January 1878 The Civil War

The Result in South Carolina

A Southerner describes mounting racial tensions in the aftermath of Reconstruction.

In a print created two years after the war, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster shake hands and an eagle drapes a flag over an idealized vision of Reconstruction. (J.J. Giles/National Portrait Gallery)

For a decade or so after the war, radical Republicans held power in Congress. The policies they enacted promoted political participation by blacks while deterring involvement by high-ranking former Confederates. Many Southern whites loathed the state governments they felt were being imposed on them by Reconstruction, perceiving them as inept and corrupt. They began taking action to restore what they called “home rule”—resorting to fraud or violence to discourage black political engagement.

South Carolina was an extreme case. Before the 1876 gubernatorial election, President Ulysses S. Grant sent troops to keep order. The Democratic candidate, Wade Hampton, beat the incumbent Republican, Daniel Henry Chamberlain. But evidence of voter fraud surfaced, and neither candidate would cede the election. Eventually the troops were withdrawn, and in early 1877 the newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes gave the nod to Hampton.

Several months later, Belton O’Neall Townsend, writing anonymously (and reflecting some of the prejudices of his era), described the fallout, offering a picture of explosive tensions and the reassertion of white political dominance.

—Sage Stossel

When President Hayes was inaugurated, the State was in anarchy. Within a month after the election the garrisons which had been stationed by Grant and Chamberlain in nearly every populated place in the State had been withdrawn from all points … After their withdrawal the hostile races confronted each other … Wherever immunity seemed possible the negroes were burning the buildings of whites, stealing their property, and assembling as militia or in mobs to assail whites and terrorize communities by riot and tumult; while murders of whites during arsons, burglaries, highway robberies, and riots became frequent. Every white family in the country kept watch at night, or slept in dread, with dogs turned loose in the yard and the gun at the bedside. Every village and town was patrolled by relays of white citizens from dark till daylight. The moment a crime was reported, the mounted rifle clubs assembled from all parts and scoured the country, to the terror of the blacks, arresting suspected criminals, conveying them to jail, or inflicting summary vengeance. They were sometimes resisted by the colored militia, and regular battles occurred. Individual members of the races were constantly quarreling and fighting. The courts, though recognized by both parties, vainly tried to execute justice. Blacks on the juries would consent to no conviction of one of their race prosecuted by a white man. White jurymen acted similarly in the cases of whites indicted for violence towards blacks … A reign of terror existed …

Towards the end of March Chamberlain and Hampton, by invitation of the president, visited Washington to confer with him as to the condition of South Carolina … Orders were issued for the withdrawal of the troops from the state-house. Chamberlain at once returned to South Carolina, and knowing that further resistance was useless soon surrendered the executive office … Hampton immediately took possession, and has since been undisputed governor of the State …

We are now prepared to consider the outgrowths of the president’s action …

Legislative corruption has ceased; and in every branch of the government … there is greatly increased efficiency. The appointees are men of intelligence and high standing, and are above temptation. So, also, are those elected …

Since Chamberlain’s retirement there have been fifteen or twenty elections … to fill vacancies in the legislature, etc. On such occasions great numbers of young white men, largely from adjacent counties, ride to and remain about the polls, “to see fair play,” they explain. These have not attempted openly to molest, but they have certainly frightened the republican negroes. Accordingly, every election has gone democratic …

There has been a relentless determination to purge the offices of republicans, to get rid of every vestige of the hateful carpet-bag régime

The most potent instrument for both purging and revenge has been prosecution for official misconduct … Nearly all the republicans in the State who have ever held office are under indictment, are already convicted and punished … There has been no lack of purely republican rascality to punish. Members of former legislatures, some still sitting, are indicted for taking bribes … It has been discovered that a clerk of the senate issued thousands upon thousands of dollars in pay certificates to merchants, which although recorded as paid for stationery were really given for fine wines, liquors, cigars, furniture, novels, etc. … The managers of a colored state orphan asylum in Columbia … are found to have been ordering for their wards … hundreds of dollars’ worth of assorted candies, whisky, water-melons, and carpets …

But not only has there been a crusade against the politicians; there has been a relentless effort to bring to retribution and get out of the way all those negroes who, without holding office, made themselves obnoxious or dangerous … The jails have been overcrowded all the year: a small one in the country, I have had occasion to notice, used to contain on an average about fifteen prisoners; there are now fifty-one in it, and it has the odor of a wild beast’s cage in a managerie. The number of convicts in the penitentiary has increased from three hundred and fifty during the last year to nearly six hundred. Imprisonment is for longer terms, and as many as two and three negroes are frequently hung at a time, once (in May, I think) even five …

Whatever names parties may hereafter bear in South Carolina … one thing may safely be predicted: the whites, in the future as in the past, will not tolerate, unless forced, any party which aggressively and in real earnest advocates negro rights, or in the same manner denounces the past course of the South …

Readers of this paper may find themselves left in some doubt as to the sentiments of the author on the policy whose results are recounted. Nor should they be charged with a lack of discernment … While he finds some things to approve, he perceives much to deplore. Consequently, he knows not what to say at present. His mind is not made up.

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