As described in earlier articles on SNN, the situation in the Palmetto State in the summer of 1876 was bleak. Eleven years after the defeat of the Confederacy, the State was still under Union military occupation. It was ruled primarily by Northern Republicans and former slaves. Corruption and abuse were the order of the day and the economy of the State, given the above facts and the recent war and utter devastation of South Carolina at the hands of General Sherman and Union forces, was naturally in awful shape. However, there was a changing attitude in 1876 that solidified into a political campaign and paramilitary struggle. The divided Democratic Party (the party of most White Southerners), split between more moderate Conservatives and hard-line Straight-outs, was able to unite behind General Wade Hampton. Employing the physical and psychological power of the Red Shirts, Southerners fought an aggressive campaign around the State and eventually undermined, outmaneuvered and drove out the Reconstruction government. Alfred B Williams describes the excitement surrounding Hampton’s nomination on pages 78-79 of his book Hampton and His Red Shirts: South Carolina’s Deliverance in 1876.
Hampton’s speech of acceptance was some five hundred words long and gave the keynote of his campaign. He was moderate and sparing in comment on what had happened and been done, turning from the past to the future, dwelling on the need for peace and good will among the people and for just, efficient and economical government, pledging himself to be governor of all, if elected and to fair and faithful administration of the laws. It was constructed with the fine, clear judgement that marked always General Hampton’s words and acts so as to avoid discouraging the fighting, aggressive Democrats, conciliate and encourage the negroes and provide for the Democrats at the North a strong answer to the Republican charges that South Carolina white people had banded for general slaughter and persecution of the colored people.
The closing of the ranks of the white men was instantaneous. So far as the records and memory tell, not one man in the state who had been associated with the Conservatives or Democrats failed to fall into ranks and enlist for the war. The News and Courier promptly took the lead, with a headline shout of “Hampton and Victory!” the morning after the nomination and an editorial endorsing the ticket, promising unstinted support and urging on the system of joint discussions – an audacious, masterly somersault at which everybody laughed, but which everybody approved. Captain Dawson hurrahed for Edgefield, which he had denounced savagely just a month before, fell into line with General Gary, who had challenged him to mortal combat but twenty days before, and with Colonel Rhett, who had dared him to a shooting encounter less than a week before. This was typical of what occurred through the State. The prediction of the Straight-outs that with a state ticket led by Hampton the white people of the state would be solid was verified amply. It is a fact that white South Carolinians were more compactly united, more completely one in determination and feeling, in the months of the year 1876, following the sixteenth of August than they ever had been before or since.
Columbia staged the first real demonstration. Like that in Sumter it was supposed to be ratification of the nominations of Tilden and Hendricks, but those gentlemen never could have evoked the ceaseless outburst of exuberant, jubilant and defiant yelling that attended that torchlight procession, more than a mile long, including an impressive showing of military strength, the biggest and wildest array Columbia ever had seen – the finest since 1860, old people said; but it is not likely that the march of 1860 approached that of 1876.
Like the speeding of the fiery cross through the Scotch Highlands, or the rush through England of the coming of the Armada, the word went out. The response to the nominations was as with a single voice. From that day all other business and work and interest were little matters compared with electing Hampton.
Also see: Wade Hampton & Reconstruction; South Carolina prior to the revolution of 1876; The Battle of Hamburg; ‘Reconstruction’ tyranny in South Carolina; ‘The Prostrate State’ under Union occupation; Wade Hampton & natural elites of traditional society