Pitchfork Ben Tillman and The Ending of Reconstruction in South Carolina

I trust that regular readers of this blog can tell from my posts that I take pride in being an American and enjoy studying the history of our nation.  Alas, no American can take pride in all aspects of our history.  One feature of our history that is a matter of shame and not pride is the treatment that Black Americans endured in our nation for centuries.

After the Civil War, “Redeemer” white governments arose after Reconstruction and fought to take away the newly won franchise from Blacks .

Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina, he got the nickname Pitchfork  from stating in his 1896 that he would drive a Pitchfork into President Grover Cleveland’s ribs, on March 23, 1900 in a speech in the Senate summed up what happened to the rights of blacks throughout the South:

We did not disfranchise the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina to-day as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got. As to his “rights”—I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores. But I will not pursue the subject further.

Of course “Pitchfork” Ben prettied up the process for a national audience.  Rights were taken away from Blacks in South Carolina through a long process of violence and murder.  Tillman was involved in one notorious incident, the Hamburg massacre of 1876, that Tillman bragged about when he ran for governor in 1890.

The Attorney General of South Carolina made a report on the Massacre shortly after it occurred:

Columbia, S.C., July 12, 1876.

SIR: — According to your request of Monday last, I have visited Hamburg for the purpose of ascertaining the facts connected with the killing of several men there on the night of the 8th of July.

My information has been derived chiefly from Trial-Justice Rivers, and from the testimony of persons who have been examined before the coroner’s jury now in session, and from those who received wounds from the armed body of white men who had taken them prisoners. From this information the following facts seem to be clearly established:

During the administration of Governor Scott [1868-1872] a company of State militia was organized at Hamburg, of which Prince Rivers was captain. This company was known as Company A, Ninth Regiment National Guard of the State of South Carolina. Arms were at that time furnished to it, and some ammunition.

This company, previous to May, 1876, had for some time but few names on its rolls, drilled rarely, and scarcely kept alive its organization. But in May, of this year, the number of members increased to about eighty, and one Doc Adams was chosen captain.

On the 4th of July the company drilled on one of the public streets in the town of Hamburg. The street on which they drilled was between one hundred and one hundred and fifty feet wide; but it was little used, and was overgrown with grass, except in that portion which was used as a carriage-road. While the company was thus drilling, Thomas Butler and Henry Getzen, his brother-in-law, came along in a carriage, and demanded that the company should make way for them. Adams halted the company, remonstrated with Butler and Getzen for thus seeking to interfere with the company, and called their attention to the fact that there was plenty of room on either side of the company to pass.

Finding them unwilling to turn out of their course, Adams finally opened ranks and allowed them to drive through.

This incident seems to have angered Butler and Getzen, who made complaint before Trial-Justice Rivers against the militia company for obstructing the highway. The Trial Justice on the following day issued a warrant against Adams, as he was the captain of the company, and had him brought before him for trial. During the progress of the trial, Adams was arrested by the Trial Justice for contempt of court, and subsequently the case was continued until four o’clock Saturday afternoon, July 8th.

At that time Bulter and Getzen, with General M. C. Butler, who had been employed by Robert J. Butler, father of the former, as their attorney, repaired to the office of the Trial Justice, but Adams did not appear.

General Butler inquired as to the nature of the charges against Adams, and asked if the Trial Justice was to hear the case as trial justice or in his official capacity of major general of militia. To this the Trial Justice replied that he was to hear the case as a trial justice, but if the facts showed that a military offence had been committed, Adams would have to be tried by a court-martial. General Butler then stated that he thought the case might be arranged, and, at his suggestion, time was given him to see the parties. After this, the Trial Justice did not see General Butler at his office, but learned that he had gone over to Augusta. In the meantime the Trial Justice was informed that some two or three hundred armed white men were in Hamburg, and that a demand had been made by them that the militia should surrender their arms. After a consultation with Messrs. Jefferson and Spencer, Rivers sent for General Butler. He rode up to the back gate of Rivers’ house; the two had a conversation, in which General Butler said that he had given orders to have the guns given up in half an hour, and the time was nearly up. Rivers asked if some other arrangement could not be made, to which General Butler replied in the negative.

Rivers then asked if he would not consent to have him receive the arms, box them up, and send them to the Governor, to which General Butler replied that he would box them up and send them to the Governor, and if he (the Governor) should return them to the company it would be at his own risk. Rivers asked if they would give a bond for the arms, to which General Butler said that he would stand the bond, and turning to another person – I think R. J. Butler – asked if he would n’t go on a bond also, to which he replied that he would. Rivers then asked for some time before fire should be opened on the militia, so that he might have a conference with the militia officers. This was acceded to, and Rivers then went to the building known as the Sibley building, in the second story of which the company had its armory and drill-room, and where it was then assembled, and told Captain Adams what might be expected if he should refuse to give up the arms. To this Adams replied that General Butler had no right to the guns; that the company held them, and he proposed to hold them unless General Butler showed some authority to take them. After this interview, Rivers returned to General Butler, with whom was Robert J. Butler. He told them the decision to which the company had come. Then Robert J. Butler said that General Butler was his attorney; that he had come to settle the matter. If the company would apologize for the insult to his son and son-in-law, he would do nothing more, but the whole matter was in General Butler’s hands. General Butler said that, as the men would not meet him, he would have no more to do with them. General Butler was asked by Rivers if he would guarantee the safety of the town should the militia surrender their arms. He said that would depend how the men behaved themselves afterward. This statement is confirmed by S. P. Pixley.

While these negotiations were going on, the armed body of white men in the town were concentrated on the bank of the river near the Sibley building. Soon after they were broken off the firing began. Men who were in the building say it was commenced by whites firing upon the building. Adams gave his orders not to shoot until he directed them to. The company had very little ammunition, and all they had was a portion of that issued to the company when it was first organized.

After the firing had begun, it was returned by the militia, and one of the attacking party, McKee Merriwether, was shot through the head, and instantly killed. After this a piece of artillery, said to belong to the Washington Artillery of Augusta, was brough over from Augusta, and four charges of canister were fired from it upon the armory, but without injuring any one. The persons in the armory escaped from the rear by means of ladders, and hid under the floors of adjacent buildings, or wherever else they could find shelter.

The first man killed by the whites was James Cook, town marshal. He had been in the armory, but was not a member of the company. He had gone into the street from the rear of the Sibley building, and was at once fired on, and fell dead instantly, pierced by five or six bullets. Afterward the whites began their search for the members of the company. They succeeded in getting about twenty-five colored men as prisoners, some of whom were never members of the company. As fast as they were captured they were taken to a place near the South Carolina Railroad, where a large party of armed men stood guard over them. None of those thus captured had arms in their hands.

Subsequently, and at about two o’clock A.M., six men took A. T. Attaway out of the “ring”. He and his mother begged for his life, but in vain. He was told to turn round, and was then shot to death by the crowd. David Phillips was next taken out, and was similarly killed. Pompey Curry was next called out. He recognized among the bystanders Henry Getzen and Dr. Pierce Butler, and called on them to keep the other men from killing him. He ran, and was shot at as he ran, one bullet striking him in the right leg, below the knee.

Afterward, Albert Myniart, Moses Parks, and Hampton Stephens were killed. Stephens did not belong to the company. Nelder John Parker, who has been commonly referred to in the newspaper reports as John Thomas, was corporal in the company. When he was arrested and taken to the spot where the other prisoners were, he recognized among the party two men of Augusta, named Twiggs and Chaffee. He appealed to them for protection. They said he should not be hurt. He states that General M. C. Butler asked if he was one of the d—-d rascals. The reply was in the affirmative. He was then shot in the back. Messrs. Twigg and Chaffee then said if he was shot again they would shoot the ones who did it. They took him off, and had him taken to Augusta. He was shot before Attaway was killed. He may recover from his wounds.

One Butler Edwards was taken as a prisoner. He says he was taken before General Butler, who at the time was in the street near the Sibley building. This was about twelve o’clock.

Threats were made to shoot him. General Butler directed that he be taken to the others. He recognized among the crowd one Captain Carnile and —– Dunbar, of Augusta; said he had a long talk with the former. He was among the prisoners who were let loose and told to run; as they ran they were fired at, and he was shot in the head. He was not a member of the company.

Willis Davis, one of the members of the company, was taken to the place where were the other prisoners. The men stated that John Swaringen, of Edgefield county, had charge of the prisoners. He states that he saw General Butler before the men were killed, who asked him what he was doing, and told him he would have enough of it before he got through. He was shot in the arm near the elbow when about twenty paces distant from the crowd. The ball is still in his arm, and he suffers much pain. He also states that some of the young men from Georgia remonstrated against shooting the prisoners, but in vain.

Besides the killing and wounding of the men herein named, the party broke open several stores and homes, and in some instances, robbed the inmates. They took from Mr. Charles Roll, the postmaster, and a very respectable white citizen, a gun which he had in his store, and his private property. From an old colored man named Jacob Samuels, in his employ, they took a watch, and set fire to his house. They broke open the house of Trial-Justice Rivers, and did much damage, as well as robbed him of clothing. They obtained kerosene oil and attempted to set fire to the house, but were prevented by Col. A. P. Butler from doing so. The ropes of the public wells were cut, and some fences were torn down.

So far as I can learn, the primary object of the whites was to take away from the militia their arms.

The man Parker, who was wounded, states that on Friday, the 7th instant, he had a long talk with one Harrison Butler (white) on Broad Street, Augusta. Butler told him that if Rivers did not give orders for the militia to give up their arms they would take them any way on the next day.

On Saturday rumors were abroad in Hamburg that there were armed parties coming in to take the guns, but little credit was attached to them.

One of the white citizens of Hamburg heard a conversation between David Phillips and General Butler in the afternoon. Phillips talked very “big”, as the gentleman said, and General Butler told him that they wanted those guns and were bound to have them.

In the afternoon Col. A. P. Butler went to the various stores in town and told the proprieters that they must not sell any liquor to his men. In spite of this, however, some of the men compelled one of the storekeepers to furnish them liquor. From the same person they obtained kerosene oil to use in setting fire to a house.

The whites were armed with guns and small arms of various kinds, and many of them had axes and hatchets.

It is proper to state that the Intendant of Hamburg, Mr. Gardner, was informed by General Butler, in an interview with him, that the arms of the company must be given up.

Trial-Justice Rivers is now holding an inquest, and taking the testimony of witnesses. Until their verdict is rendered it will be impossible to tell who were engaged in the attack on the militia, and the subsequent killing and wounding of the colored men.

It may be possible that a careful judicial investigation may show some slight errors in some of the minor details stated in this report. But making due allowance for such errors, the facts show the demand on the militia to give up their arms was made by persons without lawful authority to enforce such demand or to receive the arms had they been surrendered; that the attack on the militia to compel a compliance with this demand was without lawful excuse or justification; and that after there had beens some twenty or twenty-five prisoners captured and completely in the power of their captors, five of them were deliberately shot to death and three more severely wounded. It further appears that not content with thus satisfying their vengeance, many of the crowd added to their guilt the crime of robbery of defenceless people, and were only prevented from arson by the efforts of their own leaders.

Yours, very respectfully, WILLIAM STONE, Attorney General of South Carolina.

[to] Hon. D. H. CHAMBERLAIN, Governor.

Pitchfork Ben put it more succinctly:  The leading white men of Edgefield” had decided “to seize the first opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson” by “having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable. Tillman would serve as Governor of South Carolina from 1890-1894 and in the United States Senate from 1894-1918, dying in office.  When President  Theodore Roosevelt had dinner with black educator Booker T. Washington in the White House in 1901, Tillman made this observation:  The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they learn their place again. 

A statue of Pitchfork Ben stands on the State House grounds of South Carolina.  A piece of legislation was proposed to remove the statue in the South Carolina House in 2008, but it got nowhere.   I am normally adverse to removing monuments because those honored do not accord with contemporary opinion, but in the case of the truly odious Pitchfork Ben I would make an exception.

Published in: on March 22, 2023 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Pitchfork Ben Tillman and The Ending of Reconstruction in South Carolina  
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