The Red Shirts, named for their distinctive uniforms, were the horsemen who accompanied Wade Hampton III and other Democratic candidates on their tour around South Carolina in the tumultuous election of 1876. They executed a Democratic strategy euphemistically termed “force without violence” to defeat the much more numerous Republicans and thereby reestablish white supremacy in South Carolina.
The Red Shirts were simply a more organized version of the “rifle clubs” or “sabre clubs” that had proliferated in South Carolina after the breakup of the Ku Klux Klan by federal forces in 1871. These clubs, ostensibly social in nature, were in fact local paramilitary forces loyal to the Democratic Party. Composed of hundreds of rifle clubs totaling fifteen thousand or more men, the Red Shirts were much more numerous than the detachment of U.S. troops in the state at that time. Memoirs of former Red Shirts indicate that the uniform was originally a mockery of the Republican practice of “waving the bloody shirt,” a slang term for efforts to arouse sectional passions among voters. Given their purpose of securing home rule, the Red Shirts may also have been a reference to Garibaldi’s Italian nationalist organization of that name.
Organized as Red Shirt brigades, they intimidated and sometimes attacked Republicans during the 1876 campaign. “Force without violence” was a slogan, not a binding policy, and Red Shirt groups sometimes used deadly violence. The worst instance was the Ellenton Riot, in which Edgefield Red Shirts killed thirty black militiamen and a state senator, many in cold blood. Red Shirts all over the state stuffed ballot boxes and committed other frauds to ensure Hampton’s election. In the traditional mythology of Reconstruction, these unsavory aspects of the campaign were forgotten, and the Red Shirts—Hampton first among them—became the noble saviors of the state. The editors of the State newspaper commented in 1905: “Wade Hampton and the men who wore red shirts in the broad light of day and the women who blessed them redeemed South Carolina from negro rule.” Although they were overwhelmingly white and were committed to white supremacy, the Red Shirts did count some African Americans in their number. These black Democrats often retained the right to vote after most African Americans were disfranchised.
Drago, Edmund L. Hurrah for Hampton! Black Red Shirts in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
Jarrell, Hampton M. Wade Hampton and the Negro: The Road Not Taken. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1949.
Sheppard, William Arthur. Red Shirts Remembered: Southern Brigadiers of the Reconstruction Period. Atlanta: Ruralist Press, 1940.
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.