Wade Hampton

 Wade Hampton

1818 - 1902

Wade Hampton III was born in Charleston SC on March 28, 1818, on Hasel Street, the eldest son of a wealthy and prominent cotton plantation owner.  Raised in the aristocratic class, Hampton's family was one of the richest in the pre-war South.  His privileged childhood years would be spent on the lavish family estates of "Millwood" and "Cashier's Valley."  The lavish and grandiose Millwood was known to be as much the political center of the state as nearby Columbia, with the political and financial elite of the Palmetto State calling frequently and relishing the embrace of this "first family" of South Carolina. 

His great-grandfather had migrated from Virginia and settled in Spartanburg County SC, where he, his wife, and a son Preston were killed by Indians.  One son, Wade Hampton (1752-1835 - grandfather of Wade III) was spared since he was away from the home.  He would grow up to become a revered Revolutionary War soldier in Colonel William Washington's cavalry, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.  He particularly distinguished himself at the battle of Eutaw Springs.  Owning as many as 3000 slaves, who worked the family's enormous holdings, Wade I was a member of the US House of Representatives (1795-97 and 1803-1805), and served as major general in the War of 1812 by commanding an American army on the Canadian border.  He amassed a huge fortune with plantations in South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana.

His son, Wade II, known as "Colonel Wade Hampton," was an officer of dragoons in the War of 1812.  He acted as aide and inspector general on the staff of General Andrew Jackson at the battle of New Orleans.  After the British defeat, Colonel Hampton rode on horseback from the city to the capital to personally bear the news to President James Madison.

Wade Hampton III, Colonel Hampton's son, received the private instruction that his family's affluence afforded, getting a classical education amidst the works in the family library, the largest private collection in South Carolina.  Like many southern boys, he led an active outdoor life, hunting and riding horses.  He was described as a "daring and graceful horseman."  Often told were the adventures of taking lone trips into the woods, hunting bears with just his knife.  One source claims that the young Hampton killed as many as 80 bears using just a blade.  In 1836, at the age of eighteen, Hampton graduated from South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina, at the capital city of Columbia.

Since boyhood, Hampton's father groomed him to manage the family's vast real estate holdings, and he would oversee the expansion of a veritable agricultural empire that stretched into Mississippi.  At college, Hampton studied law but never practiced, instead devoting himself to actively managing the family's plantations.

In 1852 he was elected a Representative to the South Carolina General Assembly, then as a Senator from 1858 to 1861.  While in the Senate, Hampton made a speech advising against the re-importation of slaves, which Horace Greeley described as "a masterpiece of logic, directed by the noblest sentiments of the Christian and patriot."  When Wade's father died in 1858, the vast family holdings and fortune passed to the new Senator.  At the outbreak of the War for Southern Independence, Hampton resigned both his seat and his comfortable life to enlist as a private in the southern army.  However, the South Carolina governor insisted on a colonel's commission, which Hampton accepted.  During his terms in the legislature, Hampton had taken conservative positions on the boiling issues of secession and slavery, opposing the division of the Union.  He had begun to doubt the viability and morality of the slave-based southern economy even though he owed much of his fortune to it.  However, when several southern states passed articles of secession, Hampton was loyal to his home soil from the outset and pledged his vast fortune and services to the Confederacy.

Although he had no military training whatsoever, the new Colonel began organizing what would soon be known as "Hampton's Legion" of South Carolina infantry (six companies), cavalry (four companies), and artillery (one battery), the formation of which he partially financed.  Europe was desperate for the cotton of the south, so he offered his stock in exchange for arms to equip his troops.  Using his own resources, he imported six cannon from England for his artillery, and 400 Enfield rifled muskets for his infantry.  Before the war would end, Hampton would deplete his entire personal fortune for the southern cause.  

In spite of his lack of martial training, Hampton's skill as a horseman, natural grasp for mounted tactics, leadership abilities, and bravery under fire, would prove him to be a superior cavalry officer; one of the very best the South, even the nation as a whole, would produce during the war.  This richest of southern planters was physically strong, highly intelligent, and a thorough outdoorsman, and would be one of only two southern cavalry officers to achieve the rank of Lieutenant General in the Confederacy, the other being Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Hampton would not fight out of any love for combat, but instead from a sense of duty and loyalty to his Southern homeland.  At age 42 at the start of the war, he was older than nearly all his contemporaries on either side of the conflict.  Quickly proving his ability to outmaneuver and out-general his adversaries, he was proudly called a "born soldier" by his men.  One Confederate soldier, watching Hampton personally lead a mounted charge at Upperville in 1863, called him "a veritable god of war."  Like an adversary, John Buford, himself southern-born yet loyal to the Federal cause, Hampton was all business about war.  He saw the national implosion as the grim, cruel struggle that it truly was and his nature did not allow the flamboyant and adventurous trappings that personified so many of the leaders that the war would produce.  Fighting, to Hampton, was something that must be done quickly and effectively, most often viciously, and without boastful relish.

Hampton is, today, undisputedly one of the most underrated commanders of the Civil War, north or south.  His performance and record of success live in the shadow of the dashing, vainglorious JEB Stuart.  Hampton would take command of the Confederate Cavalry Corps in the East upon Stuart's death at Yellow Tavern in May 1864, but Hampton's name would never rise to the revered heights gained by some of his mounted contemporaries, such as Stuart, Sheridan, or even Custer.  Hampton was not the resplendent dandy that made for headlines and idealized admiration.  But his victories, especially when outnumbered and out-resourced, would be unparalleled and earn the admiration of his fellow southerners and the guarded respect of his foes.

Instead of the common cavalry saber, the burly Hampton carried a huge double-edged straight sword that was nearly four feet long.  Such an item was well-suited to the nearly six-feet-tall southerner, whose strength and endurance were legendary.

During the war, Hampton was wounded five times, the first at First Manassas in July 1861.  Never having been in action before, Hampton threw his Legion, 600 infantrymen strong, into this first major battle of the war at a decisive moment and provided an opportunity for Confederate corps commander Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson to bring his men onto the field.  Although surrounded and his horse shot from under him, Hampton stubbornly held his ground until urged to retire by superiors.  Hampton suffered a wound to the head when he later led a charge which overran a Federal artillery position and captured two cannon.

On May 23, 1862, he was promoted to brigadier general and given command of a brigade of infantry.  Hampton distinguished himself as a leader of foot soldiers, but he gladly accepted Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee's offer to command a brigade in Stuart's Cavalry Division.  It was then that this "gentleman planter" revealed his true genius in battle.  Time after time, Hampton displayed cool-headed yet audacious courage under fire.  On May 31, at Fair Oaks, Hampton was severely wounded.  Although often outnumbered, Hampton's troopers, with him at the front, emerged victorious.  From Stuart's "ride around McClellan" to the June 1863 battle at Brandy Station, Hampton achieved more success than even Stuart could have expected.  One northern officer sized up Hampton's ability by stating that, although the southerner likely never even read a manual of military tactics, he "knew how to maneuver the units of his command so as to occupy for offensive or defensive action the strongest points of the battlefield, and that is about all there is in tactics."

On the third day of the battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, Hampton led his troopers into the massive cavalry clash east of the main field of battle.  Although suffering from a saber wound to the head from the previous day, Hampton's fighting this day would be no less than exemplary.  At the peak of the fighting, Hampton shot three Federal troopers from their horses and ran a fourth through with his sword.  Seeing one of his own horsemen surrounded and battling several assailants alone, Hampton charged to the trooper's aid and knocked one Federal from his saddle.  Receiving another saber wound to the head, with his own blood clouding his eyes, Hampton killed several more blue troopers while defending himself and his man.  He cleaved the skull of one down to the chin with a solitary blow from his massive blade.  Before leaving the field, Hampton would also receive a severe shrapnel wound in his side.

On September 3, 1863, he was promoted to major general.  It would take until the spring of 1864 for Hampton to recover from his wounds to resume command of his veteran division.  With Stuart's death on May 12, Lee turned to Hampton for command of his Cavalry Corps.  He set out to engage the enemy immediately.  Hampton's performance in the June battle of Trevilian Station justified Lee's decision to place the big man in charge of a big task.  In this, the Civil War's largest all-cavalry battle, Hampton's determination, tenacity, and brilliant tactics enabled the gray clad troopers to route the Federal horsemen led by Philip Sheridan, who not only outnumbered him, but were also armed with the new repeating rifles.  The fierce clash, which had erupted in dense woods, forced the troopers to fight dismounted.  In the heat of the struggle, Hampton saw the opportunity to mount an assault against the Federals in a dusty clearing near the Virginia Central Railroad.  "Charge them, my brave boys, charge them!" Hampton yelled, and led the attack himself atop his favorite horse, a burly bay named "Butler."  The battle continued into the next day, when a bold Confederate counterattack broke the Federal line.  On the 13th, the defeated Sheridan retreated without destroying the railroad, the object of his expedition.  The battle of Trevilian Station was the Civil War's truly decisive cavalry fight and the thrashing that Hampton gave Sheridan might quite possibly have extended the war another six months.  As Thomas L. Rosser wrote of the event:  "...Hampton whipped him (Sheridan) - defeated his purposes and turned him back."  While Hampton was in command of the Confederate Cavalry Corps through to the end of the war, he never lost a single fight.

On September 16, 1864, Hampton took to saddle to mount his own raid behind Union lines.  In what would become known as the "Beefsteak Raid," his troopers captured over 2400 head of cattle and 304 prisoners, suffering a loss of only ten of his own men.  For the inadequately-provisioned southern army, the nearly two million pounds of meat would be a windfall.

Characterizing Hampton's legend among the Federals, one Union officer admitted, "With his wonderful powers of physical endurance, his alert, vigilant mind, his matchless horsemanship, no obstacles seemed to baffle his audacity or thwart his purpose."  At no time was this more true than on March 10, 1865, when Hampton (now a Lt. General since February 15) charged into a force of 70 Federal cavalrymen with only five of his own.  Personally killing no less than three of the 13 northerners killed, he also captured 12 more as the others ran off, thereby demonstrating the veracity of the northern view that "he would hunt his antagonist as he would hunt big game in the forest.  The celerity and audacity of his movements against the front, sometimes on the flank, then again in the rear, kept his enemies in a constant state of uncertainty and anxiety as to where and when they might expect him."  The southern loss in the engagement was listed as "one horse."

Upon Lee's capitulation in April 1865, Hampton was reluctant to surrender, although his fortune had been spent and his home burned.  He would, however, muster the courage that had served him and his men so well on the battlefield and decided that the best way to serve his southern soil after the war was to help rebuild it.  Hampton, whose exploits and courage had become legendary to all who knew him, became a military hero and a symbol of the gallantry and nobility of the "Lost Cause."  He supported President Johnson's plan for Reconstruction and sought reconciliation between the North and South while attempting to restore his lost fortune.  In 1865, Hampton ran for governor of South Carolina but was defeated by James Lawrence Orr.

When Black troops were armed and stationed amongst Southern homes, Hampton was moved to fury.  Writing President Johnson, Hampton complained the the government's "brutal negro troops under their no less brutal and more degraded Yankee officers" were committing "the grossest outrages... with impunity."  He also later stated to Ulysses Grant, "If we had known that you were going to back with bayonets the carpetbagger, the scalawag, and the negro in their infamous acts, we would never have given up our arms!"

When radical Reconstruction policies against the South were imposed, Hampton took the lead in South Carolina in the fight against widespread Republican corruption.  In 1876, after a successful bid for governorship, Hampton would become the first Southern governor to be inaugurated in opposition to Northern Reconstruction policies.  Walter Edgar, in his History of South Carolina, describes the reception of Hampton's gubernatorial campaign as "something akin to religious ecstasy."  Campaigning vigorously as the Democratic nominee, with hordes of supporters following him from town to town, he defeated his rival, incumbent Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain, by only 1134 votes.  Chamberlain and the Radical Republicans protested the election and Chamberlain even took the oath of office (with the two separate governments operating for a time), but the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hampton, who had been barred from the Statehouse by Federal troops until April 10, 1877.  The impasse was further broken when President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the Federal soldiers.  Working to help the state recover from Reconstruction policies, Governor Hampton became known as the "Savior of South Carolina" and the cry of "Hurrah for Hampton!" was the rallying expression.  It would be another 90 years before another Republican would be elected governor of the state.

Hampton was reelected governor without opposition in 1878, but resigned in February of the following year when he was elected to the U.S. Senate and served two terms.  Defeated for reelection by Benjamin "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, the transition symbolically ended the rule of "antebellum aristocrats" in the state.  From 1893 to 1897, Hampton served as United States Railroad Commissioner, appointed by President Grover Cleveland, before retiring to Columbia and private life.  In the spring of 1899, his home on Camden Road in Columbia was accidentally destroyed in a fire.  Eighty-two years old and with very little money, Hampton had limited means to find a new home.  Without his knowledge, a group of friends raised enough funds to build him a new home and presented it to him "over his strenuous protest."

Hampton had five children by his marriage to Frances Smith Preston, and remarried when she died, having four more children with Mary Singleton McDuffie.  He died in Columbia on April 11, 1902, and is buried in Trinity Cathedral Churchyard.  Twenty thousand mourners followed his casket in procession to the gravesite.  Reportedly, Hampton's final words were "God bless all my people, black and white."

Statues of Hampton have been erected at both the South Carolina Capitol building and the United States Capitol; the impressive equestrian statue at the State Capitol towers 15 feet tall near the Wade Hampton office building in the Capitol Complex, while his portrait statue, given to National Statuary Hall by the state in 1929, rests on the 2nd floor of the House building.  Hampton County, South Carolina, was named for him in 1878 (as was its county seat), shortly after he became governor, and a residence hall at the University of South Carolina was named the "Wade Hampton Building" in his honor in 1924.