Louis Trezevant Wigfall’s life of color and intense personality began on April 21, 1816 on his parents’ plantation near Edgefield, South Carolina. His parents, Levi Durant Wigfall and Eliza Thomson Wigfall, were a socially prominent, well-to-do couple. Prior to moving to Edgefield, Levi was a successful merchant in Charleston.
Louis grew up privileged in a society deeply immersed in class-consciousness. Wigfall’s education began with a private tutor and then in 1834, he was enrolled at Rice Creek Springs School for a year. This military academy, located near Columbia, SC, catered to the children of elite aristocrats. His education continued in the law department of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Here he engaged in the first of what would become many dueling challenges throughout his life. This first was prompted by the presumed insult from another student at the university.
In 1837, Wigfall graduated from South Carolina College; a remarkable achievement given the better portion of his time was spent in off-campus taverns rather than concentrating on his studies. Prior to graduation, he left school for a period of three months while involved in Florida’s Seminole War. During this time, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant of Volunteers.
Edgefield again became Wigfall’s home after he was admitted to the bar and returned to take over his brother’s law practice. By now, he had accumulated an enormous debt load due to squandering his inheritance on heavy alcohol consumption and gambling. He maintained his freewheeling lifestyle with money he was able to borrow from friends and relatives, one of which was his second cousin, Charlotte Marie Cross. She became his wife in 1841.
Wigfall’s temperament proved to be incompatible with that of an upcountry law career. He preferred, instead, to live in a society in which the planter class reigned supreme, complete with the chivalric code and slavery. Because of his interest in contentious politics, he many times neglected his law practice.
In 1840, Wigfall’s fiery personality led to his involvement in two actual duals, three almost-duels, a fistfight and charges due to killing Thomas Bird, though he was never indicted for this. Wigfall shot and killed Bird, a cousin of Preston Brooks, when Bird attempted to remove documents at the Edgefield courthouse. These documents referenced Brooks’ father as a coward due to rejecting a duel challenge. The duel he later fought with Preston Brooks on Goat Island resulted in Wigfall receiving bullet wounds in both thighs. The duel with Brooks eventually destroyed his law practice, in addition to damaging his entry into politics. Though his reputation as a duelist followed him throughout his life, he ended his participation in such when he married.
In 1844, he became an elected delegate to South Carolina’s Democratic Convention. This did not last long, however, due to his behind-the-scene meddling, coupled with his violent temperament.
As South Carolina’s dispute with the federal government grew regarding tariffs, Wigfall became a strong advocate of states’ rights. When he later moved to Texas in 1848, along with his belongings, he also packed two strong core beliefs – the sovereignty of individual states and the romance of the Old South. In Texas, his cousin, James Hamilton, Jr., offered Wigfall a new start. He arrived with his wife and three children in Galveston during 1848; then moved the family to Nacogdoches where he became a law partner with Thomas J. Jennings and William B. Ochiltree. He later established his own law office in Marshall.
It was after his move to Texas Wigfall joined the ranks of the ‘fire-eaters’. This term was used to classify Southerners whose loyalties were in line with states’ rights and slavery. Wigfall became one of the most vocal and ardent of the group. His activity in Texas politics was intent on alerting Texans of the growing influence non-slave states in the US Congress were beginning to exert. During the Democratic convention of 1848 in Galveston County, Wigfall expressed condemnation towards the attempts by congressional members to halt the expansion of slavery into the new territories and remorse over the fact Texas would not lead the effort in opposing these actions.
Wigfall served as a lead player in the formation of the Texas Democrats, serving in the Texas House of Representatives from 1849-1850 and the Texas Senate from 1857-1860. In 1857, he went on the attack against Sam Houston during Houston’s campaign for governor. Following Houston on the campaign trail, Wigfall described Houston as a traitor to both Texas and the South, calling him a coward and stating Houston’s true allegiance belonged to the Northern abolitionists. In 1858, he continued as a strong voice at the Texas Democratic convention. It was during this time a states’ rights platform was adopted and a large number of moderates returned to the Democratic Party.
The death of U S Senator J. Pinckney Henderson created a vacancy in 1859. The Texas legislature selected Wigfall to fill the void and he served from December 5, 1859 until March 23, 1861. Given his reputation as “the most violent partisan in the state,” Wigfall was a natural for the position, in light of the fact Texas’ support of the Deep South’s political position continued to increase. Here he became a leader of the cause to assure Southern slave owners the opportunity to settle in the various territories with their slaves. Though he represented Texas in the Senate, his true loyalties were more closely aligned with that of his native South Carolina.
During 1860, Wigfall played a strong instrumental part in the fracture of the Democratic Party. His efforts in doing so were a result of his desire to end any possibility for a compromise to occur between the North and South. He consistent push for the Democratic Party to require the Federal government to guarantee protection of slave owners in the various territories eventually led to a split in the Democratic Party and aided in the election of Abraham Lincoln as president.
On December 14, 1860, Wigfall co-authored the Southern Manifesto with 22 other representatives and seven senators. This document declared the solidarity of Southern states and was written in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election. It stated any hope still held for reprieve in the Union had ended and the creation of a Southern Confederacy was now mandatory. South Carolina’s secession from the Union followed one week later.
On December 26, 1860, US Army Major Robert Anderson moved the 1st US Artillery E & H Companies to Fort Sumter. Confederate Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard later called for the fort’s evacuation, but Anderson refused. On April 11, 1861, General Beauregard sent three aides to Fort Sumter with a demand of surrender, which was snubbed. Confederate troops then proceeded to Fort Johnson and Colonel James Chesnut, Jr. gave the order to open fire on Fort Sumter. Wigfall arrived in Charleston just as the siege of Fort Sumter began. Diarist Mary Chesnut, wife of Colonel Chesnut, described Wigfall as “the only thoroughly happy person I see.”
It was later reported Wigfall served as an aide to General Beauregard and during the attack on Fort Sumter, rowed out to the fort to demand Major Anderson’s surrender. Though the story elevated Wigfall to celebrity status, it was retracted when it was later learned Wigfall had not spoken to Beauregard at anytime over the course of the two previous days. Instead, the authorized emissaries who traveled to Fort Sumter to confer with Major Anderson learned during Wigfall’s earlier visit, he granted terms to Anderson which General Beauregard had earlier rejected.
On March 1, 1861, Texas seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. Wigfall retained his US Senate seat for six days following the event. During this time, he made a point of belittling his Northern colleagues as he exalted the rightness of the Southern cause within Capitol Hill saloons and openly on the Senate floor. He also used this time to spy on Federal plans regarding the future conflict. He was instrumental in securing weapons for the South and recruited soldiers in Baltimore, Maryland for the Confederacy, then traveled to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia. He was listed as one of ten Southern senators expelled on July 11, 1861 due to absentia.
During the time he enjoyed a celebrity status, Wigfall received an appointment to the rank of full Colonel in the 1st Texas Infantry Regiment. A promotion followed shortly thereafter from Confederacy President Jefferson Davis to Brigadier General in the Provisional Army on November 21, 1861.
Throughout the winter of 1861/2, Wigfall resided in a Dumfries, Virginia tavern, near his encamped troops. Wigfall was known to call his troops to arms at midnight due to entertaining visions of a Federal invasion taking place. The nervousness on Wigfall’s part resulting in these calls was blamed on his addiction to hard cider and whiskey. On numerous occasions – on and off duty – Wigfall was visibly drunk in front of his troops. In February 1862, Wigfall resigned his commission and was replaced by John Bell Hood.
Though promoted by Jefferson Davis, Wigfall’s arrogant ways caused Davis to distance himself from the man. While occupying a seat in the Confederate Senate, Wigfall wrote a bill which President Davis vetoed. Wigfall wrote the bill in an effort to upgrade army staff positions and limit the president’s selection therein. He then took his fight to the social circles of that time and refused to stand anytime President Davis entered the room.
On Sunday, April 2, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant’s army arrived in Petersburg, Virginia and opened fire on the Rebel lines seeking to defend the Confederate capital in Richmond, 25 miles north of Petersburg. The Union victory achieved with this battle led to the fall of Richmond shortly thereafter.
When Richmond fell, Wigfall quickly left Virginia and returned to Texas. In 1866, he moved to England and lived in a self-imposed exile for the next six years and practiced law. He returned to the United States in 1872, first to Baltimore, MD, then back to Galveston, Texas in January 1874. He died unexpectedly on February18, 1874 and was buried in the Trinity Episcopal Church Cemetery in Galveston.
The reputation Wigfall developed for both oratories and hard drinking, combined with his strong sense of personal honor and a combative nature, resulted in him achieving the status of one of the most imposing figures of his time in politics.
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