The Red Shirt Election

A daughter of South Carolina now in her eighty-ninth year, LOULA AYRES ROCKWELL has a crystal-clear memory of an American election in which violence and intimidation were more rife than at any time most of us can recall. Mrs. Rockwell is the mother of two famous flyers, Paul and Kiffin Rockwell, who were decorated for their exploits in the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrillc in the First World War.


THE most vivid recollection of my childhood days is the election in November, 1876, of General Wade Hampton as Governor of South Carolina, which ousted the carpetbaggers and their Negro henchmen from power. I was ten years old at the time and could realize fully what was going on, especially so since from babyhood I had lived in stirring and perilous times.

I was born on a cotton plantation in Hillsborough Township, Marion County, South Carolina. My father, Enoch Shaw Ayres, was a former Confederate soldier. When South Carolina seceded and the South was in danger, he was one of the first to volunteer, and joined the Eighth South Carolina Infantry Regiment. He served throughout the more than four years of war. His regiment was one of Kershaw’s Brigade, which was part of the First Division of General Longstreet’s First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, and he fought in every important battle of his regiment from First Bull Run to Gettysburg to Bentonville. When General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the Army at Greensboro, North Carolina, my father mounted a horse and rode home. He never took the oath of allegiance, and remained until the end of his days what some call an “ unreconstructed Rebel.”He married Samantha Tyler, of Horry County, South Carolina, in December, 1865. I was born almost a year later, the first of nine children who followed each other at about twoyear intervals.

Long after the death of my father in July, 1914, F. A. Thompson wrote of him in the Charleston News and Courier (September 26, 1932): “The late Enoch Ayres, like Washington, was never known to tell a lie or do a dishonorable or dishonest act.” Herbert Peele, editor and publisher of the Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Daily Advance, wrote in his paper: “. . . a tall, bearded man who loved his friends and knew how to hate his enemies thoroughly and picturesquely, his was the kindest heart in the world. Also he was the most genial host, and a farmer who 25 years ago knew how to get the best results from his acreage. Mr. Ayres ran his farm well, better than anybody else in the community. He ran his church . . . they called him ‘the pope.’ He ran the political activities of his neighborhood, and we can see him now talking politics on the church grounds before and after service, and that, without mixing ‘em.”

My father never would run for public office, but he always wanted to see that the best men were elected, and he always was consulted by candidates about political conditions in our section of the state. His advice and support were sought and relied upon. He must have been active in controlling the Black Terror of the late 1860s. One of the first things I remember is my mother sewing on long white robes she made for my father from sheets, and making hoods out of pillowcases. He was away from home a good deal during this period; he would gel on his horse and ride off, usually at nightfall and frequently with other men, and occasionally he would be away for two or three days. I never heard him mention where he had been or what he had done, and my mother never questioned him.

The overseer of our plantation was a big, faithful Negro named Henry, who took orders from my father and passed them on to the other Negroes. He knew how to handle them, and there was not as much trouble as we heard of elsewhere. He was kind and gentle with the children, and we all adored him. My small brothers would follow him by the hour. He drank whisky from time to time like all the Negroes, but I never saw him come around the house drunk. He would have nothing to do with the Freedmen’s Bureau and the black troopers over at Marion Court House.

As I grew older, I felt more and more deeply that something terrible was wrong in our country. I heard increasing talk about trouble with Negroes, carpetbaggers, scalawags. (The last two terms had to be explained to me, as they were new to our language.) My father and mother and their guests discussed, at table and elsewhere, instances of property owners who could not pay the exorbitant taxes and were being sold out, and of young men —usually former soldiers we all knew—who had got into trouble with the occupying military and had left for the West (most of them never to return home). There were stories of shootings and murders and riots at Charleston and in various other parts of the state.

Marion County was one of those most continuously occupied by Yankee troops—they were not withdrawn from the county seat at ‘arion until after the elect ions of 1876. Sometimes the garrison was black, sometimes white. Those soldiers patrolled the county from time to time. I do not remember ever seeing any of them, but I heard enough about them.

My father and his friends said the situation was growing worse and worse—that it had become intolerable and desperate means must be used to put an end to it. I was mature for my age, and little that was said escaped me. I heard a lot about Democrats being counted out and Radicals being counted in; that Marion County was in the hands of three ignorant and corrupt Negro commissioners, who were increasing taxes so that they could steal more; that white men were being murdered and decent, orderly Negroes who tried to coöperate with the white Democrats were being intimidated, beaten, sometimes shot and killed. The native white men had obtained firearms and even some small cannon. They had an almost military organization; and, while not in uniform, many wore red shirts. I watched my mother make one for my father. The summer before my tenth birthday, there was frequent mention in the conversations at home of a “Straight-out” Party which, it was hoped, could lake over full control of the state in the approaching elections. The “Straight-outs” refused all compromise with the white Republican carpetbaggers and scalawags and the Negroes; it was to be all or nothing for the white Democrats.

During the summer of 1876 more and more people came to the house, and my father was rarely there alone. I still remember some of the more frequent callers. There was of course Uncle Tommy Ayres, my father’s brother, with his two brothers-in-law, John and Joseph Williamson, and Major Henry Cooke, who had married my father’s sister Catherine. There were my cousin Levi Grainger and Captain Andrew Harllee, who had been all through the war with my father in the Eighth South Carolina Regiment, Colonel John Blue, Colonel Stackhouse of the Eighth Regiment, several of the Rogers and Page men, and others. I now realize that these were bitter and determined men, who were resolved to regain control of their native soil or die. They had lost much or almost all in the war. My father’s youngest brother, Dwight, died before Richmond in 1862. Uncle Tommy had seen his two oldest sons shot dead at his side during the defense of Petersburg in the fall of 1864, just before he himself had been wounded seriously in the head. Others had had their homes pillaged and their lands confiscated. Every one of these men had suffered; they were ready now to suffer even more.

General Wade Hampton was nominated for the governorship by the “Straight-out” Democrats. It seemed to me that all the former soldiers, from generals to privates, had rallied to his support, and great pressure was put on the Negroes to get them to vote the Democratic ticket. Some of them came over to the while people, although at great risk to themselves. Several times Negro armed bands fired on colored Democrats and beat and killed others.

In the fall of 1876 my father was away from home almost continuously. In late September he rode north with a troop of several hundred Marion County Red Shirts to attend a giant rally at Bennetisville, at which his old commander, General Kershaw, and other wartime leaders spoke. He escorted General Hampton back to Marion Court House, and at all the crossroads and villages along the way the General was greeted by large crowds of whiles and blacks. There was a tremendous rally at Marion. Eighteen “clubs” of Red Shirts from various sections of the county reported in military fashion as they rode in, and there was almost a full day of speaking, by Generals Hampton, Kershaw, Kennedy, Richardson, and others, as well as by several Negro leaders who had come over to the Democrats.

In October there was a big Democratic barbecue at Marion Court House. Naturally, I was not taken to any of these meetings, nor was my mother. The times were stern, and the political struggle was for the men. My father was warned early in November that he might be arrested at any time, but he continued to ride day and night with his fellow Red Shirts. Deputy marshals and bands of Yankee soldiers were going about the country arresting former Confederate soldiers and locking them up in jail, but we did not see any of them in Hillsborough Township.

Election day was November 7, and on the 6th my father rode over to Marion Court House with his brother and other comrades. Before he left home, he called Henry aside and told him, “I do not intend to dictate to any of the Negroes how they are to vote tomorrow. 1 only want you to tell them that if they vote against General Hampton, they had better not ever let me catch them on my plantation again.”

Henry started out on foot for Marion Court House about dusk, and he told us afterwards it took him almost all night to get there. He said that on all sides he saw and hoard men riding, shots being fired into the air, men shouting for General Hampton. This was to notify the Negroes the Red Shirts were out in full force.

My mother was a firm believer in the power of prayer. After an early breakfast on the morning of the 7th, she returned to her room, got down on her knees, and began to pray. I stayed near her most of the time, while Aunt Barb, our old colored cook, looked after my little sisters and brothers. My mother did not get up from her knees all day long, and she remained on them long after night came. She told me later that for weeks she had fully expected my father would be killed, and that every time he went out she feared never to see him alive again. It must have been well after midnight when, away down the road towards the Mill Branch, we heard Henry singing. My mother arose from her knees and began to smile. She knew from the sound of Henry’s voice that he had been drinking, but something in the tone told her that all was well, that the Red Shirts had won the day for General Hampton, and that my father was coming home and the long nightmare would be at an end.

I went off to my bed and to sleep, but I suppose my mother stayed up until my father came in about dawn. He slept all of the next day. I don’t know what he did with his red shirt, and do not recall ever seeing it again. He never had occasion to wear it after that day.

I was grown, married, and a mother myself before I ever heard my father tell one of the things that happened at Marion Court House on that election day in 1876. The captain commanding the Yankee troops garrisoned in the little town had been stationed in South Carolina for several years. He had learned to know the Southern people and had made friends among them, and he was sympathetic with them. When he saw the hundreds of orderly, disciplined, but determined Red Shirts drawn up on one side of our stately old Court House, and looked at the thousands of armed Negroes milling around on the other, he feared trouble. He called a few of the lied Shirt leaders around him.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I understand your feelings and your situation, and I fully sympathize with you. However, I have my orders from Washington, and there must be no disorder, no fighting between the white people and the Negroes. I hope you understand me. My men are over there,” he continued, pointing to the company of Blue Coats drawn up in front of the Court House. “But,”he added almost in a whisper, “no ammunition has been issued to them.”