The Ellenton Riot was one of many racial clashes that occurred in the tense atmosphere of the 1876 gubernatorial campaign. The altercation featured many of the classic elements of conflict in South Carolina during Reconstruction, including allegations of African American criminal activity, paramilitary vigilante action by whites, hostility toward the black militia, and the profound inadequacies of the Republican state government.
Trouble began in early September along the Aiken-Barnwell county line, following reports of an assault by African Americans on an elderly white woman. Although the rumors were later proved unfounded, they were perfect grist for the campaign mill in 1876, when South Carolina war hero Wade Hampton III and the Democrats were attempting to unseat Republican carpetbagger Daniel H. Chamberlain. Seemingly trivial incidents proved to conservatives that Republicans and their notions of racial equality only delivered lawlessness and disorder. A warrant was issued for the arrest of the alleged perpetrators, which prompted the local black militia to gather for the protection of the accused. By September 16, white “gun clubs” and “rifle clubs” had mobilized in response, and the area around Ellenton in Aiken County was the setting for a deadly cat-and-mouse game that lasted several days.
White “gun clubs” scoured the region around Ellenton from September 16 through September 19, ostensibly searching for the attackers of the elderly woman. No African Americans were safe, and accounts indicate that field crews, families at home, evening political meetings, and even church gatherings were targets of white assailants. Only the intervention of the U.S. Army ended the killing spree. Fortunately for the hundred-or-so African Americans gathered at Rouse’s Bridge on September 19, Captain Thomas Lloyd and units of the Eighteenth Infantry arrived just before hundreds of armed whites. Lloyd negotiated a compromise with the leader of the gun clubs, A. P. Butler, which called on both of the unorganized armies to retire and disband. The human cost was high: at least two whites were dead, with three wounded, while estimates of the death toll among African Americans ranged from thirty to more than one hundred. Among the dead was state legislator Simon Coker, who was shot in the head while praying for mercy.
Despite vitriolic rhetoric on the part of Governor Chamberlain and the Republicans, the only action that followed was an official call for all unauthorized armed associations to disband. Recognizing that state authorities could not curb Democratic restlessness, Chamberlain was hoping to pave the way for federal action; if citizens disobeyed the governor, he could then legally turn to the federal government for further assistance. Unfortunately for Chamberlain and state Republicans, such assistance was sporadic and short-lived, amounting to little more than the shifting of existing troops from trouble spot to trouble spot. No prosecutions followed the Ellenton Riot at the state level (murder) or at the federal level (civil rights violations). As with the Hamburg Riot in July and the Cainhoy Riot the following October, such altercations added fuel to an already heated political campaign and further undercut the legitimacy of the Republican state government.
Allen, Walter. Governor Chamberlain’s Administration in South Carolina, a Chapter of Reconstruction in the Southern States. 1888. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Smith, Mark M. “‘All Is Not Quiet in Our Hellish County’: Facts, Fiction, Politics, and Race—The Ellenton Riot of 1876.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 95 (April 1994): 142–55.
Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.