Earlier this month at the High Hampton Inn and Country Club in Cashiers, Robert Lathan served as chairman of a symposium on the life and legacy of Wade Hampton III. Historians and biographers from all over the country along with Hampton relatives and those in search of rich local history were able to take part in two days of lectures, tours and discussions about Hampton, his family, his military career, his politics, and his deep connection to Cashiers.
The Cashiers Historical Society organized the symposium. On June 9, participants went on a full-day tour through South Carolina sites connected to Hampton’s life. Stops included the Ashtabula Plantation, the Woodburn Plantation and Gen. Andrew Pickens’ home. Those who attended the symposium’s lectures on June 10 got a thorough analysis of historical details — from Civil War battles down to the length of Hampton’s sword (37 and three-eighths inches) — and the sweep of events that shaped Hampton’s life — from hunting bears to fighting through battles at Manassas and Gettysburg to carving a political career out of the ruins of post-Civil War Reconstruction.
Gentleman and Soldier
Cashiers historian Jane Nardy, who gave a lecture on Hampton’s Cashiers connections, explained that on Sept. 24, 1855, Hampton, his brother Christopher F. Hampton and great-uncle and mentor John S. Preston purchased 14.5 acres in Cashiers for a mere $72.50 (a laughable steal nowadays considering half-acre lots in Cashiers with a mountain view might go for half a million.). A few months later, the trio bought another 364 acres for $2,000. The Hamptons built a large hunting lodge on their property, which became a vacation respite and the eventual home of the High Hampton Inn.
According to Nardy, Wade Hampton spent a good deal of time in the Cashiers area in the 1850s and late 1860s. There are many accounts of Hampton sightings, Nardy said, joking that, like Elvis, “He was seen everywhere but no one could prove it.”
Based on letters, records and various documents, historians have pieced together Hampton’s life as one of prestige, sacrifice, and hard-fought battles. Though a Southern aristocrat with properties and plantations (900 slaves and 10,000 acres in three states), there are accounts of friends telling how this gentleman wrestled bears with bare hands and a knife (comparisons to rough-riding President Teddy Roosevelt arise). Though he lacked military experience and initially was opposed to South Carolina’s secession from the Union in 1850, Hampton later pushed for secession and financed his own 1,000-man legion when the Civil War began. He worked his way up the chain of command to lieutenant general and got wounded several times over the course of the war. At Gettysburg, he was wounded four times in two days.
According to Edward Longacre, author of Wade Hampton: Gentleman and Soldier (one of the definitive biographies on Hampton’s military career), Hampton didn’t always get along with the Confederate brass such as J.E.B. Stuart. In fact, the two often bickered behind the scenes over tactics (Stuart had a propensity for long raids on cavalry) and Stuart’s supposed favoritism of his Virginia troops over deep South regiments. After Stuart’s demise at Gettysburg and his death at Yellow Tavern, Hampton succeeded the more well-known cavalry officer and eventually won Gen. Robert E. Lee’s respect, Longacre explained.
Brian Cisco, author of Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior and Conservative Statesman (another highly respected biography), acknowledged Hampton’s adept skill at navigating through war and politics, as well as his wit in courting women and composing poems. According to one account, a beautiful woman produced a watch from between her bosoms and said it stopped working.
“That is very natural,” Hampton said. “Had I been in the watch’s place, I would have stopped too.”
But Hampton suffered as well, losing his son Preston on the battlefield, having his home in Columbia burned at war’s end, and surviving six of his children’s deaths.
“Hampton’s faith was tested many times during his life,” Cisco said.
After the Civil War, Hampton turned to politics, rejecting Northern Reconstruction policies that were seen by many Southerners as harsh punishments and power-grabbing in the years that followed the war. Hampton, who was viewed as a valiant war hero of the “Lost Cause” movement and a nostalgic symbol of pride for a humiliated South, rallied constituents — some of which included former slaves — and rode a wave of popularity to become governor of South Carolina in 1876. He won re-election easily in two years and went on to serve another 12 years as a U.S. Senator. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland appointed Hampton as the nation’s Railroad Commissioner.
A complex legacy
While it may seem easy to paint Hampton as a “savior” of South Carolina politics in the post-Civil War era, Fritz Hamer, chief curator of history at the South Carolina State Museum, presented a more complicated (and perhaps controversial) view of Hampton at the symposium.
Though Hampton may have publicly claimed to be uniting South Carolina and reconciling black and white races, Hampton’s political lieutenants showed a much more devious plan, according to Hamer. Blacks may have been freed from slavery, but white militias spread fear and intimidation among blacks under paternalistic, racist assumptions, Hamer explained. The plantation system may have been turned upside down, but some radical whites continued to clamor for a white power system where African-Americans were held in check. For example, literacy tests were set up so that blacks could not vote unless they passed the literacy test. Other restrictions limited blacks from voting or gaining access into the political process.
Hamer also found that Hampton gave legal advice to Ku Klux Klan members who had been arrested in a federal sweep to thwart such intimidation tactics against newly freed slaves. And while some, including Hampton, may argue that he owed his political victory as governor to the black vote, Hamer has concluded through research that Hampton did not receive a great deal of black votes. In the 1876 election that first put Hampton in office, the margin of victory was a mere 1,100 votes.
In Hamer’s view, Hampton’s legacy will be that of a reactionary politician, a statesman of limited abilities, accepting white intimidation tactics that sought to keep whites in power.
At what might be considered the height of his political power, Hampton was out on a deer hunt a day after his 1878 re-election as governor of South Carolina. He arrived late for the hunt, according to the story, and all the horses had been taken so he took a mule. The mule bucked and the general fell, suffering a compound fracture of his ankle. The injury worsened and after about a month, his leg had to be partially amputated.
By 1890, Hampton’s political machine fell apart against a populist movement that attacked Hampton and his supporters as aristocratic elites. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman became governor of South Carolina and the new legislature refused to renew Hampton’s term as senator.
By the end of his days, Hampton’s once hallowed home at Millwood was burned by arsonists. He died at 84 of heart disease.
While the Wade Hampton symposium offered a wide variety of topics from acute academics and talkative military historians, the audience also included folks like 95-year-old Mary Monteith Tucker, whose grandfather, Jessie Alexander, fought in the Civil War. According to Tucker, Alexander signed up as a 19-year-old recruit from Wilkes County in northwest North Carolina and took part in several battles including Seven Pines in Virginia, which he survived by playing dead as Union soldiers came through shooting any wounded soldiers still moving. Alexander was later captured and put in prison from 1863 to 1864. Tucker said she remembers her grandfather describing how battlefields were littered with corpses and how homes became makeshift hospitals.