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Wade Hampton III was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 28, 1818, into one of the most influential families in the South. His father, Colonel Wade Hampton II, had served with distinction in the War of 1812 and been a U.S. Senator, and his grandfather, Brigadier General Wade Hampton, had been a Revolutionary War veteran, U.S. Senator, and U.S. Congressman. Hampton grew up on his family's sprawling cotton plantation and received private schooling in his youth. He graduated from South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) in 1836 and then spent two years studying law before returning home to manage his family's properties in South Carolina and Mississippi. In 1838 he married Margaret Preston, the niece of Senator William C. Preston. The couple would have five children before her death in 1852.
Hampton's political career began in 1852, when he was elected to the South Carolina General Assembly. After two terms in that body he was elected to the State Senate, in which he served from 1856 to 1861. In 1858 he married Mary McDuffie, the daughter of a U.S. senator. His father died that same year, making Hampton one of the largest owners of land and slaves in the South.
Although he did not personally support secession, Hampton resigned from the State Senate and joined the Confederate Army in early 1861. Although he had no formal military training, his prestige helped secure him an appointment as a Colonel. He then organized a unit known as "Hampton's Legion" (comprised of six companies of infantry, four companies of infantry, and one artillery battery), which he outfitted at his own expense. The Legion first saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in July of 1861, during which Hampton was wounded. Despite being well outnumbered, Hampton's Legion held off the Union Army long enough to give General "Stonewall" Jackson's brigade time to reach the field.
Promoted to Brigadier General on May 23, 1862, Hampton was severely wounded at the Battle of Fair Oaks (May 31, 1862). In August of 1862, Hampton led the pursuit of retreating Union forces after the Second Battle of Bull Run. A month later he participated in General Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland and was involved in several small skirmishes prior to the Battle of Antietam. He subsequently participated in the capture of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and then led an expedition behind enemy lines in the days leading up to the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862).
In the early stages of the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign, Hampton led his unit in the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War. He later joined General J.E.B. Stuart on a raiding campaign that saw the Confederate cavalry advance to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. In July 1863 Hampton was involved in the Battle of Gettysburg, during which he received several saber wounds and was shot during fighting with Union cavalry on the second and third days of the engagement. Hampton was promoted to Major General on September 3rd, but his wounds kept him away from the field until November 1863.
After General Stuart was killed at the Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 12, 1864), Hampton was given command of the Army of Northern Virginia's cavalry corps. On June 11th, Hampton and 5,000 Confederate cavalrymen intercepted General Philip Sheridan's force at Trevilian Station in Virginia. A fierce battle erupted in dense woods, forcing the cavalrymen to fight on foot. In the heat of the fight, however, Hampton seized the opportunity to mount a charge against the Federals in a dusty clearing near the railroad. The fierce battle finally ended when Sheridan's troops retreated on June 13th. Hampton's cavalry subsequently defeated Union cavalry troops threatening Richmond and Petersburg. On September 16, 1864, Hampton led the so-called "Beefsteak Raid," an incursion behind enemy lines that captured over 2,400 head of cattle and 304 prisoners, suffering a loss of only ten of his own men. Promoted to Lieutenant General on February 14, 1865, Hampton spent the latter stages of the war fighting in the Carolinas under General Joseph E. Johnston. He surrendered with Johnston in Durham, North Carolina, in late April of 1865.
His plantations in ruins and his wealth depleted, Hampton spent the first few years after the war trying to recover from his losses. He was offered the nomination for Governor of South Carolina in 1865, but refused it. Initially supportive of Southern reconciliation with the U.S. government, he became a very vocal critic of Reconstruction after Radical Republicans gained control of the South.
Hampton returned to active politics in 1876, when he ran against Republican Daniel Henry Chamberlain for Governor of South Carolina. The campaign was punctuated by acts of violence on both sides, and militant Hampton supporters known as "Red Shirts" were accused of suppressing the black vote in parts of the state. Amid widespread controversy, Hampton was declared the winner of the election in 1877, following a South Carolina Supreme Court decision. Hampton won re-election two years later, but resigned in 1879 after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate. He served in Washington until 1891, when he was ousted by Democrat Benjamin R. Tillman. Hampton subsequently served as the U.S. Commissioner of Railroads from 1893 to 1897 before retiring.
In the spring of 1899, Hampton's home in Columbia was accidentally destroyed in a fire. Eighty-two years old and with very little money, Hampton had limited means to find a new home. Without his knowledge, a group of friends raised enough funds to build him a new home and presented it to him. He died in Columbia on April 11, 1902, and is buried in Trinity Cathedral Churchyard.
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This page was last updated on September 28, 2017.