During most of Reconstruction in South Carolina, the Democratic Party did not field tickets in statewide elections. Because of the state’s large African American majority and the freedmen’s loyalty to the party of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party had a firm grasp on state politics. Democrats could hope to wield influence only by siding with one Republican faction against another. While that strategy produced tangible gains for Democrats, especially in 1874, Democrats in 1876 determined to make a campaign for a “straight-out” Democratic ticket. They nominated for governor Wade Hampton III, South Carolina’s highest-ranking Confederate officer, and other leading Confederate officers filled out the ticket. The Democratic strategy of “force without violence” depended on the ability of Democrats to intimidate or coerce Republicans into abstaining, but without provoking federal intervention in the state’s affairs.
Democrats sought to deter Republican enthusiasm by riding wherever Republican officials were planning to speak, creating a disturbance, and breaking up or taking over the rally. Usually they demanded equal time to respond to Republican speeches; often they disrupted Republican speakers with loud shouting or the brandishing of guns. While such tactics were unlikely to persuade voters of the superiority of Democratic ideas, they were effective in making the point that the Republican state government could not protect its own leaders, not to mention rank-and-file supporters. On election day in 1876 they appeared at the polls armed and in force, and they attempted to prevent African Americans from voting. In this objective of reducing the Republican vote Democrats were unsuccessful, as the Republican Party achieved its highest vote total of the entire Reconstruction period for incumbent governor Daniel H. Chamberlain.
They were much more successful, however, in piling up new Democratic votes. Hampton’s candidacy and the grassroots “Red Shirt” organizations created a fever pitch of excitement among the whites. The straightforward campaign for white supremacy gave the white masses a clear end and a clear means to that end. Rallies were held in every county of the state, often including rituals in which Hampton would come upon a woman dressed as “South Carolina” and raise her up from the dust or liberate her from her chains. There were parades, music, and cheers upon cheers, especially when Hampton spoke. Hampton undoubtedly gained the votes of many whites who had never voted before during Reconstruction. At the same time, his frequent promises to respect the civil rights of blacks won him favor in the North.
It must be remembered, however, that the full voting strength of white South Carolina was still insufficient to win a fair election. According to an 1875 special state census, South Carolina had 74,193 white men over age twenty-one and 110,735 black men over age twenty-one. The Democrats polled 92,261 votes and the Republicans polled 91,127 in 1876. Therefore, either 18,000 African Americans voted for Hampton (as he reportedly believed) or his victory was owed to ballot box stuffing, repeat voting, and illegal voting. All these tactics were admitted by Democratic leaders in their memoirs—Georgians crossed state lines to vote, Red Shirts rode from polling place to polling place voting everywhere they went, Democrats folded multiple “tissue ballots” inside their regular paper ballots. Edgefield County reported two thousand more votes than it had eligible voters.
With fraud so obvious, the Republican-controlled State Board of Canvassers seized the opportunity to grab the election. They declared invalid the votes of both Edgefield and Laurens Counties, which had gone heavily for Hampton despite being solidly Republican in the past. Throwing out those counties gave Republicans control of the state House of Representatives, and that body had the authority to determine the winner of the election for governor. When the General Assembly met, the disputed members from Edgefield and Laurens Counties were excluded, and the House organized along Republican lines. The Democrats walked out in protest and, incorporating the disputed members, declared themselves a quorum. They then returned to the State House, forced their way in, and began to conduct business. For four months South Carolina had two legislatures—each one debating bills and passing laws. The state had two governors as well, with both Hampton and Chamberlain attempting to exercise the powers of that office.
The election had national as well as local significance. Presidential candidates Samuel Tilden and Rutherford Hayes were so tightly deadlocked in electoral votes that South Carolina’s votes would determine who became president. On the face of the returns Hayes, a Republican, won; but he had to wait for a national bipartisan election commission to side with him and Democrats to cease their delaying tactics before his election was assured in late February 1877. Once elected, Hayes adopted a “hands-off ” policy toward the South. In April of that year Chamberlain, knowing that the federal government would not maintain him in office, resigned. Reconstruction in South Carolina was over.
Sheppard, William Arthur. Red Shirts Remembered: Southern Brigadiers of the Reconstruction Period. Atlanta: Ruralist Press, 1940.
Simkins, Francis B. “The Election of 1876 in South Carolina.” South Atlantic Quarterly 21 (July 1922): 225–40; (October 1922): 335–51.
Williams, Alfred B. Hampton and His Red Shirts: South Carolina’s Deliverance in 1876. Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans, and Cogswell, 1935.
Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.