A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War

A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War

by Stephen V. Ash

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An unprecedented account of one of the bloodiest and most significant racial clashes in American history

In May 1866, just a year after the Civil War ended, Memphis erupted in a three-day spasm of racial violence that saw whites rampage through the city's black neighborhoods. By the time the fires consuming black churches and schools were put out, forty-six freed slaves had been murdered. Congress, furious at this and other evidence of white resistance in the conquered South, launched what is now called Radical Reconstruction, policies to ensure the freedom of the region's four million blacks-and one of the most remarkable experiments in American history.

Stephen V. Ash's A Massacre in Memphis is a portrait of a Southern city that opens an entirely new view onto the Civil War, slavery, and its aftermath. A momentous national event, the riot is also remarkable for being "one of the best-documented episodes of the American nineteenth century." Yet Ash is the first to mine the sources available to full effect. Bringing postwar Memphis, Tennessee to vivid life, he takes us among newly arrived Yankees, former Rebels, boisterous Irish immigrants, and striving freed people, and shows how Americans of the period worked, prayed, expressed their politics, and imagined the future. And how they died: Ash's harrowing and profoundly moving present-tense narration of the riot has the immediacy of the best journalism.

Told with nuance, grace, and a quiet moral passion, A Massacre in Memphis is Civil War-era history like no other.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780809067985
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/15/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,159,716
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Stephen V. Ash is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of Firebrand of Liberty, A Year in the South, and other books on the Civil War era. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Stephen V. Ash is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of Firebrand of Liberty, A Year in the South, and other books on the Civil War era. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Read an Excerpt



Yankee Memphis



I have always counselled [the freed people] that liberty meant the right to work for themselves, to get their own living, and live honestly as white people do;… I have told them … that they must be obedient to their employers, and peaceable.

—Testimony of Benjamin P. Runkle, superintendent of Memphis Freedmen’s Bureau office

[The Rebels] call me a pimp. I have served the United States government in the army five years, and I am called a pimp in the public press.… I came here ready to take these people by the hand, but they have met me with insults, because I wear the uniform of the government.

—Testimony of Benjamin P. Runkle1

One day in the latter part of April a Northern-born man in Memphis named William Wilder sat down and wrote a short, bitter letter to Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a leader of the Republican Party’s Radical wing. Wilder was a Union army veteran whose regiment, the 6th Illinois Cavalry, had endured much hard campaigning in Tennessee, Mississippi, and other parts of the South. He had left the service in 1864, settled in Memphis, and started a business. His political sentiments were Radical. Now he had decided he must leave the city, and he thought Stevens might be interested in knowing why. “Enclosed please find an editorial clipped from the Avalanch[e] of this City,” Wilder wrote. “This article shows the state of feeling now existing in this city against all northern men. I came here to engage in business about two years since, but from the fact that I have served two years [in] the Federal Army … I shall be obliged to seek another home.”2

Congressman Stevens saved the letter in his files, but not the clipping. The editorial that so troubled Wilder probably appeared in the Avalanche’s April 3 issue. In it, the editor took note of the Yankee businessmen in Memphis who espoused Radicalism, men “who are, with [Massachusetts senator Charles] SUMNER and STEVENS, for confiscation, disenfranchisement, and everything calculated to degrade, ruin and embarrass the people to whom they propose to sell their wares.” The editor then suggested a way to deal with these miscreants: if his readers would identify them he would publish their names, so “that the Southern people may shun them as they would a leprosy [sic]. The Radicals are for war—let them have it. We have enlisted as a volunteer.”3

How many Yankees were living in Memphis in the spring of 1866 was uncertain. (The term applied to Northerners who had recently moved to the city, not to those who had lived in the city or elsewhere in the South for many years and regarded themselves as Southerners.) Certainly there were many hundreds, perhaps a couple of thousand or more. Some had been called to Memphis by duty, some by conscience, some by ambition; some were the wives or children of those called. Most were middle-class and educated. Many intended to make Memphis their permanent home, while others were anxious to leave. All had come to the city after its capture by federal forces on June 6, 1862; the Yankees living there when the war began had abandoned the city and fled north.4

The U.S. Army had maintained a presence in Memphis ever since that day in 1862—a substantial one during the war that dwindled thereafter. And when the 3rd Colored Heavy Artillery mustered out at the end of April 1866, there remained only the headquarters of the Department of the Tennessee, a detachment of the 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment (a white unit), and a few quartermaster troops and other support personnel. Most of the officers and men of the 3rd remained in the city and in uniform, waiting for their back pay, but they were no longer members of the military.5

From June 1862 to June 1865, Memphis was under military rule, although for the first two years the municipal government was allowed to operate. In June 1865, with the war over and a Unionist-controlled state government in place in Tennessee, the army ended military rule in Memphis and returned power to the city government. But because politicians in Washington had not yet settled the pressing questions of how the former Confederate states would be restored to the Union, how the defeated Rebels would be dealt with, and what the status of the freed slaves would be, the army forces posted in Memphis and other Southern cities continued to wield considerable influence in local affairs.6

From the war’s end through early 1866, the ranking army officer in Memphis was Major General John E. Smith, commander of the District of West Tennessee. Although he embraced Republican Party principles, Smith dutifully followed President Johnson’s policy of magnanimity and reconciliation with regard to the defeated Confederates. He was skeptical, however, about the Rebels’ willingness to reconcile and especially about their acceptance of black freedom. “The white people of the South,” he wrote in June 1865, were still influenced by “the wicked leaven of slavery” and were “blind to the lessons of this war.… The former master would still induce the black to think that he is as much a slave as ever.” At the same time, he doubted the freed people’s capacity to exercise freedom wisely. While sympathetic to their plight, he believed that the degradations of slavery had rendered them incapable of meaningful citizenship, at least for the time being. On their own they were “an incubus upon society, a helpless, useless, unproductive class,” desiring nothing more than “a life of idleness” and potentially “vicious and unsafe to communities.” From these facts, as he saw them, he drew a firm conclusion: “Both races yet need to be controlled by the strong arm of Federal authority.”7

Smith thus insisted on the need for federal troops in Memphis, but not black ones. While those in the city were generally well behaved in his opinion, he recognized that their mere presence infuriated whites. “The prejudices of the southern people against the negro troops,” he told his friend Elihu Washburne in a private letter in December, “seem to be insurmountable.” Public peace was in danger as long as they were posted in the city, Smith thought, and he had no doubt that a lot of white Memphians would welcome a racial clash. The best insurance against that, he told Washburne—and, repeatedly, his own superior officer—would be to replace the black troops with white ones. That recommendation was not acted on during his tenure in Memphis.8

Although military rule in the city had formally ended, Smith unhesitatingly asserted his power whenever he thought it necessary to do so. The most notable instance occurred in December 1865, when a freedman named Billy Clarke was shot to death by Mike Maloney, a policeman. An investigation revealed that, in the act of arresting Clarke with no substantial cause, Maloney had fired a fatal pistol bullet into him and then, as he lay in the street dead or dying, had shot him twice more. Smith, well aware of the bad reputation of the police and certain that no white who murdered a black would ever be found guilty in the district criminal court, had Maloney arrested by the provost marshal, confined in the military jail in irons, and tried by a military commission. The civil authorities howled in protest and the criminal court judge issued a writ of habeas corpus, which Maloney’s attorneys presented to Smith—who dismissed it out of hand, telling the lawyers that “any act of encroachment upon the rights of the negro … is in violation of military law” and that, given “the notoriously loose administration of criminal law in this city,” justice demanded that the case remain under army jurisdiction. The military commission sentenced Maloney to five years in prison, and he was dispatched to the state penitentiary in Nashville.9

Not long before Maloney’s sentencing in late January, Smith was succeeded as ranking army officer in Memphis by Major General George Stoneman. Born in upstate New York in 1822, Stoneman was a West Pointer and a veteran of service in the Mexican War and on the frontier. During the Civil War he had been a prominent cavalry commander in both the eastern and western theaters. Given command of the Department of the Tennessee (embracing all U.S. Army forces in Tennessee) following the war, he was Smith’s immediate superior. He maintained his headquarters in Nashville until January 1866, when he relocated to Memphis and moved into the combined office and residence that Smith had occupied, a building on Promenade Street opposite the old federal navy yard in the First Ward—comfortable accommodations, but a long way from Fort Pickering, where the troops were quartered. Smith moved to another building, but not long afterward his command was abolished and he left the city. From that point on, the garrison force in Memphis reported directly to Stoneman.10

In contrast to Smith’s, Stoneman’s political sentiments were Democratic. Although he was determined to protect the freedmen from gross abuse, he was at least as skeptical as Smith about their capacity for productive citizenship and far more critical of the black troops. He had not been long in Memphis before he started cracking down on the misconduct of the men of the 3rd Colored Heavy Artillery. He was, furthermore, less hostile to the Rebels than Smith and more willing to accede to their political demands. Their anger and agitation would subside, Stoneman believed, if they were reenfranchised, and he did not worry that, once restored to power, they would persecute their political enemies or reenslave the freed people. The Rebel newspapers in Memphis were rabid and vituperative, he admitted, but no more so than some Northern Radical papers he was familiar with. And, too, he was more inclined than Smith to trust the city’s civil authorities and leave law enforcement wholly in their hands. He was, in fact, somewhat disengaged from this assignment in Memphis; compared to his wartime adventures at the head of cavalry brigades, it seemed petty and dull.11

Even had he been as ready as Smith to intervene in municipal affairs, Stoneman did not have the same manpower at his disposal. With the mustering out of the 3rd Heavy Artillery, the military force remaining in Memphis was quite small. It consisted of four understrength companies of the 16th U.S. Infantry—180 men and five officers, all told, a contingent barely larger than the Memphis police force.12

Commanding this detachment was a young captain named Arthur W. Allyn. He had five years of military service to his credit, having enlisted just days after the war began as a private in a volunteer regiment in his home state of Connecticut. A few months later he accepted a commission as first lieutenant in the 16th, a newly created regular-army regiment assigned to the western theater, and he went on to fight in many of the greatest campaigns and battles of the war: Shiloh, Corinth, Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Atlanta. Well educated, well-read, and attentive to duty, he was breveted captain in late 1861, assumed company command, and in 1864 was granted that rank in full.13

Like the other young Yankees among that first wave of enlistees in the spring of 1861, Allyn was aglow with nationalistic ardor—in one of his frequent letters to his family he described himself as a “patriot defender of our country’s honor.” His fervor did not wane over the years of hard soldiering, and with the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army in April 1865 he exulted in “the very glorious successes of our arms” and the Confederacy’s imminent demise. But then came the shock of President Lincoln’s murder by a Rebel sympathizer, and with it not only grief but rage: “Vengeance upon the traitor hearts that conceived so cowardly a deed,” Allyn declared, and he prayed to “the great and wise God who rules the destinies of our race [to] preserve the nation now and guide Abraham Lincoln’s successor in a path that will give us a quick and lasting peace though it be purchased at the price of the blood of every traitor who has borne arms against our good country.”14

In August 1865, Allyn’s company and several others of the 16th were assigned to garrison duty in Nashville. When the order came down for the 3rd to muster out, he was instructed to take command of a detachment consisting of companies A, C, G, and H of the 16th and move it to Memphis. This force arrived by train on the evening of April 12 and moved into empty barracks in Fort Pickering, a large, fortified army camp that stretched along the Mississippi River and straddled the city’s southern boundary. Stoneman informed Allyn that his main task would be to guard the considerable stockpile of army stores and equipment in the city. At that point, Allyn was simply the commanding officer of his detachment, but when the colonel of the 3rd was mustered out with his regiment on April 30, Allyn formally assumed command of the Post of Memphis.15

Four days after arriving in the city, Allyn issued an order that set the daily routine for his troops: reveille at daybreak, followed by breakfast; sick call at six thirty; drill from seven to eight; dinner at noon; retreat and inspection at six, followed by supper; tattoo at eight; taps at eight thirty; fatigue and guard duty as required. No off-duty enlisted man would be permitted to leave Fort Pickering without permission from his first sergeant and a written pass from his company commander. “Men upon pass,” Allyn added, “are particularly reminded that they are in a peaceful city, and ordered to deport themselves … with the dignity of the uniform they wear[,] remembering they are the representatives of a greate [sic] and dignified Republic.… [They] will refrain from intoxication and all disorders which inflict disgrace upon a soldier of the United States Army.” Because the land on which Fort Pickering stood would soon be returned to its owners (it had been appropriated by the army during the war), Allyn assigned a detail of men with carpentry experience to fix up some of the buildings in the navy yard to serve as barracks after the move. With these soldiers trooping off to the First Ward each morning and others dispatched to do guard duty or work in the post hospital as nurses or cooks, and still others sick or confined in the military jail for various infractions, there were times when Allyn had as few as fourteen men on duty in the fort.16

*   *   *

In the wake of the Union military force that captured Memphis in 1862 had come another band of Yankee invaders, a far gentler cohort with a very different mission, armed not with muskets and cannons but with schoolbooks and Bibles. These were civilian women and men dedicated to aiding the freed people, the women mostly teachers, the men mostly ministers. They were inspired by evangelical Protestantism and by the reform movements that had stirred much of the Northern middle class in the antebellum years, especially the abolitionist crusade. During the war, as Union armies conquered Rebel territory and slaves flocked to the occupied towns, Northern benevolent societies—the American Missionary Association, the United Presbyterian Association, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, and others—sponsored representatives willing to go south and labor on behalf of the liberated blacks. In Memphis these agents founded schools, churches, and an orphanage. Their efforts were aided and coordinated by the army until the summer of 1865, when the newly established Freedmen’s Bureau office in the city took charge.17

In the early months of 1866 there were approximately thirty such men and women in Memphis, nineteen of them teachers (white men and women, that is; at least four Northern-born blacks also did benevolent work in the city). The women were almost all young and unmarried, the men mostly so. They ran a dozen schools, several churches, and the Colored Orphan Asylum. Their financial compensation was modest (those sponsored by the United Presbyterian Association, for example, were paid forty-five dollars a month). Most of them lived together in a boardinghouse known as the Teachers’ Home, run by the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, or in a similar establishment run by the American Baptist Home Mission Society.18

One of the more prominent Yankee missionaries in Memphis—although untypical in some ways, for he was in his late thirties and married and did not board with the others—was the Reverend Ewing O. Tade. He had come to the city in March 1865 as an agent of the Christian Commission, which provided Union soldiers and sailors with religious literature and other comforts. With the war’s end and subsequent military demobilization, the Christian Commission closed up shop in Memphis and Tade went to work for the American Missionary Association. In correspondence with AMA officials prior to his hiring, he described the type of person ideally suited to work with the freed people, and in doing so described himself: “He must be enthusiastic in this great & glorious work. Education, apt ability to teach, good preaching abilities, patience & great love for perishing souls, these are all very necessary but to these must be added a genuine abolition enthusiasm, to lift up these poor degraded & still despised people.”19

As soon as he was hired, Tade got to work establishing a church for the freedmen, the nondenominational Lincoln Chapel. He was assisted by his wife, Amanda, and his brother, James, and by donations of money and labor from various sources, including black Memphis. The church building, constructed mostly by Ewing and James’s own hands, was dedicated in a grand ceremony on January 1, 1866, the third anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Thereafter Lincoln Chapel offered not only Sunday services, led by Ewing, but also a Sunday school and a day school run by James, Amanda, and two other Northern women.20

Ewing Tade held strong political views—of the Radical sort—but he mostly kept them to himself. His message to the freed people, reiterated in every sermon he gave and in his frequent visits to parishioners’ homes, was one of salvation and social uplift. His sympathy for the former slaves and his heartfelt concern for their future touched his listeners, but he invariably expressed these sentiments in the language of racial paternalism and class chauvinism. (In this he differed not at all from most other Yankee missionaries.) Southern blacks, he was convinced, had been not just physically exploited by slavery, but morally debased. Even the most ostensibly pious freedmen were egregiously dissipated: “Their ministers … are filthy tobacco worms,” he reported to the AMA, “the ‘Leaders,’ many of them, use whiskey, the young people dance.” To be fully worthy of God’s grace and American citizenship, blacks must redeem themselves from the odious legacy of slavery. They must, Tade thought, take middle-class Yankeedom as their model and Northern reformers as their guides, and so embrace the virtues of self-control, temperance, chastity, and punctuality. The chief purpose for which he and other benevolent workers labored, Tade declared, was to “control & mold the intellect & the religion of the colored people,” not just to get them into heaven but also to “fit them to take care of themselves” on earth.21

While Lincoln Chapel’s day and Sunday schools thrived, Tade struggled to attract a steady congregation. But his optimism and enthusiasm remained undiminished. “My heart is greatly encouraged,” he wrote. “I feel that I never had so great & so good a field in which to labor for my blessed Savior.” He was certain that “this humble chapel in Union Street, Memphis Tenn., [is] the starting point of good influences which shall grow brighter & brighter, long after the sun has become cold & dark.” The last days of April found him feeling “encouraged hopeful & strong.”22

*   *   *

Along with the army and the benevolent association agents, a third cohort of Yankee invaders came to Memphis during and after the war, and in far greater numbers. These were men on the make (“carpetbaggers,” as they would eventually be branded by the Rebels) who saw the postslavery South as a new frontier of business opportunity. Among them were merchants, bankers, lawyers, insurance agents, restaurateurs, and physicians. The majority had served in the Union army or navy, mostly as officers, and a good number had been posted in Memphis at some point. Those who had spent time there had been struck by its potential.23

Before the war, the trade in cotton and slaves had made Memphis the most important city on the Mississippi between Saint Louis and New Orleans. The war years had been hard on the city’s economy, but in early 1866 commerce was surging—minus the trade in human beings, of course—as evidenced by the frequent arrivals and departures of heavily laden steamboats on the riverfront, the bustling scenes at the city’s three railroad depots, and the press of customers in the well-stocked stores lining Main, Front, and other streets. Memphis was a dazzlingly attractive place to many ambitious men of Northern birth. The Yankee presence in the commercial and professional life of the city in the postwar months was substantial, perhaps predominant; as one Memphian remarked in the spring of 1866, “I think one half of the business [here] is transacted by Northerners.”24

The person who wrote those words was himself a Yankee entrepreneur, a young man named Peter Eltinge. He had grown up in New Paltz, New York, but had lived in New York City before and during the war, working as a clerk. In August 1862, at age twenty, he had joined the 156th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment as a second lieutenant and eventually rose to the rank of captain. He served for over three years, seeing far more of the South than did the typical Yankee soldier. His regiment was transferred repeatedly from one theater to another: first to Louisiana, then to Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and finally (in the postwar months) back to Georgia.25

Eltinge had been caught up in the antebellum North’s reformist and political enthusiasms, but he was no zealot. In New Paltz he had joined a young people’s temperance society and in New York City he had taught in a Sunday school for poor children. In 1860 he supported Abraham Lincoln, but he did not consider himself a Republican or, for that matter, a Democrat; and he had a special dislike for the extremism of the abolitionists. He thought of himself simply as a “conservative Union man.” What really inspired him was a dream of success in business. After he mustered out of the army in the fall of 1865, he formed a partnership with his sister’s husband, George Lord, who had been an officer in the Union navy’s Mississippi River squadron. Since Eltinge had never been anywhere near Memphis, it was no doubt Lord who suggested that city as the place to seek their fortune. Pooling their savings and agreeing to give the retail trade a try, the two aspiring businessmen arrived in Memphis (by themselves, for Eltinge was a bachelor and Lord’s wife remained in the North for the time being) on the afternoon of March 13, 1866, with $2,200 in capital.26

It was an inauspicious day. “[We] found the place in a horrible condition,” Eltinge reported in a letter to his father. “There is about six inches of mud in the streets and it is terrible getting about.” But he and his partner went to work enthusiastically, staying at the Gayoso House while they searched for a rental building for their business and to live in. Before long they found one (for seventy-five dollars a month), secured their city and state business licenses (twenty dollars apiece), and began stocking the store, mostly with groceries and general merchandise for the local market but also with plantation supplies that they hoped to sell to the planters of west Tennessee, north Mississippi, and east Arkansas who trekked to the city periodically to buy provisions. With no place to cook for themselves, the two young men found a boardinghouse where, for seven dollars a week each, they could eat.27

They worked hard, keeping the store open from six in the morning until nine at night, six days a week, and doing everything themselves—clerking, stocking, bookkeeping, dusting, and sweeping—until the end of April, when they hired a black person to do the cleaning. The enterprise was profitable from the start, but just barely. Fire insurance was another problem: “We cant get our stock of goods insured,” Eltinge told his father. “The building is frame and the whole block is frame. This makes the insurance companies unwilling to take it.” But he and Lord remained optimistic, calculating that their sales would increase as they learned more about the retail trade and cultivated more business contacts. They even began thinking about expanding into cotton speculation. “We hope,” Eltinge wrote his sister on April 20, “for better times soon.”28

*   *   *

Yet another Yankee cohort in the city—a relatively recent arrival—was the staff of the Memphis subdistrict of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Officially the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the Freedmen’s Bureau had been created by Congress near the end of the war primarily to aid black Southerners in their transition from slavery to freedom. It was a War Department agency, and the men who staffed its hierarchy, from the headquarters in Washington down to the local level, were mostly army officers. The Memphis subdistrict, which comprised the city and a large expanse of rural west Tennessee, was established in the summer of 1865. Like every other local Freedmen’s Bureau office across the South, it had a broad range of duties. These included overseeing the signing of labor contracts between planters and black field hands, providing for indigent freed people and caring for the helpless sick, regulating the apprenticing of black orphans, assisting the educational work of Yankee missionaries, and adjudicating legal matters involving blacks.29

The original superintendent (chief officer) of the Memphis subdistrict was Brigadier General Davis Tillson. He did not stay long in that post, nor did any of the three men who held it between Tillson’s departure and late February 1866. These four superintendents differed in some ways in their approach to the job, but they shared three things: a determination to protect the freed people against legal inequity, physical abuse, and reenslavement; an assumption (similar to that of Smith, Stoneman, and Tade) that slavery had degraded blacks and rendered them incapable of responsible citizenship; and a conviction that Memphis was teeming with indolent freedmen who must be forced into productive labor.30

One of the first things Tillson did after arriving in July 1865 was meet with the city’s mayor to find out whether black testimony was accepted in the local courts. Learning that state law forbade it, Tillson immediately set up a Bureau judiciary to take charge of all legal cases involving blacks. This court, which was presided over by a Freedmen’s Bureau agent and could call on troops in the city to enforce its decrees, handled both civil and criminal cases: disagreements between white employers and black laborers, marital disputes among the freed people, brawls between white and black hack drivers, charges of public drunkenness or theft brought by the city police against blacks, and every other legal matter involving the freedmen. And it did so impartially, thus winning praise from many blacks and scorn from many whites.31

But this does not describe the response to every one of the Bureau’s actions. Tillson and his successors firmly believed, just as the departed Smith had, that the freedmen needed to be protected from white hostility. “I am determined,” Tillson wrote the month he arrived, “that … no person shall escape punishment in my sub dist[rict], who is guilty of wrong or injustice to the Freed people.” But he also believed that blacks had to be protected from their own foolishness and base passions. His Bureau would steer them to productive pursuits. “Their ignorance,” said Tillson, “for which they can not be justly blamed, makes them insensible to their best interests.” In the very same sentence in which he vowed to punish their abusers he declared himself “equally determined that the Freed people shall not become a worthless, lazy set of vagrants living in vice and idleness.” Two months later his successor echoed those words, claiming that Memphis was overrun by “lazy, worthless vagrants who will never be induced to leave the life they are now leading, except by the use of force.” This was no empty threat. The superintendents regularly dispatched armed soldiers to arrest every freedman who merely appeared to be unemployed. Those arrested were deposited in jail, where they sat until they agreed to take work on a plantation. The roundups infuriated the city’s blacks.32

The Memphis Bureau agents fought a running battle with the municipal authorities, who protested the fact that the Bureau court kept the fines it levied on black offenders but made the city use its jail to hold those offenders before trial, and to continue to hold those who were convicted and unable to pay their fines. (The military jail was too small for that purpose.) This cost the city a lot of money, and the mayor threatened to deny the Bureau the use of the jail unless it paid the city for the privilege, although he never made good on that threat. Meanwhile, the Bureau officers chastised the civil authorities for refusing to take responsibility for black paupers as they did for white paupers: not a penny of city or county revenues went to the missionaries’ orphanage, the Bureau-operated Freedmen’s Hospital, or any other sort of relief for needy blacks, forcing the Bureau to devote a portion of its meager funds to those purposes. The city and county fathers replied that Congress, in creating the Freedmen’s Bureau, had relieved the South’s civil officials of all responsibility for black indigents. But the Memphis Bureau agents saw this intransigence not as a matter of legal principle but of racism and schadenfreude: as one of them put it, Southern whites, “having always prophesied that the emancipation of these people would [lead to] their extermination,” relished the suffering of the freed people. Whatever the truth, the matter remained unresolved. On more than one occasion, the body of a homeless black person who had died in the street lay unburied for days while the Bureau and the city argued over who would provide a coffin and see to the interment.33

At the end of February 1866 a new superintendent took charge of the Memphis subdistrict, the fifth in eight months. Benjamin P. Runkle was a thirty-year-old Ohioan, a college-educated lawyer, and a U.S. Army officer. His military service had begun just ten days after the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, when he accepted a commission as captain in a volunteer regiment. A year later, at Shiloh, he suffered a ghastly wound to his jaw, but eventually recovered and resumed active service. He rose quickly in rank, survived two more battle wounds, and won much praise from his superiors. Partially disabled by his injuries, he was mustered out in July 1864 as a brevet brigadier general; but a month later he accepted a commission as lieutenant colonel in the army’s Veteran Reserve Corps (also known as the Invalid Corps), which assigned soldiers who could no longer take the field to desk jobs or other light duty.34

Runkle and his wife moved into a house a mile and a quarter beyond the city limits. He was surprised at the state of the Bureau. The previous superintendent had been lax; the office records were a mess and important business had gone untended. Reviewing an inspection report on the Freedmen’s Hospital and learning that it was “in a most deplorable condition,” Runkle immediately ordered the surgeon in charge to get it into proper shape. Meanwhile, he concluded that the office was understaffed, so he asked his superior officer in Nashville for at least one more agent. He also decided that the Bureau’s accommodations were unsatisfactory. The office was in a building in the Fourth Ward near the heart of downtown. Runkle made plans to find something closer to the southern part of the city where most of the freedmen lived.35

Runkle was less skeptical than his predecessors about the former slaves’ capacity for productive citizenship. “The condition of the Freedmen,” he wrote in his first monthly report to Nashville, “is all that could be expected under the circumstances: that a race kept in total ignorance for more than a century should conduct themselves as well as they do, should be so earnest in their desires, and so eager and persevering in their efforts to acquire education is a matter of astonishment.” Yes, they crowded into the city in far greater numbers than was good for them; but most did so, he thought, not to avoid work but to take advantage of the missionaries’ schools or because they had been mistreated on the plantations. As for the accusation, leveled by many whites, that Memphis was awash in black crime, Runkle doubted that black crime was a greater problem than white crime. Still, he acknowledged that there were many black idlers and criminals in the city, and he tolerated them no more than had the previous superintendents. The periodic roundup of vagrants continued under his administration, but he was at least more diligent than his predecessors in ensuring that no one was packed off to a plantation who did not deserve to be.36

Scrupulously fair, Runkle achieved a first for a Bureau superintendent: he won the full trust of the city’s blacks. His predecessors had recognized that black cooperation was essential for both the handling of able-bodied freedmen who refused to live productive lives and for the general welfare of the black populace. They had called on Memphis’s black leaders for assistance but had been, unsurprisingly, rebuffed. But in a series of meetings with Runkle, these leaders agreed to rally their community in support of the Bureau. This new spirit was manifest in April, when blacks joined in a sanitation campaign, launched by Runkle, to clean up their homes and neighborhoods in anticipation of the onset of cholera season.37

As he oversaw the Bureau’s dealings with black Memphis, Runkle kept an eye on white Memphis. It was as obvious to him as to his predecessors that the Bureau, and the military force that backed it, were necessary to protect the freed people. Without this federal presence, he noted in his report for March, blacks “would be in a worse condition than when in a state of Slavery.” He found little that was encouraging in the attitudes of white Memphians, Yankees excepted. The fecklessness of the city government and the brutish unprofessionalism of the police disgusted him, but he reserved his outrage for the vengeful, troublemaking Rebel newspapers.38

Runkle soon secured new accommodations for the Bureau in a more comfortable and attractive building. It was on the west side of Second Street between Gayoso and Beale, in the Fifth Ward—closer, in other words, to the people its purpose was to help. Runkle and his staff moved into it on the last day of April.39

*   *   *

A great many of the Yankees in Memphis, Runkle among them, were politically engaged, and of those a sizeable majority were Republicans (or “Union men,” as they also called themselves). While these Memphis Republicans disagreed among themselves on certain issues, all sided with the Republican-dominated Congress in its increasingly bitter confrontations with Democratic president Johnson. Only a minority aligned with the Radical wing of their party; but all were routinely labeled Radicals by their opponents, the Democrats of Memphis (who generally referred to themselves as Conservatives).40

Fed up with Conservative newspaper agitation and Irish municipal misgovernance, Memphis Republicans decided in late 1865 to organize, with the dual aim of presenting a united front against Democratic propaganda and winning control of the city and county governments. By April 1866 they had founded the Union Republican Party of Memphis, appointed an executive committee, and passed resolutions declaring their general principles—among them “that all men are created equal” and that the federal government had a duty to protect citizens’ rights. They then began formulating plans to run candidates in Memphis elections.41

One of the executive committee members was thirty-seven-year-old John Eaton, Jr., a brevet brigadier general in the Union army during the war and now chief editor of the Memphis Post, one of the city’s two Republican papers. Before the war, no one who knew him would have predicted that Eaton would one day rise to prominence in the military and in politics, for he had originally devoted himself to different pursuits: first to teaching and public-school administration, eventually to the ministry. When he went to war in 1861 it was not as a combatant but as the chaplain of the 27th Ohio Infantry. Although he had always rejected abolitionism as extreme, he sympathized with slaves and, after coming to the attention of General Ulysses S. Grant, was appointed in November 1862 to oversee the care of the thousands of runaway slaves who had made it to the lines of Grant’s army in west Tennessee and north Mississippi.42

Eaton remained in charge of the “contrabands” in that theater for the rest of the war, after which he joined the Freedmen’s Bureau in Washington, D.C. But before long he felt another calling: to return to west Tennessee and establish a newspaper. The paper’s mission would be to uphold the cause of the Union, to defend and uplift the freed people, to enlighten the benighted South, and to serve as a rallying point for Republicans in the region. Calling on like-minded friends, Eaton secured investors for the enterprise. He then resigned from the army and the Bureau and in late 1865 moved to Memphis with his wife, Alice.43

The first issue of the Post appeared on January 15. In it Eaton forthrightly proclaimed his purpose and his convictions. The newspaper would “be the exponent of staunch, unconditional loyalty to the Union.” Emancipation was a great boon, not just to blacks but to the South as a whole: “Slavery tarnishes the honor of labor and makes industry a disgrace. Slavery poisons the air, and gives barrenness to the soil. Liberty clears the one, and enriches the other.” But black freedom was under continuing attack, Eaton warned, and disloyalty still festered in the South. “The Post will give special attention to the correction of these evils.”44

Eaton threw himself into the paper. He put out daily and weekly editions, and scrambled to secure enough advertising to keep the paper afloat. Alice worried about him, sensing that the long hours and stress were aging him prematurely. She herself hated Memphis and missed Washington, but was comforted by the thought that her husband was doing righteous work.45

The Post’s editorial columns quickly established the newspaper as the voice of moderate Republicanism in Memphis. It had much to say on the great question of national reunification: to Eaton’s mind, the rebellious South did not yet deserve readmission to the Union. His editorials also addressed the matter of the freed people, for whom he had not only great sympathy but great hope. He pointed out that white Southerners’ predictions about the consequences of emancipation had been thoroughly falsified by events. They had claimed that blacks “would murder their former masters,” but in fact “the murders … [have been] chiefly committed by the whites. Then it was cried from pulpit and rostrum, and repeated by the press, that the negro, as free, would not work. The season closed, the crops were less than usual, but the fact stood confessed that the negroes, though only partially paid and allowed little of true liberty, were the chief cultivators of the soil.”46

Eaton applauded the passage (over Johnson’s veto) of the Civil Rights Act in early April. The act granted the former slaves citizenship and legal equality but not the franchise, which Eaton thought they were as yet unready to exercise responsibly. The same month, the Post addressed the freed people directly in a series of homilies written in the tone of a parent instructing a child. On the thirteenth the subject was education, which presumably the freedmen had to be convinced was good for them: “While you remain in a state of ignorance you must be content to perform the very lowest class of labor and receive the lowest rates of wages.… Now [with the end of slavery] you should have an ambition to be something else besides mere ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water.’ … You will never be able to command the respect and esteem of those with whom you associate … till you are in the possession of an education.” Five days later there was a lesson on the necessity of “keeping your contracts, or, in other words, [we] say to you that you must do as you agree. One of the greatest obstacles in the way of your improvement is to be found in your failure to keep your promises, or in your want of reliability.” This applied not just to work but to marriage: “You must learn that this obligation can not be thrown off whenever fancy or dislike shall dictate. You can not have a new husband or wife every few months or years.” On April 29 came a lecture on black “habits”: “Habits are of two kinds, good and bad. You have both. The good we wish to encourage you in; the bad we wish you to abandon.” One of the bad ones was “spending your hard-earned money foolishly,” especially on liquor. “The world has never seen an instance yet where any man or woman was made the better for the use of liquor; but from the days of Noah down to the present time its effects have been only evil.”47

Eaton also called for the economic restructuring of the South. This was a matter on the minds of Republicans throughout the nation. Long held back by slavery and the power of the planter class, the South’s economy was badly in need of a transformation: Southerners should emulate the North’s economy, Eaton and others argued. The plantation system exploited laborers and exhausted the soil; planters ought to divide their estates into family farms, and blacks as well as poor whites should be encouraged to purchase them. The Southern economy was too dependent on agriculture and commerce; industries must be established to create new wealth. The South must invite immigrants of the right sort—in other words, Yankees and Germans (no more Irish, please), whose hard work, thriftiness, progressive ideas, and bountiful investment capital would invigorate the listless region.48

The Republicans of Memphis were almost all from the North, but their ranks included a handful of native Southerners (“scalawags,” as the Rebels would soon begin to call them). These men had been Unionists during the war, and had suffered for it until the Yankee army arrived. Some now held political appointment, thanks to Governor William G. Brownlow (himself a Unionist, from east Tennessee, who had been persecuted by Rebels during the war). Among these officeholders was thirty-seven-year-old William Wallace, the district attorney general and a stockholder in the Post.49

Another Southern Unionist, B.F.C. Brooks, was the chief spokesman of the Memphis Republicans’ Radical minority. A physician and Alabama native, he had lived in Memphis since 1854. He boasted of the fact that, in the statewide referendum of June 1861, he was one of only five men in the city who voted against secession. The secessionists had consequently turned their wrath on him; fearing for his life, he fled the city. After the Yankees captured Memphis he returned to serve as a surgeon in a military hospital. Nurturing a permanent grudge against the Rebels, he became active in Republican politics after the war and established a weekly newspaper, the Memphis Republican, to make his views known. It had a small circulation compared to the Post’s, for it breathed a fire too hot for most of the city’s Republicans. While Eaton criticized President Johnson and the Memphis Conservatives in temperate terms and urged no severer penalty than disenfranchisement for any Rebel, Brooks denounced his opponents, lauded Thaddeus Stevens (who advocated enfranchising the freedmen and confiscating the property of rich Rebels), and called for punishment of the Rebels commensurate with their guilt: for the rank and file, disenfranchisement; for the lower stratum of Confederate leaders, banishment; for those at the top, the gallows.50

The vast majority of native whites in Memphis, along with the Irish, were Conservatives. By the spring of 1866 their hostility to the city’s Republicans, moderate and Radical alike (they made no distinction), had reached an intensity disturbing, even frightening, to many Yankees. Urged on by the Conservative newspapers, especially the Avalanche, the Rebels and Irish seemed determined to make life so miserable for any whites who favored Rebel disenfranchisement or black rights that they would pack up and leave. Overt threats of violence were rare; Conservatives made their position known through ominous hints, insults on the street, social ostracism, and talk of boycotting businesses. But some Yankees suspected that the U.S. military presence in the city was the only thing keeping Conservatives from launching an all-out assault on them.51

Few bowed to this pressure. The Freedmen’s Bureau agents and army personnel, of course, did not have the option to leave. The missionaries, called to the city by God, were determined not to forsake their duty. A number of other Yankees were apolitical or even sympathetic to the Conservatives, and thus encountered no threat sufficient to drive them away, for the Conservatives insisted that they opposed only Northerners whose politics were hostile to the white South. A few Yankee entrepreneurs, such as William Wilder, closed up shop and left town under threat of boycotting; but the rest stuck it out, hoping that Rebel and Irish rage would eventually dissipate.52


Copyright © 2013 by Stephen V. Ash

Maps copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey L. Ward

Table of Contents

Maps of 1866 Memphis

Author's Note

Prologue: Memphis, Tennessee, May 22–24, 1866

Part I: A City Divided

1. Yankee Memphis

2. Rebel Memphis

3. Irish Memphis

4. Black Memphis

Part II: The Riot

5. An Incident on the Bayou Bridge: Monday, April 30, Midafternoon to Tuesday, May 1, Late Afternoon

6. "You Have Killed Him Once, What Do You Want to Kill Him Again For?": Tuesday, May 1, Late Afternoon to Wednesday, May 2, First Light

7. Fire: Wednesday, May 2, Early Morning to Thursday, May 3, Dawn

Part III: The Aftermath

8. Recriminations and Investigations

9. The Riot in History and Memory




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