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Essex County History
1834-1865
R.M.T. Hunter


Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, a big name comparable to his place in history. R.M.T. Hunter became the most famous of all Essex statesmen, serving his county, state and country during the troubled Civil War Era.

Hunter grew up part of the Garnett political tradition, studied law at the University of Virginia and began his practice around 1832 in Lloyds, near Champlain. He progressed from the House of Delegates (1834) to the House of Representatives (1837) and then to the Senate (1847). Hunter was often a moderate between Whigs and Democrats and was a supporter of the States Rights Doctrine. His "independent" position helped him be selected Speaker of the House (1839) at the age of 30, the youngest ever, but sometimes cost him elections that core party affiliation helped provide. He also tended to rely on his character and reputation for elections, rather than active campaigning techniques.

Hunter's moderate position continued as the crisis between South and North grew. He was an "acceptable Southerner" to Northern papers and even made a bid for the Presidency in the tumultuous 1860 election. When Southern Democrats walked out of their second successive National Convention, Hunter showed his ultimate allegiance to Virginia and joined them. No compromise would succeed and he wrote, "you may place your little hand against Niagra Falls with more certainty of staying the torrent, than you can oppose this movement". Despite his recognition of the inevitable, Hunter continued his efforts toward peace and even mediated between Confederate and Union representatives before Virginia seceded. After Virginia joined the Confederacy, Hunter whole-heartedly played a leading role in its government.

Active at once, Hunter initiated the decision to move the capitol to Richmond and was soon appointed Secretary of State. He sought to use "King Cotton" as leverage with European nations to gain their aid to break the Union blockade of Southern ports. His image even appears on the Confederate $10 bill. He soon found he didn't like working for the President's Cabinet and instead enjoyed the freedom of a Confederate Senate position (1862). There he stayed for the remainder of that desperate conflict.

As the end and defeat loomed, Hunter helped lead a peace delegation (January 1865) to Lincoln. It was far too late though; only "Unconditional Surrender" would appease the North. So, he went home to Fonthill and his wife "Line", was taken prisoner while having dinner at Epping Forest and sent to Fort Pulaski, Georgia until the following fall.

Coming home at last, R.M.T. Hunter confronted the reality of poverty and debt. The institution of slavery was thankfully gone forever and Essex would slowly learn to cope in this new world. Throughout the challenging Reconstruction Period, Hunter continued a life of public service first as State Treasurer and finally the modest post of Custom's Collector for the Port of Tappahannock. The county's most famous politician died in 1887 at the age of seventy-eight and is buried at Elmwood.










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Sources:

1. Settlers, Southerners and Americans: The History of Essex County, Va.. 1985. by James B. Slaughter (available at the Essex County Museum and Historical Society)

2. Essex County Virginia: Historic Homes, 2002. by Anita and Gordon Harrower and Robert LaFollette (available at the Essex County Museum and Historical Society)

3. Essex County Historical Society Bulletin, Volume 15, Portrait of a Virginia Statesman, Dr. John E. Fisher. May 1979
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