[This article is crossposted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.]
We welcome a guest post today from Rod Andrew Jr., author of Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior to Southern Redeemer, which is now available in a new paperback edition. One of the South’s most illustrious military leaders, Wade Hampton III was for a time the commander of all Lee’s cavalry and at the end of the Civil War was the highest-ranking Confederate cavalry officer. Andrew’s critical biography sheds light on Hampton’s central role during Reconstruction as a conservative white leader, governor, U.S. senator, and Redeemer; his heroic image in the minds of white southerners; and his positions and apparent contradictions on race and the role of African Americans in the New South.
In the following guest post, Andrew explores Hampton’s history as an unlikely Confederate stalwart.
Nearly everybody has an opinion on what caused the Civil War—and on what Americans on both sides thought they were fighting for (which, by the way, could be a quite different question). In the case of individual Confederates, however, we have other questions—why and how did they decide to stop fighting? And, if they had formerly been very committed to the Confederate cause, how did they justify for themselves the act of surrendering?
Lieutenant General Wade Hampton III of South Carolina did not formally submit to federal authorities until May 15, 1865, a full 19 days after his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, surrendered the Army of Tennessee to General William T. Sherman at Bennett Place, North Carolina. Like all Confederates who finally decided to quit fighting, Hampton’s decision was a highly personal one, and yet it was profoundly influenced by cultural traditions of his time and place.
Before the war began, few would have foreseen Hampton emerging as a die-hard Confederate. He did not oppose slavery, and in fact benefited from it, but saw no point in allowing the political disputes between North and South to destroy the Union and possibly provoke a war. He was one of the most reluctant secessionists in the most secession-eager state. Indeed, some fire-eaters began to subtly question the loyalty and state patriotism of Hampton and the handful of other moderates in their midst.
After President Abraham Lincoln called for troops to suppress the Southern rebellion, however, Hampton no longer hesitated. He not only volunteered his services, but organized and equipped his own “legion” largely out of his own funds. I attribute his newfound Confederate patriotism largely to the cultural tradition of “chivalry,” an ethic popular among elite and upper-middle class Southerners in the antebellum era. Chivalry might be defined as a kinder, gentler form of the fierce “honor” ethic—it valued piety, self-control, the aristocratic heritage of horsemanship, and tenderness within the home. Most of all, it valued fierce defense of the community, the home, and of loved ones. As Paul Anderson has explained, it often celebrated violence, even savagery, when the sanctity of the home was violated.
Hampton fought fiercely and capably for four years. The winter of 1865 found him vainly attempting to defend his own hometown, Columbia, from Sherman’s forces, outnumbered roughly ten to one. By February 17, 1865, much of what chivalry demanded he defend had already been lost. His younger brother and his 21-year-old son had been killed; Hampton held the latter in his arms as he died on a soggy Virginia battlefield in late October. Columbia was now destroyed by fire, and federal troops had deliberately burned Hampton’s home as well as the ancestral mansion that had belonged to his grandfather. His property and his fortune were destroyed; his wife and younger children were refugees, fleeing northward from Sherman’s legions. Hampton’s letters home no longer confidently predicted Southern independence; instead they expressed grim satisfaction at the number of Yankees killed in this or that fight. Vengeance was supplanting home defense—Hampton was no longer defending home and family as much as he was seeking vindication for what had already been lost.
As the cavalry chief in Joe Johnston’s army, Hampton doggedly resisted Sherman’s advance through the remainder of South Carolina and North Carolina. He angrily denounced North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance when the latter attempted to arrange a separate peace between the Tar Heel State and the U.S. government. When Johnston finally concluded surrender terms with Sherman on April 26, Hampton was away from the army. He had ridden far to the south to Charlotte to meet with the Confederacy’s fugitive president, Jefferson Davis. By the time he returned to Johnston’s army with messages from Davis, Johnston had surrendered.
At this point, Hampton temporarily abandoned home defense altogether and became a desperado. He refused to consider himself included in the surrender and rode hard with a handful of men to catch up with Davis. He had rashly promised Davis days earlier that he could gather a large mounted force, escort Davis to Texas, continue the fight from there and, if need be, from Mexico. On the night of May 1-2, riding alone ahead of his men, he swam his horse across the Catawba River near the North Carolina-South Carolina line. At 2 A.M., wet, discouraged, and exhausted, he arrived at the house in York, S.C., where his wife was staying.
Tradition states, and I am convinced, that it was Mary Hampton who convinced her husband to give up the search for Davis and to consider surrender. Chivalry allowed her to gently show him that his determination to fight on to Texas was a dereliction of duty, not a fulfillment of it. He would be leaving her and the children alone in the midst of postwar anarchy and famine. They could become hostages of vengeful Union officers. If the Yankees had already robbed Southern ladies at gunpoint and burned their homes, what else might they do to the family of an outlaw?
Hampton laid low for almost two weeks. But ultimately chivalry would demand submission rather than foolish valor. Confederates like Hampton had fought for many things—honor, home, independence, and yes, slavery. But ultimately, when faced with the decision to become outlaws and guerrillas indefinitely, they chose instead to preserve what was left of their homes, their families, and their former lives.
Rod Andrew Jr. is professor of history at Clemson University and a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He is author of Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior to Southern Redeemer and Long Gray Lines: The Southern Military School Tradition, 1839-1915.