By Tim Davis.
Reprinted from North Texas e-News, June 26, 2007
It was 1845, and Texas had been a state less than a year. Enticed by the promise of cheap land, settlers steadily poured in. Among those who hailed from the state of Georgia was a young man named Robert H. Taylor, accompanied by his in-laws, the Hardaways.
Settling briefly in Bowie County, Taylor family records indicate that Robert Taylor and the Hardaways came to call Fannin County home by late 1845.
What Robert H. Taylor accomplished in the four decades that he called Bonham home was nothing short of remarkable. Starting in 1845 he held local elected office; in 1846 he volunteered and served in the Mexican-American War; in 1850 was elected to the Texas legislature, serving a total of 6 terms there; made a bold stand against secession in the lead up to the Civil War; served the Confederacy, obtaining the rank of colonel; briefly held a statewide office; participated as a delegate to the 1866 Texas Constitutional Convention; was on the ballot for a statewide office in 1873. And if that wasn’t enough, he simultaneously maintained a successful law practice in Bonham and earned a reputation as a good husband and father.
Photo courtesy the Texas State Library and Archives. circa 1860
Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than Taylor’s life and career is the fact that local history books have basically ignored him. With the lone exception of W. A. Carter’sA History of Fannin County, which has four paragraphs on Taylor and gets some key facts wrong (e.g., Taylor did not run for the state legislature in 1876; and unless census records are completely wrong, he did not have twenty-one children), books on strictly Bonham and Fannin County history have ignored this man whose public service record has been eclipsed only by the county’s favorite son, Sam Rayburn.
Contrast this with the fact that I have come across no fewer than ten books on regional and statewide history that contain information on Taylor, ranging from Robert Weddle’sPlowhorse Cavalry to James Haley’s most recent biography on Sam Houston.
Robert Henry Taylor Russell - the different last name will be explained shortly - was born on July 5, 1825 in Columbia, South Carolina. According to family legend, a major fight between Russell’s parents prompted his mother to move with her kids to Georgia when Robert was twelve. He was apparently angry enough with his father that he eventually dropped the last name of Russell and took on his mother’s maiden name of Taylor.
While living in Georgia, Robert Taylor obtained his law license on February 28, 1843. He was only seventeen.
Also while in Georgia, Taylor apparently fell in love with and married a lady by the name of Eppsie Ann Hardaway.
As noted above, the Taylors and Hardaways left Georgia in 1845 and moved to Texas, settling first in Bowie County. While there they experienced the birth of their first child, a son they named Henry.
By late 1845, the Taylors and Hardaways moved to Fannin County. 1850 census records show them sharing one household in Bonham.
It apparently didn’t take Robert Taylor long to blend in with local folks. According to a biography on Taylor that appeared in the Manual of the 8th Texas Legislature, he was elected a justice of the peace in Bonham in 1845.
By 1846 the talk of war was in the air. Border disputes between the U.S. and Mexico in south Texas had erupted. Once President James Polk got the war he wanted, the call went out for volunteers.
In Fannin County, a regiment was raised by Robert Taylor. He ultimately found himself Captain of Co. B of the Texas Mounted Volunteers. His unit served under the direct command of Major Mike Chevallie, who in turn answered to the legendary Texas Ranger leader John C. "Jack" Hays.
It is difficult to say what Taylor did specifically in the war because his muster record is woefully short on details. In fact, the most it shows is that he mustered in on February 24, 1847, and mustered out on June 30, 1848. General histories of Chevallie’s Mounted Volunteers states that they basically provided scouting and reconnaissance missions for U.S. military leaders Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott.
The violent nature of war hit home for the Taylors and Hardaways when Robert Taylor’s brother-in-law, James Hardaway, was killed in action. According to family documents, he was killed in August 1847 "on the road from Camargo to Monterey" while he was "commanding an escort of the U.S. mail." Details of how Hardaway died are also inscribed on his tombstone in the Taylor family plot in Willow Wild Cemetery.
Once the war was over, Taylor returned to private civilian life in Bonham. Soon the desire to be a public servant took hold again.
Robert Taylor made his first run for the Texas House of Representatives in 1848, losing to Buckskin Williams of Lamar County. The defeat, however, was only a temporary setback.
In 1850 Taylor again ran for a seat in the Texas House, and this time was victorious. It marked the beginning of an impressive decade-long record of serving Fannin County, and sometimes neighboring counties as well, in either the Texas House (4th, 5th and 8th Legislatures) or the Texas Senate (6th and 7th Legislatures).
Apparently during the decade of the 1850s Robert Taylor managed to prove himself an able and competent public official to his fellow legislators. Moreover, he managed to impress no less a person than Sam Houston, who would later call on him for help in a border dispute matter.
In the midst of his political success, Taylor suffered a personal setback when his wife, Eppsie, died on May 26, 1854 either during or shortly after the birth of their third child, a daughter named Mary.
Later that year Taylor remarried to a Fannin County girl named Tennessee Gilbert, the daughter of prominent Fannin County citizen Mabel Gilbert. (Don’t let the first name fool you, records indicate that Mabel was a big, burly man.)
In the 1850s Taylor’s friend, Sam Houston, mainly busied himself representing Texas in the U.S. Senate. However, by 1857 Houston became more interested in state politics and decided to make a run for the governor’s office. He lost the election to Bowie County resident Hardin Runnels.
In 1859 Houston ran for governor again, this time defeating the incumbent Runnels. When Houston moved into the governor’s mansion in December 1859, one of the first matters he had to deal with was the Juan Cortina affair on the Rio Grande border.
In the mid to late 1850s Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, a Mexican citizen, had made a serious nuisance of himself by leading a band of men who frequently crossed the Rio Grande going north to steal cattle from south Texas ranchers. The matter became serious enough that Gov. Hardin Runnels dispatched the Texas Rangers to deal with it. Unfortunately for Runnels, one group of Rangers, under the command of William Tobin, seemed to be creating more problems than they were solving. As a result, the Cortina affair was not settled before Runnels relinquished his office to Sam Houston.
To deal with Cortina, Gov. Houston chose as his personal representatives two state legislators that he felt could solve the matter: Jose Angel Navarro, son of the Texas revolutionary leader Jose Antonio Navarro, and Robert H. Taylor.
Once Navarro and Taylor got to the border town of Brownsville in January 1860, they held a series of meetings with law enforcement officials closest to the whole mess. Among those they met with was the legendary Texas Ranger leader John S. "Rip" Ford.
According to historian Robert Utley, once the meetings were over, Navarro and Taylor made their recommendations to Gov. Houston. In his history of the 19th century Texas Rangers entitled Lone Star Justice, Utley quotes Taylor as writing to Gov. Houston that William Tobin "is utterly incompetent to command in the field" and that some of his men "are more dreaded than Cortinas."
Navarro and Taylor immediately ordered that Andrew Tobin and his men be mustered out, and that Rip Ford and his men be mustered in to replace them. While this did not bring about an immediate end to Cortina’s activities, over time things quietened down and Cortina turned to a more sedate existence.
It seems evident that by 1860 Robert H. Taylor’s political star was rising. In five elections in a row he showed that he had the trust of the voters back home. And the Cortina affair showed that he had won the confidence and respect of the state’s governor. It is not unreasonable to assume that he had the popularity and momentum, coupled with obvious personal ambition, to catapult him to a higher office, perhaps governor? US congressman? US senator? Granted, it’s pure speculation, but history shows that a capable politician usually ascends to higher office if circumstances allow. For Taylor, however, circumstances did not allow. An event beyond his control loomed on the horizon, one that would ruin the best laid plans of many a mice and men. It was the Civil War.
As spring turned into summer, and summer into fall in 1860, it became clear to Southern leaders - namely politicians, business leaders and newspaper editors - that Abraham Lincoln was going to be elected President of the United States. To them this was unacceptable. In their eyes Lincoln and his party were rabid abolitionists. Never mind the fact that Lincoln and the Republicans did not run on a platform calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. The mere fact that Lincoln had criticized slavery in some of his speeches convinced them that he and his party would destroy slavery, or at the least foment a slave rebellion. Perhaps no one said it better than historian Don Fehrenbacher when he wrote, "what proved to be crucial in 1860 was not the true nature of the Republican party, whatever that may have been, but rather, southern perception of the party as a thinly disguised agency of abolitionist fanaticism." To Southern leaders the choice was clear: If Lincoln is elected, we must secede and divide the nation.
For some the idea of a divided nation wasn’t troubling. For Sam Houston, Robert Taylor and a few other Texas politicians the idea was unthinkable, regardless the reasoning. They set about trying to head off the disaster. In so doing they ran the risk of being labeled pro-Lincoln, anti-Confederate or anti-slavery. The last label in particular made little sense with reference to Taylor. Fannin County census records clearly show that he was a slave-owner, having seven in 1850, and five in 1860. Moreover, page 196 of Deed Book H in the Fannin County Records room shows Robert H. Taylor buying a male slave, age ten, named Joseph from the trio of Benjamin White, John P. Simpson and Bailey Inglish. This is hardly indicative of someone opposed to slavery. However, it is possible that Taylor was a slave-owner who nonetheless had mixed feelings about the institution, and he probably lost no sleep over its ultimate demise.
One of the first moves among prominent Texas politicians hoping to avoid secession was to encourage Sam Houston to run for president on the Democratic ticket. Houston, they felt, might be the one person capable of holding the Union together. Referring to themselves as the "National Democracy," they held a mass meeting at Buass Hall in Austin on March 20, 1860. Many of the speakers called on Houston to run for president. In her biography entitled Sam Houston: The Great Designer, historian Llerena Friend wrote that one of the speakers was "Robert H. Taylor of Fannin County" and quoted another source as writing that Taylor "concluded with a soul-stirring eulogium upon Gen. Houston and the avowal that he was ready to advocate him, as the embodiment of conservatism for the Presidency." Despite all efforts, Houston declined to run with the Democrats.
Houston did, however, seek the presidential nomination of a new party, the Constitutional Union Party. He lost the nomination to John Bell of Tennessee. It was Gov. Houston’s last stab at trying for the presidency, no doubt to the disappointment of Robert Taylor and other Houston supporters.
Without Houston to campaign for, Taylor apparently threw his support to John Bell. In his book on the Great Hanging at Gainesville in late 1862 entitled Tainted Breeze, historian Richard McCaslin writes: "North Texas leaders who campaigned for the compromise-minded John Bell of the Constitutional Union party, such as Benjamin H. Epperson and Robert H. Taylor, were harassed at speaking engagements in Sherman and Dallas . . . ."
Bell’s race ultimately was a losing effort.
John Bell’s lack of success, coupled with Houston’s abandoning his run for the presidency, did not signal an end to anti-secessionist efforts. Even after southern states starting leaving the Union following the November election of Lincoln to the White House, Robert Taylor and others held firm. When some Texas leaders called for a secession convention in Texas, Gov. Houston refused to call one. Other leaders in the state called the convention anyway. Never one to give up easy, Houston ordered a special session of the legislature in an effort to block it.
It was during this special session that Robert H. Taylor gave the speech of his life. It is not an exaggeration to say that he put everything he had into a lengthy speech -roughly 4,700 words long - outlining why the state of Texas should not have a secession convention. Read a few sample quotes and you get a feel for Taylor’s passionate desire to stop his adopted state from leaving the United States:
On the issue of the anti-secessionists being in the minority: "Ten righteous men were required to save Sodom. There are fifteen of us; we have the courage and are capable of resisting this outside pressure - this unholy scheme to destroy the best government under the sun. We know today that we risk all, so far as we are concerned, but the stake we play for is worth the hazard. The Union! Oh, the Union!"
On the ultimate outcome of secession: "[I] believe that secession will bring war . . . ruin, bloodshed, anarchy, despotism and every other ill now unknown to us, the happiest and best contented (until lately) people on the earth."
On the secessionist leaders in Texas: I fear they will hang, burn, confiscate property and exile any one who may be in the way of their designs. They are but men and subject to all the infirmities of our nature." (This statement in particular could have caused Taylor some real problems back home inasmuch as two of the delegates who would vote in favor of secession at the upcoming convention were prominent Fannin County citizens Gideon Smith and Elbert Early.)
On being called traitors for Lincoln: "But we are told that we are traitors to submit to Lincoln. We are not submitting to Lincoln; we are submitting to the Constitution of our country."
On secession itself: "I’d vote against it all, if I were the only man in Texas that would."
Taylor basically concluded his remarks by saying: "I have spoken warmly because I have felt the importance of the question. I hope I have met it as one who dared to assert his opinions, fearless of responsibility. He who would do less is unworthy to represent my people."
Despite the best efforts of Taylor and those who agreed with him, the legislature voted to recognize the secession convention, basically giving the green light to secession.
It should be noted that the secession debate was not utterly void of humor. At one point a group of anti-secessionists held an impromptu meeting in the Senate chamber. Andrew Houston, Gov. Houston’s son and forever the prankster, spotted "a key dangling from the door of the Senate chamber," writes Houston biographer James Haley. After pushing the door to, he locked it and made off with the key. Haley describes the scene: "No one was the wiser until the senators began calling for help from their windows to the street below. An amused crowd gathered and began heckling the trapped and increasingly hungry legislators. ‘Hey, there, Taylor,’ one called up at Robert Taylor, a Unionist from Bonham, ‘we got you constitutional pie eaters where we want you now!’" According to Haley, Houston later remarked that "he had not managed the legislature with anything near the generalship shown by his Andy."
The secession convention convened on January 28, 1861 and adopted an ordinance of secession. They did, however, agree to allow the voters of Texas to have a say on the secession question. This provided anti-secessionists one last opportunity to sway public opinion against leaving the Union.
Anti-secession leaders met and wrote a broadside entitled Address to the People of Texas in which they once again listed their many arguments against secession. Among signers of the broadside from the north Texas area were Emory Rains, James W. Throckmorton, and Robert H. Taylor.
In addition to signing the Address to the People of Texas, Robert Taylor apparently hurried home to try to sway voters against the secession ordinance. The authors ofMurder and Mayhem, a recent book on Civil War events in north Texas, write that Taylor "made impassioned appeals to his constituents, asking them to stay true to the Union. He, and others like him, succeeded. Fannin’s people voted against secession by a majority of 656 to 471."
Unfortunately for Taylor and his fellow anti-secessionists, Texas voters as a whole overwhelmingly approved secession. On March 2, 1861 Texas officially left the Union, becoming the 7th state to do so.
1861 was no doubt an agonizing year for Robert H. Taylor. On the one hand he was surely sickened over Texas leaving the Union. On the other he had pledged in his monumental anti-secession speech that he would defend Texas if her voters approved secession at the ballot box. In an eloquent flourish reminiscent of a 19th century politician, he stated that "their God shall be my God, their house my house, their destiny mine, and when they shall have spoken fairly at the ballot box, I am with them through good or evil report, and then this good right arm, which has never refused its country’s call, shall be among the first to repel foreign invasion or domestic violence." He now was obligated to fight for a cause that he obviously had little faith in.
According to historian Robert Weddle’s book Plow-Horse Cavalry, Taylor was initially on the muster rolls of the Stanley Light Horse volunteers, formed on July 6, 1861, as a private. Weddle writes that Taylor raised "three regiments for the Confederacy. The first, the Twenty-Second Texas Cavalry, was recruited from Fannin, Grayson, Collin, and surrounding counties." If I read Taylor’s Civil War service record correctly, they were enlisted at Honey Grove on Dec. 17, 1861.
Taylor’s service record further shows that he, and I’m assuming the Twenty-Second Cavalry as well, was formally mustered in at Fort Washita (located northwest of Durant) on January 13, 1862. At that time Taylor was promoted to the rank of colonel. His many duties kept him busy between Forts Washita and McCulloch (north of Durant).
As the war dragged on, Taylor eventually found himself headquartered back at Bonham. General Henry E. McCulloch, commander of the Northern Sub-District of Texas, needed help in trying to get deserters and draft-dodgers out of the thickets in the Fannin, Hunt and Collin county border areas. Chief among those who Gen. McCulloch wanted out was a Unionist named Henry Boren. In their book entitled Brush Men and Vigilantes, Judy Falls and the late David Pickering write: "Early in the fall of 1863, General McCulloch sent two Confederate officers who had opposed secession, Col. Robert H. Taylor of Fannin County and Maj. James W. Throckmorton of Collin County, into the brush to talk to Boren." Taylor and Throckmorton were unsuccessful because Boren refused to accept Gen. McCulloch’s terms.
Exactly what Colonel Taylor did in the war from late 1863 to its end in April 1865 is unclear because his Civil War service record is short on details.
Once the war ended, Robert Taylor did exactly what you would expect from someone who opposed secession in the first place, he dedicated himself to getting Texas readmitted to the United States as soon as possible.
Just three months after the ink had dried on the surrender papers at Appomattox, Taylor and other north Texas leaders, some of whom had signed, as did Taylor, the anti-secession Address to the People of Texas, met in Paris on July 17, 1865 "for the purpose of making known to Reconstruction authorities ‘our willingness to submit to the constitution and laws of the United States, and to ask the privilege of regulating our state government at an early day, and thereby reestablish order in society.’"
It should be noted that by expressing pro-Union sentiments so soon after the war, Taylor definitely placed himself in harm’s way. Several books, among them the previously mentioned Murder and Mayhem and Brush Men and Vigilantes, have documented the fact that many pro-Confederate types in north Texas took out their anger over losing the Civil War against anyone they suspected of not supporting the Confederacy, either during or after the war. Their activities were often violent and usually included physical beatings and/or murder. Nonetheless, Taylor stood his ground.
As 1865 faded into 1866, Robert Taylor’s personal calendar became quite crowded. First, he managed to become a delegate to the 1866 Constitutional Convention. Convened in Austin on February 7, the convention bore the responsibility of adopting a state constitution that would be acceptable to the federal government, thus allowing Texas back into the Union.
The convention was a divided affair, with Taylor and others who wanted to meet all federal demands for readmission on one side, and unreconstructed Confederates who resisted federal demands on the other. The official journal of the proceedings shows that Taylor served as "President pro tem. of the Convention" on Saturday, March 17, 1866.
Unfortunately for Taylor and others who sought quick readmission to the Union, the 1866 constitution was deemed unacceptable by the federal government. Taylor would not be in on future conventions that would eventually hammer out an acceptable document.
Also in 1866, Robert Taylor apparently developed a good working relationship with the provisional governor of Texas, Andrew Jackson Hamilton. Official state documents show that Hamilton appointed Taylor to the position of Texas State Comptroller on March 27. He held that office for just a few months.
While Taylor’s political career seemed to be gathering steam again, he was hit with another personal setback when his second wife, Tennessee, died on April 21, 1867. Later that year he married his third wife, Delilah Burney, reportedly a native of Arkansas.
Although it is unclear exactly what political party Robert Taylor identified with in the 1850s, by the late 1860s he was a committed member of the Republican party of Texas. According to Taylor’s biography on the Texas State Handbook Online, he "served as President of the 1872 Republican State Convention, which supported the renomination of President Ulysses S. Grant."
In 1873 Republican governor Edmund J. Davis ran for re-election. For his lieutenant governor running mate the Republican party chose Robert H. Taylor. Their Democratic opponents were Richard Coke and Richard Hubbard. According to A Comprehensive History of Texas, 1685-1897, edited by Dudley Wooten (Dallas, 1898), "there was a vigorous canvass of the State by both the Democratic and Republican candidates." Unfortunately for Davis and Taylor, the Democrats won.
As with other setbacks, losing the lieutenant governor’s race for Taylor was merely temporary. In 1878 he once again ran for a seat in the Texas House from District 19, which included only Fannin County. He won, although it is unclear if he did so as a Republican inasmuch as some secondary sources say he ran as an independent.
The Bonham News of January 21, 1879 (available on microfilm at the Sam Rayburn Library) states that "Bob" Taylor "is on committees of Finance, Judiciary No. 2, Indian Affairs and chairman of the committee of Internal Improvements."
Once Robert Taylor finished serving the 1879-80 term of the legislature, the last elected office he would hold, he remained active in Republican party politics. Most of his time, however, in the 1880s was spent in Bonham focusing on his family and his law firm with his oldest son, Henry, serving as a partner.
By early 1889 Robert Taylor must have known that his health was failing him. On February 16th he drew up his last will and testament with fellow Bonham attorneys J.C. Baldwin and Bacon Saunders acting as witnesses.
On Friday, May 10, 1889 Robert H. Taylor, soldier, commander, legislator, lawyer, husband and father died at his residence west of Bonham. He was sixty-three years old.
According to one obituary, possibly taken from the Bonham News, Taylor had just two parting wishes. First, to be buried next to his first wife, Eppsie Ann, in the Taylor plot at Willow Wild Cemetery. His second wish, perhaps an indication that his proudest moment was when he stood for Union against secession, is inscribed on a tombstone which bears no boasting whatsoever of his remarkable career. It reads: "My desire is to be wrapped in the American flag."
Author's note: I want to thank Tom Scott of the Fannin County Historical Museum for prodding me to write the Texas State Archives to see if they had a picture of Robert H. Taylor. It should also be mentioned that the full text of Taylor’s historical anti-secession speech will be on display at the museum at a future date.
Also, I want to thank Mark Taylor and Tommy Taylor, both great-great grandsons of Robert H. Taylor, for being so generous with Taylor family documents and photos of their esteemed ancestor. The photos below are courtesy of Tommy Taylor. The one with the anti-secession writing is circa 1861, and the other is circa 1889.