Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 949

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 949

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This is the grave of Wade Hampton.

One of the single worst people in American history, Hampton was born in 1818 in Charleston, South Carolina to one of the most elite families in that sewer of a slave state. His grandfather, Wade Hampton I, was a leader in the Early Republic and his father, Wade Hampton II, was a general in the War of 1812 under Jackson and later a member of Congress. So this guy never had to worry about anything. After all, he had slaves to do all the worrying for him. This was a family deeply, passionately committed to slavery and Hampton III definitely felt that all the way. He was super into hunting in the way of the elite, riding his horses and shooting whatever. He supposedly would spend time on the family’s upcountry estate going around with just a knife to hunt black bears, but this seems like bullshit mythmaking to me. If I’m wrong about that, well, let me express my extreme disappointment that a bear didn’t eat him. The world would have been better off.

Hampton graduated from what is today the University of South Carolina in 1836 (this was the end of the era where the children of elites started college very young). He studied for the bar but evidently never took it and at the very least never practiced. Instead, he just became a member of the plantation elite. Like many of the old plantation families, the Hamptons had invested heavily in new plantations on fresh ground farther west. In doing so, of course they split up families because such things didn’t matter at all to the slavers. Hampton went west for awhile, to Mississippi, to manage the family plantation there. He returned to South Carolina soon enough. But the bigger point is that there was no one more committed to slavery than Wade Hampton. Like any good respectable southern elite, he went into politics, getting elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1852 and then moving up to the state senate in 1858. By that time, he was extremely rich, as his father had died. He was a man with a huge domain and he would do anything to defend it.

So in 1861, Hampton committed treason in defense of slavery. He wasn’t the most hardcore secessionist in the state, but he certainly embraced it once it happened. Unfortunately he happened to be a good general, despite having no experience before this. He rose rapidly in the treason military. Sadly, no Union solider ever shot him. They tried though. He was wounded five times, including getting creased across the head at Manassas. Damn it.

Soon, Hampton was just under JEB Stuart in the Confederate cavalry. He was wounded again at Brandy Station and his brother killed there. He played a key role at Gettysburg, was wounded again, and was then promoted to major general. He once again was nearly killed at Petersburg by a sniper who did shoot the officer giving him a message. Again, a near miss. Hampton was loathe to surrender at the end of the war, nearly getting into a fistfight with a fellow officer over whether to do so.

After the war, Hampton became a leader of the farthest right forces attempting to use maximum violence to ensure white power over the South. The funny about all of this–well, not funny exactly…..–is that Hampton was actually seen as a moderate on Black voting rights because he had stated he was fine with Blacks voting and maybe even sending someone to Congress so long as they let whites run South Carolina how they wanted to run it. This kind of “you can vote so long as you vote for me” kind of politics remains far too prevalent in the conservative movement that is fine with Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas being around as tokens so long as they vote for white power. It was only when it was clear to Hampton that whites could not control the Black vote that he called for South Carolina whites to resist Reconstruction.

Hampton was the state’s Democratic Party leader in 1868, a full-fledged party of the white man. At first, he was more of an insider. He raised money to defend the racist scumbags prosecuted by the Force Acts, when Grant and the military cracked down on the Ku Klux Klan. Naturally, Hampton was a big Klan supporter, though I don’t think he was in it. But getting rid of the KKK was hardly the end of white militia terrorist activity. By the mid-1870s, Hampton was centrally involved in white terrorism. Specifically, he led the Red Shirts in the state, which was an organized movement in several southern states to terrorize Black and Republican white voters into not turning out to the polls, at the threat of their lives. They engaged in organized marches through Black neighborhoods and Republican-leaning towns. Lots of Black leaders were murdered by the Red Shirts, many others beaten and whipped. In 1876, Hampton decided to run for governor. By this time, groups like the Red Shirts had “redeemed” the white South from the horrors of democracy and Blacks voting. So Hampton used the Red Shirts as his personal guards during his campaign, in case there was any real question about his positions. He preferred to talk about education reform in his campaign speeches; the Red Shirts did enough work otherwise. The Red Shirts probably killed about 150 Black voters in this election, one of the most violent in American history. South Carolina was given to Hayes in the 1877, but Hampton “won” his position as governor through massive ballot stuffing and violence.

Hampton was also deeply committed to the cause of the Confederacy, all the way until the end of his miserable life. In writing to a fellow Confederate officer much later, he worried that the southern boys wouldn’t remember just how rad treason in defense slavery was. He wrote, “I believe now, as always, that the South was right and that belief is as strong as the existence of God…..Like you, I must deplore the dearth of sentiment in the south, especially among the young men and in every public utterance I have tried to make them true to our lost cause and to their heroic fathers.” Yes, if there’s one thing the late 19th century South lacked, it was white people not revering the Confederacy enough…..

As governor, Hampton did everything he could to ensure the reestablishment of white supremacy. These were two year terms and he won reelection in 1878, with less violence since Black voters were too scared to vote by this time, by and large anyway. Shortly after his reelection, he fell off a horse while hunting and broke his leg, which had to be amputated. Too bad that was all that was amputated.

The same day as his amputation, Hampton was sent to the Senate by the South Carolina legislature. As a senator, he was mostly just a hack. Being in DC took out of the maelstrom of South Carolina politics, where ever more extreme race-baiting increasingly became necessary to win, or at least it worked. Hampton was too often seen as a moderate. He was not a moderate. He was a revanchist racist conservative. But as a member of the old-school plantation elite, what he lacked was the frothing of Pitchfork Ben Tillman and the like. He didn’t do that well. He was a gold standard Democrat who generally voted with the party line. Of course he strongly opposed the nation doing anything at all to protect Black voters, using his influence to help defeat the Force Bill in 1890 that sought to ensure fair elections for Congress in the South. Can’t have any of that now. Or then. But also now.

In 1890, Tillman won the governorship of South Carolina. Hampton and Tillman weren’t really close and Tillman saw the old elite as too moderate. So he had the Senate toss him out of the Senate, with John Irby replacing him., In 1893, Grover Cleveland named him U.S. Railroad Commissioner. That kept him working for awhile longer. But he was old and he was broke. Like a lot of the old southern elite, he was profligate with money and without the human capital to fund their activities, a lot of his class and generation eventually lost everything.

Hampton lived to witness all five of his children dying. How you take that fact may depnd on you. In 1899, Hampton’s house burned down and he was too poor to build a new one. So the state raised money to build one for him. It was there he died in 1902. He was 84 years old.

Wade Hampton is buried in Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina.

If you would like this series to visit some of the other southern “redeemers,” one of the worst terms used in American political history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John McEnery is in New Orleans and James M. Smith is in Gainesville, Georgia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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