|Thomas Lanier Clingman was born in the county of Yadken, then Surry County, July 27, 1812, the son of Jacob Clingman and Jane Pointdexter(1), and named for Dr. Thomas Lanier, his half uncle.His early education was conducted by private instructors. He joined the sophomore class at the University, and graduated in 1832 with a class distinguished in after life for usefulness and talents. Judge Thomas S. she, now of the Supreme Court; James O. Dobbin, Secretary of the Navy, 1853-57; John H. Haughton, Cad. Jones, and others, were of the same class.In a diary kept by Governor Swain at that date, I find the following:
“June, 1832. The graduating class acquitted themselves with much credit, especially young Clingman, of Surry County, who, if he lives, will be an ornament to the State.”
Mr. Clingman entered upon the study of the law with great energy, and was about to enter upon the practice when he, in 1835, was elected a member of the Legislature from Surry County, which was a field more germane to his tastes, where he took a decided position.
After this service was accomplished he removed to Buncombe County, where he resided. He acquired much reputation for boldness and ability as a speaker, especially in a debate with Colonel Memminger, at Columbia, SC, in which Colonel Memminger found himself overmatched. Mr. Clingman, in 1840, was elected by a large majority to the Senate of the State Legislature from Buncombe County.
This was an exciting epoch in political history, and parties (Democratic and Whig) waged a fierce and ferocious warfare. In the Legislature or on the stump. Mr. Clingman led the cohorts of the Whigs, and like Henry of Navarre, his white plume was seen proudly floating in the van of every contest. Such was his ability and eloquence that he was elected a member of the 28th Congress (1843, 1845,) over that veteran politician Hon. James Graham. He was elected to the 30th Congress, 1847-’49), and successively to 1857-’59, when (in May, 1858) he succeeded Hon. Asa Biggs, as Senator in Congress, in which elevated position he continued until 1861, when the State seceded from the Union.
To attempt to detail all the events in the political career of Mr. Clingman, and the prominent parts filled by him, would far exceed the limits of our work. His political history is so interwoven with that of the Nation, that an accurate sketch of the one would be a record of the other. In his long and varied career there were few questions that he did not examine and exhaust. So acceptable were his views that he was, during his last year’s service in the House, the chairman of one of its most important committees (Foreign Affairs.)
His early career was in unison with Mr. Clay, (with whom he was personally a great favorite,) and the Whig party; but he never allowed the shackles of party to bind him to any cause in his opinion inimical to the true interests of the State or the people. When his convictions of right were settled, he followed where they led regardless of consequences, political or personal. He became convinced that the Whig part had become thoroughly denationalized, and that the only national party with which Southern patriots could consistently act, with any hope of good, was the Democratic party. His exertions and influence were used in promoting the election of Governor Reid, and of General Pierce. He was for years an able, decided and consistent Democrat.
On retiring from the Senate with his distinguished colleague, Governor Thomas Bragg, he felt his duty called him to the field, and by his efforts to defend his native soil. He joined the Confederate army and attained the rank of brigadier general. He was in many engagement in which he conducted his command with military skill and undaunted bravery.
He was distinguished for his defense of Goldsboro (17th December, 1862,) which he saved from a superior force under Foster, whose retreat was so precipitate that he left much of his materials, as blankets, muskets, and even horses.
General Clingman’s brigade consisted of the
8th Regiment, Colonel Shaw
31st Regiment, Colonel Jordan
51st Regiment, Colonel McKethan
61st Regiment, Colonel Radcliffe.
In July, 1863, he took command at Sullivan’s Island, which exposed position he held until December following, during the most active part of the siege of Charleston. He was then ordered to Virginia, and in the attack on New Berne, February 1864, led the advance force of General Pickett’s army, in which he was wounded by the explosion of a shell. On the 16th May following, in the battle of Drury’s Bluff, he was ordered with General Corse to attack General Butler. This was done with such spirit that the lines of Butler were broken, and he retreated rapidly to Bermuda Hundreds, where he was, to use General Grant’s expression, “bottled up.”
He was then ordered to Cold Harbor, and on 31st May, met the advance of General Grant’s army, and a severe engagement occurred. Th next evening (1st June) one of the severest engagements of the war occurred, in which General Clingman’s command received heavy loss, in rank and file, from its exposed position. Every staff officer, as well as himself, was wounded. One-third of the command fell on the field, including Colonel Murchison and Major Henderson, of the 8th Regiment. They held the position and saved the day.
On the 10th of June following, General Clingman repulsed an attack on the lines of Petersburg, and on the evening following, held his position against an attack of two army corps (the 9th and 18th) commanded by General Burnside and Smith, numbering in the aggregate 43,000 men. Three brigades on his right gave way early in the engagement, but he held his position until 11 o’clock p.m., when the engagement ceased – and Petersburg was saved.
On the 19th f August, following, an attack was made on the enemy’s lines on the Weldon railroad, near Petersburg, by which 2,100 prisoners were taken, and many killed and wounded. In this affair General Clingman received so severe a wound that he was for several months kept out of the field, and was only able to join his command a few days prior to Johnson’s surrender.
When the war closed (8th April 1866,(2)) General Clingman, like many others, was left desolate and depressed in mind, wounded and exhausted in body, and utterly impoverished, yet he was ever ready to aid in building up the waste places of his country, and to repair as far as possible the desolations of internecine strife. He was elected a member of the Convention os 1875, and was vigilant and active in the cause of the people.
These are rapid and unsatisfactory sketches of the public services rendered his country by General Clingman.
In his private life, he was exemplary and consistent. He was a member of the Episcopal Church, an admirer of its tenets, and an observer of its ordinances.
Though his fame rests on his long and important service as a statesman and his gallantry as a soldier, yet he has not neglected the pursuits of literature and of science. His able defense of religion, and its support by science, gained him “golden opinions from all sorts of en,” both North and South; he has in various publications demonstrated to the country and to the world the capabilities and advantages of Western Carolina – its healthful climate and prolific soil. Many have been induced by his descriptions to seek a home with us, bringing wealth, talent, and industry. He has made important cont- ributions to the science of geology and mineralogy. His articles on these subjects appeared in Silliman’s and other journals, and rank with those of Dana, Guyot, Shepard, and other savans of the age. He presented much and varied information as to mountains of North Carolina, which he had explored in person, and in compliment of such exertions his name has been worthily bestowed on one of its highest peaks.
General Clingman never married. His busy life and active services in the cause of his country have denied him that pleasure. But he was far from under-estimating female society, and was a great admirer of grace, beauty and intelligence.
No one possessing his warmth of friendship for his own sex can be indifferent to the charms of the other. As a friend, General Clingman was frank, sincere and faithful, and this is reciprocated deeply by those who knew him best. No one I know ever maintained such a hold on the affections of the people. The citizens of his district possessed such unbounded confidence in his judgment and integrity that they followed him in whatever course he has pursued. For more than 15 years (with the exception of one Congress,) he was elected by their suffrages. No matter how adroitly the district was adversely arranged, or what principles he advocated, the people were his devoted supporters, and never deserted him.
I recollect when the State was redistricted, in 1852, a few who aspired to his place arranged the district so that he would likely be defeated. But the power and the popularity of General Clingman disappointed their aims and hopes. He was elected by an increased majority. Although kind, social and friendly in his private intercourse, his character is not of that negative kind so concisely described by Dr. Johnson of one “who never had generosity enough to acquire a friend, or spirit enough to provoke an enemy.” Whenever the rights of his State and his personal honor were infringed, he was prompt and ready to repel the assailant. He has followed the advice of Polonius to his son –
– -Beware of entrance
Into a quarreL; but being in,
So bear thyself that thy opposer
Will beware of thee.In 1845, Hon. William L. Yancey, of Alabama, well known in his day as “a rabid fire eater,” attempted some liberty with General Clingman. A Challenge ensued. Huger, of South Carolina, was Yancey’s friend; and Charles Lee Jones, of Washington City, was the friend of Clingman. They fought at Bladensburg.Mr. Jones, the second of General Clingman, in his graphic description of this duel, published in the Capital, states:
“After the principles had been posted, Mr. Huger, who had won the giving of the word, asked, ‘Are you ready? Fire!‘
“Mr. Clingman, who had remained perfectly cool, fired, missing his adversary, but drawing his fire in the ground, considerably out of line, the bullet scattering dust and gravel upon the person of Mr. Clingman. After this fire, the difficulty was adjusted.”
Hon. Kenneth Raynor, the colleague of Mr. Clingman in Congress, was on the ground, states that “he has never seen more composure and firmness in danger than was manifested by Mr. Clingman on this occasion.” On seeing his friend covered by the dust and gravel, and standing at his post unmoved he thought he was mortally wounded. He rushed to him and asked him if he was hurt. “He has thrown some dust on my new coat,” he replied, quietly brushing off the dust and gravel.
On other occasions, as well with Hon. Edward Stanley and others, General Clingman had evinced a proper regard for his own honor by repelling the insults of others; and in all these public opinion has sustained the propriety of his conduct; he had so borne himself that the aggressor has never attempted to repeat his insolence.
He has been accused of being ambitious. If this be so, in reply, the words of Anthony of Caesar are appropriate –
He is my friend, faithful and just to me.
But Brutus says he is ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
–Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina and Eminent North Carolinians, John H. Wheeler; Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1966