The Hamburg Massacre took place in South Carolina in July of 1876. It was another of the low-water marks of the era of American history we call Reconstruction, the twelve years following the end of the Civil War. Hamburg was a small town in South Carolina, just across the Savannah River that forms the state’s border with Georgia.
Hamburg took its name from German immigrants from Hamburg who’d founded the town in 1821. (If you were expecting a blog about the destruction of the city in Germany bombed during World War 2, sorry. That is also an important historical event, for sure.) On July 8 of 1876, the town was the site of one of the most heinous massacres of the Reconstruction Era.
What Provoked the Hamburg Massacre?
Provoked may not be the right word—the events that set off the killing weren’t much of a provocation to any normal person. But South Carolina in 1876 was not a normal place.
We might joke if South Carolina has ever been normal. It is, after all, the state represented by such dubious political figures as Preston Brooks, John Calhoun, Strom Thurmond, and Lindsay Graham. A former professor of mine once labeled it “too small for a republic, too large for an insane asylum.” I’ll stop now, lest I offend any blog readers from the Palmetto State who lack a sense of humor, but South Carolina has always been a little different from other states in the U.S.
And those differences mattered historically. South Carolina during the 1800s was about as close to feudalism as the United States has ever had. A few wealthy, white planter families dominated state politics. Much of South Carolina society centered around controlling black people, first as slaves and then, after the Emancipation Proclamation, as workers/sharecroppers/serfs. The idea of former slaves being free was outrageous to many South Carolinians.
They blamed the Republican Party for their misery, Abraham Lincoln being the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation and all. And in 1876, the governor of South Carolina was a Republican, Daniel Chamberlain.
This was the situation, then, when the African American militia of Hamburg held a Fourth of July Parade in 1876.
What Happened During the Hamburg Massacre
A pair of local white farmers tried to drive their carriage through the parade, claiming they wouldn’t make way for black people. An argument ensued but was resolved without violence.
Two days later, however, the two farmers brought a complaint in local court, alleging the militia parade had obstructed a public highway. The case was set for July 8.
The delay was critical. In the meantime, local white militia had gathered and descended on Hamburg. These “rifle clubs” were similar to the White Liners I mentioned in my recent post on the Clinton Massacre. (You can read it with this link—the similarities to the Hamburg Massacre are not coincidental.) They were paramilitary groups that helped Democratic politicians intimidate African Americans.
That is, in fact, why the African Americans of Hamburg needed a militia in the first place. It was for protection against white vigilantism.
A quick note here. Some may find it difficult to believe that the Republican Party, with its open embrace of racism today, was once the party of civil rights in the U.S. But it was. Likewise, African Americans massively favor the Democratic Party in their voting preferences today. But that wasn’t always true, either.
The story of why these things changed is immensely important to understanding American history. But that story is far too complex to explain here. Suffice it to say that things were different from today in 1876, and it’s worth learning what caused the parties to change their behavior.
This was the situation in July of 1876 in South Carolina. The local attorney for the angry white farmers, Matthew Butler, demanded the black militia disarm. Doing so was inviting their own murder, so they refused. Instead, they took cover in a stone building that served as the local armory.
The white vigilantes, reportedly several hundred in number, already outnumbered the black militia of perhaps 80-100 men. A shootout began during the afternoon. Before long, the white vigilantes produced a cannon, compromising the defenses of the armory’s walls.
As the cannon blew holes in the walls of the armory, the militia scattered. But 30-40 were captured. The vigilantes executed four of these while firing on and hunting the rest.
Political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly satirizing the murders as South Carolina’s version of “reform.” Modern readers please pardon the language used by the cartoonist.
Why Was the Hamburg Massacre Important?
Well, for one thing, 94 local whites were charged with murder. But zero faced prosecution for murder. This is because the Supreme Court of the era had a relentlessly minimal interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The amendment reads that “no State shall” deprive people of life, liberty, or property.
The courts interpreted this to mean that states must be directly responsible for the destruction of life, liberty, or property in order for the national government to take punitive action. Because the massacre was perpetrated by individuals, not directly by the state of South Carolina, the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply. It was up to South Carolina to punish the murderers.
The Supreme Court institutionalized this tragic interpretation of the law in U.S. v. Cruikshank in 1873. Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote, “The only obligation resting upon the United States is to see that the States do not deny the right. . . . This the amendment guarantees, but no more. The power of the national government is limited to the enforcement of this guaranty.”
This led one legal historian to comment (Justice Joseph Bradley was another member of the Court who wrote similar opinions): “Justice Bradley had thus communicated to any Redeemer with violent intent that to avoid federal prosecution one need simply to keep one’s mouth shut before committing murder.”
This was not the intent of those who wrote the Fourteenth Amendment. But that didn’t matter to the conservative Supreme Court of the era. Committed to upholding the inferior status of African Americans, they handed down one decision of this type after another. And so, the murderers went unpunished. The Supreme Court had done its part to create the violent, racist Jim Crow system of the South.
The Vigilante Leaders
Next, Let’s examine the fates of the leaders of the white vigilantes. Attorney Matthew Butler was one. Another notable leader was “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman. Rather than face censure or being convicted of murder, both became United States senators.
Tillman later bragged of what he’d done. “As white men we are not sorry for it, and we do not propose to apologize for anything we have done in connection with it. . . . If no other senator has come here previous to this time who would acknowledge it, more is the pity.”
This wasn’t a speech at a local campaign rally. It was a speech to the United States Senate.
President Ulysses Grant, meanwhile, took no effective action to back the governor, Daniel Chamberlain, in his attempt to restore order. Meanwhile, South Carolina Democrats vowed to carry the 1876 election if they had to wade knee deep in blood. They did both.
Effectively, this was the end of Reconstruction in South Carolina. White supremacists had won the day through violence and the national government’s pathetic response to that violence.
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“Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, United States Senator and unrepentant murderer of African Americans in the Hamburg Massacre.
Erasing the Memory
The story doesn’t end there. Not content with killing African Americans, local whites had to become heroes in popular memory. In 1916, they erected a monument at the site of the massacre. It memorialized one person, McKie Meriwether, the lone white person killed while the black militia returned fire in the afternoon shootout. It mentioned no other deaths.
Thus, the Hamburg Massacre became, in the popular memory of white southerners, another example of whites saving the nation from a black takeover following the Civil War. It was the same message portrayed in the racist film Birth of a Nation and in countless other accounts in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Almost everyone forgot the fact that the murdered African Americans had died while upholding law and order against vigilante terror. In the minds of white Southerners, the vigilantes became the saviors of the South.
In the minds of many Southerners, they remain heroes today.
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