Benjamin Ryan Tillman is known for many different things—his involvement in the founding of Clemson University as an original lifetime trustee, the government offices he held as a Democrat (South Carolina governor from 1890–1894, and South Carolina senator from 1895 until his death in 1918), and his larger-than-life, intimidating demeanor. His violent attacks against African Americans and the legislation he helped set in place—legislation that has had negative effects on the state of South Carolina and the African Americans who live there—have placed his name in a state of infamy. His leadership of the Red Shirts (a paramilitary group that had the same goals as the Ku Klux Klan) during the Hamburg Massacre that took place during the 1876 South Carolina elections has become a point of extreme concern amongst many who had no idea of this group’s existence until fairly recently.
Although it is true that Tillman’s white supremacist ideologies have ruined the lives of many based on the color of their skin in comparison to that of his, this page is dedicated to a side of the former South Carolina senator that most have never heard about—his romance with his wife Sallie Starke. From personal letters found in the archives at Clemson University, the two seemed to have held on to their infatuation with each other throughout their marriage. At least, Tillman was definitely head over heels for his wife. He begins each letter with “My Darling,” and closes them all with either “Your Own Boy” or his pet name, “Bennie.” For an example, here is a link to Tillman’s December 7, 1904, letter apologizing to Sallie for hurting her feelings.
It seems as though reading and replying to his wife's letters was the highlight of Tillman's days on the road, lecturing and campaigning in different cities across the United States. He looked forward to these moments so much when, for whatever reason, a letter from Sallie did not arrive when he thought that it should, he was distraught and hurt. In one letter, written on November 14, 1905, he said, "I am crazy to be with you even tho' you don't seem to love me enough to write—I take that back for I know you do." In the same letter, he makes it known that no matter what he is doing, his main goal is to be back in Sallie's presence: "I am at last thru with my work & my head is turned towards home & you—you & home! They mean the same thing to me, for without you there is no home & no contentment & no anything worth having!" Tillman's desire to be with his wife can also be seen in a letter that was written on April 3, 1906, in which he tries to persuade her to meet him in Charlotte on Monday night after he visits Clemson on Sunday, although he would like to have her come as soon as she's ready, knowing that he may have to leave for two days right after she arrives. In this letter, he says, "I want to see you so much I only think of delay because I feel you are hurrying to come on tho' you may not be done with your own work but on my account." Obviously, Mrs. Tillman was also anxious to be with her dear husband, despite having her own work to finish.
The couple was so adamant about hand-writing their letters that on one occasion, Sallie seems to have gotten upset about her husband sending her a typewritten one, to which he replied, "I was afraid you would feel hurt about the typewritten letter but I had written you one letter that morning & after getting your letter I thought of some things to say about the place—forgive me Darling you know I have not automobiled exept under compulsion with Chandler & I certainly have written no Bismarckian love letter, nor have I thought of any other woman but my own sweet wife...." In this letter, written on April 4, 1906, Tillman completely dismisses any doubt about his fidelity by assuring her that she is the only woman to whom he writes.
The most interesting thing about Tillman's letters to Sallie is that politics are rarely brought up. He typically states what he has been doing that day (including travel, people he may have met and/or talked with, and what he is currently doing), inquires about what is going on at home, and dwells on his need to be with her for the remainder of the letter. In this sense, Tillman seemed to have been pretty good at keeping his business and love lives separate.
In addition to expressing his love for his wife in these letters, Tillman is seen showing an almost equal admiration for home—Dixie, as he refers to it in two of his letters (October 11 and October 12, 1904). The letters also provide information regarding how much he was being paid to travel and lecture (March 31, 1906).
Letters from Benjamin R. Tillman to Sallie Starke Tillman:
Dec. 7, 1904
Nov. 14, 1905
April 3, 1906
April 4, 1906
Letter from Benjamin R. Tillman to John S. Arnold:
March 31, 1906
Tillman Papers, Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections Archives