Memphis Reconstruction Era Race Riot

About 150 years ago in early May 1866 a race riot exploded in Memphis during the early stages of Reconstruction.

Trouble began on April 30th when a regiment of black solders was mustered out at a nearby army post. As they waited for their discharge pay many celebrated and became inebriated. A street fight erupted between some of the soldiers and the police until each went their separate ways.

Memphis Riot

The next day a larger group of soldiers again gathered in the street, celebrating with intoxicants. Four policemen tried to disperse them, but the soldiers chased them away. Gunfire broke out and two policemen were shot. After the police obtained reinforcements several soldiers were killed before returning to the army post that evening.

While the black soldiers remained on the army post, police, firefighters and an armed posse of about 100 other whites deputized by the Sheriff attacked the city’s comparitively unarmed blacks. After a two day rampage, the local army commander declared martial law, even though the Memphis mayor requested that he intervene two days earlier.  A total of more than forty blacks and two whites had been killed.

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The synopsis above is best understood by examining context beyond the obvious racism that existed in the city at the time.

First, the initial post-war Memphis military commander repeatedly warned against using black soldiers in the garrison because it increased the potential for racial violence. Other military leaders, from General Ulysses Grant on down, agreed that black occupation troops should not be used in the South.

After the riot some Memphis leaders concluded that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton persisted in using black soldiers as a deliberate tactic to provoke race riots. As an enemy of President Andrew Johnson, Stanton wanted to discredit the President’s Reconstruction plan so that it could be replaced by one taking shape in Congress where Republicans were in control.

Based upon later incidents, there is good reason to believe such suspicions. Two months after the Memphis riots, the New Orleans military commander tried to pre-empt a race riot there when he wired Stanton for instructions. Stanton never replied, nor did he inform President Johnson of the telegram. When asked why he did not tell Johnson, Stanton’s lame excuse was that he did not think the telegram was important. Consequently, Republicans used the New Orleans riot as another presumed example of Johnson’s failures.

Second, Irish immigrants controlled the Memphis civil administration and held most of the government jobs including those of policemen and firemen. They gained control for two reasons. One was that blacks couldn’t vote. The other was that former Confederates couldn’t hold public office or vote. Ironically, despite the fact that congressional Republicans felt President Johnson was too lenient on Southerners, the disfranchisement of Tennessee’s former Confederates originated with a loyalty oath required by Johnson when he was the state’s military governor during the Civil War. His Presidential policy, however, was consistent with his action in Tennessee since he believed (along with nearly everybody) that voting requirements were a state’s right.

Third, half of Memphis’s population was black. The remaining half was split about evenly between the Irish and Southern whites. Since former Confederates could not vote, the Irishmen realized they would likely lose their government control if blacks were given the right to vote. The Irish would be outnumbered at Memphis polls by almost two-to-one.

Moreover, in May 1866 there was considerable evidence that Southern blacks would indeed soon be given the vote. Such movements were afoot in both the state capital in Nashville and in Washington. Nashville mandated universal black suffrage in Tennessee in February 1867. The movement in Washington took shape in the form of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was released from Congress in June 1866 and ratified by three-fourths of the states in July 1868.

Finally, the primary Radical Republican objection to President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan was that it did not require mandatory black suffrage in the South. But there is good reason to believe that the objection was primarily politically, instead of morally, motivated.

When the Civil War ended the Republican Party was barely a dozen years old. Its leaders worried that it might be strangled in its cradle if the re-admittance of Southern states failed to be managed in a manner that would prevent Southerners from allying with Northern Democrats to regain control of the federal government. If all former Confederate states were admitted to the 39th Congress in December 1865 and each added member was a Democrat, the Republican majority in the Senate would have dropped from 40-to-10 to 40-to-32. Even more significantly, the Democrats would have seized a 143-to-111 majority in the House of Representatives versus an extant Republican majority of 111-to-72.

The infant GOP reasoned it must insure that most of the new Southern senators and congressmen be re-admitted as Republicans. One way would be to establish vassal governments in the Southern states. Since there were few white Republicans in the region the Party concluded it needed to create a new constituency. It rejected opportunities to join forces with Southerners who were formerly Whigs—as Lincoln hoped to do—although it would lust for such an alliance after 1876.

Nonetheless, 1866 Republicans settled on two objectives. First was mandatory African-American suffrage in all former Confederate states. They expected that such an inexperienced electorate could be manipulated to consistently support Republican interests out of gratitude for emancipation and voter suffrage. Second was to disfranchise the Southern white classes most likely to oppose the Republicans, to wit former Confederates.

Ultimately, a central question of the entire Reconstruction Era is whether black suffrage was chiefly driven by a political, or moral, motivation. If Republican motivation was primarily political it was a reprehensible excuse for provoking racial violence.

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4 thoughts on “Memphis Reconstruction Era Race Riot

  1. Pingback: Will Brooks Simpson Debate? | Civil War Chat

  2. Pingback: Brooks Simpson’s Reality Distortion Field | Civil War Chat

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