The election of Abraham Lincoln President of the United States in 1860, in the minds of most South Carolinians, meant war against the South in the near future was certain.
No one wanted to avoid war more than Wade Hampton III, who had become one of the more successful planters in the region.
By that time, probably to please his father, Wade had entered politics. He had been elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and after one two-year term had made a successful run for the State Senate.
As a Senator, Hampton opposed reopening the African slave trade and urged moderation and compromise to “preserve the South” and its institutions by avoiding a showdown with the federal government on tariffs and other matters detrimental to the Southern states.
Hampton had spent many years dealing with Yankee businessmen and politicians and knew that the business and political powers in the North would use every means at their disposal to crush any effort of a southern state to withdraw from the union. He also had doubts as to whether the region could prevail in a shooting war with the North, but knew that, if war came, he would never consider abandoning South Carolina.
Lincoln’s election by less than a majority of the popular vote was protested in many areas of South Carolina. In Charleston, the Stars and Stripes was pulled down from public buildings and replaced by the Palmetto flag.
Four days after the election, SC Governor Francis W. Pickens called a special session of the legislature. Distrusting the Governor’s motives, Sen. Hampton refused to attend the special session. On December 20, a convention in Charleston adopted an ordinance of secession. Hampton was unhappy with the decision, but as a Southerner to the core, he must now commit himself to the cause he had so long opposed.
In a matter of days, other states had joined the Confederacy. Representatives of the southern states met in Montgomery, Alabama the first week of February 1861 to form a provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America. Wade Hampton III knew and admired Jefferson Davis, the US Senator from Mississippi, who resigned from the Senate to become President of the CSA.
Davis was a Mexican War hero who had become Secretary of War before being elected to the US Senate from Mississippi. His selection gave the Confederacy instant credibility. Hampton was less knowledgeable about Alexander Stephens of Georgia, who became vice president.
Creation of a permanent military establishment was given a high priority by the new government. Officers in the armed forces of the United States, including graduates of the US Military Academy, promptly resigned their commissions and applied for service in the Confederate military.
Wade Hampton III came from a family with a rich military tradition, however, he had never served in the military or received military training. Although he had reached the age of 43 and had many other responsibilities, he knew instinctively that if South Carolina was going to war, the third Wade Hampton had no choice but to be deeply involved.
Wade spent the next weeks and months visiting his plantations across the South and turning operations over to overseers and tenants. When he returned to South Carolina, conditions had deteriorated. On January 9th, a relief ship from the North had tried to reinforce the Yankee garrison at Fort Sumpter. As the Star of the West had crossed into the main channel of Charleston Harbor, it was struck by a single round allegedly fired by cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy, later known as The Citadel.
Damage to the ship was slight, however, the ship returned to New York. The presence of Yankee troops at Fort Sumpter in Charleston Harbor under the command of Major Robert Anderson became perceived as an intolerable affront to South Carolina’s honor and dignity.
Brigadier General Pierre G. T. Beauregard of the Provisional Confederate Army was dispatched to Charleston to force evacuation of the Yankee garrison at Ft. Sumpter. The handsome general was a Mexican War veteran and former Superintendent of West Point.
On April 12th Beauregard opened fire on Ft. Sumpter with every piece of ordinance at his command. It lasted for 36 hours. On April 13th, Anderson ran up the white flag and surrendered. It was replaced by the newly adopted Confederate national flag featuring a circle of seven stars, representing the states of the new nation.
Hampton knew that there was no turning back. The war had begun. He felt a sense of obligation to recruit and equip a military unit. At 43, he saw no romance in war nor did he have a desire for adventure. He did have an overriding obligation to civic duty that not only caused him to bankroll a military unit, but to see to its training and lead it in battle.
Hampton proposed forming a small, self-contained army, a “legion,” patterned after the Roman legions. Governor Pickens announced his approval. The governor took “great pride” in announcing that “no one could with more propriety be selected as commander of such a force than Colonel Hampton.”
Hampton’s Legion would be composed of six companies of infantry riflemen, four companies of cavalry and a one-hundred-man battery of light artillery. The field grade officers would be appointed by President Davis, while company level positions would be elected by the vote of the rank-and-file.
Hampton’s Legion was to serve “wherever it may be ordered by the President.”
Hampton first sought to recruit West Pointers and graduates of the South Carolina Military Academy. He was especially interested in those with combat experience and experience training troops. His recruiting efforts proved quite successful.
By the end of May, Hampton had filled his requirements for field and staff officers. He had selected leaders based on his own interviews and input from trusted advisors. The ranks were filled to overflowing. Training began at the edge of Hampton’s property outside Columbia, at what was aptly designated “Camp Hampton.”
The only West Point graduate and officer with professional army experience in Hampton’s original organization was Stephen Dill Lee of Charleston, an artilleryman who commanded the legion’s light battery and was destined to become the youngest lieutenant general in Confederate Service. General Stephen Dill Lee, as an aging veteran
decades later, addressed Sons of Confederate Veterans in New Orleans and charged them with remembering, “It is your duty to see that the true history of the South is presented to future generations.”
Hampton met General Beauregard in Charleston. They forged a close relationship probably based on their shared experiences, same age and background of wealth, social standing and respected leadership ability. Hampton had turned down the offer of a position on the general’s staff but wrote a letter to Beauregard regarding assignment of his “Legion.”
“I most earnestly ask to be attached to your command. There is no one under whom I would so willingly and proudly serve as yourself.”
Hampton’s appeal was not formally granted, however, on June 28th, about a week after the legion’s original group of companies was mustered into Confederate service, Hampton’s Legion was ordered to strike tents and move to the railroad depot in Columbia for transport to Richmond, Virginia.
Colonel Hampton bid farewell to his wife, sixteen- year-old Sally, son McDuffie, age two, and to five-month-old Mary, called “Daisy”. He was accompanied by his brother Frank and two oldest sons, who had joined Hampton’s Legion.
From original transcripts, Edward G. Longacre in Gentleman and Soldier, describes the scene as Hampton and his Legion head for war.
“The Colonel took his place proudly at the head of the legion, which had formed into marching columns on the camp’s parade ground, surrounded by a crowd of civilians come to see it off to war.”
Colonel Hampton “cut a majestic figure on his thoroughbred charger as he led the column out of camp to the music of the legion’s well-appointed band.
“He looked resplendent in a sparkling-new uniform of rich gray broadcloth... Around his waist hung a brace of Colt pistols and a scabbard holding a long, straight-bladed sword that, at six pounds in weight, only a soldier of great strength could have wielded effectively...
“By any standard, he looked the part of a warrior. Few who knew him would have doubted that he would prove himself a warrior indeed as well as in image.”