(July 8, 1876). The Hamburg Massacre, a bloody racial clash in a small town in Aiken County, was a turning point in the gubernatorial campaign of 1876. The massacre put into perspective numerous features of post–Civil War South Carolina, including the tensions between—and the growing militancy of— local whites and African Americans, the depth of conservative white hostility, and the precarious existence of Governor Daniel H. Chamberlain’s Republican state government.
Hamburg, a largely African American village near the Savannah River, lay astride the route from Augusta, Georgia, to Aiken and Edgefield Counties in South Carolina. On July 4, 1876, two whites, Henry Getsen and Thomas Butler, were apparently stopped and heckled by an African American militia unit who refused to allow passage through town. The antagonism between whites and black militia units was deeply entrenched. The militia, formed by the state’s Republican administration to protect the African American community, was unacceptable to many whites. To them, an armed, nearly all-black force in the service of (in their eyes) an illegitimate state government brought animosity rather than security. In July 1876, with elections for the state government only months away, tensions were especially high. The militia commander in Hamburg, a former slave and Union army veteran named Doc Adams, eventually allowed the travelers to pass, but the damage had been done. Angry and offended, Getsen and Butler headed to Edgefield, where they secured the legal services of Matthew C. Butler, a local attorney and Confederate war hero.
Butler (no relation to Thomas) filed suit with Hamburg’s trial justice, another former slave and veteran, Prince Rivers. The suit charged the militia, and Adams in particular, with blocking a public highway. Butler demanded that the militia be disbanded and that the arms be surrendered to him. Adams countersued, claiming the travelers had interfered with an official militia drill. A hearing was set for the morning of July 8, but Justice Rivers began to panic when Butler arrived, escorted by scores of armed whites from local gun clubs. Attempting to broker a deal, Rivers offered to ship the militia weapons back to the state armory, but Butler rejected the offer. Fearing a collision, Rivers warned the militia to lay low, and somewhere between eighty and one hundred members subsequently barricaded themselves in a nearby brick warehouse.
This action by the militia, followed closely by the disappearance of the trial justice, may have convinced whites that the African Americans were considering some sort of offensive action. Or, seeing the militia concentrated, rougher types might have seized the opportunity to push for punitive action. Whatever the motivation, by midafternoon the whites, whose numbers had grown to more than two hundred, surrounded the warehouse. Dispute remains over who fired the first shot, but by late afternoon the battle was in full fury, with whites firing at the building while African Americans inside returned fire. Men on both sides were wounded, but the first man killed was white, a young man who was shooting alongside his father.
As dusk set in, an old cannon arrived from Augusta, which quickly rendered the cover of the building useless. After a few rounds from the cannon, militiamen started darting out holes and windows and running toward the neighboring woods. At least one African American was killed as he exited the warehouse, and some thirty or forty were captured by whites. From this group six were selected, marched a fair distance away, and executed. The remainder, already disarmed, were released; several accounts indicate that whites fired on them also, as they fled into the safety of the woods.
The effects of the massacre spread and galvanized the South Carolina Democratic Party, while at the same time it drove a wedge between Republicans at the state and federal levels. White Democrats had been divided over the 1876 gubernatorial campaign, with some arguing for an alliance with Republican Governor Daniel Chamberlain as the safest means of achieving victory. The Hamburg Massacre and its aftermath silenced such talk and catapulted to prominence the “straight-out” strategy, which supported former Confederate general Wade Hampton for governor. Following Hamburg, Governor Chamberlain had condemned whites as the aggressors, pleaded for federal troops to help keep the peace (and then denied doing so), and supported a massive roundup of suspects (nearly one hundred whites were arrested). The federal government turned an all but deaf ear, and President Ulysses S. Grant even displayed annoyance at the governor’s inability to maintain order. Hamburg demonstrated Chamberlain’s bias and weakness—no prosecutions, in fact, ever occurred—and the federal government’s growing indifference. Over the summer and fall numerous confrontations took place, with gun clubs, saber clubs, military parades, and spontaneous (and not-so-spontaneous) riots becoming a central feature of the Democratic campaign. The hard-driving Democratic campaign based on intimidation and force would bring Hampton into the statehouse.
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.
Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.