Reconstruction Gothic

February 12, 2016

On February 11, 1853, two armed men set off for what they correctly predicted would be a violent confrontation with their neighbors. One of the men was L.W.R. (Rochelle) Blair, a thirty-two year old planter. The other was his thirty-five year old slave Hiram.

Blair was tall, the son of the ‘Waxhaw Giant,’ a six-foot-seven, 350-pound bear in breeches whose splendid body had finally succumbed to alcoholism, a morphine addiction, and a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Hiram was a big man too, five-foot-ten and heavy-set with scars on his hand from both a burn and a knife. Both carried double-barreled shotguns tightly loaded with buckshot. Both were determined to end the series of ‘affrays’ and ‘outrages’ being committed by some of the slaves from a neighboring farm owned by Jane D. Young.

When the men arrived at the gate, they stopped and hallooed for Jane’s oldest son, John, who arrived with his hands in his pockets and leaned casually against a fencepost. His two brothers, armed with clubs, took up positions around Blair and Hiram. Blair spoke first. [1]

“What decision [have you] come to respecting the difficulty which exist[s] between [our] negroes?” he asked.

“From what I could learn [your] negro was as much to blame as ours & I would rather [you] take them to the law to be punished,” John said.

“The punishment of the law [is] not severe enough,” Blair said.

“Do not ... get in a passion about it,” John responded. “I hope we [can] settle it in peace.”

“I take it for granted you aid & abet your negroes in outrages [and] cruelty,” Blair responded, “If [‘the law’] is all the punishment you will allow, I will stain you with the greatest infamy I can.” Then he leaned over and spat in John’s face.

Precisely what happened next is unclear as we only have the Youngs’ accounts. According to them, Blair immediately raised his gun, pointed the muzzle at John, and cocked the hammer. Determined to save their brother, the Young boys grabbed the muzzle and tried to wrest the gun from Blair’s hands while also clubbing him over the head. For a moment, everyone appears to have forgotten Hiram who now raised his gun on them all.

“Shoot the rascal! Shoot the rascal! Shoot the rascal!” John yelled repeatedly. At this the boys’ mother, who must have been waiting inside the piazza, came flying at Hiram, who shot her at close range in the chest.

“Shoot the rascal! Shoot the rascal! Shoot the rascal!” John yelled repeatedly. At this the boys’ mother, who must have been waiting inside the piazza, came flying at Hiram, who shot her at close range in the chest. Someone then brought John his own gun, which he leveled at Hiram, who emptied the second barrel over John’s shoulder, covering the retreat of both him and Blair who had either released his own gun or had it taken from him.

Obviously, this was an unusual situation; in the annals of American slavery, there are few documented cases of an enslaved black man shotgun-blasting a white woman, partly to save his own master. It is possible Hiram only shot Jane to save his own skin. Indeed, it is possible that the only thing that prevented his shooting Blair on the way over to the Youngs’ farm was his certainty that he would hang for it. As Jane Young streaked toward him, Hiram could have either panicked or changed his calculus. Shooting a white person was now his best and only option. If Jane had subdued him—‘rascal’ that he was—he would certainly have been killed or carried off to be executed.

The gaps in the evidence do allow for other possibilities, but we must tread lightly. Like most historians, I do not see enslaved and enslavers as caught up in a common system. I see one set of people brutally exploiting another by choice. Even in the most inhuman systems, however, human possibilities remain. I do not mean the possibilities that exist among equals. No planter ‘loved’ a slave by any definition we would accept. No slave loved a planter by any definition that would not defile the word. But between exploited and exploiters, there are more subtle emotions than hate. “I felt sorry for her,” said Tom Robinson of Mayella Ewell, capturing so perfectly the sentiment that got him killed.

Lovick Blair, whatever his other qualities, had given Hiram a loaded gun and stalked off with him to see to it that another slave they both cared about got some measure of justice. And if that meant spitting in a white man’s face, or shooting a white lady in the breast, then so be it. Like his father, Blair was an alcoholic, but he was also ferociously independent. The Waxhaw Giant’s closest companion had been an even-taller Indian manservant named Chunky Bone. Could such ‘human possibilities’ have existed for Lovick and Hiram? Perhaps not. Perhaps I just want it to be so. What I can say is that the events of that morning irrevocably changed the trajectory of both men’s lives.

In the immediate aftermath of the melee, the Young brothers moved their mother into the house, confirmed that she was dead, and called the coroner, who by early afternoon pronounced that “Mrs. Jane D. Young came [to] her death by [being] shot in the left breast feloniously, willfully & maliciously by a gun in the hands of Hiram a negro slave the property of L.W.R. Blair.” Hiram was now officially a wanted man. The Youngs quickly drafted a reward notice to run in at least five different newspapers: “Three Hundred Dollars Reward will be paid for the apprehension and delivery, to the jail of Kershaw District, of Hiram, a negro man ... a fugitive from justice, who stands indicted for the murder of Mrs. Jane Young.”

Here the historian’s trail again goes cold, requiring a measure of informed speculation. Hiram certainly spent the next year hiding out in Shepherd Clanton’s corn loft. A boarder named Alexander Martine glimpsed Hiram twice around the margins of the Clanton plantation and more than a dozen times noted “a greasy tin bucket” in the loft along with “a bottle which appeared to have had milk in it.” The first time he saw Hiram, he informed Mrs. Clanton about it, but when she did nothing, Martine decided that she already knew and determined “never [to open] his mouth about it.” Hiram’s father was a slave on the Clanton plantation and was probably instrumental in supplying the milk and the food pail. We can be less sure of Blair’s support. It is possible that he had no knowledge of Hiram’s whereabouts and had surrendered him to the mercy of events immediately after the murder. A more likely scenario suggests that Blair and Clanton had concocted a scheme to rub salt in the Youngs’ open wounds. About a year after Hiram’s disappearance, Shepherd Clanton showed up at the office of local magistrate Samuel P. Murchison, claiming to have captured Hiram. Hiram was delivered to Murchison’s constable, who two days later hauled him into Murchison’s Magistrates and Freeholders court, where Hiram was quickly acquitted of murder. With Hiram in the clear, Clanton then turned around to claim the $300 reward for his “capture” and proceeded to sue the Youngs when they refused to comply. By this point the Youngs’ blood must have been at a rolling boil, and it would have been deeply unsafe for Hiram to remain in the area. “L.W.R. Blair has sold nearly all his negroes and is going to sell his lands,” one local noted in a letter about this time. The census slave schedules confirm that Blair had divested himself of slaves by 1860, but it is unclear whether Hiram was among those sold or freed. This, obviously, is the great frustration of writing the history of the enslaved. Their lives flash upon the historical record in a bright, (often) awful instance, but they rarely end in graves and eulogies and boxes of records, preserved for posterity. Was Hiram sold? Did he die under the lash? Did he escape? Did he fight for the United States Colored Troops? I cannot be sure.

For all the records left by Rochelle Blair, he is a mysterious figure also. Part of the problem is that, consciously or not, we instinctively measure historical figures against a contemporary yardstick—how racist were they? Often it is better to ask, what kind of racist were they? Rochelle and his white compatriots are better located on a dual set of axes: 1) how committed were they to Confederate (and then Democratic) ‘home rule’?; and 2) what role did they see for African Americans in the state? Blair was a positive mess on both subjects, embodying in his shifting positions both the turbulence of the times and his own ferocious independence. While secession swept the state, Blair was a Unionist, stumping the upcountry and trying to douse the fires of “disunion sentiment so rife among us.” Once secession was declared, he embraced the Confederate cause, showing up on battlefields even without a proper command. “He has a way of ‘happening [to be]’ ... at battles,” Mary Chesnut marveled. “He ‘happened to be’ at Fort Sumter, and he ‘happened [to be]’ at Manassas, although he ought to have been in his seat in Congress. Maybe—for we do not know where he is—he may ‘happen to be’ at Beaufort [which is currently being shelled].” After the war, when most of his rebel compatriots were momentarily humbled in defeat, Blair was the “straightest of the straight-outs,” unwilling to accept anything less than white Democratic ‘home-rule.’ “One or the other of the two races must rule the State of South Carolina,” he said flatly. And yet once white home rule was established, he seemed somehow betrayed and surprised when his fellow Democrats began rolling back rights for African Americans. The African American “has been endowed by his Maker and invested by the American people with the franchise of an American citizen,” Blair said. “Of these no human power can lawfully deprive him, and the white man who would do it by fraud sinks far beneath the average negro in degradation.”

Always a racist, Blair evolved from rabid Unionist to rabid Confederate, rabid redeemer to champion of black rights. What can explain so peripatetic a character? One possibility is simple self-interest. Blair switched from Unionist to Confederate because failure to do so was political suicide. His later alliance with the waning number of African Americans voters may have been a cynical and last-ditch bid to rebuild his political base after other, more moderate Democrats took the credit (and the offices) that emerged from his straight-out campaign. Certainly this was his enemies’ interpretation. “Whether by his wish or not, he became a Moses to the negroes,” one local historian noted in 1926. “The rankle of persecution doubtless led him to tolerate their support [as] he had come to be ostracized by all orthodox Democrats.” This line of causality may have it backwards, however. Blair did not fall back upon black support because he had been ostracized; he had been ostracized because he had black support. If pure self-interest had driven him, he would not have held unpopular opinions so long; he would not have stumped the countryside on a mule, an object of growing derision; he would not have been so late to every political party. The consistent thing about Blair was his ‘old school’ heterodoxy, a sensibility no more or less racist but always somewhat behind the advancing frontier of political, economic, and racial ‘technology.’ Blair believed in the antebellum traditions of soft money and free grazing; segregation and disfranchisement weren’t necessarily too vicious for him, they were just too newfangled. There was, moreover, a sense of sovereignty to the man. A sense that when you say one thing, you do not then do another—as Governor Hampton had done in promising that, if elected, black “rights should be sacredly respected” and then conspiring with the state legislature to pass “a registration and election law framed purposely to defraud more than half of the colored citizens of their vote.” In Blair’s estimation, African Americans absolutely had a lesser sovereignty; they ruled lesser kingdoms and lesser homes. But they were men—and one of them had saved his life.

On July 4, 1882, six years to the day after the parade that became a massacre at Hamburg, Blair was speaking to a crowd of African American supporters in Camden at a vacant lot on the corner of Rutledge and Broad. He had his right hand in his coat, a “typical pose with him,” when he was approached by James L. Haile and shot five times with a rifle. As big as he was, Blair fell and bled and died. His supporters immediately surrounded Haile, but the sheriff materialized quickly and escorted Haile to jail. Haile would later claim that Blair had approached him first, reaching into his coat for his weapon. Blair partisans were undoubtedly more accurate in claiming that Blair had been assassinated, his “doom … decreed at a political conference” earlier in the week. Regardless Haile was acquitted to immediately begin a ten-year term as Kershaw County sheriff.

Hardest hit were Blair’s five children, ranging in age from nine to twenty-two. Blair’s wife had died three years earlier, at the age of forty, and the children, now orphans, had grown especially close to their father. “Never was a home more sorely stricken,” acknowledged one local historian. The eldest Sarah took it upon herself to save the family. Never marrying she went to work first as a stenographer at the Radford Pipe and Foundry Company in Redford, Virginia, then as a secretary at the Dimmick Pipe Company in Birmingham, Alabama, and finally as the founder and director of the American Cast Iron Pipe Company, which by 1930 was one of the largest manufacturers in Alabama, making Sarah one of the first and most successful female industrialists in the state.

Rochella Blair was a casualty of Reconstruction. Notice of her death ran in papers across the country, including in the Gettysburg Compiler.

Sixteen-year old Rochella did not fare as well. Still inconsolable a few weeks after the assassination, she began a painting, taking as her subject the large tree that overlooked the gorge in her backyard affectionately known by the family as “the precipice” or “Paint Hill.” When she finished the scene, she painted herself beneath the tree, surrounded by hovering angels representing the Blairs’ three departed family members, her mother, her father, and herself. Then she sat down beneath the tree and swallowed a bottle of strychnine. Notice of her suicide ran in The New York Times. “A singular fatality has attended Col. Blair’s family,” the article noted. “His grandfather was hanged for murder; his father committed suicide when a member of Congress from this State; he himself was tried for murder, and was at last killed in a street fight, and now his daughter has committed suicide.”

Blair had been assassinated while running for governor. The question was who would pick up the mantle for the Independents. The answer was a man more outlandish and unlikely than Blair himself -- Ellerbe Boggan Carter (E.B.C.) Cash. (Strangely, the singer Johnny Cash was related not to E.B.C. but to E.B.C.’s wife, Allene.) Colonel of the Eighth South Carolina Infantry during the Civil War, Cash’s regiment had captured New York Congressman Alfred Ely on the field at Bull Run. “Cash was for short work -- Black Flag entirely,” remembered one witness. Ely had a more specific memory. “Cash put a pistol directly to my head and said, ‘G—d d—n your white-livered soul! I’ll blow your brains out on the spot!” Two of Cash’s officers eventually talked him out of it, explaining to Ely that their Colonel was drunk, but the incident was a fair portrait of Cash’s impetuous, “old school” penchant for violence.

This penchant was also on display in the incident that first brought he and Blair together—the last formal duel fought in South Carolina. The circumstances leading to the encounter were at once byzantine and laughable if their consequences had not been so deadly. In 1878, Cash’s brother-in-law, Robert G. Ellerbe, was staggering home with a jug of rum strapped to his back. Along the way, he stopped to share his refreshments with a friend, the village blacksmith, Conrad Weinges. The two were roaring along happily when something set them to roaring at each other. According to Ellerbe, Weinges came at him with a hot poker. According to Weinges, Ellerbe beat his face in with pistol, then attempted to shoot him, then, when that didn’;t work, kicked him unconscious. When Weinges’s hangover lasted for two months, he sued Ellerbe for $5000, alleging that he had not been able to work since the incident.

When Cash heard that a judgment was pending against his brother-in-law, he concocted a scheme to demonstrate a prior claim on Ellerbe’s money (since Ellerbe had for years lived rent-free on Allene’s farm). The lawyer representing Weinges penciled the words “legal fraud” in the margin of one of the resulting court documents, Cash saw the notation, claimed that this was tantamount to calling his wife a liar, and challenged the lawyer’s partner, William Shannon, to a duel (long story). Such a challenge was ridiculous, failing to follow even the loosest protocols of the code duello, but ultimately Shannon felt he had no choice, especially after Cash’s son, Boggan, posted him as a coward. If Shannon did not fight, his sons would—and he didn’t want that.

So on July 5, 1880, almost four years to the day after the parade in Hamburg and two years to the day before Blair’s assassination, Cash and Shannon two men met at Lynch’s Creek. When the call came to “fire!” Shannon immediately shot at the ground well in front of Cash, a practice called “wasting” the shot. If Shannon thought this action would prick Cash’;s conscience, he did not know the man well. Cash shot Shannon through the chest in what would be the last formal duel in America.

Cash’s subsequent trial became a national preoccupation.The New York Times reported on it daily. One enterprising northerner offered Cash $10,000 to tour the eastern seaboard for a month (presuming he wasn’t jailed or executed for his crime). It wasn’t clear that he was even expected to speak. Perhaps he was to be exhibited like some member of an endangered and interesting species. When Cash was acquitted, the nation was appalled but this had not been a show trial. The judge had grandstanded, pulled his hair, and almost demanded that the jury return a guilty verdict and a death sentence. In the end, four jurors voted to do just that. The other eight were willing to look the other way one last time; they would grandfather Cash in; but their message was clear (even if Northerners couldn’t parse it): the practice of dueling was over.

To be sure, E.B.C. Cash had been isolated before the duel, but it was nothing like what happened after. Economically he was nearly ruined, not only by legal expenses, but by the cost of printing and distributing a lengthy pamphlet he drafted to defend his conduct. But it was the political isolation that took the greatest toll. Having alienated the Democratic establishment, Cash had few friends left, but he did not have none. For strangely, the duel had opened a small breech in the white community. There were a few who did not like how Cash had been treated, and, indeed, did not like the entire direction of the newfangled, New South, including and especially L.W.R. Blair.

Blair had originally been a Shannon partisan and had even acted as second to Shannon’s law partner when it seemed that he too would have to face off with Cash. But when Blair had come to Cash Depot to arrange the particulars of the potential duel, the two men had shared a few drinks and a few memories, and Blair had discovered in Cash a fellow traditionalist and contrarian. Like Blair, and maybe more so, Cash was deeply racist. Fifteen years after the Civil War, many of his sharecropping tenants still called him ‘master.’ But like Blair, Cash found something actually appalling in the New South’s new version of white supremacy. Blacks should know their place, but they had a place. They had been such a huge part of both men’s lives. To legislate and segregate blacks out of view, to give them no say, had never been the Southern way.

And so when Blair was assassinated, Cash determined to pick him his banner and run in his place. Stumping his Congressional district, Cash whipped up a frenzy of hostility in a series of speeches laden with curses and self-destructive volatility. The new registration and election laws, he told crowds, were an attempt to “defeat and defraud the Negroes and poor whites.” Instead of persecuting blacks and driving them to the north and west, South Carolinians should invite all the African Americans from Virginia and North Carolina to come down south to create a “black New York” in South Carolina. Cash expected a violent reaction and got one. In September, in Rock Hill, his comments incited a race riot that ended with one white wounded and four blacks dead.

Cash was defeated, but by a narrower margin than one might guess (9518 to 7471). Mostly, though, what he had succeeded in doing was driving a permanent wedge between himself and the political establishment. On March 21, 1883, Cash’s son Boggan was at the Central Hotel in Cheraw, braying that his father had been the victim of electoral fraud; an elderly Democrat disagreed, and Boggan smashed him in the face. Both men were then arrested by the local sheriff, W.H.H. Richards, and thrown in jail to sober up.

Standing six-four and framed like a broad-beamed barn, Boggan was a magnificent physical specimen. Though an indifferent scholar, he had excelled at his military academy where all the boys had looked up to him, and he had returned home in 1876 a promising young man. He and his father quickly fell into their old pattern, however. Despite his masculine proportions, Boggan had been described as “velvety,” with a woman’s heart and sensitivities. As a boy, he had clung instinctively to his mother, who could never quite protect him from his father’s rages. Twice she had taken Boggan and fled the house. (The second time she was already so sick that her relatives had to carry her to their home on a mattress.) Both times Cash had kidnapped the boy back, forcing Allene to return.

Once home from his academy, Boggan made his father’s disappointment complete when he took in earnest to the bottle. When drunk, Boggan became larger-than-life, angry, brazen, and violent—indeed, he became more like his father—and his sprees were legendary. “I tell you,” remembered one Cheraw local who witnessed Boggan on a tear, “when he gets on a ‘bender’ he makes things howl!”

Allene’s death could have allowed father and son to drift from one another. Instead, living together, alone at Cash’s Depot, they found a common emptiness, which first the duel and then the election had emerged conveniently to fill. By 1882, both men were in synch, and Boggan was determined to avenge his father’s loss at the polls.

On Saturday, February 16, 1884, Boggan was on another of his sprees when sheriff Richards again attempted to arrest him for disturbing the peace. Though deeply drunk, Boggan got the jump on Richards, and had gotten in a few good licks before he was finally subdued. The next Saturday, Boggan returned to Cheraw, this time not as drunk. He spotted Richards leaning against a tree, pretended to walk past him, then whirled and fired from ten feet away. His first shot hit a bystander; the next two hit Richards. Seventy-five people were watching.

By the time Boggan got back to Cash’s Depot, there was already a crowd of Cash partisans gathering.

“Is father in?” Boggan asked.

“Yes!”someone answered just as Cash ran out of Larkin’s Store.

“I have killed the damn rascal,” Boggan said triumphantly.

Colonel Cash ran to his son and hugged and kissed him. “My son you have saved me the trouble of going up to Cheraw to kill him myself.” Was he sure that he left Richards dead?

“He was dead,” answered Boggan. “I missed him first shot, and the second shot he fell, then I stepped up a step or two and shot him again after he fell. Then I ran down street until I met the negro with my horse.”

Just then a buggy pulled up from Cheraw bearing news. The bystander had been paralyzed, and was not likely to live. Richards, though injured, was still living.

“The Damn rascal had better die by morning,” Cash noted. “If he does not I will go up and kill him myself in the morning and the doctor that is working on him.”

The Colonel then hugged his son and kissed him several times again and said, “My son, it is the noblest act of your life. I thought you ... would die a drunkard.”

“I am a drunkard,” Boggan admitted, “but I can’t help that. I expect they will be down from Cheraw to arrest me?”

“I wish they would come down,” said Cash, “for I want to get about half of Cheraw.”

With this, father and son went into the store to get a drink. They had never been closer.

By April 1884, Boggan Cash was the most wanted man in America and generated as many breathless column inches in New York papers as his father had four years before. Boggan’s manhunt went on for a month, but on May 15, as he emerged in the pre-dawn hours from a secluded barn on his father’s property, he heard a voice tell him to halt. He refused and was shot more than twenty times. His father did not speak at the funeral but paced his upper piazza in silence as his only son was buried. [2]

Boggan’s turning outlaw completed the general drift of the Cash family from the center of Governor Hampton’s ruling “ring” to a wilderness of friendless apostasy. This sort of conservative white on white violence—Boggan’s execution, Blair’s assassination—should not be segregated, however, from the better understood white on black violence endemic to Reconstruction. Too often the era’s history is told as a story of white hats and black hats; African Americans and a few racially-enlightened white allies are ousted from power by a fully unified, barely-demobilized, barely-defeated Confederate army. But the violent consolidation of the Bourbon orthodoxy, and with it the Jim Crow system, required not only killing or isolating African Americans and their allies but killing and isolating the rearguard of the Old Guard, the square pegs like Blair and Cash, for whom African Americans were a lesser but still integral part of southern society and culture. Reconstruction, then, should really be seen as a series of successive political purges that ultimately arrived at a “new solution” to the “problem of the Negro,” one that, when the tide of violence receded, would come to seem normal and inevitable, unchallenged and unchangeable.

  1. The details of this encounter, including the quotations, are drawn from The State vs. The Dead Body of Jane Young.

  2. Details of this encounter are drawn from The State vs. The Body of W. Boggan Cash.

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