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Wade Hampton

July 2024
4min read

In a field outside of Gettysburg on a hot July morning in 1863 a frightened Michigan teen-ager named Frank Pearson stood on a stump, trading shots with a Confederate cavalryman 125 yards away. The first two exchanges had drawn no blood, and Pearson was having trouble getting another round into his carbine. Ingenuously, he held up his hand, signaling time out. His opponent, the richest man in the South and possibly the Confederacy’s finest horse soldier, gravely lifted his pistol to the sky until Pearson had finished reloading.

That kind of courtesy was an essential part of Wade Hampton; so, too, was the cool steadiness that allowed him to shatter Pearson’s wrist with his next shot. For Hampton was the epitome of the ante-bellum Southern gentleman—generous, loyal, unquestioning in his dedication to his society, and a consummate fighting man. And he was more; almost alone in the bloody turmoil of Reconstruction, he advocated moderation and black suffrage. His fellow South Carolinians listened to him only for a little while, but when they did, they won back their state.

Wade Hampton was the third to bear his name. His grandfather had served as an officer in the Revolution, and his father had consolidated the family’s vast amalgam of corn, rice, cotton, and sugar plantations in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, which were worked by three thousand slaves. Born in 1818, Hampton grew up at Millwood, the South Carolina plantation. He grew formidably; by the time he was twenty, he was so heavily muscled that his legs, according to one contemporary, “if he chose to close them in a grip, could make a horse groan with pain.” Possessed of near total physical courage, he is said to have developed his own style of bear hunting. After the hounds had cornered the beast, he would leap from his saddle, draw a knife, and engage it in hand-to-paw combat.

In 1856 the young planter was elected to the state senate, where he promptly made enemies by opposing the reopening of the African slave trade. He made more when, as his state drifted into the bloody-minded euphoria of secession, Hampton rigidly opposed the breach. But when it came, he resigned from the senate, and set about raising a legion. It was ready, handsomely outfitted and six hundred strong, in time for Bull Run.

Hampton had a disconcerting first sight of action: two Confederate brigades, broken and panicked, coming at him full tilt with thousands of Union soldiers close on their heels. Nevertheless, he formed up his men and fought a dogged rear-guard action that bought the shaken Southerners enough time to mend their ranks and hold. The confused, savage day ended with the Union Army in full retreat and Hampton so warmly praised by his superiors that, he said, “I have not ventured to write their remarks, even to my wife, lest I appear vain.”

Within a year, Hampton was made a brigadier general, and soon after that he became second-in-command to Jeb Stuart. He ably backed up the flashy young cavalry general on all his raids, among them the showy, feckless one that took the cavalry away from the army and forced Lee to move blind toward Gettysburg, there to fight a superior force on ground he hadn’t chosen. Badly wounded in that battle, Hampton was back in the saddle in three months, and when Stuart was killed early in 1864 he took command of the Confederate cavalry corps. By this time, he was thoroughly sick of the war he hadn’t wanted in the first place. “We have scarcely time to bury the dead,” he wrote, “as we press on. … I pray for peace. I would not give peace for all the military glory won by Bonaparte.”

The Confederates were on the defensive now, and they couldn’t have found a better man to fight that kind of war. Canny, resourceful, and tireless, Hampton led raid after raid, held up the Union advance, and captured beef and guns from the well-supplied enemy. But no general was good enough to check the Union in 1865.

At first Hampton refused to believe the news of Lee’s surrender. Despite his deep weariness, he made desperate overtures to Jefferson Davis, offering to escort him to Texas, where the Confederacy could hold out forever. More fatalistic officers begged him to give up. At last, he did.

He came home to find Millwood in ashes, and himself virtually penniless. He did not complain. “I have claimed nothing from South Carolina,” he said once in a rare moment of rhetoric, “but a grave in yonder churchyard.” He urged that blacks be given the vote—the first important white Southerner to do so—but the era was against him, and he watched glumly as the Radical Republicans, using the voting bloc of freedmen to get them into office, took over the state.

In 1876, with South Carolina still under the sway of the carpetbaggers, the Democrats nominated him for governor. Almost as reluctantly as he had gone to war, he accepted. Behind him grew a rough army of redshirts, quasi-military groups determined to put him into office at bayonet point. Hampton repudiated their tactics. The campaign was violent enough—angry whites killed fifty Republican Negroes at Ellenton in September—but it probably would have been far worse had Hampton not been stumping around the state, preaching his doctrine of tough restraint. In the end, enough black voters ignored carpetbagger blandishments to give him the margin of victory.

“We owe much of our late success to these colored voters,” he said on inauguration day. “Let us show all of them that the true interest of both races can best be secured by cultivating peace and promoting prosperity among all classes of our fellow-citizens.” While Hampton stayed in office—first as governor, later as U.S. senator—South Carolina blacks kept the franchise.

In 1890 a ferocious one-eyed demagogue named Benjamin Tillman rallied the poor whites in the state by inveighing against the old aristocracy that Hampton represented. “I don’t know what aristocracy is, God knows I do not know,” said Hampton. “I treated the man in the ragged jacket as well as I treated the man with stars on his coat.” That was true, but Tillman, shrieking race hatred, got himself elected governor, toppled Hampton from political power, and went on to foment in his state a poisonous antiblack mood that lasted for generations.

Hampton spent his last years sunning himself on the porch of his home in Columbia. “Life seems closed to me …” he said once. But he was a bigger man than Tillman, and he did not have much use for bitterness. Like so many Civil War leaders, he talked of his old battles on his deathbed in 1902. He called to his son, who had been killed before his eyes at Petersburg. Then he relaxed, and spoke once more: “God bless all my people, black and white.”

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