Louis Trezevant Wigfall, Gen., CSA (1816 - 1874)

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Birthplace: Edgefield District, South Carolina, USA
Death: Died in Galveston, Galveston, Texas, United States
Cause of death: apoplexy
Occupation: lawyer, legislator, and Confederate soldier
Managed by: Doug Robinson
Last Updated:

About Louis Trezevant Wigfall, Gen., CSA


Louis Trezevant Wigfall (April 21, 1816 – February 18, 1874) was an American politician from Texas who served as a member of the Texas Legislature, United States Senate, and Confederate Senate. Wigfall was among a group of leading secessionists known as Fire-Eaters, advocating the preservation and expansion of an aristocratic agricultural society based on slave labor. He briefly served as a Confederate Brigadier General of the Texas Brigade at the outset of the American Civil War before taking his seat in the Confederate Senate. Wigfall's reputation for oratory and hard-drinking, along with a combative nature and high-minded sense of personal honor, made him one of the more imposing political figures of his time.

Early life and career

Wigfall was born on a plantation near Edgefield, South Carolina, to Levi Durant and Eliza Thomson Wigfall. His father, who died in 1818, was a successful Charleston merchant before moving to Edgefield. His mother was of the French Huguenot Trezavant family. She died when young Louis was 13. An older brother, Hamden, was killed in a duel. Another, Arthur, became a bishop in the Episcopal Church.

Tutored by a guardian until 1834, he then spent a year at Rice Creek Springs School, a military academy near Columbia, South Carolina, for children of elite aristocrats. He then entered the University of Virginia. A perceived insult by another student prompted the first of many dueling challenges he would make, but the affair was resolved peaceably.

In 1836 he entered South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) to complete his studies, but his attendance was erratic. He developed an interest in the law, participated in debating clubs, and wrote epistles on student rights. Most of his time however, was spent at off-campus taverns rather than at his studies. He abandoned academics altogether for three months to fight in the Third Seminole War in Florida, achieving the rank of Lieutenant of volunteers. Despite these distractions he managed to graduate in 1837. A fellow graduate considered to be his closest friend was John Lawrence Manning, who would later become a governor of South Carolina.

In 1839 Wigfall returned to Edgefield and took over his brother's law practice. Having squandered his inheritance, and with a proclivity for drinking and gambling, he accumulated debts. He borrowed from friends to maintain a freewheeling lifestyle, including from his second cousin and future bride, Charlotte Maria Cross of Rhode Island, whom he married in 1841. But "mere office business" as an upcountry lawyer did not suit his temperament and sense of purpose, nor prove to be as profitable as he had hoped.

Violence and politics

In the South Carolina gubernatorial election of 1840, Wigfall actively supported the candidacy of John Peter Richardson over the more radical James Henry Hammond, which led to public exchanges of arguments and insults. In a five-month period, Wigfall managed to get into a fistfight, two duels, three near-duels, and was charged, but not indicted, for killing a man. This outbreak of political violence culminated in 1840 on an island in the Savannah River near Augusta, Georgia, where Wigfall took a bullet through both thighs while dueling with future Congressman Preston Brooks. Although Hammond lost the race for Governor, he attempted to mediate the dispute between the two hot-headed young men. Wigfall received an aide-de-camp and Lieutenant Colonelcy on Governor Richardson's staff, but never was completely satisfied with the outcome of the Brooks affair.

This initial foray into politics and the Brooks affair destroyed his law practice. He was elected delegate to the South Carolina Democratic convention in 1844, but his violent temperament and behind-the-scenes meddling had already doomed his youthful political ambitions. He piled up medical bills on a sickly infant son who eventually died. Sheriff sales followed, swallowing up his Edgefield estate. A Texas cousin, James Hamilton, Jr., a former governor of South Carolina, arranged for him a fresh start and a law partnership.

Wigfall's reputation as a duelist, often exaggerated, followed him his entire life, even though he gave up the practice entirely after his marriage. However, he would continue to claim the code duello was an important "factor in the improvement of both the morals and manners of the community."

Gone to Texas

Arriving in Texas in 1848, Wigfall joined William B. Ochiltree's law practice at Nacogdoches, Texas, then settled in Marshall, Texas. He quickly dove back into politics, serving in the Texas House of Representatives from 1849 to 1850, and in the Texas Senate from 1857 to 1860. He became a staunch political opponent of Sam Houston. When Houston ran for governor in 1857, Wigfall followed him on the campaign trail, attacking his congressional record at each of Houston's stops, and accused Houston of being a traitor to the South. He claimed that Houston had ambitions for a presidential nomination and courted the support of Northern abolitionists.

He organized state Democrats to resist the Know Nothing party, but with their defeat his radical views descended in the estimation of Democratic moderates. John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry propelled him and his radical views back to prominence in the state.

United States Senator

The Texas legislature elected Wigfall to the United States Senate in 1859 as a Democrat to the 36th United States Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of James Pinckney Henderson. Matthias Ward was appointed to the Senate following Henderson's death and served from September 27, 1858 until Wigfall was elected and sworn in on December 5, 1859. Wigfall served until March 23, 1861, when he withdrew. He was expelled from the Senate on July 11, 1861 for support of the rebellion. He also served as a member of the Texas delegation to the Provisional Confederate Congress, which formed the provisional government of the Confederacy, and which selected Jefferson Davis as its president. Wigfall had continued to hold his seat after Texas had seceded on February 1, 1861 and was admitted to the Provisional Confederate Congress on March 2, 1861, exhorting the rightness of the Southern cause and berating his Northern colleagues whether on the floor of the Senate or in Capitol Hill saloons. During this time in Washington, he spied on Federal preparations for the coming conflict, secured weapons for delivery south, and upon expulsion by his fellow Senators, he went to Baltimore, Maryland and recruited soldiers for the new Confederacy before traveling to the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia.

Civil War

A new nation to serve

In the days leading up to the start of hostilities, Wigfall advocated an attack on Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens in Florida to prompt Virginia and other upper southern states to join the Confederacy.

He arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, as the siege of Fort Sumter commenced. According to diarist Mary Chesnut, he was the only "thoroughly happy person I see." While serving as an aide to General Beauregard during the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and without authorization, he rowed a skiff out to the island fort and demanded its surrender from Major Robert Anderson. The incident was widely reported in the newspapers furthering his celebrity, but the story redacted the important detail that Wigfall had not spoken to Beauregard in two days. When the authorized emissaries arrived at the fort, they were dismayed upon learning that Wigfall had granted terms to Anderson which Beauregard had already rejected.

Brigade commander

With his new found celebrity Wigfall secured an appointment to full Colonel of the 1st Texas Infantry Regiment, and a rapid promotion thereafter to Brigadier General of the "Texas Brigade" in the Confederate Army. He took up residence near his encamped troops in a tavern at Dumfries, Virginia, during the winter of 1861–1862, where he would frequently call the men to arms at midnight, imagining a Federal invasion. His nervousness was blamed on his fondness for whiskey and hard cider. He appeared visibly drunk, on and off-duty, in the presence of his men on more than one occasion. He resigned his commission in February 1862 to take a seat in the Confederate Senate, and was replaced by John Bell Hood.

Confederate States Senator

At the beginning of the war Wigfall was a close friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Like political alliances throughout his career, he would first support then split with Davis as the war progressed. Davis supported an increasingly strong national government, while Wigfall, forever an advocate of states rights, moved to block the creation of the Confederate Supreme Court, fearing Davis' appointments would rule against the states. Wigfall also challenged Davis, a West Point graduate and former United States Secretary of War, on many of his military-related policies, ridiculously citing his own military experience in the Seminole Wars. Wigfall was a close friend of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and frequently proposed legislation on the general's behalf. He was also an early proponent of making Robert E. Lee commander of all Confederate armies.

Postbellum activities

At the conclusion of hostilities, Wigfall escaped back to Texas in the company of Texas troops with a forged parole, then went to London, England, in 1866 as an exile where he intrigued to foment trouble between Britain and the United States. He bought a mine in Clear Creek, Colorado, returning to the United States in 1870. He lived for a while in Baltimore, Maryland, and was in Galveston, Texas, in January, 1874. He died a month later of "apoplexy" and is buried there in the Episcopal cemetery.

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Louis Trezevant Wigfall, Gen., CSA's Timeline

April 21, 1816
Edgefield District, South Carolina, USA
February 18, 1874
Age 57
Galveston, Galveston, Texas, United States
Episcopal Cemetery