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The last chapter in the history of Reconstruction in South Carolina—Administration of D. H. Chamberlain.

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

Paper no. 3. Ricefield riots.

In May of this year occurred one of those riots which distinguished the close of Chamberlain's administration, and seemed to demonstrate how utterly unfit he was for his elevated position. A strike for higher wages took place among the negroes of the Cornlaher ricefields. Whether the negroes had just grounds of complaint against their employers, is a question of no moment whatever. A morbid sentiment endeavored to excuse them on the ground of unfair conduct on the part of the planters. It is a sufficient answer to this that the negroes, who by contract lived and worked habitually on the plantations, did not begin the strike. It began with those who, living elsewhere, were occasionally hired to assist the regular forces. These persons not only refused to work for such wages as were offered them, (which [242] they had a perfect right to do,) but they became lawless, when they compelled the contract hands to stop work also. It is a high-handed outrage, becoming so common all over the country as to be acquiring the force of unwritten law—a practice which strikes at the root of all civilization, by making the will of an unreasoning mob, the superior law of the land. As soon as men resort to violence to bend others to their wills, all considerations but that of order must give way to the higher one of saving the country from anarchy, and even if the cause is originally right, it becomes thoroughly vitiated when it is attempted to enforce it by violence.

The Governor failed to adopt those decisive measures, which alone could restore order. A trial justice was appointed to arrest the ringleaders and bring them to punishment, and he issued, through the sheriff, a proclamation full of wisdom and good counsel, but, unfortunately, an offer of amnesty if the rioters would desist. The appointment of this trial justice seemed to give offence to the negroes, but it does not appear that he took any steps to quell the disturbance, and, indeed, when the Governor promised immunity to the guilty, what was the use of proceeding against any one? Whatever may have been the cause of the disturbance, it was soon converted into a conflict of races, and the hostility of the blacks was excited by all sorts of devices. Among these was the following parody of a popular hymn, which was sung when the rioters wished to stimulate themselves and encourage others to join them:

A charge to keep I have,
     A negro to maintain,
A never dying thirst for power,
     To bind him with a chain.

To sever the present age,
     Our pockets we must fill;
We'll make them work for wages now
     And never pay the bill.

Arm me with zealous care
     To make him know his place;
And oh thy servants, Lord, prepare
     To rule the negro race.

Help us to rob and shoot
     The nigger on the sly,
Assured if they don't vote for us,
     They shall forever die.

[243] This precious parody bears on its face the mark of a white radical. The war of races was already begun in the rice-field districts. The disturbances continued for a fortnight, and ended seemingly because, after the negroes had manifested their power, and found that the Governor was either unable or unwilling to repress them, they were willing to leave the country quiet until a later season, when they could renew the disturbances and do more mischief.

About the same time an incident occurred in Edgefield which grew out of the mistrust entertained by the people against the trial by jury as practised in the State. It was an act of will-justice perpetrated by white men, with no consideration of party politics, and which was used with telling effect in the bitter contest approaching for the chief magistracy of the Union. An aged couple named Harmon, living on the border of Edgefield and Abbeville, were found one morning murdered, and there were manifest signs that robbery had been committed and arson attempted. Suspicion against certain negroes was soon converted into certainty by the confession of one of them, and six men and two women were brought before the coroner. A verdict of guilty of murder was brought in against all of them, and the coroner delivered the prisoners to the Sheriff to be taken for trial to Edgefield jail. Some two hundred white men were now present on the occasion. As soon as the sheriff had received his prisoners he was approached by some men disguised, a sheet thrown around him. He was conveyed to a neighboring house and locked in. Meanwhile the prisoners, all but the women, were led off into the woods and quietly shot. Neither the sheriff nor any one else seemed to know the persons who committed this act of violence; but it would be unfair not to add that the public mind was not displeased that summary justice had speedily overtaken the perpetrators of the outrage upon the unhappy old couple, and were not allowed the chance of escape, which a jury trial made so very probable. When law is lax or impotent, society is forced to recur to first principles. This is, unfortunately, too often done all over the United States; but that which in a Northern or Western State is regarded as an occasional and regrettable act of violence, is held, when done at the South, as the result of deep design and of premeditated mischief. The governor again issued a proclamation, full of moral and political wisdom, but directed against no one. He wrote to Carpenter, the circuit judge, to urge him to discover the perpetrators of the outrages, and to bring to trial the women who had been found guilty by the coroner's inquest, but spared by the lynchers.


Twenty-Eighth June.

Meanwhile rumors were rife respecting the conduct and attitude of Chamberlain. It was asserted that the feud between him and Patterson was to be healed over and certain tamperings with the funds of the State effected for their joint benefit. To this rumor Chamberlain gave an indignant denial. He said that no terms of reconciliation had been offered, and that he would regard any settlement of dissensions in the Republican party in the State which compromised the cause of reform as worse than defeat. It was by such declarations as these that he continued to preserve the good will with which he was regarded by many of the Conservatives. They saw in him the one man in whom they could hope for any mitigation of radical misrule, and though he often showed deplorable weakness, they would not desert him. They clung to him as their anchor of hope. They saw no alternative but to take him with all his imperfectness, and a desperate struggle against fearful odds, in which defeat was certain destruction.

Then came the celebration in Charleston of June 28th.

This day, peculiarly the day of Charleston and of Carolina, has always been celebrated by some of the military companies of the city. On this occasion the Rifle Club, known as the Palmetto Club, had determined to expose to view a monument which they had erected in White Point Garden to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the battle of Fort Moultrie. All the rifle clubs in the city took part in the celebration, together with several companies from Georgia, and detachments from companies in New York and Boston, which had come to assist in the pageant. The command for the day was conferred on Gen. Wade Hampton, the chief of the cavalry of the Confederate army. The Governor was invited to partake of the festivities and cheerfully accepted the invitation. It must be remembered that the rifle clubs were bodies without legal organization, which had sprung into existence at the conduct of Governor Scott, when he refused to reorganize any white militia, and lavishly bestowed arms and ammunition upon the negroes, whom he had organized throughout the State. They were bodies organized under the great law of self-preservation, when it seemed to be the object of the Governor to put the whites entirely at the mercy of the negroes. If Chamberlain reflected upon the unlawfulness of these organizations he kept his thoughts to himself, and seemed to enter into the spirit of the celebration [245] with as much zeal as any one else. It was not long after that he discovered that they were unlawful and dangerous associations, and brought the whole weight of his own authority, as well as that of the Federal Government to disarm and suppress them. But to-day all was calm and bright, and nothing occurred to mar the pleasure of the occasion except the fierce rays of a midsummer's morning sun, which prostrated the troops engaged in the pageant and spoiled the show. In this pageant were representatives of the army. The era of good feeling seemed to have commenced, the North and the South, the Gray and the Blue, the Confederates and the Federals, all united in doing honor to the historic day of Charleston, and all marched under the orders of a Confederate General. The Governor was among the happiest of the guests. This day was one of the last of peace and good will. Events were speedily approaching which were going to establish the deepest hostilities between the Governor, who was growing rapidly popular, and the only people who had given him an intelligent support

Hamburg riot.

On the evening of Saturday, July 8th, a conflict arose at Hamburg between sundry white citizens and a party of blacks, who pretended to be the militia of the State, which resulted in the killing of a young man by the the name of Merriweather. Exasperated at the death of their companion, and unable to make any impression upon the brick house into which the negroes had thrown themselves, the whites sent to Augusta for a piece of artillery, with which they battered the house and drove out the blacks. The latter escaped from the house, and twenty-five of them fell into the hands of the whites. There was some talk of sending them to the jail in Aiken, but after a while they were dismissed. As they ran off on being released, five of them were shot dead and three wounded. This story was circulated over the country the next day with all the horrors which a partisan press could invent. Gen. M. C. Butler, one of Carolina's favorite and most trusted sons, was represented as the leader in the attack on the house and the instigator of the inhuman massacre which followed their capture. It was a story too shocking for belief. But it so happened that Gen. Butler was there, and had been enough concerned in the events which preceded the tragedy to give a color to the story. Gen. Butler indignantly denied the whole accusation; said that he was in Hamburg on professional business, which he was prevented from accomplishing by the officers of the militia, and added [246] that ‘the collision was the culmination of the system of outrage and insulting the white people, which the negroes had there adopted for several years; many things were done on that terrible night that cannot be justified, but the negroes had sown the wind and had reaped the whirlwind.’

Having related the general fact of the collision and massacre, I am at a loss to determine how to proceed. Though often urged, the government never made this tragedy the subject of a judicial enquiry. A coroner's inquest was held, at which an immense amount of the most extravagant testimony (ex parle) was offered, and subsequently, on proceeding on a habeas corpus, other testimony of a very different character was given by witnesses whose character and standing entitled them to respect. But in neither case did the testimony undergo that sifting and scrutiny which a judicial examination alone can elicit. Prima facie the testimony for the government must have been considered insufficient to make a case against the accused; for though repeatedly urged to prosecute, they refused to do so. Another very ugly feature in the case is, that though a coroner's inquest was promptly held to enquire into the death of the negroes, no notice was taken of the death of Merriweather, who was the first victim of the affray. Perhaps the best plan that can be pursued is to tell the story as it was told by each party, beginning with that of Chamberlain and his Attorney-General, Stover, which, having an official character, was received as true and greedily swallowed by everybody outside of the State. I must premise by saying that the two great parties in the country had selected their candidates for the Presidency, and the contest promised to be bitter and unscrupulous. It was known that the Southern States, except those under negro dominion, would support Mr. Tilden, whose great services in weeding out corruption in New York had commended him to good men all over the country. To counteract this favorable opinion, it was the aim of the supporters of Mr. Hayes to stigmatize the cause of Tilden by representing him as the supporter of Southern outrages upon helpless negroes. Any event, therefore, like the Hamburg massacre was a godsend to them, as it would wonderfully advance the interest of Hayes. Now, when we remember that Chamberlain was one of the accredited leaders of his party in South Carolina, and that his power was due to the aid which he could obtain from that party, it is not doing him injustice to presume that he would put no gloss over his report of the massacre so as to relieve the Democratic party from any of the odium which attached to it. The only fault that was apparent in his report is, that [247] he assigns a cause for the outbreak so trivial and so absurd that men in their senses ought to have called for a more consistent account. But men were not in their senses, and anything that would show the Southerners to be fools and madmen was swallowed by the North with eager credulity. A few facts should be considered before we reach the Governor's report. The affair took place on the night of the 8th. He could not have heard of it before the next day. Instead of going himself, as a Governor should have done, he sent Stover, his Attorney-General, and Purvis, his chief military officer. These men probably reached Hamburg on the 10th, conversed with such persons as they casually saw, found the coroner's inquest at work, and made their report on the 12th, which had this remarkable conclusion: ‘It may be possible that a judicial investigation may show some slight errors in the minor details stated in this report, but making due allowance for such errors, the facts show the demand on the militia to give up their arms was made by persons without lawful authority to enforce such demand, or to receive the arms had they been surrendered; that the attack on the militia to compel a compliance with this demand was without lawful excuse or justification, and that after there had been some twenty or twenty-five persons completely in their power, five were deliberately shot to death, and three wounded.’ This report was made by the Attorney-General nearly three weeks before the coroner's inquest was completed.

Now follows the Governor's account in a letter to Senator Robinson:

Two young men—Butler and his brother-in-law, Gatsten—passing through Hamburg in a buggy on the 4th July, encountered a company of militia in the street under parade, commanded by Doc. Adams. The street is over a hundred feet in breadth, and the company was marching in a column of fours. While thus marching, and of course occupying a very small portion of the street, they were met by these two whites, who insisted on keeping their course in the street without regard to the movements of the militia, and drove against the head of the column, which halted. A parley ensued, which ended in the company yielding, opening their ranks, and allowing the young men to proceed on their course.

For this offence

(so far from offence, this is a report of unusual civility on the part of the negroes) ‘a complaint was made the following day to Prince Rivers, who discharged the double duty of General and Trial Justice. He sent a summons to Adams to appear before him, but he was not obeyed. Rivers determined to arrest Adams, and the case was adjourned until the 8th. On that day a number of whites [248] appeared in arms, among whom was Gen. Butler. Rivers again summoned Adams, who again did not come, and Rivers, fearing a collision of races, did not enforce his summons. The whites demanded the surrender of the arms of the militia, who had taken refuge in a brick house, and a conference ensued. At last the whites said that if the arms were not surrendered in half an hour they would fire upon them. To this the negroes replied that the demand was unlawful; that they were necessary for their personal safety, and that they would not give them up. On this the whites commenced firing, and a shot from the building killed Mr. Merriwether. A cannon was then brought from Augusta, and the house battered. The negroes then left the house, and twenty or twenty-five of them fell into the hands of the whites, who killed five of them,’ as has been already described.

Such, in substance, is the report of Gov. Chamberlain, derived from the report of his Attorney-General, Stover. If the report is true, it warrants all that he said in conclusion as to the character of the act— viz.: that it leads to the supposition that our civilization is but skin deep, and that nothing short of condign and ample punishment can discharge the obligation of society and of the State towards the authors of this causeless and cruel massacre. But the report is lacking in one very essential particular. It does not assign a cause for the events which succeeded the 4th July. The two young men who encountered the militia seemed to have revelled in all the insolence of madmen. In a wide and open street nothing would satisfy them but that particular track which was occupied by the company, which, as they were marching in a column of four, must have been very narrow. With a spirit bent on mischief they drove against the head of this narrow column, insisting that the company should make way for them, and after a brief parley the company yielded. This story is one which any decent young man would blush to hear reported of himself; he would try to forget it and hope it might soon pass into oblivion. But this was not their temper. On the following day they applied to Prince Rivers (whether general or trial magistrate we know not) for redress. Redress for what? Their own unpardonable insolence, or for the cruelty of the militia officers? And when this double functionary was disregarded by Doc. Adams in either his civil or military capacity, another day is appointed for hearing the case, and this time their advisor and counsellor is no less a person than General Butler. Is it possible that he could so far forget his dignity and his character as to be the aider and abettor of young men who had shown so little sense of propriety as they had done? [249] Men who think must have seen that there was something not reported; that a man like General Butler had too much at stake to become the champion of two hot-headed boys If the report of Stover and Chamberlain is true, Butler should have counselled them to go home and learn to behave themselves. It is the natural and necessary award of good conduct that when a good man is charged with folly and wickedness, people should call for proof before yielding belief to the charges. But in the temper with which the North regarded the South, the ordinary principles of judgment and of action were laid aside, and it seemed quite natural that the heroic Butler should act the part of a mad boy.

Let us now endeavor to arrive at the truth, and find a cause for the demand for redress which brought on the catastrophe. Our statement is taken from General Butler's letters, and from the testimony elicited on a proceeding on habeas corpus. This testimony was given by gentlemen of high character in that locality.

Since the war the town of Hamburg, once a wealthy part of the State, had sunk both in wealth and population, and was a mere colony of negroes. They enjoyed the corporate rights which had been granted to the town, and their council frequently acted both arbitrarily and eccentrically, to the great annoyance of those neighbors who had occasion to visit or pass through the town. Of late a military body had been revived on the basis of one of Scott's companies. This company was in the habit of acting as most of these companies do when not under the moral restraint of the whites, and had at several times been troublesome. It seemed to them right and proper that when their Captain was arrested, whether on civil or military process, to surround him and resist the arrest, and this they did both on the 6th and on the 8th July. Gatsten and young Butler were coming out of Augusta in a buggy on the 4th. Doc. Adams's company was on parade in the street. When they saw the buggy coming they stretched themselves intentionally across the only available space. The street is generally one hundred feet wide, but just here it was so narrow and blocked up by the troops, that there was no course for the buggy to pass. On one side was a ditch, on the other a fence, and in their rear a wall. The insult was open, designed, obstinate and aggressive. The young men were obliged to stop, and whilst they stood still the negroes cursed and villified them in the grossest manner, and beat their drums about the horse's head. If they attempted to pass through any space that seemed open the gap was filled up by the negroes with their bayonets. After this obstruction [250] had lasted about fifteen minutes a rain came up and the negroes dispersed. Here, then, was reasonable ground for Mr. Butler to complain. The militia had not only, in violation of the law, obstructed the highway, but had added outrage and insult to the illegal act, and if this company was not a lawful militia the offence was an aggravated one. On the following day Mr. Butler called on Prince Rivers with a complaint against Doc. Adams for forcibly and outrageously hindering him from peaceably pursuing his way through a public street. Mr. Butler, the father of the complainant, lived about two miles from Hamburg, and had occasion, either himself, some of his family or his servants, to pass almost daily through the town. Frequently annoyed at the usage they had received at the hands of these militiamen, he determined to try on this occasion whether the law would not protect him against these repeated annoyances. When, therefore, the case was adjourned to the 8th he sent for General Butler to act as his legal adviser.

On this summons General Butler went to Hamburg. He called on Prince Rivers, but could not learn whether the case was to be a civil or a military one. He seemed to be either unwilling or unable to proceed against the unruly Captain, who had posted himself in a brick house which was used as an armory and drill-room. He was attended by a large body of his men. Several persons (negroes) came to General Butler to offer to accommodate matters, to all of whom he gave ready ear. They went off on their mission of peace, but did not return. General Butler and his client declared distinctly that all that they wanted was that the outrages complained of should not be repeated. While thus waiting for a settlement General Butler went to Augusta on private business, and there in answer to inquiries did not hesitate to declare that matters looked very badly in Hamburg, and that he thought a collision of races was imminent. He asked for no help, though it is not unlikely 'twas his declared opinion induced many to go over. On his return to the town Prince Rivers requested an interview. At first he refused, because Rivers had more than once failed to keep his appointment; but more moderate counsels prevailed and he went. He then told Rivers that Adams's company was not a military body organized under the laws of the State, had no right to the arms in their possession, and that they must be given up and sent to the Governor. Rivers asked Butler whether he would be responsible for their delivery if surrendered. Butler replied in the affirmative, and said that he was willing to give a bond to that effect with any amount of security. Rivers wished to know whether [251] the men so surrendering their arms would be safe from violence. Butler replied that that would depend on the way they behaved themselves, but that they had no right to the arms and that they must be given up. The conference ended here, and not long afterwards the men in the house began to fire upon the whites. As soon as Merriweather was slain the whites went to Augusta and brought thence a cannon, with which they drove the negroes from the house. As it was very late, General Butler left the place and went to Mr. Robert Butler's, where he spent the night.

Such is the substance of General Butler's statement. In a subsequent letter, called out by Chamberlain's letter to Senator Robertson, he indignantly said: ‘No man knows better than Chamberlain that what he says in that letter to Robertson is false in every essential particular. No one knows better than himself that he has published it in the bloody-shirt outrage interest.’ Meanwhile a coroner's inquest, conducted by Prince Rivers, with the assistance of Harmost, was sitting on the case, and continued its sessions until the end of the month. The result of this inquest was a verdict of murder against seven men, and eighty others of being accessory to the murder, and warrants of arrest were served by the sheriff on all who lived in South Carolina of the men thus accused (at least one had been dead several years, two were in California, and one was, on the night in question, confined in the station-house in Augusta). Ten of the jury made their marks on this verdict.

It was prudent on the part of the accused to fortify themselves with testimony in rebuttal of that which had been taken by the coroner, and a mass of sworn testimony was carried before Judge Maher, before whom the accused appeared and demanded to be bailed. From this it was proved that Adams had organized his company in the spring, with the avowed purpose of killing the whites; that for several days before the collision, the negroes had threatened to force a fight; that a white man named Schilber, a Hamburg shopkeeper, had gone to Columbia on the 5th and returned the next day with a tin case of cartridges, which was delivered to the officers of the company; that runners were sent to Beach Island, to Bath Mills, and elsewhere, to call the negroes into Hamburg on the 8th, many of whom obeyed the call; that the negroes had ammunition and a cannon stored in their armory; that Adams, Athony and others had publicly declared their intention to kill out the whites before the election; that the shooting in the night had begun with the negroes, and not a single fire had been returned until Merriweather was killed. It was proved, and [252] this by the testimony of Prince Rivers himself, that Doc. Adams's company was not a legally organized body, and that they had got possession of their arms irregularly and unlawfully. With affidavits to these facts, made by men of the highest character in the neighborhood, the accused went to Aiken, before Judge Maher, and after some factious and ineffectual opposition by Attorney-General Stover, were discharged on bail. The matter was never brought before a court by that officer. He was too busy manufacturing outrages for the political market to attend to the proper duties of his office. Towards the end of the month the Governor went to Washington, a practice common with our radical governors and judges when trouble of any kind existed. He also wrote a letter to President Grant, which we shall presently give, but it was not published until called for by the House of Representatives.

On the 4th August the Secretary of War ordered that all troops not required to act against the Indians be held in readiness to act in the Southern States, and not long afterwards troops were stationed at Hamburg. It was naturally supposed that this was the result of his late visit to Washington, but the Governor indignantly denied that he had visited Washington with that end in view. He wanted no troops to assist him, and had made no such request. He did not consider the riot at Hamburg as significant of anything more than a mere local affair, the result of bad feeling in a particular locality. A very few days afterwards his letter to the President was made public, and Chamberlain's character for veracity was utterly ruined.

In this letter he declares that the massacre of Hamburg had struck terror into the hearts of the negro, and as it was probably made with a view to the approaching elections, it would have the effect of deterring them from the polls, and he more than insinuates that it was a political move. He says that the demand made by the mob on the militia company for surrendering their arms, with the fact that the militia had not done, nor threatened to do, injury to any one in that community, seems to indicate a purpose to deprive the militia of their rights on account of their color or political associations. Those who made the demand were whites and Democrats. The effect of this act has been to terrorize the blacks and cause some elation among the whites. All the whites are not so bad as those of Edgefield, but their mild disapproval of such outrages does not prevent them, and as political advantages may grow out of them, they overlook the brutality and seek to find some excuse for it. Their intention is to introduce the Mississippi plan into the State. In this state of general [253] alarm among the negroes, may not the Governor expect help from the President?

President Grant, who a year before had turned a deaf ear to the call of the Governor of Mississippi for help, now when the elections are approaching finds that the rights and liberties of the citizens are in peril, sympathizes deeply with the Governor of South Carolina. In the Hamburg massacre he finds only a repetition of Mississippi violence. He volunteers the opinion that the latter State is governed by a body of officials chosen through fraud and violence such as was scarcely to be accredited to savages, much less to a civilized and Christian people. He closes with a remark the truth and significance of which doubtless did not appear either to himself or to Chamberlain, but which everybody can understand now—a government that cannot give protection to life, property, and all civil rights is a failure.

When the leaders give the key note, the masses are sure to follow. On the evening of the 17th July an indignation meeting was held in Charleston, at which the Rev. Cain (Daddy Cain) and the Rev. Adams were conspicuous. Their language was such as this: ‘This thing must stop! Remember there are eighty thousand black men in the State able to bear Winchester rifles, and twenty thousand black women who can light the torch or use the knife. Governor Chamberlain must bring Butler and his clan to justice.’

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