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A Massacre in Memphis By Stephen V. Ash

Stephen V. Nash

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On October 8, 2013
Last modified:October 8, 2013


A good book with a disappointing conclusion. It is not possible to know how history might have been different had Lincoln lived and his less punitive plan for the South implemented. Arguably, an alternative conclusion to the author’s is that Radical reconstruction, far from deserving applause, prolonged and intensified the rancor between the races in the South, delayed economic recovery for the region and impeded civil rights for black Americans.

massacre in memphisA Massacre in Memphis
The Race Riot That Shook The Nation One Year After The Civil War
By Stephen V. Ash

The author points out that historians have largely neglected the Memphis riot, despite the richness and availability of source materials. His stated intention is to give voice to the long neglected victims. He does an extraordinary job of that and this reviewer commends him for it.
Ash draws upon official investigations and a wealth of original sources including newspapers, diaries, and first person accounts of the three-day rampage in May 1866 from which the title to this book is derived.

Although the Southern press initially portrayed the riot as a black uprising against helpless whites, the opposite was true. Ash masterfully resurrects the lives and voices of the black victims to explain the horror that ensued. The accounts of the victims who survived the terror are as unforgettable as Ash’s description of the savagery and barbarity unleashed upon a helpless and mostly unarmed black population by the Irish police.

Ash also provides context by explaining the setting in which the riot occurred. The Union Army took Memphis in 1862, early in the war, paving the way for emancipated slaves from the countryside to flood the city. The overcrowded city swelled to an estimated thirty thousand to forty thousand people after the Census of 1860 reported twenty-three thousand souls lived there.

The population also included Northern missionaries, Union soldiers, abolitionists, Freedman Bureau officials and Yankees seeking to make their fortunes in the chaotic conditions of the defeated South. Each group brought its own set of irritants and disruptions to white Memphis.

The festering antipathy between Memphis blacks and lower-class whites predated the riot. The two groups competed for the same jobs in an economy struggling to recover from the war. Hostility was especially virulent between the newly freed blacks and the white Irish immigrants who dominated the city’s police and fire departments. In addition, the white population of Memphis, regardless of class, greatly resented the black soldiers of the U.S. Army regiment who garrisoned the city and who remained after discharge to await their long delayed pay.

“…the resentment was not altogether unjustified, however, for the unit was poorly disciplined and some of its men stirred up trouble or committed crimes when off the duty.”

The author elaborates…

“The native–born Southern whites of Memphis had been, with few exceptions, devout secessionists during the war – many hundreds had served in the confederate Army – and they remained unrepentant now, resentful of Union victory and federal authority, furious about their political disenfranchisement, hostile to equal rights for the freed people, and contemptuous of the Yankee newcomers in their city. “

The riot, which was triggered by clashes between discharged drunk black soldiers and police officers on April 30 and May 1 …

“was an explosion of rage and violence against the freed people and perpetrated by the white underclass. Policemen and firemen were among the rioters, as were certain high-ranking officers of city government. By the time the rioting had ended on May 3, at least forty black had been murdered, dozens more wounded, several raped, and many others robbed.”

In addition, the rioters torched black churches, schools, and residences. But over the course of the three-day riot, the only three whites killed did not die at the hand of any black man. One was killed by wounds accidentally self-inflicted, another was shot by a white man for the sin of talking to a free black in a saloon, and the third was mistaken for a black and shot by a white rioter.

Also true is that, despite the citizens of Memphis being committed secessionists “furious about their political disenfranchisement, hostile to equal rights for the freed people” few if any Southern-born whites took part in the mayhem.

Ash writes that the riots were a major development in the increasingly rancorous debate over the future of the South in which the following issues had to be resolved:

“How were the seceded states to be restored to the Union? How was the devastated Southern economy to be rebuilt? How were the defeated rebels to be dealt with? And what about black southerners whose freedom was assured but whose status was otherwise undefined?”

But Ash neglects to say that it was an increasingly one-sided debate. His portrayal of President Andrew Johnson as a Southern Unionist and Democrat who “wanted the former Confederate states to be speedily restored to the Union with no fundamental changes beside the abolition of slavery” does an injustice to Johnson.

Prior to his death, Lincoln had been at war with the radicals in his own party over reconstruction. Johnson inherited their animus and then some. Thaddeus Stevens and his band of radical Republican conspirators unceasingly pilloried Johnson for attempting to carry out the policies of the slain Lincoln. Johnson based his position on Lincoln’s less punitive reconstruction plan and on the Constitution. He said the Southern states are entitled to the protections of Constitution because the war was fought on the premise that the states cannot secede. As for the burning issue of Negro suffrage, much trumpeted by Stevens and company, Johnson insisted that the Constitution gave that power to the states and a president had no right to decide for them.

Perhaps the best exposition of Johnson’s views is his response to Frederick Douglass’ demands for immediate black suffrage in the South. Johnson responded by asking “whether the two races, situated as they were before, without preparation, without time for passion and excitement to be appeased, and without time for the slightest improvement, whether the one should be turned loose upon the other at the ballot box with this enmity and hate existing between them. The question comes up right here whether we do not commence a war of races.”

Ash’s summary of the white southern view substantiates Johnson’s point:

“Of all the changes the war brought to Memphis, none was more abhorrent to the old citizens than emancipation. They had been brought up to believe that the white race was inherently superior to the black, that the black race was incapable of improvement on its own and capable of only limited improvement in the best circumstances, and that servitude was the natural and best condition for blacks.”

Johnson also opposed legislation to continue the Freedmen’s Bureau indefinitely, extending its operations to freedmen everywhere, authorizing the allotment of 40 acre tracts to freedmen and arming the Bureau with judicial powers to be exercised at will.

He argued, “I cannot reconcile a system of military jurisdiction of this kind with the Constitution.” He asked where the Constitution grants the right to take away one man’s land and give it to another without due process. He also observed that so much power over so many people would enable a president ‘if so disposed, to control the actions of this numerous class and use them for the attainment of his own political ends.”

The Johnson citations come from Claude Bowers book, The Tragic Era, published in 1929. By today’s standards the book is a politically incorrect history of what one reviewer called “the most corrupt time in the history of the United States.” This reviewer would contend that the Obama administration out-dates that statement.

Driven by a hatred for the South, the Radicals’ insisted on immediate equality and voting rights for blacks. They sent agents to instigate emancipated blacks to make unrealistic demands and further exacerbated racial strife. The Radicals’ vendetta was against all Southern whites, including those who never held slaves. They were determined to disenfranchise Southern whites and install government by Northern Republicans whose control of uneducated black voters would allow them to plunder the South. They were largely successful. They prevailed over Johnson, in part, by using the Memphis riot and other incidences of Southern violence to justify imposing military rule in the ten Southern states. But the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876 marked the end of Radical Reconstruction. The Republican Tilden won the popular vote and, after much wrangling, the disputed electoral vote and the presidency went to Hayes with the understanding he would pull Union troops out of the South.

Reconstruction was a failure. The South was still economically devastated, burdened by the War; the debt accrued by misgovernment and a decade of racial warfare. Now national racial policy swung from exacting harsh penalties against Southerners to tolerating humiliation and discrimination of blacks.

But Ash defends Radical reconstruction writing,

“Beginning in the 1950s there came a sea change in white racial attitudes in America, generated especially by the civil rights movement. A new consensus on Radical Reconstruction eventually emerged among historians (professional historians, at least,) depicting it as a worthy endeavor whose ultimate collapse should not be applauded but despaired. In this telling, the ex-slaves quest for equality was a noble undertaking and the whites who opposed it were on the wrong side of history…”

This is a disappointing conclusion at the end of a well-written and researched historical event. It is not possible to know how history might have been different had Lincoln lived and his less punitive plan for the South implemented. Arguably, an alternative conclusion to the author’s is that Radical Reconstruction, far from deserving applause, prolonged and intensified the rancor between the races in the South, delayed economic recovery for the region and impeded civil rights for black Americans.

Finally, this reviewer cannot help but compare the similarity between Radical Republicans’ cynical efforts to manipulate the freedmen for political and economic gain to today’s equally cynical efforts, by the radicals who run the Democrat Party, to enhance political power by persuading blacks that they are still helpless victims who require the intervention of a “caring” government to make their way in the world.


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