“The ‘Bloody Shirt’ Reformed”

August 12, 1876

Thomas Nast

“The ‘Bloody Shirt’ Reformed”

Black Americans; Reconstruction; Riots, Race Riots; Symbols, Justice; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American South; South Carolina;

Justice. "Five More Wanted."

In this cartoon, the personification of Justice resolutely demands the execution of those white men responsible for the murder of six black men after a race riot at Hamburg, South Carolina, in July 1876.  She is bounded by the founding documents of the American republic:  the Declaration of Independence (left) and the Constitution (right), with the artist emphasizing the latter's guarantees of republican government and equal protection.  In the background, wall posters name white terrorist groups in the South:  the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the White Liners.

As the U.S. Army gradually withdrew from the post-Civil War South in the 1870s, and Northern support for Reconstruction waned, black men were increasingly kept from the polls, allowing the election across the South of white-only Democratic administrations called "Redeemer" governments.  In 1876, South Carolina was one of the three remaining states that still had federal troops present, and that had not undergone "redemption."  The Democratic Party in the state was bitterly divided, and racial tensions were high.  

The Democratic "Fusionists" argued for focusing on local and legislative elections since Governor Daniel Chamberlain was likely to be reelected with support from the black Republican majority.  The "Straight-Out" Democrats overtly urged that white supremacy (or "redemption") could triumph if each white Democrat prevented at least one black man from voting through intimidation, bribery, or other means.  In May, the Democratic State Convention was unable to agree on nominations for state office.

Racially animosity was evident in the town of Hamburg, South Carolina, where the majority black residents complained of unfair treatment and the minority whites responded with charges of harassment.  On July 4, the town held an Independence Day celebration, commemorating the centennial of the American republic.  Members of the local black militia had gathered for a parade when two white farmers ordered them to disperse so their wagon could pass.  Heated words were exchanged, but the white men were allowed to continue on their way.  

The next day, one of the farmers appeared in the town court demanding the arrest of the black militia captain, who, in turn, denounced the judge for considering the possibility.  The captain was ordered to stand trial for contempt of court on July 8, at which time members of the black militia and a group of armed white men congregated in the town.  When the black militia refused to disarm, fighting erupted, and the whites brought a cannon and 100 more men from nearby Augusta, Georgia.  Under cover of night, the outnumbered black men attempted to flee, resulting in one being killed and twenty-five captured.  Early the next morning, five of the captives were murdered in cold blood, and the property of the black townspeople was ransacked.  A young white man was killed during the plunder. 

Within South Carolina, the incident strengthened the "Straight-Out" faction of the Democratic Party, which nominated Wade Hampton for governor.  They were victorious in the fall elections, and South Carolina joined the ranks of the "redeemed" states.  In the North, the Hamburg Massacre became a symbol of the anti-black, anti-Reconstruction violence perpetrated by segments of the Democratic Party in the South. Seven white men were indicted for the Hamburg murders, but the case against them was dropped after the Redeemers assumed office.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The ‘Bloody Shirt’ Reformed”
May 29, 2024

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