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Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day
American National Biography Online
Herbert, Hilary Abner (12 Mar. 1834-6 Mar. 1919), Confederate
soldier, congressman, and secretary of the navy, was born in
Laurensville, South Carolina, the son of Thomas Edward Herbert
and Dorothy Teague Young, teachers and slaveholding farmers.
The Herberts moved to Alabama in 1846, and Hilary matriculated
as a sophomore at the state university in 1853 only to quit that
same year, along with most of his class, in protest against harsh
discipline. He attended the University of Virginia from October
1854 to February 1856 before a stomach ailment forced his withdrawal.
Eventually he read law in Alabama, practicing in Greenville until 1861.
A second lieutenant in the Greenville Guards, Herbert was sent
to capture Pensacola's naval station. With the opening of the
Civil War, Herbert was captain of the Guards, then a militia
unit but later reorganized as part of the Eight Alabama Infantry
Regiment. Gallantry in the Peninsular campaign earned him the
oak leaf insignia of a major. After fighting at Manassas, Fredericksburg,
Antietam, and Gettysburg, Herbert was promoted to lieutenant
colonel. At the battle of the Wilderness, while commanding the
regiment, he was severely wounded, losing the use of an arm.
Promoted to his field rank upon leaving the Confederate army,
Colonel Herbert resumed his law practice in Greenville. He married
Ella B. Smith in 1867; they had three children.
In 1872 the Herberts moved to Montgomery, where the colonel
practiced law until he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives
in 1876. A "Bourbon" Democrat, he earnestly supported the redemption
of the South from Reconstruction policies in force after the
Civil War, although he despaired of success. He wrote his brother-in-law,
"This country I cannot believe will prosper in our day. First
the free negro is a roguish vagabond & therefore an incubus upon
the country" (Hammett, p. 49). While Herbert campaigned on a
platform of "home rule," he did not seek majority rule in his
own district, which had slightly more blacks than whites.
Although these were notoriously ineffective Congresses, and
despite his opposition to the locally popular bill providing
federal support for the construction of the Texas and Pacific
Railroad, his seat remained solid until the 1890 challenge of
the Farmers' Alliance, which he overcame. Herbert opposed the
alliance because it promoted blacks and sought what he considered
to be special privileges for a class or sector of the economy.
In that same year, he also gained distinction in Congress for
his staunch opposition to Henry Cabot Lodge's (1850-1924) "Force"
Bill, which called for stationing federal observers at southern
polling stations to prevent fraud and to ensure the doctrine
of "one man, one vote." To combat this effort, Herbert edited
and coauthored with several other southern congressmen a volume
entitled Why the Solid South? Or Reconstruction and Its Results
(1890). This propaganda tract detailed the alleged woes inflicted
upon the South by "black Republican" Reconstruction. Though hastily
prepared and based on dubious facts, it helped defeat the Force
Bill and contributed fodder for an emerging group of historians,
who used such distortions to support the New South's restoration
of white supremacy.
Herbert was appointed to the House Naval Affairs Committee in
1885 and immediately made a name as the leading Democratic navalist--a
believer that a strong blue water fleet would strengthen the
nation morally and strategically, a notion more generally held
by Republicans. He later wrote, "My task with my own party was
not an easy one, and it soon became apparent that to 'go sure'
it was necessary to 'go slow' " (Hammett, p. 118). He chaired
that crucial committee in the Forty-ninth, Fiftieth, and Fifty-second
Congresses, overseeing and frequently guiding the naval revolution.
He consistently pushed for more and larger ships. He fought for
cruisers, then worked for armored cruisers, and finally in 1890
obtained support for the construction of large battleships.
Herbert became secretary of the navy in 1893 in Grover Cleveland's
second administration, serving through four years of naval buildup,
increased international tensions, and domestic crises (about
which the president consulted Herbert only infrequently). Though
Herbert was a relatively minor figure in the administration,
with his help the authorizations for warships increased by 65,942
tons, to be capped by the building of the world's largest battleships.
Cleveland and Herbert had inherited the Hawaiian annexation
crisis after sailors and marines from the Boston had assisted
in haole, the white planter minority overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani.
Much of the administration's earliest efforts concentrated on
remedying the situation without annexing these islands. While
he was pronavy, Herbert was no colonialist; he could not see
non-Caucasian Hawaiians ever participating in the American governing
process. Herbert longed for the Old South, replete with slavery,
small government, and a courtly governing class. As the increasingly
expensive navy brought the nation into contact and eventual control
over differing peoples, his vision of America was challenged
by the very institution he had so lovingly nurtured.
Herbert retired from government service somewhat grudgingly
in 1897. With his son-in-law Benjamin Micou, he founded a successful
Washington law firm, in which he practiced until his retirement in 1910.
The major collection of works by and about Herbert is at the
University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill. Hugh B. Hammett,
Hilary Abner Herbert: A Southerner Returns to the Union (1976),
is a solid biography covering Herbert's entire life. One might
also consult Herbert's own writings, including The Abolition
Crusade and Its Consequences (1912).
Mark R. Shulman
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Mark R. Shulman. "Herbert, Hilary Abner";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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