Soldier, politician. Gary was born in Cokesbury, Abbeville District (later Greenwood County) on March 25, 1831, the son of Thomas Reeder Gary and Mary Ann Porter. He received his early education at Cokesbury Academy and in 1850 enrolled at the South Carolina College, but withdrew in 1852 as a result of his participation in a dispute with trustees and faculty known as “the Biscuit Rebellion.” He enrolled at Harvard, graduating in 1854. Gary returned to South Carolina and read law in the Edgefield office of James P. Carroll. He was admitted to the bar in 1855 and set up practice in Edgefield.
A fervent secessionist, Gary was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1860. After secession he joined Hampton’s Legion, beginning his service as an infantry captain. He served until the war’s end, participating in every major engagement in which the Legion fought. By May 1864 he had attained the rank of brigadier general and took command of a cavalry brigade in the defense of Richmond. At Appomattox, he refused to surrender. With some two hundred members of his command, he escaped and joined Jefferson Davis and his cabinet at Greensboro, North Carolina. Gary escorted the party as far as his mother’s home in Cokesbury, where he turned over his command and ended his career as a Confederate soldier.
Gary capitalized on the reputation he earned in war. He resumed his law practice in Edgefield, began cotton planting, and undertook a series of business and speculative ventures. With a volatile temper and prone to spasms of profanity, he was known as the “bald eagle of Edgefield.” Active in Democratic Party politics, in 1876 he was the most uncompromising and outspoken leader of the “Straight-out” faction of the South Carolina Democratic Party, stressing white supremacy and solidarity while vigorously opposing any cooperation with Republicans or black Carolinians. He backed Wade Hampton for governor in 1876. Gary’s plan for the 1876 campaign, frequently known in South Carolina as the “Edgefield plan” after its chief advocate, pitted race against race and advocated the use of electoral fraud, physical intimidation, and even murder to keep blacks and other Republicans from voting. Gary organized rifle clubs of white Democrats (the “Red Shirts”) to put his plan into action. The statewide violence and disorder that ensued helped tilt the political balance to the Democrats, ensuring the “redemption” of South Carolina after years of Republican rule.
In 1876 and 1878, Edgefield elected Gary to the state Senate. However Gary’s ambitions were for higher office. Believing himself chiefly responsible for the Democrat’s 1876 victory, he broke with Hampton and other party leaders when he failed to be rewarded with a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1877 and 1879. He was the Hampton machine’s most bitter and vocal opponent in the period from 1877 to 1881, protesting payment of the state debt and tax funding for public schools, championing a usury law, and vehemently opposing Hampton’s policy of magnanimity toward black Carolinians. Hampton’s supporters thwarted Gary’s campaign for governor in 1880. His political career over, Gary returned to Edgefield, where he died on April 9, 1881. He was buried near Cokesbury in Tabernacle Cemetery.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate. 3 vols. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Cooper, William J. The Conservative Regime: South Carolina 1877-1890. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968.
Simkins, Francis B. and Robert H. Woody. South Carolina During Reconstruction. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1932.
Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
Henry H. Lesesne