A striking artifact at the Aiken County Historical Museum is the massive, 4-foot by 8-foot painting of Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton.
The portrait originally graced the enormous Hampton Terrace Hotel in North Augusta. When the hotel burned in 1917, the painting was rescued, but not without damage. The lower half is blackened, and only the upper half of the figure is recognizable.
The portrait’s condition is suggestive of how Wade Hampton fares in the public imagination: a fading memory save for Civil War buffs and academic historians. Yet his rise and fall remains a compelling story.
Born in 1818 into a wealthy and politically prominent family, Hampton was a state senator in 1860. As a conservative, he opposed secession.
But when South Carolina left the union, he remained loyal to his state, organizing and partially financing Hampton’s Legion in 1861.
(In “Gone with the Wind,” Scarlett O’Hara’s first husband Charles Hamilton died while serving under Hampton.)
Hampton was a brave and capable soldier despite no prior military experience. Wounded several times, he assumed command of Gen. Lee’s cavalry corps in 1864 after its legendary leader, J.E.B. Stuart, fell at Yellow Tavern. After desperate fighting around Richmond, Hampton and a portion of his cavalry were transferred to South Carolina to fend off Sherman’s ravaging hordes. Hampton and his remnants surrendered in April 1865.
“In all the high companionship of knightly men, none had exemplified more of character and of courage and none had fewer mistakes charged against him,” wrote historian Douglas Southall Freeman. “Untrained in arms and abhorring war, the South Carolina planter had proved himself the peer of any professional soldier.”
In 1876, Hampton’s campaign for governor marked the end of Reconstruction in South Carolina. In that bloody and controversial election, Democrat Hampton and his Red Shirt movement narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Daniel Chamberlain 92,261 votes to 91,127 votes.
With both sides charging electoral fraud, both Hampton and Chamberlain attempted to rule the state, along with two competing legislatures. Yet white property owners would only remit their taxes to Hampton’s government. Federal bayonets alone couldn’t sustain Chamberlain’s financially unviable faction.
President Rutherford B. Hayes subsequently withdrew the troops, leading to a century of Democratic Party dominance. South Carolina was “redeemed.”
Gov. Hampton and his coterie of Confederate brigadiers – reminiscent of Cromwell and his major generals – desired nothing more than a return to antebellum days. He was a real-life Ashley Wilkes.
Hampton’s conservative clique pursued limited government with a vengeance, though the wrecked economy they inherited couldn’t have supported greater expenditures anyway. The war had reduced South Carolina from one of the wealthiest states in the union to one of the poorest.
Critics disparagingly called them the “Bourbons” after the restored French monarchy, those who had “forgotten nothing and learned nothing.”
The unity between Gov. Hampton and his triumphant Red Shirts soon began to fray. While Hampton was determined to keep blacks and Republicans from controlling the state, he preferred accommodation with them to total exclusion. He attributed his narrow victory to the 17,000 black votes he received.
Gen. Mart Gary, the architect of Hampton’s victory, was appalled. Gary thought his campaign of voter suppression against blacks and Republicans was the winning element. He wanted no accommodation with former slaves. Yet Gary couldn’t prevent Hampton’s overwhelming re-election in 1878 and subsequent elevation to the U.S. Senate.
In the end, Hampton’s nemesis was “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, the one-eyed populist who harnessed agrarian discontent, economic stagnation and white supremacy to overthrow the conservatives.
During Tillman’s victorious campaign for governor in 1890, Hampton was shouted down in Aiken by the Tillmanites. “Good God!” exclaimed Hampton. “Have the memories of ’61, of ’65, have they been obliterated?”
As historian Walter Edgar wryly noted, “waving battle flags and empty sleeves no longer resonated with the voters.”
Gov. Tillman’s obedient legislature promptly threw Hampton out of the Senate. Until his death in 1902, Hampton was financially ruined and became dependent on his friends and admirers.
Yet Wade Hampton’s name lives on. A county is named for him, as is its county seat and innumerable schools, streets and parks across the state. His equestrian statue graces the State House. Yet few remember the man.
Back at the Aiken County Historical Museum, executive director Elliott Levy estimates that restoring Hampton’s portrait could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Given financial realities, with project may only occur in the distant future.
In the meantime, the painting’s sad condition reflects the fading memory of this once legendary South Carolinian.
Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Councilman.
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