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The last chapter of the history of Reconstruction in South Carolina.

By Professor F. A. Porcher.

Paper no. 5. Charleston riots.

As the election drew near the excitement increased, and before long it may be said that law had ceased to reign in South Carolina and had succumbed to violence. The Democratic party naturally wished to win over negroes to their side. As the managers of the Republican party feared discussion, they were actively at work deterring negroes from ever going to a meeting called by Democrats. The latter were therefore compelled to adopt the plan of sending deputies to represent their cause before any body of men called by the Radicals, and ask for a hearing. This was sometimes agreed to, but always unwillingly, and after a time refused. A large body, however, had been won over by the Democrats, and those in Charleston were regularly organized in colored Democratic clubs. They had their own officers, their own speakers and their own club-rooms; which last were always open to the visits of the whites. This organization was bitterly resented by the Radicals, and the negroes were so very hostile to them, whom they were taught to regard as traitors, that continued efforts were made to annoy them and to cause their meetings to break up in disorder. To prevent this was always a prime object with the whites, for it was indispensably necessary that the colored Democrats should feel certain that the party which they had joined was ready and able to give them that liberty of political action which was denied them by the Radicals, who looked upon every negro as their own. After some bickerings, quarrels, and abusive language, the animosity of the negroes culminated in a riot, which was made black with murder. [555]

On the evening of September 6th, the Democratic colored club met at their club-room at Archer's Hall; two of their favorite orators, Sawyer and Rivers, were there and harangued the meeting. A crowd of unruly blacks were also there, who attempted to break up the meeting, but were hindered by the determined attitude of the whites who were present. When the club adjourned, shortly after 10 o'clock, it was determined, in consequence of the threatening attitude of the unfriendly blacks, to give Rivers and Sawyer the protection of their escort to their homes. They were accordingly placed in the center of a hollow square, and the escort proceeded up King street. They were followed by the blacks, and by the time they got to the Lutheran church, they were surrounded by a mob of men and boys, and even of women, armed with clubs and pistols and crying for revenge against the; lack Democrats. A white man in the rear of the escort was struck by a negro with a club, and the blow was returned. After this pistols were fired by both parties, and instantly the riot became unmanageable. The police came to the scene, but they were powerless against the mob. Whether they were utterly impotent is problematical. They made no arrests except of white men, who made no resistance. They are said also to have aided several whites to the shelter of the station-house and protected them, to the utmost of their ability, against the violence of an infuriate mob. Meanwhile the escort of Sawyer and Rivers did not desert their charge. Finding it impossible to carry them to their homes, as originally proposed, they escorted them in safety to the citadel and put them under the protection of the United States troops. The few whites who were yet unable either to control or resist the mob, made their escape from the scene as best they could. For several hours the streets were in possession of the mob. White men, utterly ignorant and unsuspicious of trouble, who happened to come upon them, were maltreated-aye, so far did their madness extend that in the upper part of the town if a white face was seen at a window it became the mark at which the pistols of the savages were directed.

Where, then, were the white people, that the blacks were thus suffered to retain undisputed possession of the town? It was the dead of night, and the people, unsuspicious of any danger, had gone to their beds. It was near midnight when runners were sent out to their several residences to call out the members of the rifle clubs. The call was obeyed, but it was long before a sufficient number assembled to warrant their sallying out from their quarters. A small battalion marched to the neighborhood of the main station house, and [556] offered their services to the chief of police to assist in quelling the riot. The reply was that the rioters had dispersed. The officer in command of the volunteer battalion sent out scouts to examine and report upon the condition of things. The report was that no bodies of negroes were to be found; that parties were occasionally seen here and there who manifested no friendly spirit; but that, in fact, there was no riot anywhere. The officer in command, considering that the force actually present was small, thought it best to do nothing which might provoke a renewal of the disturbance, and, after waiting a while for further developments, marched his troops to their quarters and dismissed them. It was a wise, a prudent, and a humane act, but it was very unacceptable to the young men in his command, who panted for an opportunity of teaching the insolent negroes a lesson in good breeding. The moderation and prudence of the leader of the corps was admirable, and in after times men learned to admire it; but it was hard, very hard, to submit to it.

The negroes seemed to have been organized for riot. Quick as lightning the report of the disturbance would fly through the streets, and instantly every negro would come out of his lair, and the air would be filled with their imprecations. The women breathed curses against the whites, and gloated in imagination over the vengeance which they would exercise. ‘ Kill them all,’was the general cry! ‘The town is ours!’ ‘Sweep them off from every part of it!’ This, and such language we had to hear with patience for upwards of sixty days. And it was all the harder to bear because we knew that these were not spontaneous utterings, but were put into their mouths by the sickly and unprincipled adventurers who lived upon the white men and made use of the negroes to aid in robbing them.

Several persons were wounded and otherwise injured in this riot. Mr. Milton Buckner died the next day of his wound. Whether any negroes died is unknown. One black policeman was dangerously wounded, but recovered. It was afterwards said, but I know not if truthfully, that the negroes would carry off their wounded and keep it a secret. No arrests were made but of unresisting whites, against whom no charges were ever made; and no inquiry was made by the authorities as to the cause or the history of this riot, but it was so palpably a Radical riot, that it was not considered safe to enquire into it. Not long afterwards, when there was a color of showing that the whites had begun another riot, coroners' inquests were held and all the ingenuity of the Solicitor of the county taxed to prove that the whites were the aggressors. The Governor issued one of his splendid [557] rhetorical proclamations. He also privately wrote to the Mayor, to urge an addition of two or three hundred men to the police force. Instantly the Mayor's office was thronged with negroes, eager to be selected for this service. The Mayor was, like the Governor, a Radical, but he knew better than the Governor did the temper of the people with whom he had to deal, and refused to comply with this insidious suggestion. He did even more; he signified to the officers of the rifle clubs that he would depend on their aid for the suppression of riots, and this kept the town quiet until the President came to the aid of the Governor by suppressing the clubs as seditious and dangerous conspirators.

It was now determined to give the negroes an opportunity for another riot, the whites taking care to make such preparations as to insure, not only a speedy suppression, but such a suppression as would convince the deluded tools of the Radical adventurers that they were not, as they fondly believed, the masters of the city. One of the nights for the regular meetings of a Democratic colored club was selected. The members were urged to be present, and protection was solemnly promised them. The signs, as the day drew to a close, were ominous; a restless, feverish uneasiness seemed to come over the negroes. Large numbers from the country were coming in (whose attitude bore threats), and a fearful night was anticipated.

At an early hour the several clubs were at their headquarters; detachments were detailed to be present at the meeting of the colored Democrats, to give them the aid and protection which had been solemnly promised them, and arrangements were perfected for speedy communication with each other in case of an alarm. It was significant of the temper of the soldiers, who were expected by the Governor to bring the seditious Democrats to a sense of duty, that some of them went to the gun-room of the artillery club and volunteered their services to work the guns in the event of a disturbance. This movement shows that the apprehension of trouble was general and deeply-seated. Men, not belonging to any military club, assembled, armed, at certain designated places, and, when night was fairly closed all who remained at their homes were in breathless expectation of a fearful riot.

It was a fearful night, one never to be forgotten by the women of the city, and the few men who remained at their homes. Never was a city more awfully silent. Not a footstep was heard on the street— not a voice gave indication that human beings were about interesting themselves in the affairs of the town. Nothing broke the awful silence, except the quarterly chimes of St. Michael's bells, which came [558] with startling effect when the ear was every moment expecting the clang of the alarm bell of death and destruction. The negro fiends who were wont to rush into the street to hurl foul imprecations upon the whites, were ensconsed in their hiding places, and made no sign. At length, after at least two hours of this intense calm, the ear caught sounds of footsteps, not quick and hurried like those of men engaged in desperate strife, but gentle and careless like those of men leisurely returning to their homes. The danger was over; the meeting had been held without disturbance, and dispersed without annoyance. Not a negro was on the street to insult or to outrage. The front presented by the whites had completely overawed them. But, though no more general riot was apprehended in Charleston, the political lessons taught by the Radicals did not remain unproductive. Negroes were defiant and self-assertive, and rarely missed an opportunity of insulting—often of outraging—whites who were out in the night. Women and children were kept at home, and aged men, now for the first time in their lives, found it necessary to furnish themselves with means of defence. It was rare to see a man, whatever his condition or profession might be, who did not carry a loaded pistol in his pocket.

All these things may be told, but narration can give an inadequate notion of the actual condition of things in Charleston. The situation can be but faintly conceived by those who were not living and moving about the scenes here recorded. It is shocking to read of a bombarded town, but what description can portray the feelings of those to whom the hurtling of bombs and the whistling of shells are familiar sounds, each of which fills you with terror; how depict the fearful tempest that rages in the mind of a man, always conscious that when he enters the door of his dwelling he may find that during his absence the destructive storm has been there and carried death and desolation with it?

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