Let's pick up where my post about Stephen Budiansky's book "The Bloody Shirt", left off and begin an exploration of a shocking and little-known moment in our nation's history.
It was July 4, 1876, in a no-longer extant South Carolina town called Hamburg that this episode begins. Two white farmers were driving a buggy into the center of town when they found the roads occupied by African-American soldiers who made up Company A of the Eighteenth Regiment of the South Carolina National Guard. These troops, who were on parade in celebration of Independence Day, were requested to move by the two farmers, and after the farmers demanded they step aside, opened a path for the two carts.
The next day, the two farmers went to court, presided over by an African-American judge, to swear a complaint against the commanding officer of the regiment. The judge, Prince Rivers, ordered an adjournment until July 8th, on which day roughly one hundred armed white men, mostly members of the notorious "rifle clubs" appeared at the courthouse. The officer and his men did not come to the courthouse.
The gang of men found the militiamen in a nearly structure called the Sibley Building and demanded that they relinquish their arms, that blacks had no right to carry arms. When the militiamen and their officer refused, they, as Budiansky put it "knew they had a war on their hands".
For hours the building was pounded by small arms and artillery fire as the militiamen tried to hold their position on the second floor. Their return fire, though limited, struck a 25 year old rifle club member named McKie Meriwether, killing him instantly. Eventually, the rifle club men stormed the building and took the bulk of the miltiamen prisoner.
These men were marched to an patch of ground, now lost to history, but known as "The Dead Ring" after the circle formed by the captors around their prey. In the end, four of the African-American prisoners were executed, and at least two others were killed trying to escape.
I provide you with a link to the official report from the South Carolina Attorney General, as well as a letter to now-President Ulysses Grant from the South Carolina governor. The endgame of this affair (without getting into the wholesale slaughter that took place in Ellentown, SC in September, 1876) was that seven men were indicted for murder, but after the election of Democrat and famous Confederate general Wade Hampton, all charges were dropped. The massacre galvanized both North and South, and was a pivot point in marking the end of Reconstruction and formation of the Compromise of 1877.
There are, of course, many more sordid and far-reaching components to the Hamburg Massacre, but for the sake of brevity and with confidence that you will search out the information for yourselves. One particularly frightening figure worth reading about is Ben Tillman.
Let's move to the point of how well this part of our past is remembered (or not). Please recall the name of the white man killed at the beginning of the battle, McKie Meriwether. In 1916, a monument was built to commemorate a man who "perished for the cause of liberty" in "The Battle of Hamburg". The town of Hamburg subsequently has disappeared from the maps after a series of floods, the building of a dam, and the construction of a golf course in 1998.
The monument, erected in a town called North Augusta, still stands today, and when the town celebrated its centennial in 2006, it was recognized as a monument "to the only resident of Hamburg to be killed in the Hamburg riot of 1876."
To reinforce, this was two years ago.
The obelisk itself, which can be viewed here, has inscriptions on its four sides, which I encourage you to read, especially the east face.
Having read that, keep in mind that no monument, tablet, marker, or memorial exists for the 6 African-American men murdered that day.
Now that you've read this missive, take a moment and reflect on what we know, understand, learn, and teach about the period of our nation's history called Reconstruction.