Planter, soldier, governor, U.S. senator. Hampton was born in Charleston on March 28, 1818, the eldest son of Wade Hampton II and Ann Fitzsimons. A scion of one of the South’s wealthiest families, Hampton was educated in private academies at Rice Creek and Columbia before attending South Carolina College, where he was graduated in 1836. A quintessential planter-aristocrat, Hampton may have been the richest planter in the South at the end of the antebellum era, with properties in South Carolina and Mississippi producing annual incomes of as much as $200,000. On October 10, 1838, Hampton wed Margaret Frances Preston, with the marriage eventually producing five children. His first wife died in 1852 and Hampton married Mary Singleton McDuffie on January 27, 1858. Four children were born to this second union.
From 1852 until 1861 Hampton represented Richland District, first in the S.C. House of Representatives and then in the state Senate. As a legislator, Hampton promoted economic development in his district, sponsoring several measures for railroads and manufacturing companies. He also played an active role in support of the state asylum and the construction of a new capitol. He generally avoided debates over secession, which he believed to be an unnecessarily drastic means of protecting southern interests. In 1859 he also spoke out against efforts to reopen the Atlantic slave trade, arguing that the attempt was “fraught with more danger to the South than any other that has been proposed” and characterizing the slave trade as “that odious traffic.”
Once secession became fact, Hampton threw himself wholeheartedly behind the Confederate cause. At his own expense Hampton organized the Hampton Legion, a regiment consisting of six companies of infantry, four of cavalry, and one battery of artillery. He was commissioned its colonel in June 1861, and the legion soon after played an important part in the first Battle of Manassas (July 21, 1861). Hampton commanded an infantry brigade in the Peninsula Campaign (April–June 1862) and was wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31, 1862). He returned to command a cavalry brigade under General J. E. B. Stuart. Hampton proved to be a superb leader of cavalry, who was at his best in leading raids behind the enemy lines, sometimes with great drama. In 1864 Hampton led the so-called Beefsteak Raid, capturing 2,468 cattle from the Union army. In August 1864 Hampton became the commander of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. In that capacity Hampton played an important role in the defense of Richmond in the last months of the war. In January 1865 General Robert E. Lee sent him to defend South Carolina against Sherman’s army, but the assignment proved hopeless. By war’s end Hampton was one of only three Confederates without West Point training to achieve the rank of lieutenant general.
Hampton returned to Columbia to find his fine homes and estates in ruins. Reconciling himself to defeat and disqualified from holding office due to his Confederate service, he worked to recoup his fortunes, especially by trying to revive his Mississippi plantations. These efforts were to no avail and he ultimately declared bankruptcy in 1868. However, as his former wealth dwindled, Hampton’s political prestige grew enormously. His reputation enhanced by his military record, Hampton became politically active in opposing the postwar Republican regime in South Carolina. Pardoned in 1872, Hampton reentered a state political arena awash in violence against the radical government, instigated largely by white Democrats who decried both Republican corruption and the political influence of recently freed African Americans. Amid intensifying attempts to redeem South Carolina for its traditional white leadership, the so-called Bourbons, Hampton emerged as the Democratic leader. By temperament a moderate, Hampton called for an end to the extreme violence initiated by Democratic rifle clubs fearing that such excesses would only invite further federal intervention in the state. He briefly considered cooperating with the reform elements in the Republican Party. But by 1876 state Democrats decided to run a “straight-out” Democratic slate and convinced Hampton to be their candidate for governor.
The campaign of 1876 was bitter and a hard-fought, with both sides engaging in intimidation and frequent violence. Some Hampton supporters organized themselves into armed units and dressed in red shirts. The Red Shirts were particularly effective in intimidating Republican leaders and their supporters, especially black voters. While Hampton could not curb all the excesses committed by his supporters, he continued to urge moderation and actively courted black voters, winning significant support among African Americans in a close election. To demonstrate Democratic strength without the use of violence, Hampton led a march across the state, drawing large and enthusiastic crowds at each stop. The election results were hotly contested, resulting in the existence of two governors and two legislatures, with Republicans dependent on federal troops to enforce their position. Publicly Hampton continued to call for an end to the political violence and urged Daniel Chamberlain to resign the governor’s chair. Behind the scenes Hampton negotiated with federal authorities for the removal federal troops. Finally, in April 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the soldiers and Hampton took office on April 11, effectively bringing Reconstruction in the state to an end. In the eyes of white South Carolinians, Hampton was more than a victorious political candidate. He was their savior.
Hampton’s administration was characterized by honesty, fiscal conservatism, and attempts at cooperation across racial and party lines. As governor he supported black suffrage and appointed several African Americans and some Republicans to public office. Economically he advocated fiscal responsibility and urged the funding of the state’s debts. Such actions created rifts within his own party, but Hampton’s personal prestige overwhelmed all rivals. In 1878 Hampton was returned to the governor’s chair without opposition and then elected by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate. Taking office in early 1879, Hampton served in the Senate until 1891. His senatorial policies were generally conservative and Democratic, although he sometimes voted with the opposition. He supported the gold standard and opposed his party by supporting the seating of Republican William Pitt Kellogg from Louisiana. In his last days in office he opposed the Force Bill sponsored by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, whereby the federal government could again intervene in state elections to protect the interests of black citizens.
As a senator, Hampton exercised less and less influence in South Carolina politics. Forces led first by Martin Gary and later Benjamin Tillman gained influence by advocating redistribution of power to the upstate and to farmers, the political exclusion of African Americans, and the establishment of an agricultural college. Hampton viewed this opposition as a threat to Democratic Party unity, but he had little interest in or understanding of Tillman’s growing attraction among white voters. In 1890 Tillman became governor and ousted the Bourbons that Hampton had led to victory in 1876. Once in office Tillman orchestrated Hampton’s removal from the Senate by backing John L. M. Irby, who defeated Hampton’s bid for reelection.
Leaving his Senate seat in March 1891, Hampton served for a time as commissioner of U.S. Railroads, but his political influence had come to an end. He was financially destitute, and his livelihood depended on holding office and on the generosity of friends and admirers. Supporters canvassed the state for funds to provide him a house in Columbia after his last home burned in 1899. Hampton died in Columbia on April 11, 1902, and was buried in Trinity Episcopal Churchyard, a revered symbol of the best of the old South Carolina.
Cooper, William J., Jr. The Conservative Regime: South Carolina, 1877–1890. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968.
Jarrell, Hampton M. Wade Hampton and the Negro: The Road Not Taken. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1949.
Meynard, Virginia G. The Venturers: The Hampton, Harrison, and Earle Families of Virginia, South Carolina, and Texas. Easley, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1981.
Wellman, Manly Wade. Giant in Gray: A Biography of Wade Hampton of South Carolina. New York: Scribner, 1949.
Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.