceding states, yet not so moderate that the ardent secessionists could not stand with him.” Besides a few other Southern luminaries, like Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, Toombs did enjoy a level of popularity due to his long association in national politics. Toombs even had the backing of his fellow Georgian, Alexander Stephens who selflessly put his friend of many years name forward for consideration.
Georgia’s delegates had not caucused to see who to put forth but, besides Mississippi promoting Davis, the consensus seemed to be that whoever the Georgians nominated would be the favored candidate to assume the provisional presidency. Yet, all the momentum building toward Toombs as a candidate for the presidency evaporated in one evening.
Stephens, who was busy on a committee helping to draft important legislation, met with his friend for dinner and was concerned enough to write in his diary that Toombs seemed a little “mellow.” Furthermore, Toombs mentioned that he would be attending a function hosted by the South Carolina delegates, which trouble Stephens enough to continue writing later that Toombs was “tighter that I ever saw him—too tight for his character & reputation.”
During the evening festivities, Toombs continued to imbibe on the continually replenishing punch bowl. Mixed with the amount he had consumed at dinner and his demeanor, speech, and actions at the party left an indelible mark in the minds of the delegates attending the soiree.
Remarks such as “flighty” and “pretty high from wine” were bandied about after the party. As historian William C. Davis wrote, “the effect was bound to be disastrous for his hopes, especially considering that some of those men had seen him slightly inebriated on previous evenings.”
The example of Toombs at the party eroded confidence from not only other states’ representatives but also from his home state. The Cobbs—Howell and Thomas—never too keen on Toombs to begin with began their machinations to get a Cobb into the discussion for president. Another realization as the party-goers bade adieu at the end of the evening was the simple fact that electing Toombs could be an embarrassment and humiliation if he acted as he did at this party.
Toombs, best friend, who was not present, Stephens, later recorded the importance attached to this ill-timed drunkenness.
“I think that evening’s exhibition settled the Presidency.”
One night, a little too much to drink, and the path of the Confederacy was decided, at least provisionally, as Davis would be elected president. The following year Davis would be elected to the permanent presidency with a term of six years.
Toombs went on to an up-and-more down political and military career with the Confederacy. His defining moment might have been the late afternoon of September 17,1862, when his small band of Georgians held the Rohrbach Bridge (Burnside’s Bridge) at the Battle of Antietam.
I wonder if Toombs ever thought about that damaging night in Montgomery, Alabama where he imbibed a little too frequently and cost a real chance at the presidency of the fledgling Confederate States of America. Another “what-if” of history; but what is not a “what-if” is the sad fact that Toombs was not the first and not the last politician to have a coveted position escape him due to alcoholism.
William C. Davis’s book “The Union that Shaped the Confederacy” was used as a source for this post.