Many men in history are brought high by their ambitions, only to fall from their vices. Louis Wigfall, an attorney, legislator, and later U. S. Senator from Texas had many advantages in his life. However, his short fuse and alcoholism eventually wrecked his own life and brought disaster for Texas during the Civil War.
Louis Trezevant Wigfall was born on his father’s large estate in western South Carolina in 1816. Despite being born into a life of privilege, his youth was marred by death. His father died when he was two. His mother died when he was barely 13, followed by the death of his older brother in a duel.
He was ambitious but sharp-tempered. In 1835, he enrolled at the University of Virginia, and after an argument with another student, he challenged him to a duel. The challenge was dropped, but he left Virginia for South Carolina College (what is now the University of South Carolina). He was known as a fierce debater but spent most of his off-hours away from campus drinking and gambling. It was in his college years that he served as a lieutenant in the Seminole Wars against the Native American tribes in the Florida Territory.
After graduation, he returned home to practice law. However, his gambling and lavish living soon put him deep in debt. He became active in politics and nearly lost his life in the 1840 governor’s race. Though not a candidate, Wigfall campaigned feverishly for the more conciliatory candidate John Peter Richardson over the radical candidate James Henry Hammond. The divisive campaign led to Wigfall getting into numerous fistfights and at least two duels. He found himself in a gunfight where he killed a politically-connected man but was not indicted. The man’s cousin, an enraged Preston Brooks, a man known most notoriously as a later member of Congress who beat Sen. Charles Sumner nearly to death on the floor of the Senate in 1856 for his criticisms of slavery, challenged Wigfall to a duel. The two slipped across the state line into Georgia where Brooks shot him in the leg.
The incident crippled his political prospects. By 1848, Wigfall had lost a son to illness, his land and livelihood to debts, and his reputation. Left with nothing, he and his wife packed up what they had and left South Carolina.
They arrived in Nacogdoches in 1848, where he became a partner in a local law firm. He then moved to Marshall and rebuilt his political career. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1849 and then to the state senate in 1856. His fighting temperament returned, and Wigfall became an outspoken opponent of Sam Houston and his conciliatory approach to divisions between North and South. In the 1857 race for governor, Wigfall trailed Houston across the state, berating him at every stop. Houston narrowly lost the race, while secessionists like Wigfall were on the rise.
Wigfall steadily gained influence in the state. After the death of Sen. James Pinckney Henderson, the state legislature elected Wigfall to fill the remainder of his term. Increasingly, Wigfall advocated secession for the South, railing against the threats to slavery and any suggestion of equality of the races. With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, he co-wrote the Southern Manifesto, which argued that Lincoln’s election marked the end of any hope for the South remaining in the Union. He spent the next several months blocking any possible compromises between North and South and quietly sending weapons to the South.
He left the Senate in March 1861, just after Texas seceded. He traveled to South Carolina where southern forces attempted to expel the Union army from Fort Sumter. In one well-publicized incident, Wigfall rowed to the fort and demanded their surrender though he had no authorization to do so. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April, he was named colonel of the First Texas Infantry Regiment and rose to general in November. That winter, he camped with his men in Virginia, but his behavior became increasingly erratic. He was often seen drunk in front of his men.
In February 1862, he resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Senate. He quarreled with both Confederate and Texas officials over military issues and organization of the Confederacy. Appeals from Texas for more military aid went unheeded. In 1865, after the Confederacy surrendered, and rather than surrender himself, he snuck away from the Confederate capital with a group of Texas troops, carrying a letter of parole that he forged.
With his vision of the Confederacy shattered, he left the United States in 1866. He lived He spent the next several years drifting from one place to the next, almost as if in a daze. Neither locale nor plan could satisfy him for long. For a few years, he lived in England. He went so far as to actually try to spark a war between Britain and the US, but he was ignored. He returned to the United States and bought a mine in Colorado in 1870, only to abandon the project. He returned to Texas by early 1874. He died of a massive stroke a month later at age 57.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.