Prior to the events at Hamburg Republican governor D.H. Chamberlain had garnered some support from the fusionist wing of the Democratic party. Those Democrats believed that it was better to align themselves with moderate Republicans because the state’s large black majority would make it unlikely that a “straight out” Democratic ticket could carry the November elections.
Saturday, July 8, 1876
Of all the violent outbreaks that occurred in South Carolina during Reconstruction, the Hamburg massacre probably represents the best known episode. The town of Hamburg had once served as a thriving depot for trade moving between the low country and upstate, but when a railroad bridge was built across the Savannah river, carrying traffic to nearby Augusta, its population dwindled. By 1876 its inhabitants numbered only about 500, the majority of whom were freedpeople. The leading positions in the town, including the posts of town marshall, trial justice, and militia captain, were all held by African American men and the town represented a center of black political mobilization in Aiken county. Prior to the election of 1874 the militia forces in Aiken and Edgefield, including those in Hamburg, had received state arms, and for two years there existed a tense relationship between the militia forces and the Democratic controlled “Rifle” and “Sabre” clubs in the area (17). Those tensions had led to violence the previous year in Edgefield county and during the long hot summer of 1876, with the political canvass in the state fully underway, those tensions once again resulted in bloodshed and murder.
The supposed impetus for the fight was a July 4 confrontation between a small group of white Democrats and the local militia. According to testimony from Doc Adams, the militia captain, his men were marching through Hamburg in drill formation when they were confronted by a wagon traveling in the opposite direction down Market street. The men in the wagon had previously been observing the drills and their attempt to travel down the street was intended to cause a disturbance. Some harsh words were exchanged, but the militia company eventually broke ranks and allowed the wagon to pass. Following the incident, the father-in-law of R.J. Butler, one of the men in the wagon, took out a warrant for Adams’ arrest. He enlisted M.C. Butler, a former Confederate general, lawyer, and leader of the local Sabre and Rifle club, as counsel and demanded that the militia surrender their arms. Both parties appeared before Prince Rivers, a former slave who had served in the Union army and was by 1876 major general of the state militia and local trial justice, who set a court date to settle the dispute. On the appointed date, July 8, 1876, large numbers of armed men began converging on the town and Adams appealed to Rivers for protection. When he could receive no assurances Adams told Rivers that he could not appear before the court and instead took up a position in the militia’s armory, located in the old Sibley building at the corner of Market and Centre streets. Adams held the position with about forty men.
Shortly before nightfall Butler demanded that Adams and his men surrender their arms, but Adams refused, saying that they were issued by the state to his care and he would only surrender them by force. Butler responded by positioning his men, who now numbered in the hundreds, in strategic positions around the Sibley building. In short order his men began firing upon the armory, shattering the window panes and sending shards of glass cascading down upon the defenders inside. Adams ordered his men to return fire and an intense gun battle continued for the better part of an hour. During that time Thomas McKie Meriwether, a young man under Butler’s command, was shot through the head and killed. He would be the only white casualty during the conflict.
Facing overwhelming forces, Adams and his men attempted to abandon the armory and escape out the rear of the building. As the bulk of the party slipped out of an upper window via a makeshift ladder, Adams and a small group of men remained inside and kept up sporadic fire in order to hold the attackers in their positions. Once this rear guard was able to make their escape they discovered that many of the initial party had panicked and taken refuge in empty homes within the town rather than fleeing the premises. After overtaking the now abandoned armory, Butler’s men searched the town and were able to capture a group of nearly thirty militiamen, some of whom were hiding in the crawl spaces of local buildings. In the melee the town marshall, a black man named Jim Cook, was shot and killed as he attempted to escape the mob. Five more men, A.T. Attaway, Moses Parks, David Phillips, Alfred Minyon, and Hampton Stephens, were all murdered after the assembled crowd held an impromptu court marshall to decide their fates. All were members of the Hamburg militia except for Stephens, who apparently met his demise due to an old dispute he had with one of the members of the “jury.” In total six Republicans were killed and several others were wounded in the affair.
News of the event spread quickly and would have an immediate impact on course of the 1876 elections. Prior to the events at Hamburg Republican governor D.H. Chamberlain had garnered some support from the fusionist wing of the Democratic party. Those Democrats believed that it was better to align themselves with moderate Republicans because the state’s large black majority would make it unlikely that a “straight out” Democratic ticket could carry the November elections. The two wings of the party had been unable to reach a consensus on campaign strategy or to nominate a candidate for governor during their convention in early May and had agreed to meet again within a few months. The massacre at Hamburg helped to snuff out the plans the fusionists had of backing Chamberlain and served to galvanize support behind the “straight out” plan of Martin Gary.
It is impossible to understand the events of that July outside of this political context and contemporary observers understood the connection acutely. The small town of Hamburg, with its majority black population and strong African American leadership, was an important center of Republican power in Aiken county and a strategic campaign of violence there might help to deliver the election to the Democrats. Killing a few of its leading citizens and dispersing the militia would resonate with other Republicans in the neighborhood and might successfully convince them that an electoral victory might not be worth the high costs. It was the sort of targeted use of violence outlined by Gary in his “Plan of 1876” and it was used to devastating effect in Hamburg that July.
On July 4 a Black militia gathered in Hamburg, South Carolina, a center of Reconstruction and Black power, to celebrate the nation’s centennial. A white farmer arrived on the scene and ordered the militia to move aside for their carriage. Although the militia eventually opened ranks, the next day the farmer demanded to a state justice that the leader of the militia, Dock Adams, be arrested for obstructing “my road.’ Adams chastised the justice for entertaining such a complaint and was charged with contempt of court. Meanwhile, the Black militia again gathered in Hamburg, but this time there was also a large group of white men. Adams refused to disarm the armory and hundreds of white reinforcements joined the crowd. The outnumbered blacks attempted to flee, but 25 men were captured and five were murdered in cold blood. African American shops and homes were also ransacked. In South Carolina, the massacre ended any chance of a union between Governor Chamblerlain’s Republican and Democratic supporters, and the reconstruction governor would eventually lose to his Democratic challenger, General Wade Hampton, in the election that November , marking the final triumph of “Redemption’ in South Carolina. On the national scene, Democrats viewed the event as an example of how Republican Reconstructionists should not be in control of the southern states. They pointed out that most of these deplorable events, similar to the Hamburg Massacre, were occurring in South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi, where Republicans still had the political power. Senator William Andrew Wallace of Pennsylvania said in a speech to Congress in early August 1876:
“Why is this, I ask, while in States that are still under control of others than the Democratic party in the South the freedman is discontented and riotous, outrages, blood and murder are heard of, the people are discontented and unhappy, taxation is redoubled, and the only right that a white man has there is the right to be taxed? Why is it that in all these States material prosperity is lessening, prosperity decreasing? Why is this? Can there by any other answer than that in the latter the power, the control, the interference of the Federal Government exists, and men are not permitted to govern themselves as we do in the North, regulating and controlling our domestic affairs in our own way?’
Meanwhile, newspapers throughout the South, and especially in South Carolina, blamed the event almost entirely on the Black militia. “The origin of the affray was the insolent behavior of a colored militia company,’ wrote The Charleston News and Courier. In response, President Grant gave a speech to the U.S. Senate on August 1, where he called the event a “disgraceful and brutal slaughter of unoffending men.’