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Robert Stell Heflin

Kevin Spann, Jacksonville State University
Robert Stell Heflin (1815-1901) was a politician active in Georgia and Alabama prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. A Unionism sympathizer during the war, Heflin was elected as a Republican representative to Alabama's Third Congressional District for one term from March 4, 1869, to March 3, 1871. Heflin also was notable for being one of the first members of the Heflin family to serve Alabama in Congress. Nephew James Thomas "Cotton Tom" Heflin, Alabama's controversial segregationist, served in the U.S. Senate from 1920 to 1931, and grandnephew Howell Heflin also represented Alabama in the Senate from 1979 to 1997.
Heflin was born near Madison, Morgan County, Georgia, on April 15, 1815, to Wyatt and Sarah Stell Heflin. The family moved to Alabama in 1837, settling in Randolph County. He had at least two brothers: John T. Heflin would become a prominent lawyer and judge and Wilson Lumpkin Heflin would be a physician also active in politics. As a young man, Heflin served in the Second Creek War of 1836, which followed violent clashes between land speculators in Alabama and Creeks from several prominent towns. Heflin saw action at the Battle of Shepherd's Plantation in Stewart County, Georgia, and was reportedly wounded by a musket shot to the femur resulting in a lifelong limp. In addition to his time in uniform, Heflin studied law. He served as a clerk of the superior court of Fayette County, Georgia, for four years between 1836 and 1840. That year, Heflin also passed the bar exam and practiced law in Fayetteville, Georgia, as well as across the state line in Alabama in Wedowee, the county seat of Randolph County. In addition to practicing law, Heflin was a planter and began to actively pursue a career in politics, serving in the Georgia State Senate from 1840 to 1841. Three years later, Heflin relocated to Randolph County and after a few years established himself in Alabama politics, serving in the Alabama House of Representatives from 1849 to 1850 and in the State Senate for two terms, from 1857 to 1858 and 1859 to 1860. (Some published sources conflict on the years of his legislative service.)
During the 1860 presidential election, Heflin supported Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic Illinois senator who favored allowing citizens of new territories in the West to vote on the question of slavery. Following Alabama's secession in January 1861, Heflin remained loyal to the Union. In 1862, Heflin, along with Unionist and future Republican governor William Hugh Smith, sparked controversy by speaking out against military conscription at the Randolph Country Court House. Heflin's views seem to have led to his being temporarily imprisoned in the Confederate Military Prison at Andersonville, Georgia, but he was released owing to family connections. He then crossed into Union-occupied Georgia before more charges of treason could be filed against him. Heflin was also known to have aided Union troops routed by Confederate general Joseph Wheeler at the July 1864 Battle of Browns Mill near Newnan, Georgia. In the aftermath of the battle, Union troops found food and refuge at his home for which he was later reimbursed by the federal government.
After the war's conclusion in 1865, Heflin returned to Alabama and was appointed by provisional governor Lewis E. Parsons as judge probate of Randolph County, serving one year. During Reconstruction, Heflin joined the Union League Movement. The Union Leagues were men's clubs that worked in concert with the Republican Party in the former Confederacy to mobilize freedmen and register them to vote. Heflin held views on the more radical end of spectrum, advocating that land be confiscated and redistributed to freedmen. Heflin's rhetoric proved so alarming to local military officials that they investigated him for possibly plotting insurrection, presumably against the state government. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau), which worked closely with the Union Leagues, went on record to affirm Heflin's innocence. Bureau officials acknowledged that Heflin endorsed the concept of redistributing confiscated land to freedmen but stressed that he had no intention of achieving this end through violent means.
In 1868, Heflin was elected as a Republican to represent Alabama's Third Congressional District, replacing Maine native Benjamin W. Norris, a Union officer and official with the Freedmen's Bureau, in a very close election. (Northerners who came to or stayed in the South after the war were known as "carpetbaggers," and southerners, such as Heflin, who joined the Republican Party were known as "scalawags.") Heflin served one term, ending in March 1871, and was replaced by Democrat William Anderson Handley. Heflin's final noteworthy act within Republican politics was to chair that party's 1876 state convention which elected delegates to the national convention. Heflin's name is also at times listed alongside other scalawags who returned to the Democratic Party after losing office, but any role he played within the party was overshadowed by his more prominent family members. After leaving office, Heflin largely returned to private life and died near Wedowee in Randolph County on January 24, 1901. He was buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Wedowee.
Additional Resources
Bailey, Richard. Neither Carpetbaggers nor Scalawags: Black Officeholders during the Reconstruction of Alabama 1867-1878. Montgomery, Ala.: New South Books, 2009.
Fitzgerald, Michael. The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agriculture Change during Reconstruction. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Wiggins, Sarah Woolfolk. The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1977.
Published:  August 25, 2016   |   Last updated:  December 6, 2016