This article delves into the life of Robert K. Scott, a Civil War Major-General and controversial Governor of South Carolina during Reconstruction. Known for his mixed legacy, Scott faced corruption in his administration and later, legal challenges in Ohio. A notable incident in his life involved the fatal shooting of Warren Drury, leading to a divisive trial and his eventual acquittal. The phrase “He went SCOTT free” emerged from this trial, reflecting the contentious nature of his acquittal. The article also touches on Scott’s philanthropy and a failed lynching attempt against him, illustrating the complexity of his life and times.
By Mary Frances Meekison
Robert K. Scott might be called one of Napoleon’s most illustrious, yet most controversial citizens. As a pioneer, physician, soldier, and statesman, he won success and high honors. After being awarded the title of Major—General in the Civil War, he was sent to South Carolina as commissioner of freedmen, refugees, and abandoned lands. Through his prolonged stay there on official business, he gained residence in South Carolina and General Scott’s name was placed in nomination in 1869 for the office of governor by the republican state convention. He was elected to that office by a large majority. Two years later he was re-elected to the same high position.
At that time, South Carolina actually was ruled by federal bayonets, as this was the reconstruction period, and Governor Scott presided over a so-called “carpetbag” legislature. Many in this group were northern opportunists and newly politically active Blacks. The legislators, on the whole, were interested solely in their own “‘high living’? and in lining their pockets with illegal bribes to the detriment of their fellowmen, We may think some of our modern-day legislators are bad, but those of South Carolina in 1868-72 voted themselves a full-time saloon and restaurant for themselves and their camp followers, which was paid for out of the State Treasury and actually existed in the State House. Such were the colleagues on whom Governor Scott had to depend to transact business of State. Because the times themselves were controversial, the prominent men active in this era were likewise so.
When General Scott returned to Ohio in 1876, he owned 4,000 acres of land in Henry County and, as the story goes, had chests full of currency and silver. By this time the white southerners had regained control of South Carolina. They immediately indicted Ex-Governor Scott for numerous crimes and demanded that he return to their state to stand trial. The successive governors of Ohio refused to allow South Carolina to take him back and thus, South Carolina was never able to try him.
In these days, public relief, public welfare, and pension funds were almost nonexistent. It is reported that upon General Scott’s return to Henry County, he gave generously to financially hard pressed widows, orphans, aged and the sick and was also in the forefront in fostering worthy public enterprises.
Ex-military men, politicians, and men of wealth frequently carried pistols during this era in history. Dueling was still practiced in the South. In Napoleon, on the evening of December 25, 1880, General Scott went to look for his only son, “Arkie,” who was inclined to frequent the taverns as a young gentleman of leisure. General Scott got involved in an argument with Warren Drury, a friend of his son’s, who the General suspected and accused of harboring “Arkie,” that he might recover from one of his drunken stupors. Mr. Drury denied admittance to the General. The latter drew his pistol. Drury grabbed for General Scott’s hand and either accidentally or intentionally, the gun was discharged. Warren Drury died the next day from his wound.
Tempers ran high in Henry County. Sides were drawn and everyone was either pro or anti Scott. The real facts became hidden in the personalities who were determined to decide Scott’s innocence or guilt. Thirty years ago, even, the “old timers” were arguing whether the General was afoot or astride his prize stallion when the fatal shot was fired.
Due to the fact that the burned courthouse was being rebuilt, Scott’s trial took place in Beckman Hall, now a pool room over Wendt’s Shoe Store. Interest in the affair ran high not only in the county but throughout the nation, because of General Scott’s prominence.
The trial resulted in an acquittal for Scott, but as most controversial murder trials end, no one was convinced but the jury. The anti-Scott feeling ran even higher after the jury set him free.
A group of men in Toledo decided to come to Napoleon on the Wabash Railroad and see rough and ready punishment belatedly done by lynching General Scott. This gang called themselves “The Rough’s.” Scott learned of this action and, accustomed to defending himself, he organized his own small army from his race horse trainers, farm hands, and ex-militia men. The General was determined to defend himself in “Scott Castle” (northwest corner of Clinton and Haley). His principal defense was to come from the second story of his huge, brick home. The yard was mined with dynamite. Scott’s men had more dynamite with short fuses on the second floor, to throw at any of the mob.
“The Rough’s” started for Napoleon by rail, but someone, name unknown, supplied them with two barrels of whiskey at Maumee and by the time they had reached Liberty Center, their original intent was forgotten. The anti-Scott forces, of course, claimed that General Scott had also “Generaled the whiskey ride.”
From the jury’s verdict of the Scott trial came the coinage of a new phrase. Because of the great controversy over the decision, forever after when some people thought a guilty man was acquitted, they said, as the term was coined, “He went SCOTT free!”’