The Hamburg Massacre

Since 2008 my original Wikipedia article has passed through many hands, gained some interesting facts, and lost quite a bit of cohesion. This is mostly a repeat of the original, FWIW.

The Hamburg Massacre (or Hamburg Riot) was a key event of South Carolina Reconstruction. The racially motivated incident grew out of a dispute on July 4, 1876 when a company of black militia marched down the main street in Hamburg. Two white farmers tried to ride through the ranks. It ended four days later with the with the death of seven men. [An eighth death has recently been confirmed.] The Massacre launched the furious 1876 Democratic campaign for South Carolina’s ‘Redemption’, leading to the downfall of Reconstruction and nearly a century of “Jim Crow” denial of civil rights.

Hamburg, a ghost town across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, was revived by black freedmen after the end of the War. On July 4, 1876, the Hamburg company of the National Guard, State of South Carolina, was drilling (or parading) under command of Captain D. L. “Dock” Adams. They were met by two local white farmers in a carriage. According to one version of the story, the militia company fanned out to block the street and deny passage. In another, the carriage drove up against the head of the column. In any case, after having words, the farmers passed through the ranks of the parade (Haworth 1906, 131 and Allen 1888, 314).

The farmers complained to the local court in Hamburg. Trial Justice Prince Rivers heard the case on July 6. The case was continued until the afternoon of July 8. Matthew Calbraith Butler, an Edgefield attorney, spoke for the farmers. M. C. Butler demanded that the Hamburg company disband, and turn their guns over to him personally, although he had no official right to do so. (Allen 1888, 314-315).

Mysteriously, hundreds of armed white men began to gather. The militia company refused to disarm, and took refuge in their armory in the Sibley building near the Charlotte, Columbia and Augusta Railroad bridge. Perhaps twenty-five militia and fifteen townsmen were in the building when firing broke out in both directions. One man fell in the heat of this battle – McKie Meriwether, a local white farmer.


Location Map for the Hamburg Massacre. X marks location of deaths. From Budiansky, 231

Outnumbered, running out of ammunition, and faced by a small cannon brought across the river from Augusta, the men in the armory slipped away into the night. At least one was shot to death during the getaway: Hamburg’s Town Marshal, James Cook. Two dozen more were rounded up and taken to what was later called the “Dead Ring”, where their fate was debated.

Four prisoners were picked out and executed: Allan Attaway, David Phillips, Hampton Stephens, and Albert Myniart. Several others were wounded either in escape or in a general fusillade as the ring broke up, one of whom died in the following days. The white invaders finished by looting the town (Budiansky 2008 226-237, Allen 1888 314-317). Moses Parks was also killed; the Attorney General’s report placed this in the Ring (Allen 1888 316), but accounts based on the Senate report find him shot down in the street near James Cook (Budiansky 2008 233-234).

The official report ends with this summary:

    … the facts show the demand on the militia to give up their arms was made by persons without lawful authority to enforce such demand or to receive the arms had they been surrendered; that the attack on the militia to compel a compliance with this demand was without lawful excuse or justification; and that after there had been some twenty or twenty-five prisoners captured and completely in the power of their captors, five of them were deliberately shot to death and three more severely wounded. It further appears that not content with thus satisfying their vengeance, many of the crowd added to their guilt the crime of robbery of defenceless people, and were only prevented from arson by the efforts of their own leaders. (Allen 1888, 317)

[It is likely that M. C. Butler was behind these events, but this is not verifiable as required by Wikipedia.]

The shots fired at the Hamburg Massacre stunned and intimidated the Republican party. They deflated the ‘Co-operationist’ faction of the Democratic party, which had hoped for a fusion with the reforming Republican Governor Daniel H. Chamberlain. Instead, Democrats crystallized around the uncompromising ‘Straight-Outs’. The revived Democrats launched the terroristic Edgefield Plan for South Carolina’s ‘Redemption’ (Holt 1979, 173-207). The ensuing violent and bitterly fought election campaign gained total control of South Carolina for the white Democrats, leading to nearly a century of “Jim Crow” and denial of black civil rights. Possibly, the Democratic victory influenced the Presidential election through the Compromise of 1877.



The Massacre gained nationwide attention (e.g. Harper’s Weekly, August 12, 1876). White South Carolinians saw virtue in necessity and repeated the lesson in full at the town of Ellenton, also in Aiken County, two months later (Allen 1888, 385-387). M. C. Butler’s intentions and the depth of his involvement were unproven: for example, he was not conclusively placed in the “Dead Ring”. Despite that, his connection with the bloody violence damaged his later career in the U. S. Senate (Martin 2001, 226). Benjamin Ryan Tillman played up his role in the “stirring events” (Budiansky 2008, 237) and used it to spur his 1890 campaign for Governor of South Carolina (Simkins 1944). Nobody was ever convicted for their involvement.


Attorney General Scott’s official report of the Hamburg Massacre

Allen, Walter (1969) [1888]. Governor Chamberlain’s Administration in South Carolina, A Chapter of Reconstruction in the Southern States. Negro University Press. ISBN 0-8371-1537-X. Chapter XIX – 307-330. Republican view with official reports and statements

Budiansky, Stephen (2008). The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox. Viking Penguin. ISBN 0670018406. Section VI – pages 221-254. Strongly written Reconstruction version of Profiles in Courage

Haworth, Paul (1906). The Hayes-Tilden Disputed Presidential Election of 1876. Burrows Brothers and various reprints. ISBN 0-54822-467-6. Chapter VIII – pages 122-156. National political significance of the Massacre

Holt, Thomas (1979). Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-00775-1. Chapter 8 – 173-207 Republican view of the political situation

Martin, Samuel J. (2001). Southern Hero: Matthew Calbraith Butler. Stackpole Books. ISBN 0811708993. A rather soft biography of the main actor

Simkins, Francis Butler (2002) [1944]. Pitchfork Ben Tillman, South Carolinian. University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 157003477X.

Vandervelde, Isabel (1999). Aiken County: The Only South Carolina County Founded During Reconstruction. Reprint Company Publishers. ISBN 0-87152-517-8. Interesting compilation of local history

U. S. Congress (1877). South Carolina in 1876, U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 44th-2nd S.misdoc 48. Government Printing Office, Washington. Report of the official U.S. Senate investigation, key primary source with two thousand pages of raw testimony taken at Columbia, SC

3 thoughts on “The Hamburg Massacre

  1. Pingback: Cranking up | Henry Shultz and his Town of Hamburg, SC

  2. Pingback: McKie Meriwether Obelisk Denounced | Henry Shultz and his Town of Hamburg, SC

  3. Pingback: Massacre vs Riot, and Why Monuments Matter – BBQ Church and Beer

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