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.

Advertisements

Ex-slave was among final Revolutionary War participants

Determining the last survivor of pre-20th century conflicts has long been an iffy proposition.

Birth registration in some US states, for example, did not begin until the 1920s, and a number of individuals who claimed to be the last surviving Confederate soldiers in their respective Southern states were nearly all later shown by census records to almost certainly have been born too late to have actually served in the 1861-65 conflict.

Even more problematic is determining the last veterans of the Revolutionary War. The US didn’t begin its national census until 1790 and it was a far leaner affair than that of today, with questioners seeking little more than the name of the head of household, their address and the number of other residents broken down by a handful of categories (free white males over 16, free white females, slaves, etc.). Not exactly a wealth of knowledge.

If one wanted to try to game the system to secure a veteran’s pension, there were no Social Security numbers, birth certificates or computerized records to overcome. One suspects a good story and a couple of willing accomplices willing to verify said story was all that was needed.

That said, the last generally accepted veteran of the American Revolution is Daniel Bakeman, who claimed to have served for a New York militia unit. Born in 1759, Bakeman died in 1869, at age 109.

Bakeman had no tangible proof of his service, stating that he had lost it in a fire earlier in his life. Of course, fires were a regular occurrence in pre-20th century America, so it’s quite possible that Bakeman was so victimized.

It appears that the last 10 or so men accepted as final surviving American veterans of the American Revolution came from northern states and/or died in northern states.

This is not surprising giving that when the final Revolutionary War vets were enjoying their last hurrah, the US Civil War was either taking place or the South was under Reconstruction, making it unlikely that historians or US government officials would be searching for Revolutionary War veterans in the South, or that Southern veterans would be applying for pensions.

Because a considerable part of the war was fought in the South, particularly in the latter years of the Revolution, and the war in the South often was a more informal affair, with an emphasis on guerilla fighting, meaning there was proportionately higher participation among the population, albeit not always on the American side, it’s almost certain that some War of Independence veterans in the south were overlooked.

One of these last survivors was Bob Wheeler, a former slave who died on Sept. 16, 1866, at age 107.

According to an Oct. 9, 1866, story in the Columbia Phoenix, “During the Revolution, Bob was a boy between sixteen and eighteen years of age, and as his memory and mind remained unimpaired, he delighted to tell of his recollections of the old Revolution when the red coats were the terror of every neighborhood. He was for some time a waiting boy for Gen. Wade Hampton.”

That would be Wade Hampton I (1752-1835), grandfather of Wade Hampton III, the Confederate cavalry commander and later SC governor and US senator.

Hampton served in the American Revolution as a lieutenant colonel in an SC cavalry regiment, and he later led US troops in the War of 1812.

Wheeler considered the first Wade Hampton “the next greatest man to Geo. Washington, and during his whole life had a great veneration and respect for the Hampton family,” the Phoenix reported. “When he heard of the promotion and success of our worthy and beloved (Confederate) Gen. Wade Hampton, the old man’s eyes would kindle, and he would stand almost on tiptoe, rejoicing at his achievements, saying that ‘the true old blood would show itself.’”

When the first Wade Hampton died, he was “left by his master’s will to help to support his three daughters,” the paper stated. “This duty he discharged faithfully and honestly.”

Wheeler died near Pomaria, SC, in today’s Newberry County. His burial site is unknown.

(Top: Hampton-Preston Mansion, Columbia, SC, owned by Wade Hampton I from 1823 until his death in 1835. In later years it hosted such luminaries as presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, and Senator Daniel Webster.)

Works of famed Lowcountry artist go on display in Charleston

mending-a-break

Artist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith was both enigmatic and straightforward.

The famed Carolina Lowcountry painter (1876-1958) took classes at the Carolina Art Association in the 1890s but otherwise was largely self-taught. She disdained travel and few outside influences are evident in her work.

She has been criticized in recent years for presenting images of an idealized antebellum South, featuring “happy ‘darkies’ and benevolent masters,” according to one modern historian.

But she was also critical in helping raise the consciousness of indigenous Carolina Lowcountry culture and was at the forefront of the preservation movement in Charleston.

While Smith is best known for 29 watercolors included in A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties, she painted all sorts of pictures, from portraits early in her career to simple landscapes of long-leaf pine or swamp cypress.

Beginning this week, a collection of more than four dozen of Smith’s works will be on display through next summer in Charleston, including watercolors, oil paintings on mahogany panels and several sketches.

The artwork will be on display at both the Edmonston-Alston House and in the house museum at Middleton Place, both in Charleston.

The rice plantation watercolors belong to the Gibbes Museum of Art; numerous other paintings are in private collections and rarely seen by the public, according to the Charleston Post and Courier.

To be certain, Smith was a product of her times. The daughter of a former Confederate artilleryman, she sought to highlight the remembrances of the simpler pre-Civil War era that wealthy South Carolinians recalled in the decades after the war. Smith preferred to capture Lowcountry rural landscape to urban cityscapes of Charleston and enjoyed recording vanishing ways of life.

Those included the scenes from rural salt marshes, areas which had once been used for tidal rice cultivation but had been abandoned as the rice economy moved west and the land had fallen into disuse, to be reclaimed by salt water.

In addition, a small amount of rice was still being grown in the Lowcountry through the 1920s, giving Smith a glimpse of the industry that dated back to the late 17th century in South Carolina and had made many white planters wealthy and broken many enslaved blacks.

She worked with her father, Daniel Elliott Huger Smith, a historian, on The Dwelling Houses of Charleston (1917), a biography of the Charleston miniaturist and portrait painter, Charles Fraser (1924), A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties (1936), and A Charlestonian’s Recollections, 1846-1913 (1950), the last two completed after her father’s death in 1932.

Smith’s works, like the artist herself, are unique and worth taking the time to visit.

(Top: Mending a Break in a Rice-Field Bank, by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith.)

Remembering the Boykin Mill Pond tragedy, 150+ years later

boykin mill pond

Boykin, SC, a rural community of 100 people located east of Columbia, is known for an eclectic Christmas parade, a grist mill that began operation in the 18th century, a skirmish that took place in the waning days of the War Between the States, a shop that sells handmade brooms and a handful of small restaurants housed in 19th century structures.

It’s also the site of the Boykin Mill Pond tragedy, which occurred on May 5, 1860, when at least two dozen individuals drowned while on a pleasure cruise.

More than 50 people, including several young children, set out on a flatboat on the 400-acre pond. The disaster began when the boat was said to have struck a stump.

Ralph Leland Goodrich, a New Yorker teaching in Camden in the early months of 1860, detailed the events in his diary: “No immediate danger was apprehended, but then the boat began to take on water. Watching from shore, their friends gradually stopped laughing and eating and then began to panic. Some few tried to swim out to them but it was too late. Most of those on the boat were young women and girls, whose skirts became extremely heavy as the boat began to sink. The boys on board tried to help, but most went down in a single mass, clinging to each other as drowning victims do.”

It’s possible the disaster might have been averted had the passengers not panicked, but when they noticed the flatboat taking on water, everyone moved en masse to one end and the boat tipped, dumping all into the water.

Gravestone of Mary Ann Young, which details her death at Boykin Mill Pond, May 6, 1860.

Gravestone of Mary Ann Young in Rembert Methodist Church cemetery, which details her death at Boykin Mill Pond, May 5, 1860.

Rembert Methodist Church

The names of the individuals who lost their lives in the Boykin Mill Pond tragedy as well as Goodrich’s details are part of CSI: Dixie, a project of the Center for Virtual History at the University of Georgia, which collected 1,582 coroners’ reports from six Upstate South Carolina counties for the years 1800-1900.

The findings of the coroners’ inquest for the victims of the Boykin Mill Pond tragedy is short, if not sweet.

For Amelia A. Alexander, 20, of Camden, SC, it reads: “… upon their oaths do say that the said Amelia A. Alexander came to her death by accidental drowning in the millpond of A.H. Boykin … by sinking of a Flat caused by the weight of between fifty-three & fifty-six persons.”

At least four sets of siblings lost their lives in the tragedy, including Samuel Young, 7; Mary Ann Young, 11; and Hollie Young, who would have turned 19 the following day.

Goodrich wrote of following a wagon-load of four bodies that “all went to the same house,” according to CSI: Dixie.

He helped dress the corpses as the mother “whose almost every child was gone,” wailed ‘“& these too, & these too?’” over and over. Her “grief could not be measured,” he later wrote.

Several of the victims are buried in Camden’s Quaker Cemetery while a handful of others are buried in the graveyard at Rembert Methodist Church, in neighboring Lee County. Others were buried in family plots whose location is unknown at present.

The number of deaths isn’t definitive; while at least one slave was among the dead in the coroner’s report, it is believed others may have been onboard and lost their lives, as well, but gone uncounted.

(HT: Waldo Lydecker’s Journal)

(Top: View of Boykin Mill Pond; below: grist mill that gets power from Boykin Mill Pond.)

boykin-mill-farm

Cimarron: Concept of Panhandle state nixed by political squabbling

Okterritory

Of the many lonely stretches found across the United States, few match the 5,749-square-mile rectangle known as the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Composed of three counties, today the Panhandle is home to about 28,500 people, less than half as many as when Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907.

The region suffered the ravages of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s as severe drought and blinding dust storms led many to leave for greener pastures.

The Panhandle is a relatively isolated region, dotted with abandoned buildings and hearty residents. Today, it seems difficult to believe that there was once a serious push to make the strip of land a separate territory, with the ultimate goal of statehood.

Originally part of Texas, the strip was surrendered in 1850 as a result of the Missouri Compromise. Texas, a slave state, had to give up the swath of land because federal law under the compromise prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel.

As a result, the region became known as a “neutral strip,” and was without state or territorial ownership. As evidence that advertising agencies did not hold the sway that they do today, the area was officially called the “Public Land Strip” and was commonly referred to as “No Man’s Land.”

Without a legal authority to provide oversight, the ensuing 40 years were full of confusion and turmoil.

Ranchers began moving into the region following the Civil War but officially the land could not be settled until it had been surveyed by the US government. Still, settlers flooded in, with many coming from Kansas.

Continue reading

Interracial couple survived Reconstruction, Jim Crow

bedenbaugh house

A 155-year-old structure located in rural South Carolina embodies the conflicted racial legacy evident in South Carolina and possibly other parts of the South, if not the nation.

The Jacob Bedenbaugh House, built around 1860, isn’t noteworthy for its age or its architectural style. Described as a detached two-story traditional “I” house with a modified L-shaped plan, the dwelling, in serious need of restoration, is located along a country highway about five miles east of Prosperity, SC.

What prompted the US Department of the Interior to the place the home on the National Register of Historic Places is the individuals who lived in the structure during its first 55-75 years.

Jacob Belton Bedenbaugh was a white South Carolinian born in 1833. His common-law wife Sarah Bedenbaugh, described as mulatto, was initially a slave purchased by Jacob. Sometime between 1860 and 1864, the two entered into a relationship.

Despite the increasing difficulties inherent with pursuing an interracial relationship in the Deep South in the years following the Civil War – not that it was a walk in the park during or before – the Bedenbaughs remained together in the house as a couple from at least 1864 until Jacob’s death in 1915 and had eight children.

But going against prevailing social mores didn’t come without a price. In July 1890, they were indicted and tried for “fornication” due to the fact that they living together. Being an interracial couple undoubtedly contributed to the decision to prosecute.

It’s unclear from a search of the Internet what the outcome of the case was, but one should bear in mind that South Carolina’s political climate was changing rapidly in 1890 as the Conservatives who had come to power in 1877 following the end of Reconstruction were about to be turned out of office by populist Ben Tillman, who was elected later that year, and his supporters.

Tillman, a virulent racist, was a leading force behind the state’s 1895 constitution, which solidified Jim Crowism in the state and, among other things, prohibited interracial marriage.

Legally, the couple could have married during the war, Reconstruction and immediate-post Reconstruction period, provided they had been able to find a minister willing to perform the service, but the Tillman Constitution forever barred Jacob and Sarah Bedenbaugh from being wedded.

Continue reading

Remebering Julia Peterkin, who brought Gullah to the masses

Julia_Peterkin

My first brush with author Julia Peterkin didn’t come in a literature class, book club or library.

I happened across her wholly by chance a few years back while wandering the South Carolina back country. I was in rural Calhoun County, traveling along seemingly endless miles of blacktop country roads when I came across a picturesque antebellum church surrounded by fields of cotton.

I stopped at St. Matthews Parish Episcopal Church, a structure that dates to the 1850s and, as I later learned, still has a slave balcony, and ambled about. Across the road was a small family cemetery with no more than four dozen graves. As I glanced at each, I came across Peterkin’s marker.

I can’t remember now how I realized that there was something significant about Julia Peterkin, but perhaps that’s not surprising. She had largely slipped from literary consciousness less 75 years after becoming the first Southern writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In retrospect, Peterkin’s life likely had far more downs than ups, a sad testament given her short-lived but important literary efforts.

Born Julia Mood into a wealthy family in Laurens County, SC, south of Greenville, her mother died before she was two. When her father remarried, Julia was sent to live with her paternal grandparents while her two older sisters remained with her father and his new wife.

Her views on race were likely conflicted by the fact that her grandfather’s ancestors had opposed slavery on religious grounds and had illegally taught slaves to read, while her grandmother was descended from a long line of wealthy slave holders, according to Susan Millar Williams.

Continue reading