Bringing The Forgotten Back To Life


 I've spent the last few months trying to puzzle out brick walls in my family genealogy. I've found a surprising amount of satisfaction and enjoyment in remembering all the names and people who lead up to me. It's strange, really...a vague mix of time travel and self exploration. Are any of these people artistic? Did any of them have the same fears and dreams? Can I see a wee bit of myself in the reflection of their eyes. But what has been equally exciting is simply moving through time and space and uncovering very real history--history framed in muscle and bone, waking to life with heart and blood. Most of it has nothing to do at all with my own family history, but it's important, none-the less.

Since I've had very little motivation to write these days, I thought I would be deliberate in putting down the long forgotten truths of the past for whomever might find them. It's important, I think, not to forget...to learn outside the texts books and the news media. So, I will start today. I will introduce you to Robert Taylor of Coffee County, Tennessee, and his slave woman, Retter. I will first explain that I happened upon this story while trying to find records for one James M. Cooper, born in Coffee County, Tennessee in 1844--my mystery man in who I can find very little.


The story takes place on August 31, 1863 at the residence of Robert Taylor, about three miles from the town of Hillsboro. For reasons not given, Taylor believed Retter to be a thief, having stolen a sum of money from him, though he could give no proof. Afraid of the punishment of the accusation, Retter--who Taylor claimed to own--ran away but was apprehended by Taylor and his neighbors and brought back. Furious, Taylor procured a rope and addressed the crowd asking if anyone present could tie a "hanging knot," to which a man named Womack stepped forward and obliged.

From the shelter of their home, Taylor's wife and daughters watched in silence as the head of their home tossed the rope over a tree limb and fixed the loop around Retter's neck. Taylor hoisted the woman's body into the air only to become frustrated that Retter had managed to get her fingers through the loop, loosening the knot as she struggled to live. He lowered her and tied her hands behind her back, quickly hoisting her back into the air. No one bothered to stop him.

Retter's toes were barely off the ground as she fought and kicked until finally, from lack of air and exhaustion, her head fell to the side. It was only then that Taylor's wife and neighbors begged him to loosen the rope and give her a chance to revive, to which he complied. The man demanded that Retter confess to the theft of his money, but she once again refused and declared herself innocent.


Weak and beaten, Retter was taken some 200 yards from the home and stripped down to nothing but her chemise. She was made to cross her hands so Taylor could tie them together, pulling them down under her knees with a stick stuck under. She was left lying on her face and side in this position and whipped with a leather thong for two and a half hours, at the end of which, some neighbors said they thought she had been whipped enough for now. The neighbors untied her and began to help her toward the home. When they reached the kitchen, she fell to the floor, and in the presence of the neighbors and Taylor's wife and daughters, she died.


It was the President of the United States that got involved with the case, which at that time was Abraham Lincoln. It's surprising that Taylor was even arrested, but perhaps because the Civil War already well under way and the talk of abolition of all slaves, a point was being made, bringing the story to light to set an example for how the nation would become--viewing Negroes with the same rights as the white man? Whatever the case, the President made it clear that he thought the sentencing of five years for manslaughter as insufficient, but as it was, he would make sure Taylor served the sentence out at the Albany, New York Penitentiary, under Union control, in sense, as a prisoner of war. The President said the crime revealed shameless character in Taylor in the absence of all provocation, having subjected the victim to prolonged torture, thus providing ample time for human compassion that Taylor failed to give.

And that's all I found on Robert Taylor, forever seared in forgotten history as a man Lincoln deemed as having a shameless character.

He was forgotten, as was Retter, but not if we read their story now and pass it on.

So far, I have no "Taylor" surnames in my family tree. For that, I can be thankful, even if James M. Cooper continue to evade my searching.

~Gia





















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