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
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
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.
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!"
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