Louis Wigfall, Southern aristocracy gone to ‘seed’

Louis Trezevant Wigfall was, by nearly all accounts, an irascible sort, but one not unknown in South Carolina’s antebellum Edgefield District, which was a Wild West before there was a Wild West.

Born in Edgefield in 1816, Wigfall was born of into a planter family and attended South Carolina College and the University of Virginia, but breeding and education did little to mellow his countenance.

He was ardent proponent of the institution of slavery, and as a young man “he neglected his law practice for contentious politics that led him to wound a man in a duel (and be wounded himself) and to kill another during a quarrel,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Perhaps having worn out his welcome in the Palmetto State, Wigfall moved to Texas in 1846, almost instantly becoming active in Lone Star State politics, including “alerting” Texans to the dangers of abolition and the growing influence of non-slave states in the US Congress.

After several years in the Texas state legislature, Wigfall capitalized on the fear caused throughout the South by John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and was elected to the US Senate that year.

He quickly gained a reputation as a leader among the “fire-eaters” – leading secessionists – taking his advocacy for slavery and against expanding the power of national government to the national stage.

Following Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, Wigfall coauthored the “Southern Manifesto,” which stated that the Union was irretrievably broken and that the only hope for the South was independence.

“Wigfall helped foil efforts for compromise to save the Union and urged all slave states to secede,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

He appears to have lacked the chivalric manners evident in other key Southern figures of the era, remaining in the US Senate after Texas seceded, spying on the Union, chiding northern senators, and raising and training troops in Maryland to send to South Carolina. Even while serving as a US senator, he took part in the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter by rowing out under fire and dictating unauthorized surrender terms to federal commander Robert Anderson.

He was finally expelled from the Senate in mid-1861. Later that year he became a Confederate officer and promoted to brigadier general  before resigning from the army to take a seat in the Confederate Senate in 1862.

Initially, Wigfall supported Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but, perhaps not surprisingly, he quarreled with Davis before long.

During the last two years of the Confederacy Wigfall carried on public and private efforts to strip Davis of all influence.

He also blocked the creation of a Confederate Supreme Court, fearing Davis’ justices would interfere with states’ rights, according to the National Park Service.

Far from being a pragmatist, he opposed the arming of slaves and was willing to lose the war rather than admit that blacks were worthy of being soldiers.

Among his post-war activities was spending time in the United Kingdom, “where he tried to foment war between Britain and the United States, hoping to give the South an opportunity to rise again.”

As the small clipping from the Sept. 20, 1866, edition of Columbia Daily Phoenix makes clear, he had lost most, if not all of the stature may have once possessed.

Beneath an extract of a speech by Gen. William S. Hillyer about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and next to a copy of a letter by Emperor Napoleon III of France to King Victor Emanuel of Italy is a tiny blurb that reads, “Ex-Senator Wigfall is in London, looking seedy.”

Wigfall, who returned to US in 1872, returned to Texas in 1874 and died in Galveston on Feb. 18, 1874.

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New book ponders long-lasting effects of Reconstruction

If social media has a redeeming quality, it may be the ability to learn the unvarnished truth regarding the true feelings of others.

Within the past month I’ve come across numerous comments in the middle of Facebook conversations that were startlingly narrow-minded, yet because they singled out a group deemed OK to bash, no one uttered a peep.

The first came in early July, amid debates concerning the South’s ongoing educational deficiencies, specifically the overall low ranking many Southern states register on nationalized tests. Within a short time, the cause was identified solely as “Jim Crow.” Finally, one individual, located in the Northeast, stated bluntly, “I hate Southern white males.”

A second conversation dealt with the threat of radical Islam within the US. One individual countered that he had been to Islamic countries and that the Deep South, for example, was “way scarier” than Indonesia “in his experience.”

This individual lives on the West Coast, so it’s difficult to determine whether he’s ever set foot in the “Deep South.” I also understand that as a relatively tall, fit white guy, I may have an easier time than a black man or woman in the South. Still many blacks I speak with in the South – but by no means all – say that while issues certainly remain related to racism, they’re not specific to the South.

But unfortunately many of the South’s biggest detractors appear to have little to no actual experience with the South of today. It is certainly not perfect, but it’s vastly different from what it was 50 years ago, and it is a far friendly place, at least in my own experience, than New England, New York, much of the West Coast and the major Midwestern cities.

Still, the image persists, at least if one goes by the New York Times, Slate or other Northeastern-centric media outlets, that whites in the South are largely bigots, rural regions are populated almost exclusively by extras from Deliverance and blacks and other minorities live in constant fear, with some whites eagerly awaiting the return of “Judge Lynch.”

My experience has been largely the opposite: Whether on the West Coast, or the East Coast north of Richmond, no one will so much look at you when you pass them on the street, never mind say hello. Down South it’s unusual if you don’t wave when passing someone on a country road, whether you know them or not.

I can’t imagine standing to cross a street with someone in a Southern town and not saying hello and asking how they were doing, or vice versa. And anyone who knows me will tell you I am an introvert’s introvert.

While I may be a hermit in the making, my mother didn’t raise me to be rude. When I talk with strangers it’s not out of simple duty; I do have a genuine wish that their day goes well.

So why does a significant percentage of those outside the South feel white males in Dixie are a bunch of ignorant knuckle-draggers who keep white sheets and hoods in our closets?

A recently released book by Philip Leigh called Southern Reconstruction concludes that no small part of the problem is the result of Reconstruction, the period following the War Between the States.

However, Leigh doesn’t limit the term “reconstruction” to the 1865-1877 period that is generally used to designate the post-war era but expands it to include the decades afterward, when the former Confederate states lagged far behind most of the rest of the nation, stricken with higher rates of poverty, lower lifespans, poorer diets and reduced access to health care.

Leigh’s superb work points out that many of today’s mainstream historians focus solely on white racism in the South as the reason for Reconstruction’s failure, and that Reconstruction’s failure greatly aided the spread of white Southern racism.

Yet, as progressives like to point out, hate is a learned behavior. In other words, the racism that blacks experienced during Reconstruction and Jim Crow didn’t materialize out of nowhere – and it was different from that which existed during slavery. There was a root cause, and like many root causes, it was financial.

“The harmful effects of Reconstruction were more substantial, multiracial, and protracted than commonly understood, with poverty being among the most devastating,” Leigh writes.

Stereotypes play a role in how we see Reconstruction today: “Although Southern poverty and cotton culture is commonly associated with blacks, in 1940, whites made up two-thirds of the region’s farmers who either rented their lands or were sharecroppers,” Leigh writes. “According to a 1938 presidential economic report, about half of Southern white farmers were sharecroppers ‘living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.’”

Unfortunately, post-Civil War Republicans were more interested in holding and building on political gains than actual advocating for black civil rights.

Even though blacks represented less than 2 percent of the population in the Northern states, compared to 40 percent in the Confederate states, most white Northerners wanted blacks concentrated in the South. Some white Northerners were concerned with increased competition for jobs if freed slaves moved North, while others likely were motivated by a dislike for people different from themselves, much as they disliked foreigners just off the boat from Europe or Asia.

Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, Salmon Chase, thought emancipation would motivate Northern blacks to move to the South. In 1862, when blacks comprised less than 1 percent of the Illinois population, the state’s soldiers voted 3 to 1 to deny the blacks the right to vote, and Massachusetts and Illinois each refused to resettle contrabands (slaves behind Union lines) in their states during the war, according to Leigh.

Reconstruction was probably doomed to failure given the corruption that took place immediately following the war. Budgets in Southern states mushroomed, even if residents rarely got anywhere near their money’s worth as politicos, some Northerners who’d moved South after the war and others opportunists from the region, lined their pockets in many states.

Once the states were “redeemed,” a term which meant that Democrats effectively ousted Republicans for control, often by dubious means, the first goal of the new administration was to reduce the cost of operating state government, Leigh said, adding that segregation and disfranchisement of blacks didn’t begin to pick up steam until Populists were elected in the 1890s.

Leigh writes that white Southerners resented the financial burden associated with educating ex-slaves. Given that abolition was a national policy, many felt that the federal government should at least partly assist with the effort. Southern states were already poor to begin with and ultimately slashed education spending for both races.

There was certainly unequal treatment before the law and a general animus toward blacks in the South, particularly in the late 19th century and early 20th century. But Leigh argues that efforts to raise the South were hindered by the economic serfdom it was held in by northeastern economic interests.

He cites as an example the artificially high costs imposed on Southern steel by Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, who created the U.S. Steel monopoly, recognized that the South, specifically the steel industry around the Birmingham, Ala., area, represented the biggest threat to his Pennsylvania operation.

By 1895, he had bought up the major Southern steel mills and imposed discriminatory pricing on Southern production.

“Thereafter,” Leigh writes, “steel from the company’s Alabama’s mills included an incremental markup … of $3 per ton over the Pittsburgh quote.” In addition, “buyers of Birmingham steel were required to pay freight from Birmingham plus a phantom charge as if the shipments originated in Pittsburgh.”

By the time the Federal Trade Commission got around to investigating the matter, during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, it was discovered that Birmingham’s steel costs were the lowest in the country and 26 percent below those of Pittsburgh.

For 80 years, the South suffered from burdensome tariffs and monopolistic rate charges, costs that kept wages down, stymied progress and contributed greatly to the poverty that helped create dissention between races.

But Reconstruction and the decades that followed it remain little understood among much of the population. In secondary schools, if it’s taught at all, it’s narrowly defined as a period when Southern whites sought to not only disfranchise blacks, but essentially place them back in the fetters of slavery.

White Southerners weren’t blameless but there was plenty of criticism to be leveled at others, as well.

As our nation currently tangles with the ghosts of the past, perhaps we would do well to seek out the reasons why the South has struggled economically and educationally for much of the past 150 years.

The reason, as Phil Leigh demonstrates clearly in Southern Reconstruction, isn’t simply that Southern whites didn’t like Southern blacks. History is rarely that evident.

(Top: Sharecroppers pick cotton in Arkansas in 1938.)

The man who fought Indians, Mexicans, Yankees and himself

bragg

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of one of the Confederacy’s greatest foes: General Braxton Bragg. Unfortunate for the Southern cause was the fact that Bragg wore Confederate gray.

Bragg, born March 22, 1817, in North Carolina, was a key Southern commander in the Western Theater and later an important military advisor to the Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Although West Point-educated and active in the Seminole and Mexican-American wars, Bragg proved indecisive, ineffective and querulous as a Confederate general, earning the disdain of subordinates and superiors alike.

Bragg feuded with most everyone he came into contact with except Davis, and even Bragg and Davis were said to have squabbled mightily in the years before the war.

In fact, as Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant recalled in his memoirs, during Bragg’s time fighting Indians on the frontier in the 1850s the latter even managed to get into a major league rhubarb with … himself.

Grant related an experience that occurred when Bragg had been both company commander as well as company quartermaster, the officer in charge of approving the disbursement of provisions, according to Civil War Trust.

As company commander he made a request upon the company quartermaster – himself – for something he wanted. As quartermaster he denied the request and gave an official reason for doing so in writing. As company commander he argued back that he was justly entitled to what he requested. As quartermaster he stubbornly continued to persist in denying himself what he needed. Bragg requested the intervention of the post commander (perhaps to diffuse the impasse before it came to blows). His commander was incredulous and he declared, ‘My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself.’

Bragg’s obsession with military propriety would seem to have bordered on the maniacal. During the Mexican-American War, for example, while Bragg and his men were enduring a murderous artillery barrage at Monterrey, Bragg saw an American horse driver fall dead from his saddle.

Bragg ordered his retreating men to halt, and in the middle of the onslaught ordered one of the other horsemen to dismount, turn around and recover the dead man’s sword because it was public property, issued by the government.

The horseman also took from the corpse a pocket knife, fearing that if he didn’t Bragg would send him back for it.

It would seem likely that Bragg suffered from one or more mental disorders that 150 years ago were simply chalked up to being cantankerous and thin-skinned. Whatever the true diagnosis, he was a poor choice to lead men into battle.

Civil War survivors: ‘Old Ned’ and ‘Old Jim’

civil war horse

More than 3 million horses and mules were pressed into service during the American Civil War, with an estimated 50 percent – 1.5 million – being killed, wounded or dying of disease during the conflict.

The last surviving horse to have served in the war appears to have been an equine named “Old Ned,” a horse owned by Benjamin Franklin Crawford, a quartermaster sergeant in Company C of the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry.

The Pennsylvania State University Libraries in University Park, Pa., contains in its records an account of the capture of Old Ned from Confederate troops and the horse’s subsequent participation in Civil War ceremonies throughout the remaining decades of the 19th century.

Old Ned, which died in 1898 at the purported age of 43, was captured by Crawford after he had lost his mount during a battle in Virginia.

After the war Crawford and Old Ned returned to the latter’s home in Pennsylvania driving a sulky. Crawford later served as a conductor on several western railroads.

The last surviving Confederate war horse was said to have been a steed named “Old Jim.”

Old Jim was said to have been the property of one Lieutenant McMahon from Sevierville, Tenn., a member of Lt. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry. As Wheeler’s men moved into central South Carolina in early 1865, trying to hold back the forces of William T. Sherman, McMahon was mortally wounded during the Feb. 12, 1865, battle and Old Jim was shot in the neck.

The horse is said to have wandered onto the plantation of John Williams, who lived in the Aiken area, according to information on file at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, which also contains a photograph of Old Jim taken in 1880, along with a braided piece of his tail.

By 1894, Old Jim had gained a measure of fame as the last surviving Confederate war horse.

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In Vermont, a solution goes in search of a problem

south burlington scoreboard

In a nation of perpetually aggrieved there is diminishing room for reason.

Consider the “controversy” taking place in South Burlington, Vt.

For more than 50 years the South Burlington High School has used the “Rebels” as its nickname, said to be in recognition of the city’s secession from Burlington many years before.

However, now there is a movement to do away with the moniker because “rebel” is said to be associated with the racist policies of the Confederacy, a former teacher at the school told the Burlington Free Press.

“It was unintentional, I’m sure, but it’s still connected to that,” said Bob Walsh, who taught at the school for 18 years. “I think it’s time for us to recognize the fact that this symbol is inappropriate and it’s time to change.”

Walsh’s comments came during an August school board meeting. He was the only member of the public to speak against the school’s nickname.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, board chairwoman, said when she grew up in the area and participated in events against South Burlington High, she never recalled any reference to the Rebels being affiliated with the Confederacy.

Julie Beatty, another school board member and a South Burlington High alum, said she never associated the “Rebels” nickname with the Confederacy during her time as a student, and said she doesn’t think students today associate it with the Confederate States of America.

The board decided to gather more public opinion before making a decision. Young said the topic will be open for public comment at the next board meeting, which will be held tomorrow.

What Walsh and others who advocate a break with the name “Rebels” seem to overlook is that not only did South Burlington split from Burlington, but Vermont itself was established by many individuals who were considered “rebels.”

Vermont was founded by Ethan Allen, Thomas Chittenden and others who sought independence from New York, seeing themselves “as a distinct region outside the legitimate jurisdiction of New York,” according to historian Christian Fritz.

Although Vermonters fought the British during the American Revolution, they didn’t join the fledgling United States at the outset of war, as both New York and New Hampshire wanted the territory for themselves.

Instead, in 1777, Vermonters declared independence, wrote their own constitution and formed the Republic of Vermont, which lasted until 1791, when the state was admitted to the Union as the 14th state.

And, of course, rebellion was the dominant theme in the founding of the United States of America, with the Founding Fathers undoubtedly being seen as “rebels” by Great Britain.

(Top: Scoreboard at South Burlington (Vt.) High School, with nickname “Rebels” evident.)

Tolerance includes putting up with things you find disagreeable

graffit

One of the more disheartening aspects of the “tolerance” crowd is that some members are rather intolerant when faced with opinions that differ from their own.

Take Morgan Clendaniel, the editor of the online website Co.Exist, owned by business magazine Fast Company.

While Wikipedia describes Co.Exist’s mission as covering innovation-related topics, the name carries with it the concept of co-existence, which suggests mutual tolerance despite different ideologies or interests.

Clendaniel would appear to be among those who believe co-existence is great – until a viewpoint they disagree with comes along.

Consider a recent piece by Clendaniel titled “While We’re Doing The Flags, Here Are Some Other Confederate Things We Should Get Rid Of”.

In it, he writes, “… the reach of the Confederacy – and the almost-insane tone-deafness of organizations and politicians who celebrate its history – goes well beyond the flag and hides in other insidious ways throughout the region.”

In a nutshell: Clendaniel really, really, really doesn’t like Jefferson Davis, who served as the president of the Confederate States of America.

Clendaniel begins by taking to task social fraternity Kappa Sigma for having “one – and only one – honorary member: Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, racist, and traitor to America.”

Kappa Sigma made the mistake of wishing Davis Happy Birthday in 2013 on its national website. The fraternity was also castigated by Clendaniel for recently welcoming a new member and identifying him as the great-great grandson of the Confederate leader.

The fact is that most anyone born in the 19th century would be considered a racist by 21st century standards. Davis, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, William T. Sherman, etc., ad infinitum. Who knows how our own views will stand up to the test of time?

As for Davis being a traitor, the Founding Fathers would also fall into that category – certainly the British saw them in that light.

Next up on Clendaniel’s hit list is US Senator Thad Cochran. Cochran, who represents Mississippi in Congress, has come out in favor of his state changing its flag to remove the Confederate battle flag in its corner. However, that’s not enough for the Co.Exist editor:

“ … when the senator goes to the U.S. Senate chamber, he sits at a desk that was once used by Jefferson Davis, when Davis was a senator from Mississippi, before he betrayed his country by leading a breakaway republic based on maintaining the institution of slavery,” he writes.

Clendaniel is also irate because Cochran “spearheaded a Senate resolution in 1995 that officially makes Davis’s desk the desk of the senior senator from Mississippi. Thad Cochran made a law that he has to have the desk used by the President of the Confederacy.” Continue reading

Amateur historian uncovers additonal 3,000 Civil War dead

unknown confederate dead photo

Historians in recent years have revised the number of dead connected to the American Civil War significantly upward, from 620,000 to as many as 850,000. That increase is based in part on the work of J. David Hacker of Binghamton University SUNY, who used demographic methods and sophisticated statistical software to study digitized US census records from 1850 to 1880.

Coming up with actual names to go with this increase is significantly more difficult.

However, one South Carolinian, through years of hard work, has given names to many Confederate soldiers whose deaths during the 1861-65 conflict were never officially documented.

Herbert “Bing” Chambers has uncovered the identities of approximately 3,000 South Carolina soldiers who lost their lives during the War Between the States but were never officially recorded.

Chambers’ efforts have increased the state’s losses during the war to nearly 22,000.

To put that in perspective, that figure is more than 17 percent higher than the 17,682 figure listed in the Official Records of the War of Rebellion and some 16 percent higher than the 18,666 number listed in Randolph W. Kirkland Jr.’s 1995 work, Broken Fortunes: South Carolina Soldiers, Sailors, and Citizens Who Died in the Service of Their Country and State in the War for Southern Independence, 1861-1865.

Chambers actually began his efforts shortly after Kirkland’s work was released when he learned that the latter, who created his book by combining several different existing lists of South Carolina Confederate dead, had failed to review the Compiled Service Records when creating Broken Fortunes.

The Compiled Service Records for Civil War soldiers were made by the US Record and Pension Office in the War Department, beginning in 1890 for Union soldiers and 1903 for Confederate soldiers.

Card abstracts for Southern soldiers were made from original muster rolls, returns, rosters, payrolls, appointment books, hospital registers, Union prison registers and rolls, parole rolls, and inspection reports. Service records may provide rank, unit, date of enlistment, length of service, age, place of birth and date of death.

Over the ensuing 18 years, Chambers scoured hundreds of rolls of microfilm, traveled to countless libraries, archives and courthouses across South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina, and meandered through old cemeteries across all three states seeking out old headstones marking the resting place of otherwise unheralded soldiers.

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