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Robert Neill, son of an early Batesville (Independence County) tanner, went on to become commander of the fifth military district in Arkansas after Reconstruction, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first chairman of the Arkansas Railroad Commission.
Robert Neill was born near Desha (Independence County) on November 12, 1838. His parents were Henry Neill and Dorcas Stark Neill; he had five siblings. His father was a tanner by trade and had arrived in nearby Batesville in 1832; he was also prominent in local politics, having served in the state legislature as a county supervisor and as county judge. Neill received his education in the local schools, and in 1859, he went to Ohio to take a course in land surveying. He worked as county surveyor until 1861, when he enlisted in Company K, First Regiment of Arkansas Mounted Rifleman in the Confederate army. He entered the war as a private, but by the end of hostilities in 1865, he was a captain. He was severely wounded at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (also known as the Battle of Oak Hills) near Springfield, Missouri; his brother Job was killed during the same battle. Neill was taken prisoner in Louisiana in 1864 and interned at Camp Chase, in Ohio, then at Fort Delaware, where he remained until the end of the war.
When he returned home after the war, Neill worked briefly as a schoolteacher and in his father’s tanning business before he was elected clerk of the circuit court. While serving as clerk, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1868. He did not use his legal education immediately, but in 1872, he opened a legal practice. In April 1869, he married Mary Adelia Byers of Batesville; they had ten children, seven of whom lived to maturity. From 1874 to 1877, he served as lieutenant colonel of the Arkansas State Guard, which the state legislature stopped funding with the end of Reconstruction. He was made brigadier general in the Arkansas state militia and given command of the fifth military district of the state, a post he held until 1882. He was a member of the Methodist church and was also a Mason.
Neill was active in Democratic politics in Arkansas, and he attended the National Democratic Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, in June 1888, serving as vice president of the state’s delegation. In 1892, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the Sixth District of Arkansas, where he served from 1893 until 1897. He defeated George Martin of the People’s Party by a wide margin. His 1896 campaign for reelection was unsuccessful. When he returned to Batesville, he resumed practicing law. He was appointed chairman of the Arkansas Railroad Commission when it was founded in 1899 and served for one year in that post.
Neill died in Batesville on February 16, 1907, and is buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery. His “Reminiscences of Independence County” were published posthumously in the Publications of the Arkansas Historical Association in 1911.
For additional information:The Goodspeed Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northeast Arkansas. Chicago, IL: Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1889.
“Robert Neill.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=N000025 (accessed March 30, 2018).
Nancy Snell GriffithPresbyterian College
Last Updated 3/30/2018
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