Lawyer, politician. Memminger was born on January 9, 1803, in Nayhingen, Württemberg, Germany, to Christopher Godfrey Memminger, an army quartermaster, and Eberhardina Elisabeth Kohler. Following his father’s death, Memminger’s family immigrated to Charleston, where his mother soon passed away. He was left in the Charleston Orphan House at age four and seven years later was adopted by future governor Thomas Bennett. Educated at South Carolina College, Memminger graduated second in his class in 1819. He began practicing law in 1824, the same year he became a naturalized citizen. Memminger had an active interest in education and helped expand the mission of Charleston’s public schools beyond serving only paupers. He and his first wife, Mary Wilkinson, married on October 25, 1832, and had eight children.
Although Memminger would reach the height of his political career as a member of the Confederate cabinet, he was slow to convert to the secessionist cause. He opposed nullification in a satirical pamphlet, The Book of Nullification (1832). He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives four years later and served almost continuously to the outbreak of the Civil War, chairing the Ways and Means Committee. He opposed separate state secession in 1850 and was a Unionist delegate to the southern rights convention in 1852. Only after John Brown’s raid did Memminger believe that separation was necessary. He served as a special commissioner to Virginia in January 1860 to encourage that state to secede, and by the end of the year he was vigorously promoting South Carolina’s secession.
Memminger’s skills were put to immediate use for the Confederacy, as he chaired the committee to draft the Confederacy’s provisional constitution. Jefferson Davis tapped him to be secretary of the treasury in 1861, a position in which Memminger would have enormous difficulties, some of which were beyond his control. His plan to raise money through tariffs was hampered by the Union blockade, and the Confederate congress was reluctant to institute taxation when other sources of income proved useless. Other difficulties were self-imposed. Believing that the war would be short, he did not bother early to plan for the long term; his ideological rigidity prevented him from suggesting that the government sell cotton to pay bills (he feared that this would damage private farmers); and he was considered a heavy-handed administrator and was little liked by military officers desperate for funds. With inflation spiraling out of control, he resigned on June 15, 1864, and moved to his summer home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he remained until the end of the war.
Pardoned in 1867, Memminger returned to Charleston to resume his law practice. Although he served one more term in the General Assembly, he never again became active in politics. Instead, he renewed his prewar interest in education, retiring from Charleston’s school board in 1885 after more than three decades of service to the city. In 1868 Memminger helped found the Etiwan Phosphate Company, which pioneered the phosphate industry in the state. He also served as president of the Spartanburg and Asheville Railroad. Memminger’s wife died in 1878, and he married her sister, Sarah A. Wilkinson. Memminger died on March 7, 1888, in Charleston, and was buried at his country home in Flat Rock, North Carolina.
Ball, Douglas B. Financial Failure and Confederate Defeat. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Capers, Henry D. The Life and Times of C. G. Memminger. Richmond, Va.: Everett Waddey, 1893.