The rule of the Reconstruction Governors left South Carolina weak and deep in debt. As crippling as the financial crisis in the state funds was, however, many advancements had been made in race relations. Due to the implementation of Reconstruction by Republicans, former slaves (or Freedmen) were holding public office at local, state, and national levels. None of these were popular with Wade Hampton and his supporters. They believed that the time had come for the state Democratic Party to take power again. They were ready to fight, and what a fight it would be. By the end of 1876, there were two separate governments in the state, each with a governor and a General Assembly, and it would take intervention by Washington to determine the final fate of South Carolina. The drama of the South Carolina Election of 1876, began in Anderson, South Carolina.
The state Democratic Party during Reconstruction was virtually non-existent. Although there were local Democratic clubs, the party was crippled during the period. At the beginning of Daniel Henry Chamberlain’s term as governor in 1874, there were 124 members of the South Carolina House, 91 Republicans, and 33 independents/other parties. In the state Senate, there were 33 members, 26 Republicans and 7 independent/others. Democratic politicians, therefore, were forced to run under other party names, and there were no Democratic candidates for governor. All this changed in 1876, when the Period of Reconstruction ended, and the Period of the Redeemers began.
The Hamburg Massacre
If there was one event that encapsulated the level of dissatisfaction felt by many in the state, Freedmen and whites, with the Republican Party, it was the Hamburg Massacre. On July 4, 1876, two white farmers were driving a cart along the main road in Hamburg, South Carolina, when they were blocked by a unit of the state National Guard who were drilling in the area. Many of the guardsmen were Freedmen. What led to the verbal altercation between the two farmers and the company is in dispute, but the farmers drove through the guard unharmed. Two days later, the farmers appeared in court and charged the militia with obstructing a public road. A hearing was scheduled for July 8. On the day of the hearing, but the courthouse was swarmed by a mob of over 100 armed white men. As more armed men approached Hamburg, and fearing for their safety, the militia sought refuge in the armory near the Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad Bridge crossing the Savannah River. The mob surrounded the armory and gunfire ensued. A local white farmer, McKie Meriweather, was killed.
When the militia learned that a canon had been brought from Augusta and was aimed at the armory, they slipped away under the cover of darkness. Many of them escaped, but around 2:00 a.m. on the morning of July 9, two dozen guardsmen were captured by the mob. A “circle of death” was formed around the guardsmen by the mob, four men were picked at random, and executed. Their names were: Allan Attaway, Albert Myniart, David Phillips, and Hampton Stephens. There was outrage in Columbia and although 94 indictments were handed down, no one were ever prosecuted for the four murders. Among the members of the white mob were a group called the Red Shirts, and among their members was a man who would later be a thorn in Wade Hampton’s side, Benjamin Tillman.
The Hamburg Massacre demonstrated the complete inadequacy of the state Republican leadership. Whites, tired of the corruption in state government, viewed the Freedmen as symbolic of the government’s corruption, and the Freedmen realized that the Republican Party was powerless to protect them from a new menace, the Red Shirts.
The Red Shirts
Many Confederate veterans joined local Ku Klux Klan chapters after the war, and over time so did their sons and grandsons. The Klan operated as a quasi law enforcement body, but it also racially motivated in favor of the minority white population. The passage of the federal anti-Klan laws in 1870 and 1871 led to the demise of the Klan, but it was soon replaced in many parts of the South, including South Carolina, with groups know as “rifle clubs.” Unlike the Klan, the rifle clubs were not secret organizations. Members of rifle clubs could not hid under sheets. They were required to with the state, and their membership rolls were public.
Because of Hampton’s defense of former Klan members in 1870 and 1871, the rifle clubs expressed an intense, almost religious, loyalty to Hampton, who realized that he had his fingertips a force that could help him secure the governor’s seat. Over time, the rifle clubs began calling themselves the Red Shirts, and they were the paramilitary arm of the state Democratic Party, a racist terrorist organization, and Hampton’s own private army.
In local news, the Anderson Intelligencer of August 31, 1876, reported that a rifle club was organized on August 26 in Pendleton with A.J. Sitton, Captain; J.C. Stribling, First Lieutenant; J.W. Simpson, Second Lieutenant; and G.G. Richards, Third Lieutenant. Their uniforms consisted of red shirts or jackets, and their number was reported to be over one hundred. The Pendleton Rifle Club made their first public appearance on September 2 at the Anderson County Democratic Party’s Grand Ratification Meeting.
The Ratification Meeting
To describe the Democratic meeting as a “big deal” would be a gross understatement. The meeting was called to honor Samuel Jones Tilden and Thomas Andrew Hendricks, respectively the Democratic nominees for President and Vice President. More importantly, the meeting would ratify the nomination of Wade Hampton and William Dunlap Simpson as the state Democratic Party nominees for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, the first Democratic nominees to the offices since 1868.
The entire event was planned by the county’s Democratic Clubs and began on the morning of September 2 at 9:30 at the old Fair Grounds. The procession stretched two miles long, and it included several groups: the Pendleton Cornet Band; twelve carriages with the speakers; Major William W. Humphreys, the Chief Marshall and his staff; the members of the Democratic Clubs; the Anderson Cornet Band; and 1,500 mounted men. The procession ended at the Carolina Collegiate Institute, locally known as University Hill, on South Main Street.
There were 12 speakers scheduled to appear at the meeting, which lasted most of the day, but it was the first speaker that everyone really wanted to hear. When General Wade Hampton III arose and walked to the podium, a deafening storm of enthusiastic applause began which lasted for several minutes. After thanking the citizens of Anderson for a warm reception, he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for the governor’s seat. In a lengthy speech, he laid out his plan for reforming the state’s government, concluding, that “the Republicans cannot reform their party, for it is impossible for the stream to rise higher than the fountain….the Democratic Party must succeed in this state, and with its success reform will come.” Hampton’s nomination was confirmed at the state Democratic convention in Columbia a few weeks later.
In addition to the thousands in the procession, thousands more had gathered to hear Hampton on that warm and sunny afternoon. Among the crowd were hundreds of armed men wearing red jackets and shirts. These Red Shirts of Anderson County would later unity with other chapters across the state and form a private army dedicated to electing Hampton as governor. Red Shirt chapters were also formed in North Carolina, the location of the Hampton summer home, and in Mississippi, where he still owned plantations.
While the crowd before Hampton was mostly white, he did have some supporters among the Freedmen who had grown disillusioned with the Republican Party and its failure to live up to the ideals of Reconstruction. One Benjamin Collins, described as a “colored Democrat” and barber in Anderson by the Intelligencer, attended the rally. Afterwards, he spotted one of the speakers, Col. D. Wyatt of Aiken, standing with several others on Granite Row. Collins approached the colonel and asked if he could purchase some lard. Wyatt was surprised and told Collins that he had better try one of the stores. Collins replayed, “Oh. I thought as you had just slaughtered a hog, perhaps you would be able to supply me with a few pounds.” The reference was to Wyatt’s speech in which he eviscerated the state’s Republican leadership. Wyatt, Collins, and the other standing by all laughed heartily at the joke.
Hampton was not only a Democrat, he was a Bourbon Democrat, a faction of the national party which functioned as the Southern wing of the Redeemers movement. The Bourbon’s primary goal was to reverse the policies of Reconstruction. Their leadership was usually made up of wealthy landowners and businessmen with conservative views. In order to win, the Bourbons had to change the voting structure in the state, and to do that they had suppress the Freedmen vote. This task was given to the Red Shirts. Martin Witherspoon Gary, a chief lieutenant of Hampton’s and a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, begin the implementation of the Mississippi Plan. Developed in Mississippi in 1875, the plan outlined a two-prong attack on the Republican Party: first, financial bribery to Freedmen and white Republicans to switch parties; and second, political violence, used as necessary, to suppress the Freedmen vote.
Once Hampton was nominated by the Democrats, and with no prosecution of the accused in the Hamburg Massacre, the Red Shirts began to actively and openly harass Freedmen and supportive whites across the state. Violence continued after Hamburg. From September 15 to 21, in Ellenton, over 100 Freedmen and one white were killed. In October, in Cainhoy, near Charleston, one Freedman and several whites were killed. In both instances, the violence was led by the Red Shirts.
Hampton campaigned across the state, the Red Shirts were careful never to connect their actions directly with Hampton, but even if they had, there was nothing the state government could do to stop them. Governor Chamberlain admitted as much when he signed a document dated October 5 that declared he had no effective control over the state government and was entirely depended in Federal troops to main order. President Ulysses S. Grant responded by sending federal troops that arrived on October 17 and remained through the election. Despite his attempts at reforming the government, Chamberlain had become the personification of the Carperbagger, a “Yankee” who moved to the South after the war, and reaped financial gain at the expense of Southerners.
Despite the violence and bloodshed during the campaign, Election Day, November 7, 1876, went by with just a few instances of minor disturbances. The troops sent by President Grant were in place to ensure safe and fair voting, and that Freedmen were unmolested. Votes were counted and declarations of victory were made by both sides. What followed was a four month period in which South Carolina had two governments.