A massacre in Hamburg, S.C., epitomized the violence that eviscerated Reconstruction.

In the spring of 1876, Martin Witherspoon Gary, South Carolina planter, lawyer and ex-Confederate general, took out a small notebook, wrote “Plan of Campaign” at the top of a page and jotted down in a hurried hand a few ideas for the upcoming election:

  • 1st, Determine if necessary to kill every White Radical in this county
  • 2nd, Every mulatto Radical leader
  • 3rd, Every negro leader—make no individual threats but let this be known as a fixed settled thing
  • 4th, We must send speakers to all of their political meetings, who must denounce the rascality of these leaders face to face. The moral effects of this denunciation will be of great effect
  • 5th, Thorough military organization in order to intimidate the negro
  • 6th, Every white man must be at the polls by five o clock in the morning of the day of election, and must go prepared to remain there until the votes are counted
  • 7th,Make no threats—gently in manner, strongly in deed
  • 8th, There is no use in arguments for the negro

From 1865 to 1877, more than 3,000 freedmen and their white Republican allies would be murdered across the South. The truth would be buried for decades in myths and cover stories that blamed the victims, hid the political purpose of the violence and wildly exaggerated the supposed wrongs committed against the white Southerners by the “carpetbag” governments.

But the simple fact was that this was a war of terror, led by ex-Confederates who were determined to reverse the verdict of Appomattox. Terror had overthrown Alabama’s Reconstruction government in 1874, Mississippi’s in 1875. Now in the spring of 1876 it was South Carolina’s turn.

General Gary was an impatient man that spring. Two years earlier he had bought a fine plantation house in Edgefield County, a place that shared a reputation for rich soils and violence. It was regarded as one of the state’s most violent counties, with many cases of “murder or manslaughter, growing out of personal quarrels,” a local judge noted. The place was so violent that jokes had grown up about it. You could tell a high-toned Edgefield gentleman, it was said, because he was the one with four huge navy-sized revolvers stuck in his belt. A mad dog needed to be shot on a street over in Augusta, Ga., just across the Savannah River; a policeman called out to the crowd that had gathered, “Is there a man from Edgefield here?”

Upon his arrival there, Gary called together 137 local planters for a “tax union meeting.”

The men took out a notice in the Edgefield Advertiser declaring themselves “ready to strike for white supremacy,” and announcing that they were drawing up lists of blacks to whom land would not be rented as punishment for their political activity.

Gary had always been unruly. At Appomattox he refused to surrender and galloped off the field instead. He then led 200 men of his brigade to escort President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet from Greensboro, N.C., to his mother’s house in Cokesbury, S.C. “Volatile” was the word that friends and foes alike used to describe him. He had a head as bald as a billiard ball, a hard stare and a long beak of a nose; his nickname was “The Bald Eagle.”

Now in the spring of 1876 he was again spoiling for action and impatient with those who would compromise or surrender. He stormed over the refusal of the state’s Democrats to endorse a “straight out” ticket of uncompromising white conservatives in the upcoming elections; there was even talk of the Democrats throwing in the towel altogether and supporting the moderate Republican incumbent governor.

Other prominent Edgefield men shared Gary’s violent impatience. There was Matthew C. Butler, another lawyer and exConfederate general, who the previous year had led 1,000 armed white men to hunt down a local black militia captain— who had got away in the end. And there were the Tillman brothers, George and Ben. Ben Tillman was not yet 30 but this last of 11 children, whose father had died when he was 2, was well on his way to becoming one of the largest landowners in the county between what he had inherited and what he had bought, some 2,000 acres of land. He had been old enough to fight the last year of the Civil War but before he could enlist was incapacitated by a tumor, which an army surgeon then cut out from behind his left eye. He managed to survive the ordeal but lost the eye.

Ben Tillman had since joined the Sweetwater Sabre Club, 45 young white men from Edgefield and Aiken counties. The men bought themselves uniforms, sabers and army pistols, and many had improved carbines and Winchester rifles. A large majority had shotguns. There was agreement among the members of the club that nothing was so useful as a shotgun to mow down a bunch of men at short range. In the event of trouble, they had a system of couriers who could spread the alarm and get everyone assembled on two hours’ notice. They would meet at the little Sweetwater Baptist Church, about eight miles north of the predominantly black town of Hamburg.

Hamburg had been practically a ghost town at the end of the Civil War. It lay on low land frequently flooded by the Savannah River, its former prosperity as a market town long since bypassed by the railroads. But the place offered the freedmen who moved there strength in numbers and safety in remoteness. Edgefield County’s population was 60 percent African American, but Hamburg’s was soon 75 percent; within a few years its population swelled to 1,100 as the town became home to hundreds of black families who had broken free of the life of contracted farm workers, a life scarcely distinguishable from slavery. Among their numbers were schoolteachers, railroad employees, blacksmiths; a successful cotton broker, a printer, a clerk of the court; shoemakers, painters, carpenters and a constable. Hamburg became a small but significant center of African-American political autonomy, electing a black mayor, town councilmen, county commissioners, state legislators and forming a state National Guard company. One of their own, Prince Rivers, a former sergeant in the U.S. Colored Troops who fought for the Union, was appointed as the local trial justice, or magistrate.

One day during that spring of compromise that so incensed Martin Witherspoon Gary, the Bald Eagle had got his neighbors together and told them that “one ounce of fear was worth a pound of persuasion.” He told them, and they agreed, that they should “seize the first opportunity that the negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the negroes a lesson.” As Ben Tillman later recalled, “Nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state.” The idea was to set about “terrorizing the negroes at the first opportunity,” and “having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.”

Hamburg was the place for it if any place was. Nothing could be easier than to provoke trouble there, since young white rowdies were doing it all the time. Edgefield men had to drive through Hamburg to cross the bridge to Augusta, and they were often causing trouble, razzing the black town constable, galloping their horses down the sidewalks, ignoring the posted sign that said to dip water out only with a clean vessel and sticking their faces right into the public town well to take a drink. They would shoot off their guns and whoop and curse the “radicals” outside the house of Samuel J. Lee, the black county commissioner who had been in the state legislature and even served as speaker of the house a few years earlier.

The town marshal, Jim Cook, would sometimes arrest the white troublemakers, hauling them in and fining them $5. One particularly cocky local white youth who lived on a plantation just a couple of miles out of town, Thomas J. Butler, often went around talking about the main street through Hamburg as “my road” or “my father’s street.” There had been plenty of bad blood already.

In July 1876, Tommy Butler was 22. On the 4th of July he and his brother-in-law Henry Getzen were in a buggy driving through Hamburg, coming from Augusta. There would later be some dispute about whether the two men had sat in their buggy on the street in Hamburg for a half-hour watching things first and had then circled around the block, or whether they had come just that minute from Augusta when they were heading down Market Street. And there was plenty of dispute about whether the men of Company A of the 18th Regiment of the South Carolina National Guard, who were parading to celebrate the Fourth, were taking up the entire 150-foot-wide street or just a third of it and whether the two men could have gone around if they so chose. But there is no dispute that they did not so choose and instead whipped their horse into a trot as they came right down the middle of the road.

There were a few hundred townsfolk at the parade; they had gathered at 3 p.m. to listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and then at 4:30 the militia company had put on its show of marching and drill.

The black militiamen parading with rifles and bayonets and the white men in the buggy came to a halt facing each other.

“Mr. Getzen, I do not know for what reason you treat me in this manner,” said Dock Adams, the captain of the company, a resident of Hamburg and a boss carpenter by trade.

“What?” Getzen replied.

“Aiming to drive through my company.”

“Well, this is the rut I always travel.”

“That may be true, but if ever you had a company out here I should not have treated you in this kind of a manner. I would have gone around and shown some respect to you.”

“Well, this is the rut I always travel, and I don’t intend to get out of it for no damn niggers.”

There was more cursing from Tommy Butler. He later solemnly averred he had been “very mild and peaceful” during the confrontation, to which a member of the militia company said if that was the case, “It is the first time that he ever was.”

After several minutes Adams ordered his company to “open order” and let the buggy drive through. Some of the men in the ranks grumbled that they would rather stand there all day and all night than move aside, and more words were exchanged. Adams tried to silence them. Butler and Getzen reached for their pistols and threatened to shoot anyone who stuck a bayonet in their horse. Then it started to rain, and Adams was able to convince the company to head back toward its drill room in the Sibley Building. Marshal Jim Cook showed up and shouted at the white men that he would arrest them if they ever came through town again, but by then they were several hundred yards down the road and weren’t about to stop or turn back.

The next morning Tommy Butler, his father, Robert, and Henry Getzen showed up at Trial Justice Prince Rivers’ office on Market Street to swear out a complaint against Dock Adams for obstructing the road. Rivers immediately summoned Adams for a hearing. Since Adams didn’t have a lawyer Rivers allowed him to cross-examine Getzen. Things got so heated that Rivers found Adams in contempt for the language he used and ordered the hearing postponed until Saturday, July 8, at 4 p.m., to give everyone a chance to cool off.

At 3 o’clock on that very hot Saturday afternoon, a buggy pulled up to the door of Prince Rivers’ magistrate’s office on Market Street. In the buggy sat General Matthew C. Butler (no relation to Tommy Butler). He called to William Nelson, Rivers’ constable who was sitting at his desk inside the open door with his feet propped up on the door frame.

“Where is Rivers?”

“Mr. Rivers is at his house, I reckon,” replied the constable, “but he will be here directly.”

In the street more buggies pulled up along with some men on horses. Getzen, the Butlers and several other men were armed. Tommy Butler had a shotgun, and Getzen had a carbine.

“I have come here as counsel to these people,” the general barked. “Go and tell him to come here to me.”

Nelson kept his same attitude and replied, “I am not Mr. Rivers’ office boy; I am a constable, and I am here ’tending to my business. He told me that he would be here at 4 o’clock, and he won’t come any quicker by my going after him.”

“Do you know who you are talking to?”

“I am talking to General Butler, I believe.”

“You God-damned son of a bitch, you want to have a hole put through you before you can move. God damn you sitting down there with your feet cocked up.”

“Well, general, I am not dead,” Nelson replied, “but if you are going to kill me, why just kill me, and that is all you can do.”

When Rivers arrived, he called the court into session and sent Nelson to fetch Dock Adams and the other officers of the militia company who had been summoned to give their testimony about the incident.

Meanwhile, the street was filling up with armed white men. There were about 100 men on horseback, carrying pistols, 16- shooter rifles and shotguns. The road heading down into town from above was screened by a bluff, so there had not been much warning they were coming.

Nelson went back to tell Rivers he thought there was going to be trouble. “I reckon not,” Rivers replied, but Nelson said, “We better get away from this office.” Meanwhile Adams and the militia officers had sent word that they were not about to show up at Rivers’ court because they were certain an ambush was being prepared. General Butler announced that he and his men were not going to leave town until the black militia company turned over all their guns to him personally. And that was when the Hamburg townspeople knew they really had a war on their hands.

From the top of the Sibley Building, Adams, Nelson and 36 other militia company members who had taken refuge there watched as the streets filled up with more white rifle club men. Horsemen were positioned on the streets that ran to the north and east of the square the building occupied. To the south, General Butler was pointing to the stone abutment of the railroad bridge along the river’s edge, about 75 yards away. Men filed down and took up position behind it.

An order rang out: “All men having carbines or rifles step five paces to the front.”

It was almost dark when the first shot from down by the river flashed brightly against the black water behind. A bullet tore through the metal gutter on the roof right by Nelson’s side.

For a half-hour the firing continued. The men inside the building had only about three rounds apiece and waited to fire back. When they did, they fired one shot right into the head of McKie Meriwether, a 25-year-old member of the Sweetwater Sabre Club who was down along the riverbank firing up at the building with the others, and he pitched over dead.

A voice in the street below said, “Go to Augusta and get a keg of powder and we’ll blow the damned building up.” Another said, “Bring a cannon with you.”

It was dark now and the full moon had not yet risen. The militiamen began slipping out the back of the building to save themselves as they could. A half-hour later the air was rent by the bass report of a cannon, the rippling rain of shrapnel against the brick face of the building and the splintering of the solid mahogany roof beams within. They fired a couple more times until the rifle club men realized there was no longer any return fire coming from the building.

Then came the sound of axes and hatchets throughout the block as the rifle club men broke down doors and smashed floorboards, searching for the hidden militiamen. Voices echoed around the square. “There is some damned nigger in this yard.” “There goes one of the God-damned sons of bitches!”

William Nelson and Moses Parks had jumped over the fence into the next lot and were hiding in the shadows behind Davis Lepfeld’s store on the northwest corner of the block. A voice shouted, “Who is there?” Parks made a run for it, trying to leap over the high fence on the north side of the block. There was a scramble of feet, shouting and gunshots, and as Parks fell to the ground someone cried, “God damn him, I got him.” Nelson crawled back on all fours into the yard of the house and crouched against the brick privy for a while. But the moon had come up and he heard a bunch of men nearby; he pulled a board up and crawled right into the sink of the privy itself.

Over by a peach tree near the railroad trestle, another militiaman heard a second man spring over the fence a little farther down the street and voices shouting at him to halt. Amid the confused sounds of shouting and running footsteps on the street came the crack of pistol shots and then the single boom of a shotgun. Another man lay dead and the hiding militiaman recognized Tommy Butler’s voice. He saw Butler looking down at the body and expressing great satisfaction that they had got Jim Cook. The town marshal was not a member of the militia company but must have known he was the most marked man in town and had holed up with the militiamen for protection and then tried to make a break for it. Butler rifled through the dead man’s pockets for the $5 he had once been fined by the marshal, and not finding any money he lifted a nice looking watch off the corpse. Then the men cut out Cook’s tongue and placed it in his hand and someone said, “Keep that till morning, and let them see what we have done.”

“He’ll chief no more in Hamburg,” said another, “but in hell.”

By about 11 p.m. the rifle club men had rounded up 27 militiamen and marched them down Market Street just between the last house and the South Carolina Railroad. They were surrounded by a ring of men with guns, pistols, axes, hatchets and grubbing hoes.

Ben Tillman and his squad had been in on the shooting of Cook on the street north of the Sibley Building. Two of McKie Meriwether’s cousins were in his company, and they said it was a damned poor piece of work to have lost one of their best men and have only two dead Negroes to show for it. So they made their way up to where the prisoners were being held. It was now 2 a.m. Henry Getzen, who lived close enough to Hamburg to know some of the men, was delegated the task of designating the “meanest characters” among them.

One of the prisoners was Allan Attaway, a county commissioner and a lieutenant of the militia. When he saw Getzen approach he called out to him. “Mr. Getzen, do what you can for me.”

“God damn you, I will do what I can for you directly,” Getzen replied. “I know you.”

Several rifle club men then grabbed Attaway and marched him across the railroad tracks down to a field. “Turn around you yellow son of a bitch,” a voice yelled. There was the sound of gunshots, and then the white men returned, without Attaway.

Getzen called out other men: David Phillips, Pompey Curry, Albert Myniart, Hampton Stephens. Each was marched off across the railroad and each time the sound of shooting came back across the night. Pompey Curry managed to break away and run when his name was called. He was shot in the leg below the knee and fell to the ground, playing dead until he managed to crawl away and hide in the bushes when the men went back for their next prisoner.

When it was over, Ben Tillman pronounced himself “more than satisfied” with his “strenuous day’s work,” and when he and the boys reached Henry Getzen’s place as the first streaks of red dawn appeared in the sky, they stopped and ate some watermelons before continuing on their way home.

Tillman would later allow that probably the killing of prisoners would not have happened but for the loss of “young Meriwether,” but all was for the best as it turned out, since “the purpose of our visit to Hamburg was to strike terror, and the next morning when the negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town, the ghastly sight which met them of seven dead negroes lying stark and stiff certainly had its effect.” They had been “offered up as a sacrifice,” said Tillman, “to the fanatical teachings and fiendish hate of those who sought to substitute the rule of the African for that of the Caucasians of South Carolina.”

What the black people of Hamburg most remembered were the words they heard over and over from the white men as they were shooting and killing and cavorting through the night.

“By God, we’ve killed a sufficient number to prevent nigger rule any longer.”

“We’ve put a quietus on nigger rule for all time to come.”

“By God, we’ll carry South Carolina; about the time we kill four or five hundred more, we will scare the rest.”

“This is the beginning of the redemption of South Carolina.”

A few weeks later the Democrats reconvened to nominate Confederate cavalry hero Wade Hampton as its standard-bearer for governor. “The Rubicon Passed at Hamburg—The Straight-Out Policy The True One” declared the Aiken Courier-Journal.

Hampton’s political campaign became a series of military triumphs that autumn as columns of 1,000 or more armed white men marched across the state, breaking up Republican political meetings or shooting the occasional black militiaman or politician who still dared to defy them. Ben Tillman made sure to be on hand the day that fall when the Sweetwater Sabre Club got hold of Simon Coker, a black state senator they did not much care for. They marched him out to a field, made him kneel and shot him dead. Then one of the boys put his pistol up to the dead man’s head and shot once more, remarking as he did that he remembered what a mistake they had made in Hamburg with Pompey Curry: “Captain, I did not want any more witnesses to come to life again.”

And Ben Tillman, with his pistol, was at his post bright and early on Election Day at a small poll in Edgefield County. When the vote was counted at the end of the day it was 211 to 2 for the Democrats, which was not surprising since he had not let any black men vote at all. General Gary had done the same thing at Edgefield Court-House, where even U.S. troops had not been able to do much more than clear a path about 4 feet wide to the ballot box between the armed white men. When the vote was counted for all of Edgefield County, the Democrats had won 5,500 to 3,000, which was impressive not only because the Democrats’ vote had exceeded by 3,000 the number of white voters in the county but also because the total vote had exceeded by 2,000 the entire number of the county’s voting-age men. Hampton claimed to have carried the state by 1,000 votes, even though black registered voters outnumbered whites 3-to-2.

On June 1, 1877, the new governor dismissed Prince Rivers as trial justice of Hamburg. A few days later the legislature, now firmly in Democratic hands thanks to the expulsion of 22 duly elected Republican members, repealed the charter of the town of Hamburg.

And so ended “Negro rule” in Hamburg.


Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Bloody Shirt by Stephen Budiansky, © Stephen Budiansky, 2008

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here