Wade Hampton, the senior brigadier in Stuart's cavalry division, was one of the wealthiest men in the South. He owned more slaves than anyone else in the nation, thousands of slaves on cotton plantations stretching over huge tracts in South Carolina and Mississippi. Older than the other officers in the Confederate cavalry, he was the antithesis of the banjo-serenaded "gay cavaliers" who were his peers. For Hampton, war was not a frolic or glorious adventure but a grim business, to be discharged as efficiently as possible and without relish. He conducted his affairs with a courteous reserve befitting the gentleman he was; with his friends he was candid, cordial, and completely free of lordly affectations.
The general was the last of three successive generations of Wade Hamptons. The first had served as an officer in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and when he died in 1835 was the already the richest planter in the United States with 3,000 slaves. His son, the second Wade Hampton, made the family home, "Millwood," almost as much the political capital of South Carolina as was nearby Columbia. He amassed a library of over 10,000 volumes, one of the largest private libraries in the country. In this milieu, the ideal of Southern society, the future Confederate Wade Hampton was raised.
Just under six feet in height, Wade Hampton was remarkable for his tremendous physical strength, with the fine balance of an expert horseman. "Six feet in height, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, . . . with legs which, if he chose to close them in a a grip, could make a horse groan with pain," was how a friend described him. Spending his youth hunting, fishing and climbing mountains, he had a developed a reputation as a sportsman and athlete. He was educated at South Carolina College, and after he graduated he studied law in order to better handle his business affairs. He was in his mid-thirties when the national debate over slavery came to a head in the decade before the Civil War, and by that time he had developed doubts about the economy of slave labor. He entered South Carolina politics as a dissenter to the "fire-eating" secessionists that held sway in that most militant Southern state, and served as a moderating influence in both houses of the South Carolina legislature from 1852 to 1861. Meanwhile, his father died in 1858. Hampton in his turn administrated the family holdings brilliantly--in 1861, his plantations were producing 5,000 bales of cotton a year, each crop worth upwards of a million dollars.
During the final debate over secession in South Carolina, Hampton argued against it, but once it became a fact, he put all his former doubts behind him and placed his wealth and his talents at the service of the Confederacy. He allowed his cotton crop to be used as collateral for government credit, and received permission from President Davis to raise a small private army, or "legion," consisting of infantry, cavalry and artillery. Hampton clothed and equipped his force, called "Hampton's Legion," entirely out of his own pocket. He enlisted some of the best-born young men in the state to fill its roster, and its officers were recruited from the state elite. Every step of its organization was reported in the newspapers. The arrival of the "Legion" in Richmond in the first weeks of the rebellion was publicly hailed. One of its officers wrote his mother, "It is by all odds the finest looking and best drilled body of men that has left the State." President Davis himself complimented the force on its personnel and appearance.
Hampton's Legion arrived on the battlefield at First Manassas on July 21, 1861 just as the guns were beginning to boom. Hampton detrained his men from railroad cars and marched them directly to where the fighting was thickest. He led his men out in front of the rest of the Confederate army. Of the 657 men Hampton led onto the field, 121 fell--three times as many men as any other Rebel regiment; one bullet grazed Hampton's scalp. Without any military education or training, with no experience in the Mexican War nor in the state militia, Hampton had shown personal courage in his first time under fire, and an instinctive ability to lead men and read terrain.
Over the next few months, by his professionalism and zeal in recruiting, Hampton won the personal friendship of army commander General Joe Johnston, who put him in command of a full brigade in January 1862 and recommended him for promotion to brigadier general. When he took his brigade to the Peninsula in the spring, Hampton won praise for "conspicuous gallantry" in an early skirmish, and another recommendation for promotion by Johnston, citing his "high merit." He received his general's wreath on May 23. At Seven Pines, his first battle as brigadier, Hampton was again wounded but stayed on the field and insisted that the bullet be removed from his foot while he remained on his horse, still under fire. During his convalescence in Richmond, diarist Mary Chesnut's entries mentioned the efforts of throngs of admiring women to lionize him, with the note that "to the last, he looked as if he wished they would let him alone." Hampton returned to duty within the month, in time to lead a different brigade through the last of the Seven Days, where he did not get into the fighting.
After the triumph of the Peninsula Campaign, General Lee organized his cavalry into a division of two brigades under the command of Maj. Gen. "Jeb" Stuart. Stuart's wise choice for his senior brigadier was Hampton. Called upon to escort the army into Maryland in the invasion of September, Hampton led cavalry for the first time in a brisk fight with the advance units of the Federal army moving toward South Mountain. Later in the campaign, Hampton participated in the Chambersburg raid, executing a circuit of McClellan's army.
Hampton next led a series of three successful winter cavalry raids behind enemy lines in December, around the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg, capturing 300 prisoners and much booty without losing a man, and winning the commendation of General Robert E. Lee himself. Hampton's star had risen so high by this time that when Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg's famous South Carolina brigade was looking for a man to replace that great brigadier, fallen at Fredericksburg, Hampton was asked to lead. Hampton declined.
Since Hampton and his brigade were south of the James River recruiting during the Chancellorsville campaign, December's raids stood as the last time he had been engaged as the Gettysburg Campaign got underway in the early summer of 1863. Hampton's reputation by that time rivaled that of his superior, Jeb Stuart, and he had become an officer with whom Lee was not willing to part. Perhaps partly as a result of jealousy on Stuart's part, perhaps also because of the disparity in their ages (Hampton forty-five, Stuart was thirty) and their education and social backgrounds, Hampton and Stuart had nothing like the camaraderie that existed between Stuart and the affable Fitz Lee. Despite their lack of personal intimacy, Hampton and Stuart always maintained a high professional regard for one another.
Hampton was one of the great "finds" among the officer corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Despite his total lack of military experience or training before the war, Hampton had turned out to be a superb military leader. By the summer of 1863, he had been in command of his cavalry brigade for about a year, and had led it with unexcelled success ever since. His only shortcoming was a tendency to neglect his mounts.
| When the fighting began at Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, Hampton
was with Jeb Stuart's raiding division in Dover, Pennsylvania, 23 miles
northeast of the battlefield. All were numb with lack of sleep after three
solid days in the saddle since crossing the Potomac, but after a short rest in
Dover, the division pushed on toward Carlisle in search of provisions, with
Hampton's tired troopers at the rear of the column.|
Halting in Dillsburg with the captured wagons and prisoners from the raid, Hampton received word from Stuart before daybreak on July 2 that the army had been found at Gettysburg, and he headed south that morning. By 2:00 P.M., the brigade had halted a few miles northeast of Gettysburg with the tail of the column a mile south of Hunterstown. Waiting on his horse beside the road, Hampton came under fire from a Yankee cavalryman about 200 yards away. Charging the rifleman alone, Hampton with his pistol became involved in a strange duel with the blue trooper at close range. Hampton's chest was grazed by a bullet, and at one point, Hampton chivalrously stopped to let the Yankee clean his gun before resuming the fight. Hampton at last wounded his assailant in the wrist, but just then another enemy soldier wielding a sword rushed forward and blind-sided Hampton with a saber cut to the back of the head before making his escape. The general's hat and thick hair saved him from a deathwound. He returned to his brigade with a bloody four-inch gash on his scalp as well as a shallow chest wound. Later that afternoon, Hampton's men turned back to Hunterstown and thwarted a drive on the Confederate rear by Kilpatrick's Union cavalrymen. Hampton held the ground until the next morning.
On the morning of July 3, Hampton and his men rode 2_ miles out of Gettysburg on the York Pike, then turned south with Stuart's other cavalry brigades. Their goal was to get in the rear of the Union army when the end of the cannonade at Gettysburg signaled the beginning the main Confederate effort against Cemetery Ridge. The cavalry fighting began about 3 o'clock that afternoon. In the swirling, hand-to-hand melee with the Union cavalrymen which had met their approach, Hampton received two more saber cuts to the front of his head, one of which cut through the table of his skull. The indomitable South Carolinian continued fighting until he was hit by a piece of shrapnel in the right hip, which finally put him out of action. He was carried back to Virginia in the same ambulance with Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood.
In September, while Hampton convalesced, the cavalry was reorganized, and Lee made Hampton a major general and placed him at the head of one of two cavalry divisions, with Hampton's rival "Fitz" Lee in command of the other. Hampton's hip wound was slow in healing, and he took a full four months to recover, not returning until November 1863. Three months after Jeb Stuart's death the next spring, Hampton was named Stuart's successor, in charge of all the cavalry, on August 11, 1864. In January 1865 Hampton was detached from the Army of Northern Virginia to recruit in his native state. He was made lieutenant general the next month and surrendered in April with Johnston's Army of Tennessee, after rising higher than any other amateur soldier in the Confederacy.
For further reading:
Cauthen, Charles E., ed., Family Letters of the Three Wade Hamptons, 1782-1901. Columbia, SC, 1953
Wellman, Manly W. Giant in Gray: A Biography of Wade Hampton of South Carolina. New York, 1949