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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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.)

Pocket watch of Civil War veteran on the auction block

Heritage Auctions, one the nation’s largest auction houses, has an array of pocket watches for sale this week. One, a silver Newark Watch Works timepiece, in engraved with the initials “O.W. Brackett” and the dates “Jan. 13th 1841 / Feb. 4th 1900”.

A quick bit of poking around on the Internet turned up this bit of information: O.W. Brackett was Orrin W. Brackett, a native of Freeport, Maine, who later moved to the coastal town of Yarmouth and served as private in Co. G of the 25th Maine Infantry Regiment. He was indeed born in 1841 and died in 1900.

It’s likely that good ol’ O.W. had his name engraved on the watch while he was alive, and a family member added his birth and death dates afterward.

Brackett’s Civil War duty was relatively uneventful: He signed up for a nine-month tour of duty, being mustered into service Sept. 5, 1862 in Yarmouth, along the Maine coast, and mustered out with the rest of his company on May 7, 1863, in Chantilly, Va.

The 25th Maine spent a majority of its service around Washington, DC, guarding the “Long Bridge” across the Potomac River, and constructing fortifications. It moved out of Washington onto Chantilly, Va, to serve picket duty before returning to Arlington Heights in 1863.

The 25th Maine didn’t participate in any battles but still lost 25 men to disease.

Brackett apparently felt his nine months of service were sufficient; he did not re-enlist after his tour ended. He likely bought the watch shortly after the war ended; the Newark Watch Co. was only in operation from 1863 until 1870.

O.W. Brackett’s Civil War powder horn, auctioned last year.

Brackett’s brother, Alvin M. Brackett, served as a private in Co. F of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment and was killed during Dahlgren’s Raid on Richmond on March 4, 1864, at age 21.

Another Orrin W. Brackett, a private in the 6th Maine Battery and likely a cousin of the aforementioned O.W., hailed from Waterville, Maine. He died of disease at home in March 1863.

Like many men of earlier generations, O.W. Bartlett seemed to be pretty handy with a pocketknife. Last July, Cowan’s Auctions sold a powder horn with the carving “O.W. Brackett / Co. G. 25 Maine Vols / Chantilly, VA / May 7, 1863. / Enlisted in / The Town of / Yarmouth / Sept. 5, 1862”. The 6-1/2 inch powder horn fetched $216.

Despite knowing O.W. Brackett’s full name and likely place of death, I have been unable to locate, at least online, his final place of rest. If nothing else, his memory lives on through his pocket watch.

Update: Thanks to a reader named Maxwell, O.W. Brackett’s final resting place has been located, in Riverside Cemetery in Yarmouth, Maine. 

Renowned rural church approaches 260th anniversary

The current iteration of Salem Black River Presbyterian Church, a looming Greek Revival structure which shows surprising little wear and tear, dates to 1846.

The church, Basilican in plan, with walls and ceilings of plaster and heart pine floors, has a slave gallery and boxed pews. It has played an important role in the development of the surrounding area, including the town of Mayesville, which today has approximately 700 residents, essentially unchanged over the past 125 years.

The congregation dates to 1759, with congregants first worshiping in a log cabin, then moving to a framed structure shortly before the American Revolution. A third church was built in 1804 and used until the current building was erected.

Its full-time first pastor, from 1773 until 1792, was Thomas Reese, a Princeton-educated churchman whose doctoral thesis was titled “The influence of Religion on Civic Society,” likely an unusual topic for an 18th century Colonial American theologian.

The makeup of the church’s antebellum congregation reflected the rural region’s growing dependence on cotton and the need for slaves to sow, tend and reap that crop.
In 1804 the congregation totaled 89: 45 whites and 44 blacks. In 1840, that number was 160, with 42 whites and 118 blacks. By the beginning of the War Between the States, the church’s rolls showed 67 white members and 389 blacks.

Many of the black congregants, who no doubt attended the church because they were required to, left Salem Church shortly after the war’s end to join Goodwill Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Salem Church.

Goodwill

Goodwill Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Salem Church, was begun in 1867 by black members of Salem Church.

Goodwill Presbyterian went on to become the mother church to many African-American churches in South Carolina, according to the blog Everything Happens at the Crossroads, which recounts a history of the Mayesville area.

Today, Salem Church has just 30 members of its roles and averages active attendance of 14 for its services, according to a 2015 article in the Darlington News and Press.

Among noted members of Salem Church have been Robert Witherspoon, a US Congressman who served during James Madison’s first term; Matthew Peterson Mayes, who served in the SC legislature and signed the SC Ordinance of Secession; and James M. Dabbs Sr., who, despite being born in 1896 and growing up on 10,000-acre plantation, was a Civil Rights leader who also served as a professor, farmer, author, church leader and Penn School Community Services trustee.

Dabbs deserve special attention. He took up the civil rights cause in the mid-1940s when he began writing about segregation and racial injustice in Southern culture. Dabbs served as president of the Southern Regional Council from 1957 until 1963, during which time he endorsed a petition requesting executive clemency from President John F. Kennedy for imprisoned civil rights activist Carl Braden. His wife Edith Mitchell Dabbs was also active in the Civil Rights movement.

Salem Church, despite the declining health of the surrounding area and the size of its congregation, continues to hold services twice a month, and both the church and graveyard are kept in immaculate condition.

Combined research effort turns up identity of long-dead soldier

After more than 150 years, the identity of an Alabama soldier who died in the waning days of the War Between the States has been uncovered.

Lt. Josiah M. Brown perished on April 4, 1865, from pneumonia at a hotel in Newberry, SC, while passing through the community en route home to Greene County, Ala. All that was known about the officer’s identity was what appeared in the Newberry Weekly Herald on April 6, 1865: “Lieut. Brown of Greene Co. Ala. died from pneumonia on April 4, 1865 at the hotel in Newberry. He was buried with Masonic Honors.”

The late Edith Greisser of the Newberry Historical and Museum Society spent many hours tracking down information about the 14 Confederate soldiers who had died while passing through Newberry on their way home in 1865 and were buried in the Old Newberry Village Cemetery.

Five have never been identified, but Brown was the only one with a partial identity.

Greisser, who died in 2013, tried the Alabama State Archives and found there were more than 400 Confederate soldiers with the surname Brown. However, there were only three “Lieutenant Browns”; an A.J. Brown, an F.A. Brown and a J.M. Brown. Curiously, all were members of the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment, though of different companies.

Veterans Administration gravestone for Josiah M. Brown, issued before his full identity was known.

Greisser contacted the Chamber of Commerce in Greene County, and a representative went to the Confederate monument in town, but the only Brown listed was one who had died after 1907.

Chapters of Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Freemasons were no longer active in the county, a reflection of the hard times that have fallen on the area in the decades since the war’s end.

Greene County, located in the western half of the state, is the least populated county in Alabama, with fewer than 9,000 residents. By comparison, it had more than 30,000 residents in 1860. Its population fell by more than 40 percent between the 1860 and 1870 censuses, reflecting the heavy toll the war took on its populace.

A Masonic funeral service was conducted for Brown, at his request, but the Masonic records of the Newberry lodge were lost in a fire in 1866. The South Carolina State Masonic Lodge did not have the duplicate record of 1865 for Newberry Lodge in its collection.

Members of the Amity Lodge in Newberry recently picked up the ball and got in contact with the Alabama State Masonic Lodge. Gene Wicker, a member of the Amity Lodge, was able to discover that a Josiah M. Brown, who had served as an officer in Company D of the 5th Alabama, had been a member of the Beacon Lodge in Greene County, Ala., joining before the war, thereby solving the mystery.

The 5th Alabama saw its share of severe action, fighting at Seven Pines, Gaines’ Mill, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Boonsboro, Antietam, Chancellorsville,  Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and around Petersburg in the last months of the war. Brown was wounded at least once, at Gettysburg.

This past Sunday, a granite stone identifying Josiah M. Brown by his full name was unveiled at the Old Newberry County Cemetery, next to a Veterans Administration marker that reads “Lieut. Brown of Greene Co. Ala.” It was paid for by Amity Lodge member Huger Caughman Sr.

“As Masons, we take a vow to take care of our brothers, and that vow extends to the grave,” said Jason Moore, the Worshipful Master of the Amity Lodge, during a brief ceremony.

(Top: New gravestone for Lt. Josiah M. Brown, paid for by the Amity Masonic Lodge of Newberry, SC, at the Old Newberry Cemetery.)

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.)

SC structure drew inspiration from Washington Irving

One of South Carolina’s more celebrated architectural gems began as an antebellum bank.

The Farmers’ and Exchange Bank Building, on Charleston’s East Bay Street, has been garnering the attention of locals and visitors alike since its construction in 1854.

Its Moorish design made it a novelty then and now, and it caught the eye of famed writer William Gilmore Simms, who penned an article for Harper’s Magazine in June 1857.

“It is a novelty in the architecture of Charleston, if not of the day, being Moorish in all of its details, yet without reminding you of the Alhambra or the Vermillion towers,” wrote Simms (1806-1870), regarded as a force in antebellum Southern literature. “It is of brownstone of two tints, laid alternately – an arrangement which adds considerably to the effect. The interior is finished with arabesque work from floor to ceiling, and is lighted with subdued rays from the summit. This gives a rich and harmonious effect to the whole. It is of recent erection, Jones and Lee the architects. The corporation itself is a new one, and prosperous, like all the temples reared to the god of the Mines, the Counter, and the Mint, in this virtuous city.”

The building, built to house the Farmers’ and Exchange Bank, was designed by Charlestonians Edward C. Jones and Francis D. Lee in 1853 and completed the following year.

Jones was an especially notable architect whose other works included the Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg and Charleston’s famed Magnolia Cemetery.

The Farmers’ and Exchange Bank building has rounded horseshoe arches and a façade featuring pale Jersey and darker Connecticut brownstone, giving it a striped effect typical of many Moorish structures.

Its design is thought to have been influenced by illustrations in Washington Irving’s 19th century work, Tales of the Alhambra, a revised edition of which was published two years before construction.

The structure was built by David Lopez, who also constructed Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue and Institute Hall, where the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession was signed in December 1860.

The Farmers’ and Exchange Bank continued in Charleston until Federal bombardment of the city during the War Between the States forced the bank’s move to Columbia. It didn’t survive the conflict.

Later, the structure was used for a variety of purposes, including a Western Union telegraph office, office space for long-time Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings and, most recently, a restaurant.

By 1970 there was talk of tearing the building down to make room for parking; however Charleston banker Hugh Lane Sr. spent $50,000 to preserve the structure in the early 1970s.

(Top: Farmers’ and Exchange Bank Building, Charleston, SC.)