U.S. senator. Lewis Trezevant Wigfall was born in Edgefield District on April 21, 1816, the son of Levi Durand Wigfall and Eliza Thompson. Orphaned by age thirteen, he attended local academies and the University of Virginia before finishing his education at South Carolina College. Rebellious, Wigfall often skipped classes, but he excelled in the debates of the college’s Euphradian Society, absorbing the school’s ardent nullification and states’ rights philosophy. He briefly left school in 1836 to volunteer for the Seminole War, attaining the rank of lieutenant.
Graduating in 1837, Wigfall studied law in Edgefield, passing the bar in 1839. Financially irresponsible, he squandered his moderate inheritance on gambling, liquor, and prostitutes. Politics soon drew his interest and gave him an arena for his oratorical skills. He briefly gained control of the Edgefield Advertiser newspaper and, despite his own nullification leanings, used it to support the Unionist John P. Richardson for governor in 1840. Wigfall’s strident attacks and personal differences with his opponents led to numerous disputes, including a duel that left Wigfall and Preston Brooks severely injured. Marriage to Charlotte Cross in November 1841 brought some stability to his life and eventually produced five children.
A proponent of the expansion of slavery and opponent of tariffs, Wigfall viewed secession as a means of settling sectional differences. His early extremism kept him from attaining political office. Financial difficulties continued to plague Wigfall, and in 1846 he lost his home and property at a sheriff’s auction. That same year Wigfall’s eldest son died and the family moved to Texas to start over, including altering the spelling of his first name to Louis.
Settling in Marshall, Wigfall served in the Texas House from 1849 to 1850 and the Texas Senate from 1857 to 1859. His vigorous opposition to the Unionist politics then prevalent in Texas burnished his reputation as a fire-eater. Reaction to the John Brown raid propelled Wigfall into the U.S. Senate in 1859, where he actively fought proposals to ease the political crisis.
Despite the secession of Texas in February 1861, Wigfall remained in Washington, gathering information and opening a Confederate recruiting station in Baltimore. He traveled to Charleston in April, where he recklessly visited Fort Sumter during the bombardment in an unauthorized attempt to negotiate its surrender. He represented Texas in the Confederate Provisional Senate, served as a military aide to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and accepted a commission as brigadier general in December 1861. He resigned in 1862, prior to taking his seat in the Confederate Senate, where he proposed the first conscription law in American history. He clashed with President Davis over military policy and became a leading opponent of the administration, which mitigated his influence for the rest of the war.
Following Appomattox, he fled to Texas and then to London, where he lived in exile until 1872. He lived briefly in Baltimore before returning to Texas in 1874 with plans to reopen his law practice. He died in Galveston, Texas, on February 18, 1874, and was buried in that city’s Episcopal Cemetery.
King, Alvy L. Louis T. Wigfall: Southern Fire-Eater. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.
Lord, C. W. “Young Louis Wigfall: South Carolina Politician and Duelist.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 59 (April 1958): 96–112.
Walther, Eric H. The Fire-Eaters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.