Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior to Southern Redeemer
by Rod Andrew Jr., University of North Carolina, Press, 2008, $40
New biographies that focus on Civil War–era figures inevitably face the dilemma of how to interpret race, politics and equality in light of our own changing attitudes. No Civil War figure can possibly live up to modern ideals for ethical correctness about race, for example, and yet divorcing biographical subjects from present-day values relating to equality and race is almost impossible. It also is probably undesirable within most historiographical paradigms.
Author Rod Andrew Jr. wrestles with this vexing challenge throughout each page of his new book about Confederate General Wade Hampton III, a man who typifies what so many are both fascinated with and perplexed by when it comes to the Civil War.
Hampton’s complete story is still a relatively unknown tale in Civil War circles, particularly his postwar political career in his native South Carolina, where he served as governor and U.S. senator and dominated Democratic politics. Hampton personally eschewed violence and promoted racial harmony after the war, and many South Carolinians listened to him. Andrew makes it clear, however, that Hampton had many prejudices about race that seem wrong by our standards despite the fact that he was clearly a moderate and reconciler by any measure of those times.
Andrew gently chides those who would ignore Hampton’s entire life and focus narrowly on his war service, and readers interested in Hampton’s military career may find this biography less detailed than they would wish. Hampton’s icy relationship with fellow Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart is discussed, for example, but not in a meaningful way that reveals any new insights. Throughout the book, the author spends much energy painting general context rather than sharing a blow-by-blow saddle ride with Hampton. A no-table exception is the chapter on Trevilian Station, where Hampton was almost defeated as Lee’s new commander of cavalry but eventually demonstrated impressive decision-making in the heat of battle and turned the tables on his opponents.
From a military history reader’s perspective, the maps of various campaigns leave something to be desired. They usually present only the barest information and often neglect to add key terrain features or other landmarks that were central to unit movements and local tactics. Despite Andrew’s limited treatment of Hampton’s military career, the famous “Beefsteak Raid” and the general’s other martial successes make it clear that Hampton was one of the South’s most gifted military leaders.
Andrew shines when presenting Hampton’s postwar political career. Notably, he draws on considerable modern scholarship in this section of the book to paint a crisp picture of the volatile Reconstruction era between 1865 and 1878, when Hampton was such a giant figure that he was respected even by many former slaves and some of his most virulent Republican opponents. He became the symbol of nearly every important postwar theme in South Carolina: the Lost Cause, opposition to corrupt Republican rule, honorable service to one’s country and a paternalistic reconciliation between the races (which Andrew correctly points out did not mean true equality of the races).
Although this is the product of a great deal of work and research, and is in many places entertaining reading, there are narrative gaps in the text and places where too much time is spent on context and not enough on Hampton. Given the amount of surviving correspondence, Hampton’s own words were perhaps underused in this text.
But overall, this biography is an important contribution about a relatively lesser-known figure who probably deserves more investigation and research. It is difficult for a reader to come away from this book without feeling a new sense of respect and surprise at the breadth of Hampton’s experiences. He was larger than life to many of his contemporaries, and Andrew makes him just as large to his readers.
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.