The corruption of South Carolina’s Reconstruction Governors resulted in Wade Hampton’s 1876 gubernatorial campaign, spearheaded by the promise to reform and save South Carolina. Along with Hampton’s campaign came the rise of the Red Shirts, the racist paramilitary arm of the state Democratic Party that was loyal to Hampton. This was also a presidential election year, and the results of that race would have a profound impact on South Carolina for over a century. This is the story of how South Carolina once had Two Governors, and of the beginning of Redemption.
In 1876, the choices for the governor’s seat were clear. Chamberlain, whether deserved or not, had come to symbolize all that was wrong with Reconstruction. He epitomized the “Carpetbagger” of Southern folklore, the Yankee who moved to the South and profited off the backs of poor Southerners. Chamberlain was hardly this, but he had lost complete control of the state government and was forced to depend on federal troops just to maintain peace during the election. By contrast, Hampton spoke to large crowds and was greeted with thunderous applause at every gathering. His theme was consistent: only he and the Democratic Party can save the state from the ruin that surely awaited it under Chamberlain and the Republicans.
The stakes were high for Chamberlain. At risk was not only his political career but Reconstruction itself. Chamberlain believed in its tenants and but the corruption in the Republican Party overshadowed its accomplishments. He acknowledged this in 1876 when he wrote, “We have tried for eight years to uphold Negro rule in the South officered by carpetbaggers, but without exception it has resulted in failure and almost ruin in our party.”
Hampton believed, as a Bourbon Democrat, in an aristocratic power base. He wanted to restore the old South Carolina families to the place of power they had prior to the war. While this appealed to the old planter class, it was not enough to win him an election. What Hampton needed was a cause that would attract poor farmers and everyday South Carolinians who were fed up with the Republican leadership but had no one to speak for them. He won them over by placing the blame for the corruption squarely on Chamberlain. Corruption and Reconstruction went hand in hand in Hampton’s mind because power in the state was given to a class of people unsuited for the job and who had mismanaged the state’s funds, and this was a direct result of Reconstruction.
Once the old Democratic base was rebuilt, Hampton had to ensure that the black votes supporting Chamberlain were suppressed. Under the command of his chief lieutenant, Martin Witherspoon Gary, the Red Shirts targeted Freedmen communities and individuals with bribery, terror, violence, and murder to ensure they did not vote or that their votes were never counted. During the course of the 1876 election, nearly 200 lives were lost in political violence, most of them Freedmen, and many of the events involving the Red Shirts. Democratic majorities were created in districts were they did not exist. In Edgefield County, for example, 2,000 more votes were counted than were registered in the county. The same thing happened in Laurens County. Threats of retaliation were made to Freedmen who voted Republican. Anyone who doubts the tactics of the Red Shirts need only look to an 1896 speech delivered by then Senator Benjamin R. Tillman on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Tillman had been a member of the Red Shirts and was indicted in the Hamburg Massacre.
“We set up the Democratic party with one plank only: that this is white man’s country and white men must govern it. Under this banner we went to battle. It was then that we shot them. It was then that we killed them. It was then that we stuffed ballot boxes…once we decided to take the state away from them, we stopped at nothing…I do not ask anybody to apologize for it. I am only explaining why we did it. I want to say now, that we have not shot any Negroes in South Carolina on account of politics since 1876. We have not found it necessary.”
“Who is the Governor of South Carolina?”
The election was held on Tuesday, November 7, 1876. Four days later, The Anderson Intelligencer asked “Who is the Governor of South Carolina?” When the votes were finally counted, Hampton received 92,261 to Chamberlain’s 91,127. The difference of 1,134 remains the closest gubernatorial vote in South Carolina’s history. The chart to the right shows the breakdown of Anderson’s precincts, which were overwhelmingly in Hampton’s favor. The Republican dominated Elections Commission refused to verify the votes from Edgefield and Laurens. The state Supreme Court held the commission members in contempt and they were placed in jail until they were released by a federal judge.
Hampton delivered a victory speech in Columbia on Friday, November 10 thanking, “the whole people of South Carolina, for having done their work so honestly and well.” He continued:
“We can now look back to our victory untarnished by any ignoble act. You have, by your ballots, in spite of fraud and bayonets, declared what your will has been. We have certainly won the victory, though it may be wrestled from our hands. Do not let yourselves by led away by enthusiasm. Try to seek peace and ensure it. Do everything for peace, and your redemption is sure…Make yourselves worthy of victory; show that you are not fighting for party, but your mother land.”
Not surprisingly, the Intelligencer had sided with Hampton and they were quick to report on November 16 that “the Radicals, carpetbaggers or rogues, whichever suits them best, are defeated, and no one knows it any better than they do.”
Chamberlain was not about to let go of what little power he had. On November 28, he ordered two companies of federal troops under the command of General Thomas H. Ruger to the statehouse to prevent the recently elected Democratic members from taking their seats. Two years prior, the Democrats held no seats in either house of the South Carolina General Assembly. Now, the once broken party had taken 64 of the 128 seats in the House, holding a clear majority; they had won 15 of the 33 seats in the Senate, a two seat minority. The Democrats left the statehouse, reconvening in the nearby Carolina Hall, where they established a rival one-party General Assembly. South Carolina now had two General Assemblies, one Republican and one Democrat.
With the support of the federal troops, the Republican General Assembly elected Chamberlain governor on December 5, 1876. The commission never certified the Edgefield and Laurens County votes so Chamberlain had a majority. On the following day, the state Supreme Court declared William H. Wallace, a Democrat, was the new Speaker of the House. Chamberlain was inaugurated on December 7, 1876. A week later, on December 14, the Democrat General Assembly elected Hampton governor. He took his oath of office the same day and South Carolina now had two single-party governments.
Both governors tested their powers by issuing pardons. Chamberlain issued his on December 14, but it was later overturned by a judge on the grounds that he was not the legal governor. Hampton issued a pardon on February 9, 1877, but it was not recognized by the director of the state penitentiary because he did not recognize Hampton as the legitimate governor.
Hampton made a bid to financially starve the Chamberlain government. He pleaded with the citizens not to send any more tax revenue to the Chamberlain government. Instead, Hampton was asking for all people to contribute 10% of the previous year’s bill to his government, and money began poured in to Hampton’s coffers. A list of names of citizens who had paid the tax was printed on April 12, 1877, by the Intelligencer. The list ran into the hundreds with several names marked “c” to denote “colored.” The state could no longer be allowed to operate in this manner. On March 7, 1877, the state Supreme Court declared Hampton to be the legally elected governor.
A broken, but not defeated, Chamberlain had one card remaining. He still had the two companies of federal troops stationed at the statehouse. Chamberlain argued in a letter to President Rutherford B. Hayes dated March 31, 1877, that “the withdrawal of the troops from the State House will close the struggle in defeat to the large majority of the people of the State.” He listed four consequences he believed would result from the withdrawal of federal troops.
“First: It will remove the protection absolutely necessary to enable the Republicans to assert and enforce their claim to the government of the State.
“Second: It will enable the Democrats to remove all effective opposition to the illegal military forces under the control of my opponent.
“Third: It will place all the agencies for maintaining the present lawful government of the State in the practical possession of the Democrats.
“Fourth: It will lead to the quick consummation of a political outrage against which I have felt and now feel it to be my solemn duty to struggle and protest so long as the faintest hope of success can be seen.”
He concluded with “the Republicans of South Carolina have carried on a struggle up to the present moment for the preservation of [the Freedmens’] rights. Their hope has been that they might continue to live under a free government.”
Chamberlain’s request fell on deaf ears. His fate had already been determined in Washington, and he was sacrificed on an altar already dedicated to removing Reconstruction. On April 3, 1877, President Hayes ordered all federal troops to leave the south, ending Reconstruction. This decision was mired in the outcome of the Presidential Election of 1876. This election, one of the most disputed in the history of the United States, had a dramatic impact on the futures of all of the former Confederate states.
The Election of Rutherford B. Hayes
The Republican ticket was led by Rutherford B. Hayes, Governor of Ohio. The Democratic were represented by Samuel J. Tilden, Governor of New York. The 1876 election had the highest voter turnout in United States’ history. Nearly 82% of registered voters cast ballots. Tilden received the majority of the popular vote, 4.29 million, compared to Hayes who received 4.03 million. Hayes, however, carried more states, 21. Tilden only carried 17. Neither reached the number of Electoral College votes needed, so the election was determined by the United States House of Representatives. Hayes needed 20 elector votes in order win, and he cut a deal with the House: he agreed to end Reconstruction if elected President. The House, tired of twelve years of strife over Reconstruction, delivered the votes. Hayes was awarded the electoral votes of Florida (4), South Carolina (7), Louisiana (8), and one vote from Oregon. Hayes now had 185 elector votes to Tilden’s 184. Rutherford B. Hayes was the new President of the United States, thanks to what has come to be known as the Compromise of 1877.
The End of Reconstruction
The withdrawal of federal troops left Chamberlain with no choice. He fled to New York where he practiced law, but he was forever remembered in South Carolina as the “debaucher of the State.” Wade Hampton III was now the sole South Carolina’s governor. The two General Assemblies combined into one. Reconstruction was over and Hampton, the “savior of South Carolina,” became the de facto leader of the state’s Redeemers.
The end of Reconstruction had several impacts on the South Carolina, many of which Chamberlain predicted in his letter. First, it instituted a century of Democratic control. Beginning with Hampton’s election, there was an unbroken line of Democratic governors in South Carolina until James B. Edwards took office 98 years later on January 21, 1975. In the 1878 election, the Democratic Party obtained a majority of seats in both houses, and grew more powerful after Reconstruction than before the war.
Single party rule produced a disastrous civil rights record. The Democratic Party ruled largely unchecked as Republicans held small minorities, and their social policies caused the second impact: the mistreatment of and racially motivated laws enacted against the now vulnerable Freedmen. Without federal protection, the Freedmen were at the mercy of the newly installed Democratic power base.
A third impact was the rise of populism among the Democrats. The actions of the Red Shirts had inspired many in the white population, but the aristocratic nature of the Bourbons put them out of touch to most. The party eventually split into two factions: the Bourbons and the Tillmanites, named after their leader, Benjamin Tillman.
Anderson County had overwhelmingly supported Hampton during the campaign and as governor. He delivered a speech in Anderson in 1876 declaring his candidacy, and a street in the city was named in his honor. In the 1900’s, over two decades since Hampton’s first election, there would be a series of annual Red Shirt reunions in Anderson. These reunions and Tillman’s fiery speech at the final gathering will be the topic of the fourth and concluding part in this series.