Civil War Lt. General Wade Hampton (1818-1902)

Civil War Lt. General Wade Hampton (1818-1902)

Wade Hampton was to the manor born. One of the largest landholders in the South, educated in the Southern gentlemanly tradition, skilled with guns and horses, courtly with women, experienced in politics, one would expect that he was cut from the same scarlet cloak as the dashing cavalryman he served under, J. E. B. (Jeb) Stuart. But that would be wrong.

Part of it was simply age. Stuart was still in his twenties when the war began; Hampton was a twice married, once widowed, forty-threeyear-old man, with six children, one of whom he had had to bury eighteen months after his first wife died. (Two more children would be born to him in the course of the war.) He was neither a West Pointer nor a professional cavalry officer, but Hampton seemed more the mature, sober statesman-and even soldier-than the cavalier Stuart.

And there was another difference: Stuart and his favorites were Virginians-and this, in the mind of Stuart and many other Southerners (especially Virginians) meant a great deal. A Virginia cavalier was several cuts above anyone else, no matter how aristocratic his origins, no matter how wealthy or distinguished he might be. If one wanted proof that states' rights was more than a political slogan-that it was a lived reality-one need look no further than the fierce attachment, loyalty, and pride of Virginians to their native soil, and to the culture that they associated with it.

South Carolina, of course, felt the same way, and Wade Hampton (actually Wade Hampton III) was a member of its ruling class. He was not only a planter, he was the inheritor of a military and political tradition. His grandfather Wade Hampton had fought Cherokees (who had murdered his family), been an officer of dragoons in the American War of Independence, a brigadier general in the War of 1812, and an enormously successful planter, in addition to serving in the state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. His father, Colonel Wade Hampton, had been a cavalryman, a military aide to Andrew Jackson, and a man of expansive generosity (and, as it turned out, an expansive capacity for debt, which his son would have to straighten out). He married well, to Ann Fitzsimmons, whose brother served as governor and U.S. senator from South Carolina.

Wade Hampton III was a worthy scion of this dynasty. He was big, strong, tall, and active, and keen on hunting, fishing, and riding. Quiet, good-tempered, well-mannered (he was opposed to dueling, though proficient with guns), upright, schooled as a lawyer but working always on his estates, he was a reluctant (yet noblesse oblige) politician, serving in the state assembly and senate before the war, where he was a voice of moderation, counseling against secession (as had his father and grandfather) and opposed to reopening the slave trade. He was, at the same time, an owner of several thousand slaves.

Hampton was one of that tribe of Southern planters who, though uneasy about slavery, saw no way round it save an obligation to be a good master, which meant treating his slaves with all Christian charity, not separating their families, caring for them when they were sick (with the same doctors that treated his own family), and showing them that he valued their work. He was, however, certainly no abolitionist. Abolitionists, in his mind (and in the minds of many others, not just in the South), were dangerous and ignorant extremists who knew nothing of the reality of Southern slavery and threatened the Union with their agitation. They were “trampling the Constitution and the Bible alike under their feet,” while they “impiously appeal to a higher law than is found in either, to sanction their enormities.”

All in all, Hampton was a high-minded, middle-aged man of position and responsibility, a conservative who believed in temperance, prudence, caution, and duty. When war came, he saw his duty clearly enough. His properties spread over South Carolina and Mississippi. He was a Southerner, and he would stand by his people. He knew that men of his estate raised regiments of their own and offered them to the governor. He did the same, though in his case he modeled his military muster upon that of the ancient Romans, creating Wade Hampton's Legion, which he recruited and fitted out with a gubernatorial agreement that he and the state would share some of the expenses. He imported artillery pieces and Enfield rifles from England, and planned to distribute them among one company of artillery, six companies of infantry, and four of cavalry. With Southern gallantry, he told the governor that he was willing himself to enlist, if he was unworthy of a commission. The governor dismissed that with a stuff and poppycock and commissioned him a colonel. Now the colonel was the commander of a legion of a thousand men. Riding at the head of his legion, leaving behind his estates and their several thousand slaves, his was a thoroughly classical beginning.

Wade Hampton's Legion saw action at First Manassas, where the Legion stood, like Jackson's men, as a stone wall repelling the fierce Union assault that nearly surrounded it. Hampton had one horse killed beneath him by an artillery shell, but kept his men in good order, maintaining a steady stream of well-directed fire. Leading by example, he picked up a rifle and fired his own volleys at the Yankees. Hit by shrapnel in the face, temporarily blinded by blood, he continued to issue orders until he was convinced to turn over command. His performance on the field won the praise not only of General P. G. T. Beauregard but of Jefferson Davis, who visited the wounded warrior to offer his personal thanks and congratulations for a battle well fought.

Hampton was made a brigadier general in May 1862, and his legion served everywhere from Dumfries, were it was to harass Yankee movements, commercial and military, on the Potomac and Occoquan Rivers; to the Peninsula, where it covered Joseph E. Johnston's retreat and smacked the pursuing Federals at Eltham's Landing along the York River; to the defense of Richmond, where, at the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines, Hampton gave the memorable order to his men, not to fire “until you can feel the enemy on your bayonets.” What Hampton soon felt was a Minié ball in his boot, which regimental doctors operated on while he remained in the saddle directing his men in the fight. The wound left Hampton with a permanent limp and brought him new orders.

He returned from his convalescing to find the army reorganized, his legion broken up, and he assigned first as a brigadier under Stonewall Jackson's command and then as a brigade commander of cavalry under the newly elevated Major General Jeb Stuart.

Riding with Stuart

In some ways, Stuart and Hampton complimented each other. Wade Hampton admired the keen, tactical soldier and inspirational leader that Stuart could be, while privately deprecating Stuart's fondness for conducting the Confederate equivalent of a medieval court full of gaiety, pomp, display, and flirtation.

Most of all, he detested what he saw as blatant favoritism of the Virginian Stuart for his fellow Virginians. Stuart's cavalry was divided into two brigades, the other commanded by Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee's nephew. This, the Second Brigade-Stuart had originally designated it the First Brigade until Robert E. Lee reminded him that Hampton was the senior brigadier-was composed entirely of Virginia cavalry. Hampton's brigade was made up almost entirely of units from the lower South. William Henry “Rooney” Lee (Robert E. Lee's son) would eventually get a brigade as well, and Hampton certainly liked him better than Fitzhugh Lee whom he regarded as an arrogant git, and just the sort of man Stuart would favor because he was a Virginian.

Hampton never shook the conviction that as long as Stuart held command, his non-Virginian troopers would be given the hardest assignments and the least consideration. Not only were his men the dray horses of the cavalry, but Hampton felt that he needed to be the responsible counterpoint to his cavalier commander. Typical of their relationship was an incident during the Confederate advance into Maryland in early September 1862. It was Wade Hampton who stood by with his men at the pickets and skirmished with the Federals, while Stuart danced with the cream of Confederate society in Urbana, Maryland, at an impromptu ball (music furnished by the regimental band). Though, to his credit, the Virginia cavalier was quick into action once aware of the Yankee intrusion.

John Esten Cooke, who wrote a book about serving with Jeb Stuart, penned an encomium to the South Carolinian general who never uttered an oath, he said, could never be flustered, and was always a paragon of courage, composure, leadership, and paternalism to his men. “It was plain,” he wrote of Hampton, “that he thought nothing of personal decorations or military show, and never dreamed of 'producing an impression' upon any one… After being in his presence for ten minutes, you saw that he was a man for hard work, and not for display.”

Dances aside, Hampton's men saw plenty of action in the Maryland campaign. They fought in cavalry charges and stand up fights, and in Stuart's Chambersburg raid that resulted in another merry-and to the Federals, embarrassing-circumnavigation of McClellan's army, which helped convince President Lincoln that McClellan was not only hapless but dispensable.

Stuart celebrated his success with more dances and romantic rendezvous. Wade Hampton went back to watch with the pickets, and launched his own cavalry raids, proving that Stuart was not the only Confederate commander who could bedevil the Yankees.

But while the Confederate cavalry were getting worn down from hard service, the Yankees were getting stronger, with fresh mounts, more experience, and more men. At the battle of Brandy Station, 9 June 1863, the biggest cavalry battle of the war, Federal cavalry under the command of John Buford caught Stuart's men napping. The Confederates quickly regained their balance, and counterattacked effectively enough to hold their ground. Hampton, fighting with saber and pistol, killed his share of the enemy. But falling, too, was his brother Frank, who, like Horatius at the bridge, had tried to block the advance of an entire Union division with no more than three dozen men.

Frank Hampton had been gut shot, and his handsome head split by saber blows. That was the reality of close-quarters cavalry combat, which could be very personal. During the Gettysburg campaign, on 2 July 1863, Wade Hampton fought the battlefield equivalent of a duel: riding out to trade shots-officer's pistol versus private's carbine-with a Union soldier. They fought by the Marquis of Queensberry's Rules, with Hampton pausing when the bluecoat's gun misfired and needed ramming out. Hampton won the duel, wounding the Yankee through the wrist, but a Union cavalry officer then burst out of the woods and brought a saber crashing down on Wade Hampton's head. The South Carolinian kept his wits and chased his attacker off, but now bore a four inch head wound-and it would get worse.

After getting his head patched, he confronted the Sixth Michigan of twenty-three-year-old brigadier general (just promoted from lieutenant) George Armstrong Custer in a sharp skirmish. They met again the next day, in a larger engagement, a thundering blue versus thundering grey collision of cavalry, a giant melee of men and horses, clashing sabers and avenging pistols. Blasting and bashing his way forward, Hampton was blindsided by Union reinforcements, one of whom charged behind him and struck two more cleaving blows to his skull (one merely reopened the existing wound). As the Confederates turned about, they had to charge through a field of Yankee artillery and rifle fire. Taking his horse leaping over a fence, Hampton's hip was smashed by searing shrapnel. But he kept his head-and his saddled leg, at least for now-and survived.

“General Wade Hampton Cannot Be Spared”

Meanwhile, the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia was expanded from a division into a corps. Jeb Stuart remained a major general, but joining him at that rank were Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee, with Hampton retaining his seniority over the latter, so that when Stuart was killed at Yellow Tavern (11 May 1864), command fell to Hampton- or it did eventually. At first Lee, who had mixed feelings about Wade Hampton, gave the South Carolinian not command over the entire corps but only seniority over the cavalry divisions when they operated together. Lee had no doubts about Hampton's gallantry. He had praised him highly and repeatedly denied efforts to have him transferred out of the Army of Northern Virginia (“General Hampton cannot be spared” ). But for all his youth and rashness, Lee had liked and trusted Stuart. He was not yet sure if Hampton had the capacity and élan for corps command of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. It took three months, and a few battles, to convince Lee that Hampton was the man.

The first was the Battle of Haw's Shop, fought 28 May 1864, where Hampton's men fought an old man's way, dismounted and relying on marksmanship rather than on an impetuous charge; and it seemed to work. Wade Hampton discharged his mission (which was finding the dispositions of the Union infantry) and fought his men well before withdrawing them safely from a Union line that was being reinforced by General Custer.

At Trevilian Station, on 11 June 1864, he pursued and caught Phil Sheridan (and Custer). Asked what he proposed to do now that he had the Yankees in sight, he replied: “I propose to fight!” And his proposal was to fight in his style-what he came to call “riding infantry”: dismounted troopers, scattered through the woods and other cover, though the battle turned on a charge of the Sixth Carolina Cavalry (which included cadets from what is now the Citadel) led by Hampton. Hampton could not prevent Sheridan, the next day, from ripping up Southern railroad tracks, but he had, in the second biggest cavalry battle of the war, held the field against the Yankees and proven his mettle, yet again, as a combat commander.

It also highlighted something else about Hampton-he was adept at raiding raiders. He had done this before, on 1 March 1864, ambushing a column of Federal cavalry, under Colonel Judson Kilpatrick (a frequent Hampton nemesis), who had orders to raid Richmond. Instead, the raiders became the raided. He did it again at the end of June 1864, when he captured one hundred Yankee raiders who were fleeing-across Hampton's headquarters as it turned out-from charging Confederate cavalry. (Hampton rode down with his orderlies, pistols drawn, to order and accept the Federals' surrender.) Such performances won him his official promotion to corps commander. And he kept himself in Lee's good graces with raids of his own, including his famous “Beefsteak Raid” in September 1864 that relieved the Federals of nearly 2,500 head of cattle.

Wade Hampton's men participated in the defense of Petersburg, where on 27 October 1864, Hampton's second son, Thomas Preston, a young but already twice-wounded staff officer, impulsively joined a cavalry charge. Hampton sent his eldest son, Wade IV, charging after him to bring him back. Hampton and his staff followed. They arrived just as Preston fell from his horse, mortally wounded. As they gathered around him, Wade IV was hit. Hampton cradled Preston while he died. Wade IV, hit in the back, would pull through. Hampton mourned only a moment and then returned to directing the battle. But there would be a new grit in his opposition to the Yankees-a grit made only more unappeasable by the destruction of his homes in South Carolina and what he saw as the barbarous Yankee way of war.

In January 1865, Lee endorsed Hampton's transfer to South Carolina to defend his native state from the depredations of William Tecumseh Sherman. Jefferson Davis approved and promoted Hampton to lieutenant general. That made him the highest ranking Confederate cavalry officer in the war. The other cavalry officer to reach lieutenant general was Bedford Forrest, but Hampton held pride of place through seniority.

Wade Hampton refused to give in to counsels of despair. He continually insisted, argued, and acted on the conviction that Sherman could be stopped and that the Confederate States of America could still preserve their independence from the United States. He was, of course, wrong. But he was so committed to the cause that not only did he refuse to believe the first reports of Lee's surrender, but he resolved that even if that were the case, and even if his new commander in North Carolina, Joseph E. Johnston, surrendered, he would ride west and continue the struggle from Texas. He would even, failing that, go to Mexico and fight for the Emperor Maximilian, or so a group of Union officers heard him say during Johnston's surrender.

In the end, Wade Hampton did no such thing, but reconciled himself to trying to restoring his family's fortunes in South Carolina and Mississippi. He had land, but it was burnt out. His possessions had been robbed from him. The slaves were gone, save for a few who remained to work for Hampton. He had money, but only in Confederate script, now worthless. His homes were cinders. But he bent his back to the task, building a house and plowing the fields, planting them not with cotton or tobacco, but with crops that would feed his family and the former slaves. When creditors called in his debts in 1868, the only way he could begin meet his obligations was to auction his properties.

Wade Hampton the Politician

One aspect of his life that he did not have to restore was his status as a political leader in South Carolina, even though as a Confederate general, he was barred from political life: “Disenfranchised, an unpardonable and unrepentant rebel, I live solely to try to help my State, and failing that, to suffer with her.”

When South Carolinians debated the adoption of a new state constitution that would be acceptable to the Reconstruction authorities, Hampton roared against the very thought: “Are the people of the State, willing, by the adoption of a new and totally different constitution, to ignore all the teachings of the past, to subvert the whole order of society, to change, in a moment, its whole organization, and, in a word, to commit political suicide?” Or, in other words, to create a “constitution representing not the views and interests of the people of South Carolina, but of Massachusetts”.

The population of South Carolina-like the population of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi-was predominantly black. One man, one vote in South Carolina-especially minus the votes of former senior Confederate officers, politicians, and prominent landowners-meant a revolution in the politics of the state, if the black vote was led (as Hampton came to fear it would be) by white carpetbaggers and scalawags rather than by the planter class (his original hope). Nevertheless, Hampton sought a moderate course: he accepted emancipation and the awarding of civil rights to blacks, but argued that such civil rights be restored to former Confederates, that the Southern states not be treated as conquered vassal states of the North, and that all voters meet education and property qualifications.

In 1868, in a Republican landslide (even with voting rights returned to former Confederates), South Carolina became the first state to elect a black majority legislature. Led by white carpetbagging politicians, it also became notorious for graft and corruption.Wade Hampton could bemoan his state's fate, but his personal situation preoccupied him just as much. He tried various business ventures, which failed, considered but eventually declined the idea of serving as a mercenary officer in the Egyptian cavalry, and finally subsisted by renting land to black farmers on the part of his former Mississippi estate that his creditors had allowed him to keep. He had buried another child and his second wife. Hampton's fortunes really did seem to have gone with the wind.

But in 1876, in a heated, occasionally violent, and contested election (contested, indeed, for five months after the fact, with two sitting legislatures, each proclaiming itself authentic) Hampton became governor, though his opponent vacated the governor's office only after the contested presidential election was resolved in favor of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who agreed to end the military occupation of the Southern states. Hampton's platform was, typically, one of moderation and racial reconciliation, but his most strident supporters where the “red shirts” whose clothing proclaimed their loyalty and whose violence confirmed it. They were led by a former Confederate officer named Martin Gary, whom Hampton always regarded with distaste.

Gary quickly became a political enemy, but he could not match Hampton's popularity. Wade Hampton was elected almost unanimously to a second term, which he didn't serve because the state legislature immediately elected him to the United States Senate (the very day he had a leg amputated because of a hunting accident). Hampton's cautious, responsible, paternalistic conservatism represented that of his class. But by the end of Hampton's second Senate term, a new political revolution had roiled South Carolina. The “Bourbons,” the old political aristocracy, had been annihilated by Martin Gary's successor “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. Proclaiming an openly racist, anti-aristocratic, populist platform, he worked to undo all the good work Hampton had done, and successfully denied Hampton a third term. The former cavalryman was stunned-“I never expected to see my friends bolt for Tillman” -but he had continued to suffer many personal losses over the years: the death of friends and family and, at the end of his days, even the loss of his humble home and all his possessions in a fire.

He finished his working life in Democrat Grover Cleveland's administration as commissioner of railroads. When the Republican William McKinley was elected president, the job went to former Confederate and current Republican James Longstreet. Wade Hampton then retired to South Carolina. He had served his state all his life and he had lost almost everything he ever possessed, save honor. His last words were a fitting epitaph for a man who gave all he could for the Palmetto State: “God bless all my people, black and white.”

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