Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Primer on South Carolina's Reconstruction

A view of SC's Reconstruction General Assembly
Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues with a primer on SC Reconstruction history. 

In order to better understand Laurens County’s role in South Carolina Reconstruction history, a short overview of Reconstruction across the state may be helpful.
        After the Confederacy fell in April 1865, SC Governor A.G. Magrath was removed by the victors and sent to Federal prison. U.S. President Andrew Johnson, who was taught to read and write in Laurens County many years earlier by a young sweetheart, pardoned most of those who had taken part in the war. He also appointed Benjamin F. Perry of Greenville as provisional governor. Perry was a Unionist who had opposed both nullification and secession, but he also held the respect of many South Carolinians. Perry immediately
called a convention of whites in September 1865 in Columbia to draw up a new state constitution which would follow Federal requirements for restoration to the Union. James L. Orr of Anderson was elected governor, and the General Assembly in regular session in November ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting slavery, a required step in restoration to the Union. 

        Next Congress put forward the Fourteenth Amendment, but South Carolina with all the Southern states except Tennessee refused to ratify it. In response, the Federal government subjected South Carolina to military rule. North and South Carolina became known as Military District No. 2 commanded by General Daniel Sickles. Martial law brought the removal of suffrage, i.e., the right to vote, from every man who had held office or fought under the Confederate flag – virtually the entire state electorate at the time. 

        The military allowed Governor Orr to continue in office until 1868, when he was deposed by an act of Congress, and General Canby was appointed military governor. In that year, the federal government put together the people who would do their bidding. Another new state constitution was adopted in Columbia, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, and a new General Assembly was elected. Robert K. Scott of Ohio was made governor, military rule was lifted, and South Carolina was deemed fit to be restored to the Union. 

         The social and political upheaval resulted, as it often has throughout history, in the formation of underground vigilante groups who take matters into their own hands. By 1868, the Ku Klux Klan[1] began to form among groups of white men in South Carolina to restrain the work of white government leaders and control the movements and actions among Negroes. 

         Thus began the darkest period of South Carolina history. The 1868 constitutional convention was composed of 76 African-American freedmen, only 17 of whom had ever paid taxes, many who could neither read nor write; and 48 whites, many of whom were carpetbaggers from the North, only 23 taxpayers among them. This one constitutional convention levied a tax on the people of South Carolina of over $2.25 million, nearly six times the entire revenue of the State in 1860. It should be no surprise that the years 1868 to 1874 became known as the ‘Rule of the Robbers.’ In those years, the public debt skyrocketed from $5.4 million to $20.3 million.

Under the administrations of Governor Scott (1868-1872) and the scalawag from Sumter, Franklin J. Moses (1872-1874), votes in the General Assembly were overtly bought and bartered for anything from a bottle of liquor and cigars to as much as a house and lot. Corruption was rife as public taxpayer funds purchased personal furniture, clothing, jewelry, and groceries for legislators while patients in the State hospital and convicts at the state penitentiary went unfed. 

The secret Ku Klux groups committed many violent acts which in turn brought investigations by the United States government. President Ulysses S. Grant placed nine Upstate counties under martial law, and hundreds of leading citizens were arrested and jailed including lawyers, doctors, and ministers.[2] Of about 500 men indicted in 1871, only 82 received sentences. Another round of arrests came in 1872, and by 1874, 1,091 pending cases remained un-prosecuted.

With Massachusetts carpetbagger Daniel H. Chamberlain as Governor of South Carolina 1874-1876, there was a brief glimmer of hope that the conditions in government may be improving. He openly accused the General Assembly of corruption and dishonesty and refused to sign the circuit court commissions of Franklin J. Moses (a Sumter native of Jewish ethnicity) and W.J. Whipper (a Northern Black man of bad reputation). Unfortunately, Chamberlain's tenacity in holding onto power led to a constitutional crisis.

The election of 1876 brought a powerful Democratic movement led by General Wade Hampton to effect a coup of the Republican establishment and fill all State offices with Democrats. Excellent organization, persuasion, multiple voting, and intimidation brought about a Red Shirt revolution, and Democrats were elected. However, the Chamberlain government refused to vacate office, and the situation was tense enough for Federal troops to be placed on guard at the State House to keep order when the General Assembly convened in November 1876. 

Two houses of representatives carried on in session, one Democrat and one Radical Republican. Both Hampton and Chamberlain claimed to be governor of the State, and in the same room, both conducted state business, each with his own legislature. E.W.M. Mackey was speaker of the house for the Radical Republicans and General W.H. Wallace for the Democrats. For four days and nights the dual Houses continued in rival session, divided by the middle aisle, each refusing to yield to the other. People gathered outside the State House supporting one or the other faction. 

Hampton realized that one mistake on his part would lead to great blood-letting and riotous destruction. Boldly, he went to the top of the steps on the north side of the State House. There, he spoke to those gathered, begging them to keep the peace. But trouble was afoot. Rumors began to sweep across the state that the Hunky-Dory Club, an armed African-American group from Charleston, was on its way to drive out the Wallace House. 

Immediately, 5,000 Red Shirts from all over the state galloped to Columbia to defend Hampton’s government. It was only by the cool moderation of Wade Hampton himself that race war was averted at the last minute in South Carolina. The Wallace House withdrew from the House Chamber but continued to hold session. The State Supreme Court ruled Hampton’s election valid, but a recalcitrant Chamberlain refused to accept the court’s decision. Thus the Babylonian Captivity of the South Carolina government continued until April 1877, when the new U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, who himself had to cut a deal in order to seat his administration, ordered the removal of Federal troops from the state. 

With the removal of federal troop protection, Chamberlain yielded the governor’s office to Hampton. The Radicals withdrew from the State House, and the Democrats took over the reins of state government. Hampton’s 1876 election brought back the rule by the remnants of the old conservative planter class. The influence of black citizens melted quickly away. Their voting rights increasingly eroded until the constitution of 1895 eliminated suffrage for the great majority of South Carolina’s black citizens.

Bitter personal differences arose in 1876 Red Shirt campaign between Hampton’s Low Country planter colleagues and several Upstate leaders which would in the next ten years lead to the political rise of the small farmer in South Carolina’s Piedmont, desperate and angry from the poverty brought by the war, reconstruction, and the decline of agriculture which would lead to the rise of Ben Tillman and Clemson University.[3]



[1]           Ku Klux is from the Greek word kuklux, meaning circle.
[2]           “One college president (perhaps John Leland?), charged in taking part in a riot that happened without his knowledge, was arrested, and placed in five different jails before being released on $5,000 bond.” (WPA Guide to SC)
[3]           Federal Writers’ Project, WPA Guide to South Carolina: The Palmetto State (n.p.: Trinity University Press, 2013),