Once the South was defeated after the American Civil War, the Era Of Reconstruction was a period of political resistance, reluctant change, and deeply embedded racism. Heated clashes between Black freedmen and Whites in the region were plentiful, but one of the most infamous of these exchanges occurred on this day in the town of Hamburg in South Carolina. Known as the “Hamburg Massacre,” six Black men and one White man were killed after a mob attacked an all-Black militia.
The town, long defunct, was formerly a hot spot for traders in the state. However, the population fell to low numbers and Hamburg was occupied mostly by freed people. All of the chief positions of the town, including the military, were helmed by Black men. As expected, Southern Democrats balked at the arming of the Black militia with state artillery and weapons, thus leading to longstanding tensions in the area.
On July 4th, the Hamburg militia men were performing a drill march in the middle of a main road. Two White farmers who were nearby tried to pass through the road in a horse-drawn carriage, which some historians believe was an intended ruse to spark a fight. Although militia captain D.L. “Doc” Adams allowed the carriage to pass, there was reportedly a war of words between the farmers and Adams’ men.
R.J. Butler, one of the men in the carriage, filed a formal complaint against Adams and his men and demanded they surrender their arms. During the appointed court date that would have heard testimony from Butler and Adams, hundreds of armed White men swarmed in to the town on July 8th to demand their brand of justice. Adams asked the local justice for protection ahead of the hearing, but was not supported. Consequently, Adams took his small group of men, who made a stand at the city’s armory.
Adams and his men were outgunned, facing a small cannon that broke apart their ranks. Forced to escape, the White mob ransacked Hamburg and caught several soldiers later in hiding. The state’s Attorney General wrote in his report the findings of the mob’s attack and the damage that was done:
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 been 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.
The Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans differed on their positions of the attack, which strained budding cooperation between the two major parties. The massacre gained national exposure and was criticized by many in the North.
In contrast, Southern Whites were emboldened by the attack and went on to repeat these same actions in other towns in Aiken County and across the state.
Politics, some contend, were the main reason for uprooting the Blacks of Hamburg, and it was reported that all in the town voted Republican. The attack may have served as a message to Southern Republicans that the cost for democracy or any affront to the ruling party in the state meant expulsion, or death.
Despite evidence showing otherwise, none of the mob members in the attack faced criminal charges.