One of the great tragedies of Reconstruction was the Hamburg Massacre, committed 141 years ago today. Never heard of it? Neither had I prior to last summer. That was when I saw a temporary exhibit at the Aiken County History Museum, in Aiken, South Carolina. The story shocked me. I reproduce for you here a summary from BlackPast.org.
On July 8, 1876, the small town of Hamburg, South Carolina erupted in violence as the community’s African American militia clashed with whites from the surrounding rural area. Hamburg was a small all-black community across the river from Augusta, Georgia. Like many African American communities in South Carolina, it was solidly Republican and with the GOP in charge in Columbia, some of its men were members of the South Carolina National Guard (the Militia).
On July 4, two white farmers from surrounding Edgefield County, Thomas Butler and Henry Getzen, attempted to drive a carriage through the town along the main road, but were obstructed by the all-black Militia which was engaged in a military exercise. Although the farmers got through the military formation after an initial argument, racial tensions remained high.
Two days later Butler and Getzen brought a formal complaint of obstruction of a public road before the local court in Hamburg. The case was postponed until July 8. By that point Matthew C. Butler, an Edgefield attorney, appeared as the farmer’s counsel. Butler demanded that the Hamburg militia company be disbanded although that action had no direct connection to the complaint.
By this point hundreds of armed white men, including many who were members of various rifle clubs, descended upon the small black community. Militia members retreated to a stone warehouse which they used as their armory.
Sometime during the afternoon a battle ensued. Surrounded and outnumbered, twenty-five militiamen and fifteen Hamburg residents fought back from the armory. By mid afternoon a white attacker and a militiaman lay dead, and a few more members of the militia were wounded. A cannon was brought over from nearby Augusta and aimed at the armory. As cannon fire blew a hole in the armory, some black militiamen and Hamburg’s Town Marshal, James Cook, attempted to flee. Cook was shot and killed.
The rest of the militiamen and towns people were captured in the armory. Four of the militiamen were brought out and immediately executed by the white mob. The rest were allowed to escape, though as soon as they began to flee, the whites trained their guns on the escaping men, shooting as many as possible.Seven men died that afternoon. Six were black militiamen or civilians and one was a white farmer killed in the attack on the armory.
You can read the official report here. The names of the six black men who died are Allen Attaway, Jim Cook, Albert Myniart, Nelder Parker, Moses Parks, David Phillips, and Hampton Stephens.
The massacre sparked other troubles throughout the state. Benjamin Tillman, a particularly vitriolic racist, led a pack of Red Shirts that rioted in nearby Ellenton. To quote Wikipedia, “The official record of Deputy US Marshalls indicated between 25 and 30 black men were killed. A New York Times reporter in an article stated as many as 100 blacks were killed in the conflicts, which extended to September 21, with several whites wounded.”
The violence centered on the political tensions. Remember, this was 1876—an election year. Democrats were desperate to take back political control throughout the South. They launched a major campaign of fraud and intimidation to depress the numbers of black voters. The murders at Hamburg, Ellenton, and elsewhere helped sweep Democrat and ex-Confederate general Wade Hampton III to the governor’s office. He went on to “redeem” South Carolina, instituting harsh new laws designed to strictly curtail the rights of the freemen. Tillman would later cite his experience in speeches before the U.S. Senate, stump addresses during his own gubernatorial campaign in 1890, and even a 1909 Red Shirt reunion. On that last occasion, “Pitchfork Ben” declared that “The leading white men of Edgefield” had determined “to seize the opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson.” Tillman claimed that the Hamburg Massacre was a way that “the whites demonstrate[d] their superiority by killing as many of them as possible.” Tillman told his audience,
The purpose of our visit to Hamburg was to strike terror, and the next morning (Sunday) when the negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town (some of them never did return, but kept on going) the ghastly sight which met their gaze of seven dead negroes lying stark and stiff, certainly had its effect…It was now after midnight, and the moon high in the heavens looked down peacefully on the deserted town and dead negroes, whose lives had been offered up as a sacrifice to the fanatical teachings and fiendish hate of those who sought to substitute the rule of the African for that of the Caucasian in South Carolina. (Source).
The town of Hamburg eventually washed away in a 1927 flood, with most of the surviving residents relocating to North Augusta. In that city stands a monument to Thomas McKie Meriwether, the only white man who died in the “battle.” It’s a graceful and dignified obelisk that proclaims Meriweather a “young hero” who “gave his life that the civilization builded by his fathers might be preserved for their children’s children unimpaired” and “exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization.” The monument breathlessly declares that “By his death he assured to the children of his beloved land the supremacy of that ideal” (Source). No memorial was erected to the six black men killed in the massacre until March of 2016. Their names share a simple stone with Meriwether’s.
These problematic memorials remind me of another controversy very much alive today…and by today, I do truly mean today, July the 8th. Later this afternoon, a collection of white supremacists, fascists, and malcontents will assemble at Lee Park in Charlottesville to protest the removal of the general’s statue. The Washington Post reports that the Ku Klux Klan will be involved and armed. Richard Spencer is headlining the event, but other minor and stranger figures of the Alt-Right are also scheduled to appear (including Augustus Sol Invictus—Satanist, Neo-Nazi, ex-Senatorial candidate for the Libertarian Party, and certified Florida Man). The rally, billed as “Unite the Right,” proves a point I have said before and must, sadly, say again; a conservatism that is not anti-racist is not worth defending.
While I don’t have a very strong opinion on the statue’s removal, I do that know that some of my friends will be counter-protesting. I pray that they stay safe. I pray that the forces of violence and oppression will be overcome by the powers of love and justice. And I pray that the horrible example of Hamburg will never be forgotten—or repeated.
UPDATE: I mistakenly conflated two different fascist rallies (never thought I’d have to say that). The one on Saturday was just various Klan groups. Photos are all over UVA student and Charlottesville social media. The “Unite the Right” rally is taking place in early August. God deliver us from the Alt-Right.