Thursday, December 15, 2011

15 December 1885: Robert Toombs Oak Is Not Struck by Lightning

On this day in 1885, General Robert Toombs died at the age of 75, at his home in Washington, Georgia, after years of declining health.  Despite long-woven tales to the contrary, the oak tree outside the Chapel at UGA where Toombs supposedly gave a great speech after his expulsion in 1828, was not struck by lightning.

Augustus Longstreet Hull recounted the myth in his 1894 book, A Historical Sketch of the University of Georgia, and explained that neither the speech nor the lightning strike actually happened:

        A story of Robert Toombs has swung round the circle of the papers of late years, which represents him expelled from college for gambling, standing beneath the old oak in front in front of the chapel at commencement, pouring forth such burning words of eloquence that the chapel is deserted and the speakers left to declaim empty benches. And from this circumstance, the old tree has ever since been known as the "Toombs Oak." It has even been said that on the day of Mr. Toombs' death, the old oak was struck by lightning and destroyed.
        There is not the semblance of truth in the story. It was a fabrication of Henry W. Grady, who, in an admiring sketch of the great Georgian, wrote charmingly of his overwhelming eloquence and pointed it with a story drawn from his own vivid imagination.

In 1985, 100 years after Robert Toombs died, the Georgia General Assembly passed a resolution to have an historical marker placed on the University of Georgia campus, commemorating General Toombs and the "legend" of Toombs Oak. The marker is located between the Chapel and Demosthenian Hall on North Campus.

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