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

By F. A. Porcher, President South Carolina Historical Society.

Administration of D. H. Chamberlain. Paper no. I.

[We deem ourselves fortunate in being able to present the following graphic picture of ‘Reconstruction,’ so called, in South Carolina, from the pen of the accomplished President of the South Carolina Historical Society, who writes of what he himself saw, and knew, and felt. We only regret that we are compelled to divide this interesting and valuable paper into several numbers:]

The history of South Carolina during the period of Reconstruction, from the passage of that act of revengeful hatred, until the liberation of the State by the election of Governor Hampton, is a story so full of horrors that it is not easy for the mind to imagine its reality; and even though one might faithfully report the enormities which were perpetrated under the name of law, (and the bare mention of them would fill a volume) no pen can portray the inner life of the people, the bitter mortification, the painfully suppressed indignation, the harrowing fears which daily and hourly pressed upon them and made them wonder what had become of the dear and gallant old State. The corruption and outrages, which, in happier times, were never imagined by a sane mind, had now become so familiar that they ceased to make any vivid impression. All hope was extinguished, save in the mysterious providence of God; even the faith which dared indulge in such hope was feeble and timid, and ashamed to acknowledge itself. Relief came at last, it came from our own efforts aided by the blessing of God; and now that the evil is behind us, now that we can again feel that we are men, and freemen, that our country is our own, the memory of the past is like a hideous dream. We can scarcely persuade even ourselves that it was a sad reality, and unless well attested, positively will never believe that the story we are about to relate is a sober truth. I propose to devote this paper chiefly to the administration of Chamberlain, the last chapter in the history of Reconstruction. It alone, to be properly done, calls for an amount of details so great as to exclude the paper from this magazine; to other hands, therefore, must be committed this whole history [174] of Reconstruction, and even this story, which I propose to give, must be curtailed of many, very many, of its details.

When the war came to an end, the people of this State, regarding the cause as lost, accepted the situation and determined to live honestly and faithfully in conformity with it. They had tried the issue of arms, and had failed; they had lost their fortunes; more than half of her best sons had laid down their lives for the cause; the cause was lost, but they still might exercise their manliness and seek their fortunes under the changed aspect of affairs. A convention, which had been called by Mr. Perry, the Provisional Governor of the State, met and reorganized the State, and under its provisions General Orr was elected the Governor, and Senators and Representatives were elected to represent the State in Congress. But, though it had been all along asserted that the acts of secession were nullities, when the Representatives-elect went to take their seats, it was ascertained that the acts were not nullities, and that South Carolina could have no representation until a new constitution should be made for her, which the sitting members of the Congress should approve. To bring about this desirable state of things, the Southern States were divided into several military districts, over each of which an officer was appointed, with all the powers of a Persian Satrap, excepting that he could not take away the life of a citizen, except by due form of law. The Satrap appointed over this State was General Sickles, who had made himself infamous by the assassination of Mr. Key, of Washington, for improper intimacy with his wife, and afterwards condoning her infidelity. Of his official acts I have no special recollection; he was always ostentatiously showing his vulgar and brutal person, which was made more conspicuous by his being always arrayed in his uniform. In this respect he was a striking contrast to his successor, who seemed always to wish to disguise his questionable dignity of a Satrap of a military despotism, under the modest garb and demeanor of a gentleman.

The first step towards reconstruction, after the appointment of these Satraps, was the calling of a convention. For this purpose all the males were registered as voters, those only excepted who had, in virtue of any office held before the war, taken the oath of fidelity towards the Constitution of the United States. This, of course, excluded most of those who had been the best citizens. It was then ordered that the registered voters should vote for members of the convention, and that it should be held, provided a majority of the registered votes should be given for members of the convention. As [175] so large a portion of the citizens were disfranchised, the white people would register, but not vote. For a long time the poll-returns which were published made it likely that less than half of the registered names had voted, and that the call of the convention would be a failure; but the governing power was determined that their designs should not be thwarted, even by means provided by their own orders. A striking illustration was shown in the case of the adoption of the constitution of Alabama. The Congress resolved that it had been adopted, when it had been notoriously rejected. General Canby's act was by no means so glaring, but it was highly suspicious. After publishing the state of the polls for some time, by which it appeared that the convention had not been called, he ceased the continuance of the publication as unnecessary, and proclaimed that a majority of registered voters had ordered a convention, and published the names of the members-elect.

The convention assembled in 1868. In it were many members who afterwards attained a bad distinction, but did not at that time or on that occasion make themselves flagrantly conspicuous. They made the constitution for which they were assembled. It is a grievous fallacy to judge of a people or of a State by the constitutions or laws under which they live. The constitution adopted by that convention has never been changed; under it we had six years of a saturnalia, of lawlessness and disorder; under the same constitution we have enjoyed the blessings of peace and prosperity; so completely does the well-being of a State depend upon the character of the people who rule opinion. From 1868 to 1876 South Carolina was denounced even by Radical newspapers at the North as a disgrace to civilization; from 1876 it ventures to stand among the front in the march of refinement and civilization; but in both periods the instrument of government was the same—the instrument devised by the agents appointed by a vindictive Congress to break down the manliness of those whom it stigmatized as rebels.

After the convention had done its work an election was held for a Governor, which resulted in the election of Governor W. K. Scott, and General Canby displaced Governor Orr and put Governor Scott in the gubernatorial chair.

Governor Scott was first known to the people of this State as the head of the Freedman's Bureau. He did nothing to make him particularly obnoxious to the people. He had made a declaration of his opinions some time before, which his subsequent conduct as Governor proved to be his real views. In that speech, delivered in [176] Washington, he said that Winchester rifles in the hands of the negroes of South Carolina was the most effective means of maintaining order and quiet in the State. This experiment was tried by himself and his successors, and the result was that South Carolina became a disgrace to civilization. The situation of the State was so well described by ex-Governor Perry in a letter to Scott, dated March 13, 1871, that we shall content ourselves with using his words:

‘There are two things,’ says the writer,

which you can do, and should do, the sooner the better. Disarm your militia and appoint good and intelligent men to office. All the lawlessness and violence which has disgraced the State has been owing to these two sources of mischief. Never was there a more fatal mistake nor a more diabolical wrong committed than when you organized colored troops throughout the State and put arms in their hands with powder and ball, and denied the same to the white people. It was atrocious. The bloody tragedy at Laurens was owing to this and nothing else. The murder of Stevens and other white men at Union by one of your negro companies, and the subsequent execution of ten colored persons was owing to the same cause. The fearful killing and murder of a number of men at Chester, was likewise owing to your colored militia. The violence and lawlessness at Yorkville originated in one of your worthless appointments. Heretofore your appointments have been mostly made of ignorant and corrupt men, who cannot enforce the law and preserve the peace.

The colored people of South Carolina behaved well during the war and would have continued to do so but for the unprincipled carpet-bagger, who came among them and stirred up hatred to the white race by the most artful and devilish appeals to their fears and bad passions. Unprincipled white men living amongst us, seeing an opportunity of office and plunder, joined the carpet-baggers. These two classes united in persuading the negroes, that they would be put back into slavery, and that they must apply the torch to redress their supposed wrongs. It is not surprising that a people so ignorant and credulous as the negroes are, should thus have been led astray. They were told that land would be given them and their children educated. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been appropriated for this purpose and all squandered and stolen by their pretended friends; a multiplicity of offices have been created to reward political partizans; salaries have been increased; millions appropriated for railroads, and the most extravagant waste of public moneys in every way. The public officers and the Legislature are charged with the [177] most shameful corruption, bribery and roguery. It is impossible for the industry of the State to pay the taxes. There is no security for property. It is impossible for this thing to go on and preserve order in the State.

As our purpose is not to go into the details of this administration, we content ourselves with Governor Perry's statement. There is one fact of which we would be glad to be made certain. Was it a foregone conclusion that the ex-Confederates were to be forced into acts of violence, such as would call for the active interference of the general government. That such was the wish at or about the close of Radical rule, there can be no doubt. But was this a fixed idea when the government was begun? The Reconstruction acts were partly vindictive, partly political. It was hoped and expected that by giving the right of suffrage to the negro, the Southern States, or a large number of them, would be secured to the Republican party. The negro must, of necessity, be a Republican. Hence the investing him at once with political power, and excluding all those States from a seat in Congress until the negro element had been thoroughly incorporated in its constitution. At first the whites were made to feel that they no longer controlled the negro, and the Republican party was completely in the ascendant. But it was not long before the old relations of kindness between the two races began to revive. The negro found his friends among his old masters. The adventurers who came here to make their own fortunes were quick to perceive this and to dread the consequences. Hence they made untiring efforts to stir up the evil passions of the negroes against the whites; unto this feeling Governor Scott lent himself a willing agent. It was his duty to organize the militia; in doing this he recognized only the black race. They were formed into companies and regiments; to these arms were distributed, which are aptly described by Governor Perry as fruitful of the worst of crimes. The whites were not allowed their share of the public arms. It was a sense of the danger to which the whites were exposed at thus being kept without arms that gave rise to the rifle clubs, which were a grievance to Governor Chamberlain, which were denounced by General Grant, but which it is truth to say, became the only power which at one time saved the State by its moral power alone from the extreme horrors of anarchy. When General Hunt called on some of these clubs to assist in restoring peace to the city after one of the most terrible riots that had ever been known in it, he was instantly reported to the government at Washington, and was almost as instantly sent on duty elsewhere. [178] But they were almost the only force which he could trust. The Government would have preferred to leave the city at the mercy of the infuriate wretches who had bathed its streets with the blood of its citizens. All circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that the thing most desired by the Government was such a collision of races as would call for active military interference, and as this was solemnly believed by the whites they avoided such collision, even under circumstances when forbearance seemed to be very like weakness.

Corruption and disorder had so completely taken possession of the State that all hope of a change for the better seemed to have been destroyed, when it was determined to make some feeble effort to stay the progress of misrule by joining the ranks of the Republicans. The project was to leave the power in their hands, but to infuse into it a beam of purity by giving offices to the white men. Accordingly a reform ticket was offered to the votes of the people, at the head of which was the Republican Judge Carpenter, who had not unworthily filled the judicial bench; General M. C. Butler consented to be a candidate for the office of Lieutenant-Governor, and in the selection of other candidates, while the most notorious rogues were excluded, a larger proportion of Republicans, more blacks than whites, were nominated. It was strictly and emphatically a Reform party; all partisan politics were studiously excluded. The effort failed, because it deserved to fail; it deserved to fail because it associated itself with a party rotten to the core. The relief could not come, and did not come, until a sharp line was drawn and no compromise tolerated with the unclean thing.

General Kershaw, the chairman of the Reformed Committee, after the thorough discomfiture of his party, published a report announcing his failure. We cannot do better than tell the sad story in his own words:

‘We entered the contest,’ he says,

by laying down a platform on the rights of race identical and co-extensive with the Republican Congress upon that subject. We invited men of all parties, upon that basis, to unite in an effort to reform the present incompetent, extravagant, prejudiced, and corrupt administration of the State Government, and to establish, instead thereof, just and equal laws, order and harmony, economy in public expenditures, a strict accountability in officeholders, and the election to office only of men of known honesty and integrity.

We put forward as the State candidate a prominent Republican, [179] who had proved himself a capable and just judge, and a democrat and eminently representative Carolinian, popular and distinguished. The people, in their county nominations, generally observed the same spirit of compromise, and selected as their candidates white and black, Democrats and Republicans—giving full effect to the spirit of the platform. Certainly, if ever a party was organized outside of political issues, this was. There was literally nothing in it to repel any citizen of any school of politics, except the few who, clinging to the issues of the past, were offended by the liberal concessions made to the colored people. If, therefore, we could establish our charges against the then existing administration of the State Government, we had a right to count upon the support of all honest men. These charges were, in general terms, incompetency, extravagance, prejudice and corruption, and there is not a county or precinct in the State where they were not proven to be true, to the conviction of the commonest understanding, and to an extent wholly unparalleled in the annals of civilized governments. These proofs were never refuted. They stand uncontroverted, as they were incontrovertible, ineffaceably impressed upon the recorded acts of the Government. Had the battle been permitted to rest upon this issue, you would to-day have been rejoicing in the restoration of peace and good government to this stricken and desolated State.

The wicked leaders of the prejudiced and benighted masses of colored people, who looked to them for guidance with the simple faith of childhood, knew too well where their strength lay not to avert this blessed boon from their deluded followers. True to the principle of ‘rule and ruin’ which has ever actuated them since they came among us, they appealed to that spirit of antagonism which slumbered until they came, and led their victims blinded to the sacrifice. They pretended that we were not in earnest; that our leading men did not support us; that our liberalty of principle and practice was but premeditated treachery—a subtle and deceptive scheme to acquire power; that that power, when acquired, would be used to put them back into slavery; that we were the same people who had held them in bondage for so many generations, and fought four years to rivet their chains, and could never be trusted; they raked the ashes of the past to find the old sores of slavery, opened them afresh, and reveled in the torture they inflicted by the cruel pictures they drew of wrongs which were either never endured or as unexceptional as child-murder in New England. The more fiercely raged the mad passions of the crowd, the greater their efforts to aggravate and infuriate them. They told them every conceivable [180] story they could invent, to make them believe that we sought their ruin. Every brawl between white and black was magnified into the beginning of a war against their race. They were told that we would prevent their voting by violence, and on this pretext they were armed by the State, the further to alarm and excite them. They were told that we were rebels, enemies of the General and State Governments; that the President, the Governor and the great Republican party were our enemies and their friends; that they would never be hurt, do what they might; that high taxes were nothing to themthey did not pay them; that it would be good for them if the landowner should be forced to sell his lands down to a mere homestead; they would then have homes through the operation of the land commission and other causes; that all the accumulated property here was the result of their labor; that it rightfully belonged to them, and that the way to get it was to vote for what they were pleased to term the “Republican party,” meaning the ruling dynasty of South Carolina.

This summary of the arguments by which the colored people were led to fasten upon the State for the next two years the same men who have so nearly ruined us in the past, demonstrates the existence among them of a fatal hostility towards us which cannot now be overcome by gentle and kindly overtures. It is so violent in certain quarters as to threaten the existence of society. It has been fostered and favored and kept alive in a large degree by those whose duty it is to protect society. Magistrates and conservators of the peace have been foremost and unrebuked in incendiary utterances and actions. It is allied not only with demagogueism, that demon whose province it is to prostitute the spirit of liberty, but also with agrarianism, which strikes at the foundation of civil society. To this add ignorance and and the leadership of the worst, most unscrupulous and selfish men, as a rule, and some idea may be formed of the dangers of the situation.

With this report the Republican Reform party came to an end; Governor Scott was re-elected by an overwhelming vote, and the suffering whites could only hope in patience, while the mad orgies of Republican misrule went on unchecked.

In 1872 the office of Governor was filled by a young South Carolinian, who acquired a sad notoriety throughout the country. He had been Speaker of the House of Representatives, and showed a wonderful fitness to hold office in this saturnalia of extravagance and debauchery. The recklessness with which he signed money orders on the Treasury created a large debt, which ought to have been repudiated. [181] His administration was only a continuation of that of his predecessor, with, perhaps, even less regard for decency. He ran a mad career, and was last heard of in the Criminal Court of New York, where the former Governor of South Carolina figured as a petty swindler.

We have introduced the history of the first two administrations only to serve as an introduction to that of Chamberlain, who was the last, the most plausible and the best cultured, and the most dangerous of all. But here a difficulty meets us. A full and true narrative of those two years would require a volume of no less bulk than a whole year's publication of this magazine; a naked statement of the facts which distinguished this period would be flat and tedious. It is one thing to say that atrocious deeds were done; it is another thing to enter into the details of these atrocities. Without these last one cannot form a vivid conception of the infernal life which the white people of South Carolina led during that eventful period. Even during the war, when tidings were full of disasters and of the deaths of our brave soldiers, our minds were not so depressed as they were during a large part of the Reconstruction era. Then indeed we had the comfort of hope and the consciousness of manliness exercised in a cause dear to us; but now hope was almost gone from us, and we could show no manliness except in the fortitude with which we endured our humiliation. The country was against us and regarded with an evil eye all that we did, with a perverse understanding all that we said. The President was a fiery partisan against us, listened to no counsels except those of our enemies. Our officers were not ours, but those of our negroes; one of the Governors had said that Winchester rifles in the hands of the negroes was the best means of securing peace in South Carolina, and the other was a renegade, with as much of the bitterness of the renegade as a man so steeped in licentious debauchery could feel. We now had a new man; for a long time we did not know how to regard him. A very few months before the election which defeated him was held, he was favorably regarded as our candidate for the next election. When at last he discovered that he had utterly lost our confidence, he threw off the mask and showed himself what he really was, a monster of deceit, of malignity, and of imbecility. In attempting to give the history of his administration, we shall not condense; we will omit many scenes which may well be recorded, but we shall select those which were conspicuous, and spare no details to paint them in their hideous and disgusting colors.

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