God Bless My People, Black and White: The Complex Life of General Wade Hampton

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Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, C.S.A.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World 

I will be taking my students to Gettysburg this weekend and likewise I am continuing to periodically intersperse and publish short articles about various commanders at Gettysburg on the site. These all are drawn from my student text and may become a book in their own right.  The reason is I am going to do this is because I have found that readers are often more drawn to the lives of people than they are events. As I have noted before that people matter, even deeply flawed people, and we can learn from them.

Today’s article is about Lieutenant General Hade Hampton who commanded one of J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry brigades at Gettysburg. Hampton is one of the most fascinating men I think of the entire Civil War period. Before the war he was one of the richest planters and largest owners of slaves in the South and after the war was a stalwart supporter of the rights of African Americans in South Carolina where he served as the first post-Reconstruction governor of that state. He was not a professional soldier but became one of the finest commanders of cavalry on either side during the war. Tomorrow I will be posting a completely revised, expanded and updated chapter of my text on the opening of the Battle of Gettysburg when Major General John Buford’s Cavalry conducted a heroic delaying action against the vastly superior numbers of Confederate Major General Heth’s division as it attempted to advance into Gettysburg on the morning of July 1st 1863. 

I do hope that you enjoy this.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Brigadier General Wade Hampton is one of the fascinating and complex characters in either army who served at Gettysburg. He defies a one dimensional treatment or stereotype. His complexities, contradictions and character make him one of the most interesting men that I have written about during my study of this battle.

Wade Hampton III was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1828. He one of the richest, if not the richest man in the Confederacy when the war broke out. Hampton inherited his family’s expansive plantation and many slaves and studied law at the College of South Carolina.

As a slave owner, he expressed an aversion for the institution and ensured that his slaves were well cared for by the standards of his day, including medical care. He never condemned slavery or worked for the abolition of a system that had made him and his family quite prosperous. He served in the South Carolina legislature and Senate, where he took an “active and prominent role in the public debate on many issues. He was vocal not only on the perils of reopening the African slave trade but also on whether and how his state should seek redress of wrongs, real and imagined, by the federal government.” [1]

As a state senator, Hampton was pragmatic, and while he defended the South’s economic interests in slavery, Hampton cautioned against the rhetoric of secessionist fire-breathers. His argument was about “the preservation of the South’s political power and her social and economic institutions, now threatened by the short sighted policies of otherwise good and decent men.” [2] He did not wish to do anything that would lead to the destruction of the South, and he felt that the “only viable course was moderation, conciliation, compromise….” [3]

Hampton was a classic rich “Southern moderate He had opposed secession, and the fire eaters repulsed him.” [4] However, when Lincoln called for volunteers Hampton volunteered to serve in a war that he did not want, which would cost him dearly, and change him from a moderate to a vociferous opponent of most Reconstructionist policies.

Volunteering at the age of forty-three, Hampton had no prior military training. However, he had great organizational skill, leadership ability and a tremendous care and compassion for those who served under his command. Using his own money Hampton organized what would now be called a combined arms unit, the Hampton Legion, which comprised eight companies of infantry, four of cavalry and a battery of light artillery. He was careful in the appointment of the Legion’s officers choosing the best he could find.

Hampton rapidly rose to prominence as a respected officer and commander despite his lack of military training or experience. His soldiers fought well and took over command of an infantry brigade on the Peninsula, and was promoted to Brigadier General in May of 1862 and given command of a cavalry brigade serving under J.E.B. Stuart in July. Hampton “became Stuart’s finest subordinate.” [5] The contrast between the two men was remarkable. “Hampton and Stuart forged a professional relationship but not a friendship. They shared an adherence to duty and to the cause. But the contrasts between them in style and personality were undeniable.” [6] Stuart’s flamboyance, love of pageantry, and ambition clashed with Hampton’s simplicity and calm self-assurance. Serving as a brigade, and later division commander, Hampton had “little fondness or respect for Stuart. He regularly criticized Stuart for pampering the Virginia regiments and assigning his South Carolinians to the more arduous tasks.” [7]

During the war he was wounded several times, including at             Gettysburg where he took two saber cuts to the head. Eventually, he took command of the Cavalry Corps after Stuart was killed in action. This was something that Stuart in life would not have abided. When Stuart was scheming to get a promotion to Lieutenant General in another military department, he wrote that if he was to serve elsewhere he did not want Hampton to Command. In a curious post-script to a letter to Custis Lee Stuart wrote:

“Hampton is not the man for such a command, and I know he will not suit Gen’l Lee, nor the particular requirements of such a station. Hampton is a gallant officer, a nice Gentleman, and has done meritorious service, but there you must stop.” [8]

He fought in nearly every cavalry engagement under Stuart and led his own raids deep into Union territory. He fought well, but “hated the war.” In October 1862 he wrote home: “My heart has grown sick of the war, & I long for peace.” [9] Hampton’s Confederate service was unusual, especially for an officer of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia which favored those who had prior service, especially West Point graduates. As such Hampton was “one of only three civilians to attain the rank of Lieutenant General in Confederate service.” [10] At Petersburg, his son Preston was mortally wounded and died in his arms even as his other son Wade IV was wounded while coming to Preston’s aid. Douglass Southall Freeman wrote of Hampton:

“Untrained in arms and abhorring war, the South Carolina planter had proved himself the peer of any professional soldier commanding within the same bounds and opportunities. He may not have possessed military genius, but he had the nearest approach to it.” [11]

The war that he opposed cost him the life of his brother, one of his sons and his livelihood. “His property destroyed, many of his slaves gone, and deep in debt from which he would never recover, Hampton faced the future with $1.75 in his pocket.” [12] The war changed the former moderate into a man who sought vindication in some ways, but reconciliation with the black population.

Hampton again entered politics and became the first post-Reconstruction Governor of South Carolina when President Rutherford Hayes withdrew the Federal troops which had supported the Reconstructionist governor. Initially he was “hailed as a redeemer by white constituents desperate to throw off the yoke of Reconstruction” [13] yet Hampton stood stalwartly against White Supremacy and White Supremacists. He acted on the belief that whites and African Americans could live, work and prosper together.

During his campaign and during his terms as Governor, Hampton “opposed the South’s imposition of so-called “black codes” which so restricted the freedom of former slaves as virtually to return them to civility.” [14] Unlike many in the post-reconstruction South, Hampton won the thanks of African Americans for condemning whites that would vote for him if they thought that he would “stand between him and the law, or grant him any privileges or immunities that shall not be granted to the colored man.” [15] Over his term, the former slave owner “extended more political benefits to African Americans than any other Democratic governor in the post-war South.” [16]

Hampton came to dominate South Carolina politics for fifteen years. After two terms as Governor, he served as a U.S. Senator until 1891 when a political enemy won the governorship and forced him from the Senate. When he died on April 11th 1902 his final words were “God bless my people, black and white.” [17]

Like so many leaders of so many tumultuous eras, Hampton was complex, contradictory and cannot be easily classified. He was certainly not perfect, but in war and in peace gave of himself to his state and community.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Longacre, Gentleman and Soldier pp.26-27

[2] Ibid. Longacre, Gentleman and Soldier p.28

[3] Ibid. Longacre, Gentleman and Soldier p.28

[4] Goldfield, David. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Bloomsbury Press, New York 2011 p.399

[5] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.64

[6] Ibid. Wert Cavalryman of the Lost Cause p.116

[7] Ibid. Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army p.352

[8] Ibid. Wert Cavalryman of the Lost Cause p.333

[9] Ibid. Goldfield, America Aflame p.399

[10] Ibid. Warner Generals in Gray p.123

[11] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.770

[12] Ibid. Goldfield, America Aflame p.399

[13] Ibid. Longacre, Gentleman and Soldier p.xv

[14] Ibid. Longacre, Gentleman and Soldier p.265

[15] Ibid. Longacre, Gentleman and Soldier p.265

[16] Ibid. Longacre, Gentleman and Soldier p.xv

[17] Ibid. Longacre, Gentleman and Soldier p.276

 

 

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