- Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior, Conservative Statesman
After many years of neglect, there has been a recent groundswell of interest in the life of Wade Hampton III, South Carolina's most iconic figure of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Walter Brian Cisco's new biography comes hot on the heels of Ed Longacre's Gentleman and Solider: A Biography of Wade Hampton III (2003), and it is quite possible that these two works are only the beginning of an overall reevaluation of Hampton's place in nineteenth-century American history. In a public career that spanned over four decades, Hampton had some hand in almost every key political issue of both regional and national significance. He had been one of the South's wealthiest antebellum planters, a Confederate general, a Redeemer, and a New South politician. As such, an astute biography of Hampton [End Page 80] has the potential to tell us much about the experience of elite Southern whites during their convulsive journey from slaveholding antebellum days to the dawning of the New South.
Cisco clearly set out to produce an exhaustively detailed portrait of Hampton, and in this regard he has succeeded handsomely. Readers will not go wanting for a lack of information on Hampton's genealogy, family anecdotes, or wartime exploits. The author portrays Hampton as a man of impeccable moral rectitude, courtly honor, dash, and political sagacity. According to Cisco, Hampton was a paternalistic and kind slaveholder, adored by slaves, admired by his peers, and feared by scoundrels of all stripes. During the war, the Carolinian was the forgotten genius among Lee's lieutenants. Because he lacked a West Point education and a Virginia pedigree, the sober and heroic Hampton languished under the flamboyant and even irresponsible leadership of the young J. E. B. Stuart. In peace, argues Cisco, Hampton represented the voice of reason and principle. Equally revered by freedmen and Confederate veterans, Hampton ultimately championed the redemption of South Carolina through the Red Shirt campaign. In his final phase of public service, Hampton fought the good fight against the race-baiting bigotry of "pitchfork" Ben Tillman and the upcountry lowlifes who stood incapable of understanding his white aristocratic vision of racial harmony.
Without question, Cisco's treatment of Hampton's war years is the book's strongest component. As a solider, Hampton has long stood in the shadow of other cavalry commanders such as Stuart, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and even John Hunt Morgan. Cisco ably chronicles Hampton's ongoing feuds with Stuart, Robert E. Lee, and even Jefferson Davis—disagreements that had as much to do with Hampton's desire to defend South Carolina from invasion as they did with overall strategy. Like so many tales of the Civil War, this story is full of daring feats, tragedy, and personal sacrifice. Unfortunately, Cisco's work on Reconstruction bears the dated stamp of Dunning school scholarship. The Republican government of South Carolina certainly had tragic flaws, but Cisco's characterization of it as a "coalition of blacks, opportunists, and turncoats" (189), as well as "philistines" (190), will undoubtedly strike many readers as being a bit over the top.
In sum, this portrait of Hampton borders on infallibility, if not sainthood, no doubt due to the author's strong admiration of his subject. Unfortunately, such hagiography, combined with a preference for secondary sources on Reconstruction published before 1950, undermines the impact of Cisco's assessment and will undoubtedly limit his audience to those already inclined to agree with his conclusions. This is a shame not only because many valid themes are obscured [End Page 81] by the author's presentation, but because a more nuanced approach to Hampton would have undoubtedly increased our understanding of Southern politics, race, and the challenges faced by the planter class in the second half of the nineteenth century.