[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 discusses South Carolina’s 1876 gubernatorial election and the six months that Democrat Wade Hampton and Republican Daniel Chamberlain simultaneously claimed victory.
On November 28, 1876, Wade Hampton, self-proclaimed governor of South Carolina, prevented a bloody riot at the South Carolina state house. Five thousand of his armed supporters were preparing to overwhelm the thin line of federal troops surrounding the edifice and violently depose the other claimant to the office, the incumbent Republican “carpetbagger” Daniel Chamberlain. Confidently and calmly, Hampton asked his followers to disperse, promising that his cause would triumph by peaceful means. In a sense, Hampton’s speech protected the physical safety of his rival. But it also bolstered Hampton’s claim of his right to govern—not just among white Democrats, but also in the minds of Republicans inside and outside the state. By proving that he had the power to unleash violence but also to restrain it, Hampton fulfilled society’s expectations of the southern patriarch, and of his generation’s longings for order in a chaotic time in the nation’s history.
The contrast between the two candidates was clear. Hampton had been a wealthy slaveowner, the scion of one of the state’s most prominent antebellum families, and its most prominent and beloved military leader in the Civil War. His claims to leadership rested on his social status, his soldierly reputation, and the old paternalism that looked to men like him as natural leaders and protectors, and as competent wielders of force. Chamberlain was an outsider from Massachusetts. Because of the recent enfranchisement of black men, his Republican Party had been able to dominate the state’s politics for nearly a decade. Both men, interestingly, tried to position themselves as champions of order and “good government.” Hampton sought to overthrow the corrupt Republican regime in Columbia and promised to protect black civil rights; Chamberlain had tried to bring reform and publicly dismissed Hampton’s promises to black voters.
It was one of the most corrupt and violent campaigns in American electoral history. Both sides cheated and sought to intimidate their rivals—Hampton’s Democrats, though outnumbered, were far better at it. In nearly every town where Hampton spoke, he was accompanied by “Red Shirts”—armed men marching on foot or on horseback. Hampton spoke of a return to honor and principle in government; he promised peace, and the Red Shirts committed no violence in his presence. Elsewhere they could be murderous, threatening individual Republicans and provoking deadly riots. Indeed Hampton worried that the violence would justify President Grant sending large numbers of federal troops to the state, thereby proving that only the Republicans could preserve order. On Election Day, November 8, armed Red Shirts patrolled polling sites, stuffed ballot boxes, and allowed white men to cross over from Georgia and North Carolina to vote for Hampton. The vote for Hampton in some counties exceeded the number of eligible voters in the most recent census. There were also irregularities by Republicans in lowcountry, black-majority districts, but not enough to prevent a higher total count for Hampton. Ironically, the election was being stolen by Democrats who excoriated Republican corruption.
The resulting political confusion lasted for nearly six months. The state legislature had the authority to certify the results of the gubernatorial election, but because of obvious irregularities, two rival legislatures claimed legitimacy. At one point they literally sat side by side in the state house and attempted to conduct business simultaneously. The state “Board of Canvassers” sided with Chamberlain; the state supreme court supported Hampton. The commander of the U.S. Army garrison, General Thomas Ruger, protected Republican claims. When Ruger’s troops blocked Democratic claimants to the legislature from entering the state house on November 28, Hampton’s cause seemed lost to many of his seething supporters. Thousands of them surrounded the state house. Nervously, Chamberlain consulted with Ruger and the two of them agreed to ask Hampton to defuse the situation—he apparently was the only man who could.
Over four more months would pass before Hampton would finally take possession of the state house. But Hampton’s dramatic act of crowd control on November 28 set the tone. Though Chamberlain’s regime was safe within the ring of bayonets surrounding the state house, everyone in South Carolina and beyond came to believe Hampton really held the reins of power. Hampton dispersed another angry crowd on December 6. Agents of his government began collecting taxes, while Chamberlain was almost powerless to do so. Hampton appointed officers of black and white militia units, pardoned criminals, and offered rewards for the apprehension of others. The riotous Red Shirts, if they had been beyond Hampton’s control during the campaign, now quietly heeded his orders to maintain the peace. Republican leaders in the state, sitting President Grant, and incoming President Rutherford B. Hayes judged that Hampton was in control. On April 3, 1877, Hayes ordered Ruger’s troops out of Columbia, essentially recognizing Hampton as governor.
Hampton, the restorer of “order,” ironically been the symbolic leader of a violent campaign in 1876. The relative peace he brought to Reconstruction-era South Carolina, in the end, was only maintained by the steady erosion of black civil rights over the next two decades. But Republicans at the national level were disgusted with corruption in South Carolina in 1876-77 and their enthusiasm for protecting African American citizenship had waned. Even a number of black South Carolinians seemed ready for a change and voted for Hampton. One, later a Hampton appointee, said “God only knows what would have become of us if things had kept on the way they were going.” Twenty-five years later, Chamberlain himself, recognizing Hampton as a “natural leader,” praised his character and his “mingled prudence and aggressiveness.” Thus, the old southern patriarch, the warrior who seemed capable of delivering peace, emerged as the man of the hour. The Old South had been defeated, but many of its values and its leaders, for better or worse, still ruled.
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.