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A few years ago my brother and I learned that there was going to be an auction of some of Richard Wright Simpson’s things at an auction house in Pendleton. If you read my article a few months ago about the founding of Clemson College you remember he was Thomas Clemson’s lawyer and per Clemson’s will helped set up the college and served as its first President of Trustees. Among the many things being auctioned were some letters Simpson wrote explaining the founding of a group known as The Red Shirts. To understand who these men were we must look at the post war period here in South Carolina.
After the War Between the States South Carolina was an occupied country with Federal appointees running the state. In 1874 Daniel Henry Chamberlain was elected Governor in a heated and highly controversial election running against General Wade Hampton III.
Born in Massachusetts in 1835, Chamberlain had served in the Union army as a Lieutenant in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry and moved to South Carolina to tend to the affairs of a deceased friend. His tenure in office was tainted with a reputation for his willingness to make his office pay and riddled with corruption. It is this election that found the formation of the Red Shirts and the following letter written By Richard Simpson details some of these events. I have several letters he wrote on this topic and one written to the Honorable W. H. Wallace in Union , South Carolina dated September 8th, 1887. The letter below, however, is not dated and addressed only to “Madam”. The information it contains is priceless and an enjoyable read as the language of the period is very precise and quite different from today. It was the Red Shirts who stormed the State Capital building in Columbia to end Chamberlain’s governorship and installing Wade Hampton as Governor . I will use Simpson’s 2nd letter in the April Issue detailing the takeover of the Capital building .
I see by the paper that you and the Committee are trying to obtain accurate information about the verse of the Red Shirt campaign of 1876, and I herewith send you a correct statement of when and where it originated and who suggested the red flannel as a uniform.
Governor Hampton selected Anderson County at which place to hold his first campaign meeting. A few days before this campaign meeting was to take place it was proposed at Pendleton to organize a club for this campaign. I, at that time was a member of the Legislature from Anderson County, and was asked by young men , who were active in organizing the club, to preside at the meeting and protect them from violation of the law, which at that time prohibited white men from organizing military companies.
The morning before the club was to be organized , I, with several others in the town of Pendleton, were discussing the prospects of success, and I suggested that these clubs would never be successful unless they were uniformed., and that the uniform ought to be something conspicuous and cheap so that every man could afford to purchase it , and suggested a red flannel shirt. We thereupon got up at once and went to one of the stores tin the town to inquire if they had the material, and what it would cost. The merchant, J.D.Smith, said he had the material and that he would sell it at cost for that purpose. One of the men present, Mr. A.J.Sutton, purchased enough of the material and had it made into a shirt, and offered it at the meeting that was that evening over which I presided, as the uniform of the club and it was adopted. The first red shirt was made by Mr. Sutter’s sister Miss Emma Sutter.
Mr. J.J.Lewis, Captain of the club organized at Central, was present; he caught the idea , and at once proceeded to have his club uniformed. A nearby club also tried to obtain the material for the uniform , but it was exhausted, and I told this club on the morning of the campaign to put on white shirts and when they got near to Anderson to pull off their coats and sit on them, and the white shirt would be as conspicuous a uniform as the red .
These three companies agreed to go to Anderson to the campaign meeting together on horseback. We had a brass band of young white men at Pendleton at the time , and they had a regular band wagon drawn by four horses. They painted this wagon as red as it could be painted. The musicians dressed in red and flags were flying from all parts of the wagon heads of the horses.
When these clubs got near to Anderson I rode on ahead to see what was the program. Governor Hampton had just told Gen. Humphries, who was the Marshall of the day , to form the clubs and march across the town to the place where the speaking was to be held. In a few minutes the head of these three companies, proceeded by the band wagon , came into view, and the band at once struck up Dixie. Their appearance created a profound excitement. Governor Hampton, himself, met the first company that got to the gates of the fairgrounds ,and shook hands with them and cried like a baby. The earth fairly shook with the excitement and applause created by the appearance of these companies. There were quite a number of prominent men, who had come to this, the first campaign meeting, to help give it a good send off., and I was told that they immediately telegraphed to their county to uniform their clubs in red flannel.
Now There is no doubt that Mr. A.J.Sutton wore the first red shirt, and presented it to the club as a uniform, but there is no doubt whatever that I suggested this uniform, and the red shirt, as if by magic, became the uniform of the whit people in the campaign.
I have a delicacy in writing this article , but as you want the truth, I thought it but right to give it to you. I am sorry that so many people witnesses to these facts are dead, but Gov. Hampton and all the prominent men at the time knew of these facts, who originated the Red Shirt, and Gov. Hampton appointed me as Chief of the Staff , with the rank of Colonel of Cavalry in appreciation of my services, which I have just set forth.
Very truly yours,
Randy Simpson, Contributor
Randy is a graduate of Clemson University and veteran of the U.S. Airforce. He is a 10th generation South Carolinian and history buff. He also plays bass for Loaded Toad. Randy will be covering Upstate history for Upstate Exposures. You may contact him directly at AnOldReb@AOL.com