Thursday, March 19, 2015

Black militias in the 1870 Laurens County, SC, election

Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues, concerning black militias in the 1870 election.
A postbellum SC Black militia (Source:
            Post-war racial tensions in Laurens County, SC, were exacerbated by the tense political atmosphere and the organizing of independent groups determined to keep freed slaves in their place. During the election of 1868, the Ku Klux Klan first organized in the upstate in Abbeville County and was thought to be connected to similar organizations in Edgefield and Laurens dedicated to the destruction of the Radical party and the killing or banishment of its leaders. In Laurens, Union, York, and lower Greenville counties, disguised men visited voters to warn against voting Republican.[1] In turn, carpetbagger Governor Robert K. Scott organized black militias to warn black voters that they must
vote Republican.
            The Democrats had been so soundly defeated in 1868, that they knew they had to make some changes. Running a campaign of white supremacy in a state with a majority black electorate was futile. Therefore, they approved a policy of the equality of whites and blacks and full protection for freedmen under the law. They would ally with others in the state to drive out the Radicals and elect a good, honest, limited government. Therefore in 1870, the Reform Party, i.e., Democrats and dissident Republicans, challenged the Radical Republicans with Richard B. Carpenter (R), a Kentuckian, and Matthew C. Butler (D), a former Confederate cavalry brigadier from Greenville.[2]
            The Democrats had won in Laurens in 1868, but the Republicans claimed they had not been ready and that there were more Negro votes in the county than white.[3] They determined to make themselves ready for the election of 1870. With Republicans concerned about their majority in the upstate counties, carpetbagger Robert K . Scott of Ohio[4] organized local militias in each county during the summer of 1870 composed almost entirely of black soldiers. The political motivation of the militia units was clear. They were organized to uphold the Republican government and to respond to Negro demands for protection against the white harassment of the 1868 election.[5] Another purpose of the militia was to keep the blacks in line for the election.  
             In Laurens County, a white man by the name of Joseph Crews organized five or six companies of negro militia. [6] Crews "was the moving spirit behind the organization of a Negro militia troop in Laurens. . . . After organizing the unit, he assumed active command and in so doing became a target for the bitter hatred of the local Conservatives."[11] The militias "made the night hideous by the discharge of firearms and their savage yells."[12] "Brawls were not infrequent," and a militiamen always got help from his comrades.[13] They drilled frequently and were given ribbons, plumes, and drums. Colonel Joe Crews received 620 Springfield rifle muskets, fifty Winchesters, and 11,000 rounds of ammunition for his command the summer ahead of the election.[14]
The militia "annoyances were only spasmodic, and there were intervals of relief. But the other nuisance of the constabulary was a constant running sore. Representing many nationalities," these officers kept up a "constant espionage" which included house servants.[15] The following letter from Crews to John Hubbard, chief of the constabulary found in the Fraud Report is insightful.
            Laurens, S.C.                                                July 8, 1870
            CAPT. HUBBARD, Chief Constable
            Dear Sir: Your letter of the 2nd was received to‑day enclosing $128 due me. It came in good time. We are going to have a hard campaign up here, and we must have more Constables. I will carry the election here with the militia if the Constables will work with me. I am giving out ammunition all the time. Tell Scott he is all right here now. Let me know how times are below.
                                                                                     JOSEPH CREWS[16]
Crews put on armed barbecues all summer in 1870 for the black militia units with speeches like "they now had the power, and the white man must be taught to know his place."[17] Laurens resident William D. Simpson, later Governor and Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, testified that “Crews would start for one of his public meetings with one of these companies, sometimes two, armed and equipped, with bayonets on and cartridges around their bodies.”[18]
            One such meeting took place in September 1870 on the Laurens Courthouse Square. The Republican political meeting was accompanied by 1,500 members of the black militia armed including the company from Clinton, all marching in procession with bayonets fixed and with personal weapons including pistols, clubs, and shotguns. The Republican orators followed the military procession, Crews, Wallace a candidate for Congress, Chamberlain the attorney general, and Moses, the Speaker of the House. The twenty-five or so white men who came from curiosity were not allowed to hear the speeches. Militiamen jerked whites down who came to listen, threatening them with their arms. They also drove away a black Democrat from the meeting, threatening to shoot him.[19]
The Columbia Daily Phoenix reported:
 The teachings of Joe Crews have at last been brought to bear on a portion of our community. His advice, in his speech at Waterloo, as reported by those who heard it, was, "that the blacks should never unite with the whites in any movement‑‑that if they (the colored people) wanted provisions, and could not buy them, to go into the fields and get what they wanted. If the whites did not settle with them the way they thought was right, to burn them out of house and home‑‑not to leave one stone upon another‑‑that matches were cheap; and any one could buy a box for five cents."[20]

[1]Simkins and Woody, 445‑446, 630‑631. Newberry had bands of persons with false faces and white sheets riding at night and threatening and abusing negroes. Anderson was more organized. Edgefield was so strong "that it had everything its way." York County organized to protect the whites. The whites stopped it after the election.
[2]Thomas Holt, Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction, (Chicago: University Press, 1977), 142.
[3]John A. Leland , A Voice from South Carolina, (Charleston: Walker, Evans, & Cogswell, 1879), p. 51.
[4]DuBois, 402, Scott was a Union colonel during the war, and former assistant commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau. He was born in Pennsylvania but studied and practiced medicine in Henry County, Ohio. He also had a law degree.
[6]William Gilmore Simms, The History of South Carolina, rev. by Mary C. Simms Oliphant, (Columbia: The State Company, Printers, 1918), 321.
[7]Simkins and Woody, p. 93, 204, 128.
[8]Leland, pp. 52, 70. His sometime partner in crime, Young J.P. Owens, chairman of the county Republican committee, had deserted to the enemy early in the war.
[9]George Patterson, in Slave Narratives, (II, i, 226‑229), interviewed on May 27, 1937, edited by R.V. Williams. He grew up at Kilgore's Bridge on the Enoree. His mother was an Irish woman working for the Pattersons. Not a slave, but married to his father "by his 'Marster.'" "I've never seen a moving picture. Once a man offered to give me a ticket to a movie, but I told him to give me a plug of tobacco instead." He said that when colored preachers "are educated they learn to steal everything a man has, if they can." "You remember Joe Crews and Jim Young‑‑what they did in this state? Well, they tried to lead all the niggers after the war was over. I was the one who got Jim Young away from the whites. I carried him to Greenville, but he got back somehow, and was killed. Joe Crews was killed, too. The Ku Klux was after them hot, but I carried Jim Young away from them." When he was set free, he and his father stayed with Joe Patterson to bring in the crop and then went to Spartanburg. In the woods there were wild turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, and wild hogs with six inch tusks. Cattle ran wild and were dangerous at all times. (II, i, 230), May 31, 1937: When there was a surplus of apples and peaches they made brandy, corn or rye‑‑whiskey, 40 cents a gallon. Butter $5/lb., Eggs 6 cents/doz., Hens 10 cents, Salt deer $50/barrel. Plenty of wild turkeys, ducks, wild geese on the River. Turkeys tear up gardens and planted seed.

[10]          Benjamin Ginsberg, Moses of South Carolina: A Jewish Scalawag during Radical Reconstruction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 102.

[11]Otis A. Singletary, Negro Militia and Reconstruction, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957), 124.
[12]Columbia Daily Phoenix, October 25, 1870.
[13]Singletary, 15, 46. A fight in Yorkville, SC, in February, 1870, almost led to riot which only a brigadier general of state militia averted.
[14]Simkins and Woody, pp. 451‑453. Black militias organized in Columbia, Union, Laurens, Newberry, Edgefield, Kershaw, and Spartanburg Counties. According to the Adjutant General, between March 1 and October 27, 1870, the state issued 7,222 stands of arms and 88,000 rounds of ammunition. White companies were not accepted by the Governor except one in Columbia which disbanded because it got a Negro colonel. According to Testimony Taken by the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 544, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Crews of the 12th Regiment of Militia in Laurens County received 50 Winchester rifles and 1,000 rounds of ammunition on June 13, 1870. He then received 300 rifle-muskets and 2,000 rounds of ammunition on June 30, and 320 rifle-muskets and 8,000 rounds of ammunition on August 2nd.
[15]          Leland, p. 54. Dr. Jacobs, in lamenting loudly the death of the railroad, received a letter from Joe Crews in early 1871 that as Jacobs was a young man he might live to see the road built back. Thornwell Jacobs, The Life of William Plumer Jacobs (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1918), 89.
[16]Report of the Joint Investigating Committee on Public Frauds, 1877‑78, p. 1687. DuBois says, p. 422: "No court in Christendom would, without further data, receive the fraud report of South Carolina as the exact truth." c.f. Letter from Crews to Hubbard, 8 July 1870, quoted in Simpkins and Woody, 453, n. 46.
[17]Leland, pp. 52, 53.
[18] Testimony of William D. Simpson in Testimony Taken by the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States (hereafter Ku Klux Report) (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1303-1304.
[19] Testimony of B.W. Ball in the Ku Klux Report, 545-547.
[20]Columbia, SC , Daily Phoenix, September 7, 1870.