The Memphis Riots of 1866 refers to the violent events that occurred from May 1 to 3 in Memphis, Tennessee. The racial violence was ignited by tensions during Reconstruction following the American Civil War. After a shooting altercation between white policemen and black soldiers recently mustered out of the Union Army, mobs of white civilians and policemen rampaged through black neighborhoods and the houses of freed slaves. Federal troops were sent to quell the violence and peace was restored on the third day. A subsequent report by a joint Congressional Committee detailed the carnage, including 46 blacks and 2 whites killed, 75 persons injured, over 100 persons robbed, 5 women raped, and 91 homes, 4 churches and 8 schools burned. Modern estimates place property losses at over $100,000. Public attention following the riots and reports of the atrocities influenced the rapid proposal of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
On the afternoon of May 1, the chronic hatred between the city police and the now discharged black soldiers erupted into armed conflict. Details of the specific incident that initiated the conflict vary. The most widely held account is that policemen were attempting to take into custody several ex-soldiers for disorderly conduct and were resisted by a crowd of their comrades. Some historians attribute the inciting incident to the collision between two carriages of a black man and a white man. After a group of black veterans tried to intervene to stop the arrest of the black man, a crowd of whites gathered at the scene, and fighting broke out. In each incident there was confrontation between white police officers and black Union Army soldiers. There also appeared to have been multiple confrontations followed by waves of reinforcements on both sides, extending over several hours. This initial conflict resulted in injuries to several people and one policeman’s death, possibly self-inflicted due to the mishandling of his own gun.
The initial skirmish ended after dusk and the veterans returned to Fort Pickering, on the south boundary of downtown Memphis. Having learned of the trouble, attending officers disarmed the men and confined them to the base. The ex-soldiers did not contribute significantly to the events that followed.
The subsequent phase of the riots was fueled by rumors that there was an armed rebellion of Memphis’ black residents. These false claims were spread by local officials and rabble rousers. Matters were made worse by the suspicious absence of Memphis Mayor John Park and the indecisive commitment of the commander of federal troops in Memphis, General George Stoneman. When white mobs gathered at the scene of the initial skirmish and found no one to confront, they proceeded into nearby freedmen‘s settlements and attacked the residents as well as missionaries who worked there as teachers. The conflict continued from the night of May 1 to the afternoon of May 3, when General Stoneman declared martial law and order was restored.
No criminal proceedings were held for the instigators or perpetrators of atrocities committed during the Memphis Riots. The United States Attorney General, James Speed, ruled that judicial actions associated with the riots fell under state jurisdiction. However, state and local officials refused to take action, and no grand jury was ever invoked. Although criticized for his inaction, General Stoneman was investigated by a congressional committee and was exonerated. The Memphis Riots did not mar his political career as he was later elected governor of California (1883–87).