The Hamburg Massacre
On July 4, 1876, the United States uneasily turned one hundred. At the end of the day, there were those who complained that it had been a gaudy, “overgrown and spread-eagle Fourth of July.” The cumulative effect of the Panic of 1873 and the emerging scandals of Grant’s administration had sharpened the knives of the journalists and soured the public mood. How could the country justify public expenditures on patriotic frippery when millions of Americans were jobless, homeless, or starving? Amid the revelations of presidential corruption and corporate predation, the centennial seemed just another “gigantic fraud,” a final embarrassment for Grant’s presidency. “Various administrations have closed in gloom and weakness,” claimed the great historian Allan Nevins, but “no other has closed in such paralysis and discredit as … did Grant's.”
But the great promise of America had been on display in its centennial too. San Franciscans along Van Ness Avenue had celebrated in a bath of electric light pouring forth from flood-lamps mounted over St. Ignatius College. It was the first such electrical display in America. Three thousand miles away, Philadelphians got their first look at an entirely different lamp—a giant torch born aloft by a graceful hand, the beginnings of the Statue of Liberty, on view at the Centennial Exhibition, America’s first world fair. Philadelphia’s organizers had worried that such foreign exhibits would outshine the domestic ones, but the United States had held her own, introducing the world to Bell’s telephone, Heinz’s ketchup, and Hire’s Root Beer. (Marijuana too had made its official American debut, courtesy of the Turkish delegation.) And in a thousand smaller towns across the country, civic organizers had heeded President Grant’s proclamation that every city and hamlet should write a new history of itself, to be read on the centennial and filed with the Library of Congress. Together, these histories constitute a sort of civic prosopography of America. In addition to puffing up themselves, some cities took the opportunity to throw a few elbows. A speaker in Santa Fe, for instance, spent most of his time trashing St. Augustine’s claim to being America’s oldest city. This too was an American tradition: whatever else we are, we are a country that is teeming, bumptious, and pressing ahead.
In Hamburg, South Carolina, the centennial festivities opened with a reading of the Declaration of Independence—a common-enough practice, but to the primarily black audience, the words sang with a special resonance. Though their experience taught them differently, the crowd took a moment’s comfort in the idea that rights were inalienable and truths self-evident. Following the reading, Hamburg residents were not treated to a town history. There was little to tell. Hamburg had once been a thriving center of the cotton trade; then Augusta, Georgia, just across the Savannah River, had gotten its canals and railroads, and wagon hubs like Hamburg had been abandoned. After the Civil War, freedmen flocked to these little ghost towns. They cleaned them up, elected mayors and city councilmen, and created a sort of photo-negative of the world the Confederacy had fought to defend.
Hamburg was not entirely black. Of the six hundred residents, almost a fifth were white. Some had always lived there; others had drifted in as the town revitalized. All were comfortable enough with blacks that they hadn’t drifted away again. And some were like Louis Schiller, the town printer, a former Confederate cavalryman and master Mason who gradually found himself genuinely committed to racial uplift.
The closing ceremony of Hamburg’s centennial celebration involved a series of precision drills executed by the local militia. A desultory and unpracticed crew for years, the militia had recently reorganized and elected a new captain, Dock Adams. Adams had served in the Civil War and captained a militia company in Augusta before relocating to Hamburg. Under the new regime, the militia had been drilled regularly, sometimes in the moonlight when few were watching, often in their “barracks”—an abandoned brick edifice known as the Sibley building. Now they were parading down Hamburg’s main street, and the hundred men, women, and children who’d gathered to watch them were impressed. As Schiller later remembered, “they were most equal to any company, white or colored, no matter where they came from. [Adams] had them well-drilled, and that was the great fault.”
The Rut I Always Travel
The two white boys pulled the wagon to the side of the road and sat contemplating the Negroes. Tommy Butler sat on the right. He was twenty-one, a bit of a loafer; he enjoyed cursing and was good at it. Henry Getzen sat on the left. He was twenty-six, quieter but more violent. When he had married Tommy’s sister, he had been adopted as one of the “Butler boys.” Both had been too young for Civil War service. They had inherited some of its bitterness, but none of its resignation. They were on their way back to the Butler plantation from Augusta, a trip that always took them through Hamburg. The two had had occasional words with some of the residents, but they’d never seen anything like this parade. Probably, Tommy couldn’t have said what he hated most about it. Certainly, he hated that the militia had guns and that they marched so well. Probably he hated that they were happy, and that the hundred Negroes who lined the road to watch them were happy. After about half an hour, Getzen cracked the reins and steered the wagon directly into the marchers.
Just before impact both parade and wagon pulled up short. Adams spoke first: “Mr. Getzen, I don’t know for what reason you treat me in this manner.”
“What?” said Getzen.
“Aiming to drive through my company.”
“Well, this is the rut I always travel.” Getzen may have been right, but Market Street was a hundred and fifty feet wide. Owing to disuse, it was more like a big field than anything else, with low grass covering all but some ruts down the middle. Certainly there was ample room for a wagon to pass on either side of the marchers. But Getzen was of a mind to make trouble. Besides, in his mental world, whites went straight and blacks went around. It was the rut he had always traveled, and he said so.
“That may be,” replied Adams, “but if ever you had a company out here I should not have treated you in this kind of a manner. I would have gone around and shown some respect to you.” Adams probably thought he was being polite. But in bringing up the specter of blacks and whites reversing roles, he had touched something like the very root of Getzen’s anger.
“Well, this is the rut I always travel,” Getzen barked again, “and I don’t intend to get out of it for no damn niggers.” Tommy added a few choice curses of his own as a murmur spread through the marchers. Some wanted to stand their ground. But Adams called for silence. “Open order!” he commanded (the militia equivalent of “make a hole!”), and the marchers parted as reluctantly as the sea. As the wagon lurched forward, Getzen and Tommy leveled pistols at the crowd, threatening to shoot anyone who tried to bayonet their horse. The commotion brought Hamburg’s sheriff, Jim Cook, to the scene on the run. Trailing the wagon, he shouted at the Butlers to stop and threatened them with arrest—but they kept driving. In a light rain, Adams urged his men back to their barracks. The centennial was over.
White Men Have Ruled the Black Men Long Enough
The following morning, Getzen, Tommy, and Tommy’s father all returned to Hamburg to swear out a complaint against Adams. They met Prince Rivers, the town’s trial justice, at his office on Market Street, and declared that Adams and his men had been guilty of obstructing a public road. Ironically, Rivers was general of the very militia the white men had come to execrate. But he was a complex character. Prince Rivers was a big man, not easily intimidated. Born in slavery, he had taught himself to read and write. A carriage driver in Beaufort, South Carolina when the war began, he escaped on his carriage horse to become a legendary color-sergeant, first in the “Hunter Regiment,” later the First South Carolina Volunteers, and finally the 33d U.S.C.T. Over those years, he had seen a great deal of combat, not only with Confederates on the battlefield, but with whites in his own army. Marching on Broadway in New York, Rivers had been attacked by a mob enraged at the sight of chevrons on a black man. Even against a mob, he had held his own. When asked by a reporter if he was ready to fight, Rivers spoke bluntly. “This is our time,” he said. “If our fathers had had such a chance as this, we should not have been slaves now. If we do not improve this chance, another one will not come, and our children will be slaves always.” His commanding officer, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, believed Rivers had no equal. “There is not a white officer in this regiment who has more administrative ability or more absolute authority [over] the men,” Higginson wrote in his diary. “He is jet-black [and] very handsome…[with a] figure superior to that of any of our white officers,—being six feet high, perfectly proportioned, and of apparently inexhaustible strength and activity. His gait is like a panther’s; I never saw such a tread.” “No anti-slavery novel has described a man of such marked ability,” Higginson concluded. “If his education [had] reached a higher point, I see no reason why he should not command the Army of the Potomac…. [and] if there should ever be a black monarchy in South Carolina, he will be its king.” (After the war, Rivers fulfilled much of Higginson’s prophecy. He did not become king exactly, but he was known as the “Black Prince”—the power in Aiken County, which he had helped to carve out of some of the most unreconstructed country in America.)
On the surface, then, it seems as if Rivers would have been inclined to give the Butlers little satisfaction. They had, after all, ruined his town’s centennial and were now exploiting the situation to drag his militia captain into some legal bushes where they hoped to beat him half to death. But Rivers had the natural conservatism of a military man. Most of his experience, as a sergeant in the army and as a trial justice, had been in disciplining blacks. The Butlers’ conduct was less critical to him than Adams’s. If blacks were to get ahead, they would have to do it as he had, by being simply superior; and if Adams had comported himself poorly, Rivers would dress him down. Thus, Rivers had his constable write out a summons for Adams and his officers to appear at an informal hearing the next day.
Adams was enraged on receiving the summons. The legalities beyond him, he knew only that he was being called to defend conduct that was unimpeachable given the circumstances. His officers were even more livid. Their company was finally coming together; they felt a justified pride in their accomplishments and a justified outrage that their centennial had come to such an ignominious end. Perhaps they weren’t ready for a fight, but some of them were inclined to one. Hoping to avoid a legal confrontation, Adams took his summons to a white Aiken-county lawyer named Henry Sparnick. Sparnick was a Republican, sympathetic to the blacks’ predicament. He told Adams that the summons was not legally binding, but that he should probably go anyway. The surest way to defuse the situation was to bury it in legal niceties. He also offered to attend the inquiry and give what counsel he could.
The hearing itself got quickly out-of-hand. Henry Getzen was called to testify first, and in his version of events an unruly mob had deliberately and repeatedly blocked his way and threatened him and Tommy with violence. When he was done, Rivers allowed Adams to do the cross-examination. Nervous in front of the court and nursing a thinly masked disdain for the ludicrousness of the situation, Adams couldn’t help but throw fuel on the fire. His questions were almost too logical and punched such holes in Getzen’s story that Getzen grew furious and had to be calmed down by his adopted father. Unfortunately, Adams asked those questions with such tart and topspin and legal ignorance that Rivers was forever interrupting him with judicial objections. Finally, exasperated, Adams admitted that he didn’t “respect [Rivers] no how” and sat down to sulk. This only earned him another rebuke and a threat of contempt, and Adams soon found himself openly cursing the court as Rivers ordered him arrested. At this, Adams’s first lieutenant, Charles Attaway, completely lost his cool. Pacing before a gathering crowd outside the trial office, he called Rivers a “white-livered son of a bitch” and said he’d “be damned if he didn’t wade in blood up to his [ass]” before his captain would be arrested. “I carry no arms,” Attaway exclaimed, “but we have got arms. The white men have ruled the black men long enough…. The next white man who [rides] in front of [our] company [won’t] have any report to make…; [I will] see that his head [is] shot off so [fucking] clean…he [will] have nothing to tell.” Whatever lesson Rivers was hoping to teach Adams, it was beginning to backfire. Thinking cooler heads would prevail with time, Rivers suggested that the hearing reconvene in two days, at four o’clock on July 8.
This Tommy’s father objected to. Robert J. Butler was cantankerous but also a touch senile. Looking and feeling all of sixty-seven, with large side-whiskers and a failing frame, he was a little asea in the new racial world. Before the war he had been a middling farmer who had earned “quite a reputation” for his hunting dogs. It was a point of pride with him that people had come from fifty miles away to have him run down criminals or lost children. Mostly, though, he ran down slaves and was known among locals as the “old negro-hunter.” Heartbreakingly to him, after the war his dogs had been picked off one by one in a series of “accidents” and disappearances that seems to have unhinged him slightly. In a world where blacks could murder innocent dogs, his sons’ version of events made perfect sense. Of course the Negroes would take time out of their centennial celebration to harass and threaten his sons. And indeed, the safety of his boys was the source of his objection. Four o’clock was late enough that the hearing might stretch until dark, and Butler worried that Hamburg would be dangerous when the sun fell. Nevertheless, Rivers stuck to his decision and court adjourned.
The Most Cold-Blooded, Insolent Human Being That Mortal Eyes Ever Beheld
At roughly half past three on a blistering July 8, General Matthew C. Butler rolled up outside Rivers’s office in a small buggy. Butler was South Carolina royalty. His father had been a Congressman, as had his grandfather. His uncles included a Senator, a Governor, and Commodore Perry. Widely regarded as one of the most dashing Confederates ever to mount a horse, Butler had become a Major General by the end of the war. But he had suffered setbacks too. He had lost a foot at Brandy Station, and the war had ruined him financially. In his own run at Congress, (in a bid to be the equal of his father and grandfather), he had been defeated by a black man. And when he tried to take out the loss on local blacks, they had burned down his house. Utterly unreconstructed, Butler was an unstable compound of gentility and rage. “With all of his beautiful manners,” an acquaintance noted, “when he wanted to he could be the most cold-blooded, insolent human being that mortal eyes every beheld.” Alongside the General was Tommy’s father. Though both were Butlers, the exact relation was too distant for any to know it. Tommy and Getzen had arrived also with a few other toughs on horseback. All of the men were armed. The General did not step down from his buggy but instead called into the office where Rivers’ constable, William Nelson, sat at his desk with his feet propped up on the door frame, fanning himself.
“Where is Rivers?” demanded the General.
“At his house, I reckon,” said Nelson, “but he will be here directly.”
“I have come here as counsel to these people,” the General said gesturing to the Butlers. “Go and tell him to come here to me.”
“I am not Mr. Rivers’s office boy,” said Nelson calmly. “I am a constable, and I am here tending to my business. He told me that he would be here at four o’clock, and he won’t come any quicker by my going after him.”
“Do you know who you are talking to?”
“I am talking to General Butler, I believe.”
“Well, God damn you, bring me some paper here.” (Butler, it should be said, was renowned for his “highly sulphurated vocabulary.”)
Nelson didn’t move. Rivers had told him to set up the office and so he had. “Here is the office,” he said, “and here is the chairs, and here is the paper and pen and ink, sir, and there is the chairs for all the attorneys that wants to do business here to come in and sit down.”
“God damn you, bring it to me, sir.”
“I won’t do it. Come in, sir, and sit at the table.”
Butler jumped down, as did Getzen, who trained his gun on Nelson. Nelson still sat fanning himself, propped against the door frame.
“Give me a chair,” demanded the General.
“There’s a chair.”
“God damn you, give me the chair you are sitting on.”
Nelson hesitated. “All right; if this chair suits you better than the other, take it.”
“You God damned leather-headed son of a bitch, you, sitting down there fanning yourself, God damn you.”
“I am fanning myself in my own office and ‘tending to my own business.”
“You God damned son of a bitch, you want to have a hole put through you before you can move.” At this, one of the mob swept toward Nelson and raised a large pistol.
“Mr. Butler, you know what sort of a man I am,” Nelson said, addressing Robert Butler, still in the buggy. “I have always tried to behave when you came in my office.”
“Yes,” Butler replied, “but, God damn you, this God-damned drilling has got to stop. I want you to go for Rivers.”
“I have no right to go for Rivers; and I am not going.”
“Well, God damn you, you will be a dead man, and you will wish you had gone.” No one noticed the illogic of this statement. Nelson was too busy concentrating. This was probably the moment when he would either get shot or he wouldn’t.
“I am but one man,” he said. Something about this broke the tension.
“God damn you,” the General muttered again, “sitting down there with your feet cocked up.”
“Well, General, I am not dead, but if you are going to kill me, why just kill me, and that is all you can do.”
But the General wasn’t ready to start killing. He wanted to round up the militia leaders—especially Adams—and executing a constable wasn’t going to help. Besides, he didn’t really want to kill anyone—he wanted respect, deference, and docility—though when he failed to get them his temper was apt to slip out of control.
Rivers came, as promised, at four. By then, as arranged, more whites were drifting into town, by threes and fours, each sitting his horse with his rifle stock in his right hand and the gun barrel draped across his left arm, as if carrying a thin corpse. Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that Adams decided not to show. Just before the appointed hour, he had come to Rivers’s house to say that as the court could not protect him, he would not make an appearance. Rivers decided to proceed anyway. As he had the regimental colors, he would uphold the law until he couldn’t hold it up anymore. Thus, he called the court to order and had Nelson call for Adams. When Adams failed to answer the third call, the court and crowd gradually dissolved. Officially, Rivers sent Nelson to round up Adams, but he hadn’t any real idea that Nelson would succeed. Butler meanwhile drifted down the block to set up a sort of unofficial headquarters at George Damm’s grocery, which, also selling liquor, made it a natural hub of activity.
While at Damm’s, Butler was approached by various members of Hamburg’s town council who had decided to shuttle between Butlers’ headquarters and the Sibley Building, where the militia had holed up, to see if they could find a solution short of violence. But what was Butler after? What would he accept? Bizarrely, Butler said that he was no longer in Hamburg as an attorney but as General Butler. (He did not say general of what, but apparently his Civil War service, and authority, were, to his mind, ongoing). If the town wished to avoid catastrophe, he said, Adams and his officers would have to produce themselves, the militia’s arms, and a sincere apology. And if they did all this, the council asked, would Butler vouch for their safety? Maybe, Butler said. “It is owing to how they apologize to Mr. Butler for how they treated his sons on the 4th.”
When the negotiators arrived at the Sibley building, Attaway called down to them from a second story window.
“How does it look?” he asked.
“Squally,” came the response.
And indeed, things looked “squally.” Adams, however, weighed his military options more carefully than he ever had his legal ones. Opening a small trapdoor in the ceiling of the second-floor drilling room, he crawled out onto the Sibley Building’s large tin roof, where he could survey his situation unobserved. Looking east, he could see that curiosity and word-of-mouth were beginning to draw droves of white men in from Augusta. There seemed to be a couple hundred men in town now. Some were down by the river, directly across from the building, where they occasionally formed in rows, as if about to be inspected, then fell out to lounge in the grass. More were flooding the streets, “strung out…like pickets.” All were becoming boisterous with liquor and nervous energy, and all were armed, many of them with the new Winchester, the lever-action repeating rifle that would later earn the nickname, “The Gun That Won the West” (but ought really to be remembered as "The Gun That Won the South.") Adams could not defeat such a well-armed mob, and he knew it. He had only twenty-five members of his company in the armory, and nineteen of them were boys—under the age of twenty-one and already beginning to panic. Their state-issued arms (Remington single-shot breech-loaders) were better than anything Adams had used in the war, but they were no match for the sixteen-shot Winchesters. And then there was the problem of ammo. The South, it must be understood, was a post-apocalyptic landscape, and in such places, guns make law. The region’s whites, most of whom were Democratic, constituted a barely demobilized, barely defeated ex-Confederate army with a tradition of exceptional violence. To counter this, the tenuous Republican governments had to arm black militias while prohibiting ex-Confederates to carry firearms, acts as potentially revolutionary as the idea of breaking up the plantations and giving freedmen forty acres and a mule. Thus, they had moved slowly, distributing weapons but not ammo. Probably there were little more than 120 rounds of ammunition in the entire armory, and they only had this many because Adams had gotten approval to stage a picnic and firing demonstration to raise money for militia uniforms.
But if their chance of fighting a way out seemed slim, the chance of negotiating a way out seemed just as bad. Butler wanted three things: the militia’s leaders, its guns, and an apology. As the mob’s particular target, Adams knew if he went down to Butler’s headquarters, he would probably be killed. He was half-inclined to go anyway, whether as an act of defiance or sacrifice. Lieutenant Attaway, however, would not go. It wasn’t merely that he hadn’t Adams’s courage. Whether it was merely his nature or the fact that he was a new husband and father, he just had no nihilism in him, no grim gray space in his head where he could hide and pretend that he didn’t want to live. Then too there was a problem with the guns. Adams didn’t have the authority to surrender the company’s arms. The guns, he felt, had been issued by the state and could only be returned to the state. In demanding them, Butler’s legal authority was laughable; he was in Hamburg as a lawyer in a road-obstruction case. Perhaps Adams didn’t know a lot about the law. But he knew if he surrendered the guns, he would be surrendering something more than the wood and the metal. So he sent word to Butler; the answer was “no.”
Butler took the news badly. The time for parleying was over, he said. “Now, by God I want those guns and I’ll be God damned if I ain’t going to have them.” At approximately six o’clock, as dusk fell on Hamburg, a signal shot was fired from down by the river, and the white men opened up on the Sibley Building. In the drill room, Adams ordered every man to back himself into the spaces between the windows as glass shot from all the panes and the transom lights above the doors. After fifteen minutes, Adams gave the order to return fire, “for it was the only chance of our lives.” Making such a shot was difficult, however. Not only were bullets pouring into the very windows his men had to fire out of; the white men doing most of the firing were concealed behind the railroad abutments down at the river crossing. Nevertheless, one of Adams’s men was either a very lucky or a very skilled marksman. When a twenty-year old white farmboy named Johnson Merriwether stepped out from behind the abutment to take his turn with his Winchester, a bullet from the Sibley Building cut a groove through the top of his head. (Merriwether may have had a rocky afterlife. Earlier in the day, he had threatened not only to kill “every God damned nigger that there was in Hamburgh” but to “try the women and children, and after he had got through with them [to] go up awhile and try Old Jesus Christ.”
The death of young Merriwether amplified the mob’s rage. Having shot out all the panes in Sibley Building, they were beginning to feel a little ineffectual against a brick building. Butler had a plan for such contingencies. “After dark I could hear them coming across the bridge from Augusta, yelling, whooping, and hollowing,” remembered one witness. “I heard them when they brought the cannon across the bridge.” Soon the cannon was trained on the front door of the Sibley Building and loaded with grape-shot. The order was given to fire and twenty-seven egg-sized balls were sent smashing into the armory.
Here Adams proved particularly brilliant. While all the whites were watching the spectacle of a cannonade at the front door, he was moving his people out the back. The only egress from the rear of the Sibley Building was through a set of second story windows (which is probably why the mob had not thought to station any men there). Adams, a carpenter by trade, tore up some floorboards and quickly created a functional sixteen-foot ladder, which his men lowered into the gloom of the back lot. Attaway, Adams said, should take the bulk of the militia (and all of the townies) down the ladder and wait. Adams, with fifteen men, would maintain a façade by firing sporadically out of the front windows. Unfortunately, when Adams and his men began descending the ladder themselves, they found that Attaway had panicked, and his men were scattering; some were rounding the back lot to give themselves up; others were fanning out, trying to find the comfort and cover of shadows. Looking up it seemed to Adams that the moon was “shining…about as bright as ever you seen it shine…brighter than it ever did before.” If they were to make it out of the town square, he told his men, they would have to move fast and stick together. By now, the town was in bedlam, as the mob scattered to chase down and shoot at the remnants of Attaway’s tattered band. Throwing his men into the commotion, Adams and company fought their way up the street, toward the Butler plantation. As soon as they broke free of the town’s limits, they stopped firing altogether and stole silently onto the Butler property, where they hunkered down in the thick bushes surrounding the approach to the house. (It would have been the perfect position from which to ambush the Butlers when they returned, but Adams decided to go back to town to see who else he could save. Their leader gone, the men dissolved into the countryside.)
Adams had not been in Hamburg long when he realized that any attempt to save others was going to be futile. The mob was dragging his men from underneath houses and buildings; they were breaking down doors and pulling out men who had nothing to do with the militia. Almost caught in a back lot, Adams could only watch as the mob caught up with Hamburg’s sheriff, Jim Cook. Surrounded by Tommy and Getsen and three others, Cook made a last plea for his life.
“Mr. Getsen, I know you and will ask you to save my life,” Cook said. “I haven’t done anything to you. I have only done my duty as town marshal.”
“Your knowing me ain’t nothing; I don’t care anything about your marshalship; we are going to kill you.” All five fired.
“O Lord!” Cook cried plaintively. “O Lord!” But some of the mob only set upon him to take his boots and watch and whatever else he was carrying.
Adams now admitted that saving himself had become the priority. His own house, he could see, was already being ransacked, so he decided to try hiding in the back of Schiller’s printing office across the street. He had only just made it in the back door when the front door was busted in and the room flooded with whites. “Here’s a God damned son of a bitch!” one of the mob shouted. But to Adams’s surprise they weren’t talking about him. In tearing the place up, they had discovered under a cabinet a man Adams didn’t even know was there, one of his own militiamen, David Freyer. Adams could hear them going to work on Freyer and then on the office even as he crept quietly back out the door. Once in the backyard, Adams sprinted for the fence and had just vaulted it when he heard a loud, “Halt!” His heart in his throat, it took him a moment to realize that, once again, the mob was talking to someone else. They had caught Nathan Parks out in the open as he tried to cross the street. Twenty-five men quickly formed a semi-circle around him; at least half of them fired.
Adams next stole into the postmaster’s office where he vaulted the stairs and stood in a balcony window, where, from behind the slatted blinds, he could see everything going on below.
“Good Boys! God damn it!” Butler shouted as he was presented with one of the new prisoners. “Turn your hounds loose, and bring the last one in.” Butler especially wanted Adams, and said so. But by three in the morning, it was clear that there was no one left to find. “Well, we had better go to work and kill all the niggers we have got,” said one of the mob. “We won’t be able to find that son of a bitch.”
The Dead Ring
The prisoners sat on the grass within a densely-packed ring of white men. Some were leading Republicans or members of Adams’s militia; others were simply men against which other men had grudges. Attaway was among those in the “dead ring.”
“Mays, what do you think of this?” Attaway asked the man sitting next to him. (Jack Mays had been a cook for the Union army; now, by all accounts, he ran a gambling operation in Hamburg.)
“I don’t know, Attaway, what to think of it.” Mays responded.
“Do you think they will kill any of us?”
“Yes, I do, I think so; just so,” said Mays.
“Do you think they will kill me?” Attaway asked finally.
“I do,” said Mays. “All you have got to do now is to pray to God to save your soul. Just give up your wife and children and everything else, for they are going to kill you.” With that Attaway hung his head and commenced crying.
There was, however, a terrific disagreement among the whites about what to do next. Some thought the prisoners should be simply arrested. Others wanted to open the circle into a firing line and gun them all down.
“All you black sons of bitches get up here; we are going to carry you to Aiken and put you in jail,” said one white man.
“No, we will start to Aiken, “ yelled another, “but we will leave them on the road!”
“We’ll attend to them!” echoed a third.
But finally Bill Robinson, the son of a judge, spoke up: “Now, gentlemen, the way to do…is to go and hold a court-martial, and whatever the court-martial determines you can do, then you can do it.” With that a small detachment moved away from the ring. Probably they consulted with General Butler; certainly they drew up a list.
“Do all you can for me,” Attaway begged of Getzen while the court-martial was meeting.
“Yes, God damn you, I will do all I can for you; I will do it in a short while; I will fix you now in a short while.” Getzen then went off and came back with Tommy and the men with the list. Attaway’s was the first name called.
“Gentlemen, I am not prepared for death,” Attaway said.
“I don’t care,” said Getzen.
“Will you allow me to prepare to meet my God?”
“I don’t care; we are going to kill you.” With that, Getzen and Tommy and a few other men carried Attaway across the railroad tracks and down a slope into a little oat field where they shot him.
At the sound of the shots, Dave Phillips turned to the others in the ring. “Why is you all begging so? If they are going to kill us all anyhow, what is the use of begging?”
Dave Phillips was the next name called. “He got up just like a soldier,” a man in the ring remembered. “He looked like he didn’t care no more for it than he would about eating, and he walked right along.” When they got into the oat field, he was put on his knees and shot down.
Stevens was a large, light-skinned boy, hardly twenty.
“O, gentlemen, I haven’t done nothing,” he said.
“Come out here,” came the response. And Stevens was led away and shot down like the others.
“Alfred Minyard!” Minyard didn’t answer. He thought it possible that none of the white men knew who he was. Cursing the delay, someone stepped into the ring and began turning the prisoners’ heads to the crowd, asking who knew them. When he finally got to Minyard, Alfred admitted who he was.
“O, let that boy alone,” said one of the prisoners, “he is sick.”
“O, God damn him; we’ll fix him too,” came the response, and he was taken off to the oat field.
Curry decided to try Minyard’s tactic in reverse. At the sound of his name, he jumped up and bolted through an opening in the white men. Several guns went off simultaneously and Curry went down.
“What better fun do you want than that?” asked one of the gunmen. (But in fact, Curry had not been killed. Shot through the legs, he somehow managed to drag himself out of view and would live to tell everything that had happened in the dead ring.)
Curry’s was the last name on the list. “Well, now, what will we do with the rest of them?” asked a member of the crowd.
“By God, let’s pile them up like frogs and shoot them off,” suggested one.
“O, no,” said another. “You have done enough to-night.”
The white men did have a problem, however. What were they supposed to do? “Let these damned niggers go?” asked one. “O, no; we ought not to leave none to tell the tale; let’s kill them all.”
This idea had its proponents. “Let’s let them go and shoot after them like rabbits,” was the suggestion of some who had liked the sport of shooting at Curry.
But others were ready to call it a night. “Let’s swear them before they go not to tell anything,” said one, and the rest grumblingly assented. Thus, the remaining prisoners were told to get down on their knees and to swear never to talk or testify about what they had witnessed. And then they were allowed to go. (Most of the prisoners took off and ran, which proved too great a temptation for some members of the crowd. “They shot at us just like they were shooting at birds,” remembered one.)
Around four in the morning, the General and the rest of the Butlers all retired to the plantation, leaving Hamburg to the mercy of the crowd of drunks who still wanted more. Breaking into houses and rifling the bodies, they called out the names of the dead men, and then laughingly responded, “he don’t answer.” Staring at a corpse, lying on its back in the road, one of the mob noted, “by God, he is looking at the moon and don’t wink his eyes.” And for reasons that aren’t clear, someone went to the still living body of Alfred Minyard and “cut off a big piece of meat from off his rump.” Perhaps it was the pound of flesh he felt he was owed.
The Math of After
The next morning, July 9, Prince Rivers stood over the bodies of his militia men and convened a coroners’ inquest. He did so because that is what you do the day after a massacre; that is the first link in the chain of justice. When the inquest was over, Rivers bundled together the pages of testimony and issued arrest warrants for eighty-seven white men, including Mathew Butler, future South Carolina Senator, and Ben Tillman, future South Carolina governor.
Rivers had no illusions about the odds he faced in trying to bring such men to justice. The Confederate government may have lost its bid for independence, but in the decade after Appomattox ex-Confederates had mostly won their bid to ensure that African Americans remained a deeply terrorized and subjugated class. Rivers had watched, appalled, as the U.S. Supreme Court had abdicated its obligation to protect the rights of the new freedmen, even from wholesale murder. In U.S. v. Cruikshank (1875), for instance, the Supreme Court had determined that victims of the Klan “must look to the States … for their protection” — a ridiculous suggestion given the Klan’s domination of many state offices in the South. Historian Charles Lane has called the Cruikshank decision “The Day Freedom Died,” but at least as a dream freedom lived on in the breasts of men like Rivers, who were not ready to concede that all was already lost.
In the absence of the (obvious) judicial solution, the only hope for Rivers and his allies was a political one. In December 1876 and January 1877, a Senate subcommittee traveled to South Carolina to investigate both the Hamburg Massacre and the widespread voter intimidation and election fraud that had marked the 1876 presidential campaign in South Carolina. For whatever reason, Rivers did not testify (or was not called) but many of his militiamen, including Adams, gave exhaustive accounts, despite persistent skepticism and interruptions from the Democratic subcommittee member, Augustus Merrimon. The testimony, which took place over the course of weeks, brought accused and accusers into the same town and the same courtroom to re-live experiences that were still quite raw.
In many ways, the resulting three volume 2500 page Senate report was a remarkable achievement, full of the verbatim transcripts of witnesses who must have hoped, again, that justice might yet be done. Without this report, the foregoing history of the massacre could not have been written. Without it, crimes might have been forgotten and crucial details lost.
But like many Senate reports, this one was destined to molder and in the so-called Compromise of 1876, the South was returned to Democratic control. Rivers knew better than anyone what had been lost. ‘Now it will be a hundred years,’ he told his son Joshua. With no other options, Rivers returned to driving a carriage. “Attired in his livery suit and tall beaver hat,” said an admiring white witness, “he looked like a piece of statuary, so erect in form was he.” The entire arc of Rivers’s life — carriage driver, soldier, state legislator, and carriage driver again — captures the window of opportunity that had opened and closed for a remarkable generation of African Americans. Rivers died in 1887 of Bright’s disease before he could hear his son admit to a WPA interviewer, “I think it was providential for de white folks to win. I can see that de nigger, which had just gained his freedom, was not fit to govern de State.” “This is our time,” Rivers had said in 1862 when he answered Uncle Sam’s call. “If we do not improve this chance, another one will not come, and our children will be slaves always.”
Hamburg made a sad end too. In 1911 the Savannah River flooded, devastating both Hamburg and Augusta. Augusta had both the financial resources and the federal pull to reinforce its levees; Hamburg did not. When the next flood came in 1929, Hamburg washed away. What was left proved easy pickings for in-fill. Today, Hamburg is the golfing community of “River Walk” in the rechristened town of North Augusta. The “Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway” runs along the site where Moses Parks, Allan Attaway, David Phillips, Hampton Stephens, and Albert Myniart were executed.
Freedom is never fully killed. It is just continuously disappointed.