Wade Hampton III was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 28, 1818. He was the first of eight children of Wade Hampton II and Ann Fitzsimmons. Hampton’s father, one of the wealthiest planters and largest slaveholders in America, served as an officer in the War of 1812 and as an aide to General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. Hampton’s grandfather, Wade Hampton I, was a lieutenant colonel during the Revolutionary War, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and a brigadier general in the War of 1812.
Hampton III received a classical education from private instructors while enjoying a privileged childhood on his family’s estates, “Millwood” and “Cashier’s Valley,” in South Carolina. At fifteen years of age, tragedy spoiled Hampton’s youth when his mother died on February 27, 1833, probably because of complications from childbirth.
In 1836, Hampton graduated from South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina. Afterward, he trained for a legal career but never practiced law. Instead, he committed himself to managing his family’s vast estates and to other business pursuits that included managing the South Carolina Railroad, and the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston Railroad.
On October 10, 1838, Hampton married Margaret Preston, daughter of United States Congressman Francis Preston. Their marriage produced eight children (four of whom survived to adulthood) before Margaret’s untimely death on January 27, 1852.
Later in 1852, voters of Richland County elected Hampton to represent them in the South Carolina General Assembly, where he served until 1856. Following his term in the House, Hampton returned to private life for two years. On January 27, 1858, he married Mary Singleton McDuffie, daughter of former South Carolina Governor and United States Senator George McDuffie. Their marriage of sixteen years produced four children (three of whom survived to adulthood) before Mary’s passing on March 1, 1874.
South Carolina State Senator
Just two weeks into his second marriage, Hampton’s father died on February 10, 1858, making Hampton III one the larger landholders and wealthier men in the South. Later that year, voters elected Hampton to the state senate, where he served until 1861. During his time in the state legislature, Hampton opposed re-opening the Atlantic slave trade. He also served as a voice of moderation, clashing with South Carolina firebrands who were clamoring for secession.
Despite his aversion to secession, Hampton took up arms for his home state when South Carolina opted to leave the Union on December 20, 1860. Enlisting as a private in the South Carolina Militia, Hampton took part in the assault on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Although Hampton had no prior military experience, South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens insisted that Hampton accept a commission as a colonel. Hampton recruited and organized a unit known as “Hampton’s Legion,” comprising six infantry companies, four cavalry companies, and one artillery battery. Using his vast wealth, Hampton personally purchased weapons for the entire unit.
First Battle of Bull Run
After being mustered into the Confederate Army, the Legion’s infantry and cavalry were engaged at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). A bullet that grazed Hampton’s head while he was leading a charge against a Union artillery battery nearly killed him during this engagement.
During the Peninsula Campaign (March 17–August 14, 1862), Hampton commanded one of three brigades in Brigadier General W.H.C. Whiting’s Division. He saw action at Yorktown and received a promotion to the rank of brigadier general on May 23, a week before being engaged at the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31-June 1, 1862). During that battle, Hampton received a gunshot wound to the foot but remained mounted on his horse as a surgeon removed the musket ball while both men were still under fire. At the conclusion of the battle, Hampton traveled to Richmond and then on to South Carolina to convalesce.
After General Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, he reorganized the command structure of the army before the beginning of the Seven Days Battles (June 25–July 1, 1862). Hampton recuperated from his foot injury in time to play a major role in those engagements. He served under the command of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
At the conclusion of the Peninsula Campaign, Lee reorganized the army once again. On July 26, 1862, he assigned Hampton to command the 1st brigade of General J. E. B. Stuart’s Cavalry Division. During the Northern Virginia Campaign (July 19–September 1, 1862), Hampton remained on the Peninsula to protect against any threat from George B. McClellan’s northern forces.
At the commencement of the Maryland Campaign (September 4–September 20, 1862), Hampton’s brigade performed a series of rearguard and screening movements for Lee’s army. At the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), Hampton and his men played a minor role in protecting the Confederate left flank. Later, in the fall, they carried out numerous raids against the Yankees but played no significant part in the Confederate victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 15, 1862). At the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), Hampton’s brigade remained south of the James River, seeing no action.
Following the stunning Rebel victory at Chancellorsville, the Army of Northern Virginia needed food, horses, and equipment. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee decided to invade Maryland and Pennsylvania. During the Gettysburg Campaign (June 3–July 23, 1863), Hampton took part in the Battle of Brandy Station (June 9, 1863), the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War. During the fighting, Hampton received a minor wound, and his younger brother, Frank, was killed.
Prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), Hampton saw action during several major cavalry clashes, including the Battle of Upperville (June 21, 1863), where he led a charge that forced a Federal retreat. Hampton’s Brigade did not arrive at the Battle of Gettysburg until late on the second day of combat, because he was riding on Stuart’s raid to the Union rear. During a skirmish that evening, Hampton received a serious saber cut to the back of his head. The next day, he received two more saber cuts to the front of his head, and a shrapnel wound to his hip. After the battle, Hampton returned to South Carolina to recuperate.
While Hampton was convalescing, General Lee once again reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate officials promoted Hampton to major general, effective August 3, 1863, and Lee named him as commander of one of two divisions of J. E. B. Stuart’s Cavalry Corps. Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, commanded the other corps. After recovering from his injuries, Hampton assumed his new position on November 3, 1863. He spent the winter months taking part in raids and attempting to address his division’s needs for mounts and forage. In early March 1864, Hampton’s troops foiled a Union foray, known as the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, against Richmond, Virginia.
On May 4, 1864, Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant launched his Overland Campaign (May 5-June 24, 1864). Just one week later, federal troops mortally wounded General Stuart at the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 12. Stuart died the following day, leaving a void in the leadership of the Confederate Cavalry Corps. Despite the lack of a corps commander, Hampton’s Division remained active during the campaign, engaging Union General Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21, 1864), the Battle of North Anna (May 23-26, 1864), the Battle of Haw’s Shop (May 28, 1864), the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12, 1864), the Battle of Trevilian Station (June 11-12, 1864), and the Battle of Saint Mary’s Church (June 24, 1864). In recognition of Hampton’s excellent performance during the Overland Campaign, General Lee named Hampton as commander of the Cavalry Corps on August 11, 1864.
Hampton served as commander of the Cavalry Corps throughout the Petersburg Campaign (June 15, 1864–April 3, 1865). Tragedy revisited Hampton’s family during the last Union attempt to flank the Confederates in the fall of 1864. On October 27, Hampton’s son, Lieutenant Thomas Preston Hampton, died from wounds he received at the Battle of Boydton Plank Road. Enemy soldiers critically wounded another son, Wade Hampton IV, during the engagement but he survived.
On January 19, 1865, General Lee ordered Hampton to South Carolina to bolster Confederate defenses against Major General William T. Sherman’s impending incursion into the Carolinas. During the Carolinas Campaign (February–April 1865), Confederate officials promoted Hampton to the rank of lieutenant general on February 14, 1865. The promotion made Hampton one of only three Confederate officers not trained at West Point to achieve that grade during the Civil War. The others were Nathan Bedford Forrest and Richard Taylor.
Concurrent with his promotion, officials placed Hampton in command of all cavalry forces in the Department of South Carolina. General P. G. T. Beauregard, who was in charge of the department, instructed Hampton to concentrate his forces to protect the vital city of Columbia. Despite Hampton’s efforts, Sherman occupied Columbia on February 17, 1865. That night, much of the city went up in flames. The same night, most of Hampton’s personal property in South Carolina also burned.
On February 22, 1865, General Lee ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to assume command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and the Department of North Carolina. For the next two months, Hampton served under Johnston as they vainly attempted to hold back Sherman’s inexorable advance through the Carolinas. Hampton’s cavalry took part in the Battle of Bentonville (March 19–21, 1865), the last major engagement between Sherman and Johnston’s forces. A little over one month later, on April 26, 1865, Johnston surrendered all troops under his command, and the war ended for Hampton.
Return to Civilian Life
After the war, Hampton lived on his plantation in Mississippi for eight years before returning to South Carolina to pursue political interests as a member of the Democratic Party. Hampton’s strong opposition to Radical Reconstruction led his supporters to refer to him as the “Savior of South Carolina.”
Governor of South Carolina
In 1876, Hampton defeated Republican Daniel Chamberlain in a controversial election for the governorship of South Carolina. The South Carolina Supreme Court certified Hampton’s victory, but Chamberlain had the support of federal reconstruction troops in the state. Hampton could not assume office until newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the South in April 1877.
Hampton’s position on racial relations was a study in contrasts. Although he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and he aligned himself with a white paramilitary group known as the Red Shirts, Hampton wooed African-American voters, who contributed to his gubernatorial election.
In 1878, voters elected Hampton to a second term, but he resigned from the office one year later to become a United States Senator. While on a hunting trip prior to the beginning of his term in the Senate, Hampton suffered a severe leg injury that required amputation of the limb. Hampton served in the Senate from March 4, 1879 until March 3, 1891.
U.S. Commissioner of Railroads
Two years after Hampton left the Senate, President Grover Cleveland appointed him as U.S. Commissioner of Railroads. Hampton served in that position until Cleveland’s term expired in 1897. Hampton retired to Columbia, South Carolina. In 1899, a fire destroyed his home, leaving Hampton financially stressed for the rest of his life.
Hampton died from heart disease, at the age of eighty-four, on April 11, 1902, in Columbia. He was buried there in Trinity Cathedral Churchyard.