July 4, 1876
July 4th, 1876 was the centennial celebration of the country’s independence, and in the small town of Hamburg, South Carolina a hundred or so townfolk proudly watched their state militia parade in the street. They had just heard a reading of the Declaration of Independence, our forefathers affirming on July 4th, 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
It was just a decade out from our nation’s Civil War – a bloody battle killing more than half a million men in defense of State’s Rights and Slavery – and the words of the Declaration seemed to finally ring true for all America’s citizens.
Hamburg, South Carolina
Hamburg’s population in the 1870s was mostly African-American. After the Civil War and the extension of the railroad many of the white citizens moved into Augusta, and the smaller town of Hamburg was settled by a diverse community of newly freed blacks from the South, educated blacks from the North, and families that had been free in the South before the war. Aiken County, where Hamburg was located, reflected the population of the state of South Carolina: in 1875 the census recorded 2,494 white people and 3,494 black. Tensions had been building toward what would be a pivotal election in the Fall of 1876, both for the state and for the nation. Across the state white Democrats had assembled ‘rifle clubs’ to be used to intimidate Republicans, both black and white, and move the upcoming gubernatorial election in their favor. (The parties were a little different back then, the Republican party being that of Lincoln and the ruling party of the North).
In the minds of many white Southern Democrats, the war was not over. They sought to control the government that had been run by Republicans and overseen by Federal troops during Reconstruction, and were intimidated by the fact that the majority of the population of the state of South Carolina was black. Because of the disparity in population, the black vote had the power to control the election. As later Governor of South Carolina Ben Tillman stated on the floor of the Senate in 1900 “In my State there were 135,000 negro voters, or negroes of voting age, and some 90,000 or 95,000 white voters…. Now, I want to ask you, with a free vote and a fair count, how are you going to beat 135,000 by 95,000? How are you going to do it? You had set us an impossible task.”
The hearts of men like Ben Tillman did not believe in the right of liberty for all individuals. The freedom to vote, and others liberties guaranteed by the Constitution such as the right to bear arms, were only to be guaranteed for a portion of United States citizens, and it was a minority of the population in states like South Carolina. And the way they sought control was through deadly violence, threats and intimidation.
It was in the midst of this politically charged atmosphere that Company A Ninth Regiment of the National Guard of the State of South Carolina, a regiment of around 40 black men, paraded down the street in Hamburg, S.C. on the 4th of July, 1876, in a show of celebration of hard won freedoms. As they paraded, two young white farmers, Thomas Butler and Henry Getzen, drove their wagon through the town, and asked the regiment to step aside for them.
The regiment refused (think for a minute of the audacity of driving your car up to a regiment of armed forces parading on the 4th of July, and asking them to move aside for you) . There was a bit of a stand off, the Company not willing to move aside for the wagon, and the wagon not willing to drive around the Company. The militia did evenutally move aside, but not without words and threats exchanged on both sides.
The young farmers, along with Thomas Butler’s father (who before the war made his fortune as a ‘professional Negro hunter’) went to complain to the local court about Dock Adams, the captain of the Company, for obstructing the road. Trial Justice Prince Rivers sent Adams a summons and held a hearing. Things got heated quickly between the parties, and Rivers found Adams in contempt of court (for language), and postponed the hearing for another three days to let everyone cool down.
The trial was scheduled for four o’clock on Saturday, July 8th. On that day, Tommy Butler and Henry Getzen brought Matthew Calbraith Butler, their lawyer from nearby Edgefield, who had been a Major General in the Confederate Army.
They also brought at least a hundred armed white men on horses.
The armed men were part of the Sweetwater Sabre Club, a group of young white men from Edgefield and Aiken counties who met at the Sweetwater Baptist Church. Like many other ‘sabre’ or ‘rifle’ clubs in South Carolina, they had been organized after the Federal dismantling of the Ku Klux Klan in 1871, and organized primarily to influence the tumultous elections of 1876 by force and intimidation. These men filled the streets of the small town that consisted of one main road and few side streets.
Dock Adams sent word back to the court that, as it appeared to be an ambush, him and his officers would not show. Thirty-eight men from the Company then barricaded themselves for protection in the two-story brick front Sibley Building where the company had a drill room. The Sibley building stood on the corner of Market and Centre Street, just a block away from Prince Rivers office on Market Street where the trial was to take place.
General Butler sent word asking to settle matters with Adams, and he replied they were willing to compromise. The compromise Butler put forth was that the regiment be disarmed, and their weapons be turned over to him personally. Adams replied, rightly so, that the arms belonged to the state, and he could not turn them over to a private citizen.
Adams refusal incised Butler, who left town and returned with two more companies of armed white men. Trial Justice Price Rivers, who was a major general in the state militia, was desperate to keep the peace in his town, and proposed the company pack up the arms and send them to the Governor in Columbia. Butler replied, “Damn the Governor” and refused his offer. Rivers, still hoping for a peaceful resolution, asked if Butler would guarantee the safety of the men and the town if the arms were turned over. Butler refused to offer any guarantee, and would not back from his demand for the Company’s arms.
The Hamburg Massacre
As day turned to night the now hundreds of white men got into position around the Sibley building and began firing upon the company of thirty-eight men barricaded inside. The men inside, having little ammunition and grossly outnumbered, eventually returned fire. One shot of return fire hit McKie Meriwether, part of the Sweetwater Saber Club, who had been firing upon the building from his position on by the river. Meriwether fell dead, and directives went out to fire a cannon upon the building. At this decree, knowing the cannon fire meant sure death, the men in the Sibley building quickly began slipping out the back and running to hide in the darkening night. Soon multiple cannon shots lodged against the building. When the rifle club men realized there was no return fire coming from the building they moved toward it with axes and hatchets, searching for the men. They fired at any figures they saw running, shooting down Moses Parks, then Jim Cook, the town marshal.
Cook was not part of the militia company but had been hiding with the men, perhaps knowing he was a mark for the white men, As Town Marshal he had been responsible for handing out fines within the town for any misdemeanors, which unfortunately was a common occurence as some local white men would travel through provoking trouble. The men cut out Cook’s tongue as a trophy, declaring he would no more chief in Hamburg.
By eleven o’clock at night the rifle club men had rounded up twenty-seven of the militia men and organized them into what was called the ‘Dead Ring’ down by the river. They then handpicked men from the group, with cousins of McKie Meriwether and other local men left to decide their fate. Four were picked out, walked away a short distance, and shot dead: Allan Attaway, who was county commissioner of Aiken and a lieutenant of the militia, and also David Phillips, Albert Myniart, and Hampton Stephens.
Pompey Curry was also handpicked, but he ran and then played dead after he was shot. He lived to testify against the men.
Many others had been shot as they ran away. As the killing party broke up around two am they looted and ransacked the town, stealing and destroying from the families that had settled and made a life for themselves, including destroying the papers and personal belongings of Trial Justice Prince Rivers, who had tried his best to keep the peace. Rivers, who was born into slavery, had served as a soldier during the Civil War, was one of the three founders of Aiken County, served a a state legislator before becoming the local trial judge.
The dawn of Sunday morning found church bells ringing out as normal across the river in Augusta. For the residents of Hamburg, their houses and businesses were destroyed, and their dead were left uncovered as a warning against ‘impudence,’ – the day dawned on the promise of freedom torn from their hands.
The Aftermath of Hamburg
No one was held accountable for the murders at Hamburg, and violence ravaged the state of South Carolina throughout 1876 as the Red Shirts continued their campaign to ensure Republican victory. In nearby Ellenton in September 1876 there was a massacre of 30-100 blacks by rifle clubs with the specific goal of securing the Democratic vote.
Benjamin Tillman later used his role in the events at Hamburg to promote his election for Governor of South Carolina Governor. In that role from 1890-1894 he worked to further disenfranchise African-American voters by re-writing the State Constitution, making it harder, if not impossible for African-Americans in the state to vote.
There has been an ongoing debate in the state regarding the memorialization of Tillman, who some view as a great politician and leader for his representation of farmers and promotion of education, while others argue the state should not promote a racist and a murderer as a legacy symbol. Tillman was not only a proud white Supremacist, but also boasted of his hand in the murder of multiple unarmed black men purely in the name of race and power. During his time in Senate Tillman was also an outspoken defender of lynching. The two major memorials of Tillman in the state are a 1940 a statue erected on the State House grounds in SC, and a crowning building on the campus of Clemson Univeristy. The building, constructed in 1893, was renamed ‘Tillman Hall’ in 1946. On June 12, 2020, the Clemson Board of Trustees passed a motion to petition the SC State legislature to change the name.
Today, there is a large obelisk located in North Augusta that memorializes the massacre at Hamburg – it is for the one white person who was killed during the riot. McKie Meriwether was one of the hundreds of white men who had first opened fire on the State Militia that had barricaded themselves into the Sibley building.
The obelisk was put up in J.C. Calhoun park in 1916 by South Carolina’s General Assembly. It states in part –
In life he exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization. By his death he assured to the children of his beloved land the supremacy of that ideal. “As his flame of life was quenched, it lit the blaze of victory”
This memorial is erected to the young hero of the Hamburg Riot, by the state, under an act of the general assembly, with the aid of admiring friends.
It is not hard to find this monument, as it stands tall in the center of North Augusta.
What is hard to find is another monument to the massacre that includes the names of the other men who were killed – the state militiamen who were murdered in cold blood for parading on the Fourth of July in the center of their own town, and then refused to hand over their state-sanctioned arms to a private citizen who had no right to demand them. Their monument, a small stone that also includes Meriwether, is down a forgotten road tucked behind the golf course that was built on the remains of the abandoned town of Hamburg.
Those men died fighting for their freedom, and fighting for what this country stands for. We could do better. We need to do better.