In the opening days of the Civil War, long before Saturday Night Live appropriated the idea, Louis Trezevant Wigfall earned the distinction in Washington, D.C., of being the Thing That Wouldn’t Leave. Elected to the United States Senate from Texas to fill a vacancy in 1859, Wigfall wasted no time in making himself obnoxious to his colleagues and the public alike. He was lavish in his disdain for the legislative body in which he had sought a seat. On the Senate floor, he said of the flag and, especially, the Union for which it stood, “It should be torn down and trampled upon.” As the southern states broke away, Wigfall gleefully announced, “The federal government is dead. The only question is whether we will give it a decent, peaceable, Protestant burial.”
By then Wigfall had been appointed to the Confederate congress, and the only question that occurred to many of his colleagues was why he was still bloviating from the floor of the U.S. Senate. Wigfall was worse than a mere gasbag. As Fergus M. Bordewich points out in his provocative new book, Congress at War, he “passed on military information to his southern friends, bought arms for the Confederacy, and swaggered around encouraging men to enlist in the secessionist forces.” At last, in March 1861, Wigfall quit the U.S. capital and showed up a few weeks later in South Carolina. Commandeering a skiff after Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, he rowed out to present terms for the fort’s surrender. He had no authorization to do such a thing; he was simply following his passion to make trouble and get attention. He went down in history as a triple threat: a traitor, a blowhard, and a shameless buttinsky.