The Memphis Massacre of 1866

We’re now at the sesquicentennial of the white supremacist violence in Memphis, Tennessee in May of 1866 that left forty-six African-Americans and two whites dead; between seventy and eighty people wounded; four black churches, twelve black schools, and ninety-one black houses and cabins burned; and five black women raped. For years, historians referred to this as the “Memphis Race Riots.” Riots they were, but also, as this article points out, it was a massacre of African-Americans. The article points out that in Boston in 1770, five people were killed and it was called the Boston Massacre. The article further points out that in 1929 seven men were murdered and it was called the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. But over forty African-Americans are murdered and it’s a “race riot.” And we wonder why there is a Black Lives Matter movement?

This blog has briefly delved into this massacre once before with a video here. Today I’d like to go a bit deeper. There’s a website dealing with memories of the massacre here, and you can access the Congressional Report on the massacre, as well as a blog that covers the massacre, here. I’m not going to try to duplicate their excellent work. I’ll just give some of the basics of the massacre, and I urge you to follow the blog and website mentioned above for further information and updates.

My prime source of information is Professor George C. Rable’s excellent book, But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction, published in 1984 by the University of Georgia Press. In it, Professor Rable tells us, “Like many future disorders, the Memphis outbreak took place because the black population in the city had suddenly increased, blacks and whites (in this case Irishmen) competed for scarce jobs, the press greatly exaggerated the extent of black crime, and police often clashed with Negroes.” [p. 33] With the end of the Civil War, white former confederate soldiers returned home in defeat. While some Northern businessmen brought economic opportunity with them, locals resented them as “invaders” and symbols of their defeat. Former confederates also threatened Northern teachers and preachers who had come to the city. “The demographic character of Memphis changed dramatically as large numbers of freedmen flocked to the city, leaving some farmers and planters without laborers. The census of 1860 listed 3,882 Negroes in Memphis (17 percent of the total population), but the 1870 enumeration counted 15,741 (39 percent of the total population).” [Rable, p. 34] Many of the freed people settled in the southern part of the city, near Fort Pickering. “There a collection of ramshackle houses became a center for contagious disease, vice, and crime and a forerunner of the twentieth-century racial enclave. Freedmen’s benevolent societies sought to care for these people but lacked the resources to aid such large numbers. In August 1865, when the Negro population of the city had swelled to between 20,000 and 25,000 persons, whites began to fear insurrection and became seriously alarmed about the overcrowding and crime in the area.” [Ibid.] This wasn’t the only area that experienced crime, though. Memphis as a whole was filled with crime, especially on the waterfront, along the Mississippi River. “The city harbored thieves, gamblers, and prostitutes; public drunkenness, robberies, and murders were on the rise. Because rowdies roamed about the river front, the city council passed a resolution levying heavy fines against persons caught wielding slingshots and brass knuckles. The widespread practice of carrying firearms made strolling the streets a dangerous pastime. Irate citizens claimed they were unable to sleep because gunshots were heard throughout the night. Even juveniles went about heavily armed, a habit that sometimes resulted in tragedy.” [Ibid.] Does any of that sound familiar to a modern reader? Memphis society had consisted of elite planters, merchants, and professional men dominating the city, with the working class being comprised of free African-Americans and white German and Irish immigrants. As more African-Americans flocked into the city, the Irish began to find it harder to find jobs. “Fearing competition, Irishmen tried to drive all Negro draymen and hackmen out of the city; the result was an intense hatred that festered and infected both groups. The city’s aristocracy viewed this struggle with apathy or disdain.” [Ibid., p. 35]

Professor Rable tells us politics in Antebellum Memphis were extremely corrupt, and after the war Irishmen captured most of the elective offices. The mayor was seen drunk in public on several occasions and the city recorder had been indicted for murder. “The Irish held 180 of 186 positions on the police force and 40 of 46 jobs in the fire department. The chief of police complained that the mayor and police committee made removals and appointments without his knowledge; he candidly conceded his inability to control his men, many of whom were neither sober nor discrete. Even the rare policeman who was dismissed from the force for wrongdoing usually was reinstated by the police committee.” [Ibid.] In another case showing where the Black Lives Matter movement is coming from, “Evidence shows that the predominantly Irish police went out of their way to harass blacks; they often beat and sometimes shot black prisoners while hauling them off to jail or fired at drunken Negroes who fled from them or made even a token resistance to arrest.” [Ibid., p. 36]

Caught between the police and the freedmen were the Freedmen’s Bureau agents and Federal troops in the area. Local white Memphians viewed the Freedmen’s Bureau agents and teachers as “incendiaries.” While many white Memphians praised the troops for their behavior, drunken soldiers sometimes brawled with former confederate soldiers, policemen, and freedmen. Such was the atmosphere of Memphis.

“Memphis might have escaped a major race riot [aka massacre] had it not been for the final explosive element in the situation: the presence of Negro troops. Since 1863 the city had served as a collection depot for all black soldiers in the western theater of the war, and by the spring of 1866 some four thousand of them remained in the city.” [Ibid.] Spending their off-duty time around Fort Pickering, the soldiers, as any soldiers often did and do, looked to alcohol for recreation. Drunken black soldiers might push white citizens off the sidewalks and carouse in the streets. They would fire guns in to the air and got into fights among themselves. Courts-martial were common for this type of behavior. White newspapers, though, greatly exaggerated the behavior and even blamed black soldiers for unsolved crimes with no evidence. “The animosity between the black troops and the Irish police increased during the spring. Negro soldiers tried to arrest policemen guilty of flagrant brutality; the police beat and abused Negro soldiers. When attempting to apprehend black troops or civilians, the police met stiff resistance from the soldiers, who rescued prisoners and sometimes fired at the arresting officers.” [Ibid., p. 37] White newspaper editorials, of course, excoriated the black soldiers while defending the white police. Memphis, in short, was a powder keg.

By April 29, 1866, Professor Rable tells us, all the black soldiers in Memphis were mustered out, but many remained in the city waiting for their final pay. “The following evening four policemen shoved a group of Negroes off a sidewalk into the street; one black stumbled, and a policeman fell over him. Another policeman struck a black over the head with a pistol but was then hit on the head by a stick wielded by another black. With oaths and threats to renew the fracas at another place and time, the two groups separated, but during the night drunken soldiers roamed the streets firing off their pistols.” [Ibid.] May 1 saw nearly a hundred drunken soldiers and black civilians along South Street firing guns into the air and shouting. Meanwhile, a team of horses driven by a white man collided with a similar team driven by a black man. The two got into a fistfight. As police rushed to the scene the drunken soldiers and civilians were also in the area and began to fire at the police. One policeman was hit and died. More police arrived and arrested two black soldiers and took them away, followed by the crowd. “As they approached a bridge on Main Street, the police fired into the crowd, and the Negroes responded in kind. The police managed to drive the mob back but had to retreat again when they ran out of ammunition.” [Ibid., p. 38] A few black soldiers left Fort Pickering that evening to help their friends, and several angry white citizens showed up, armed, as well. “Policemen chased and shot any Negro soldiers they discovered on the streets and, joined by angry civilians, swore to ‘kill the God d***ed [n-word] soldiers who were fighting here against their rights–the black sons of b*****s.’ After the black troops retreated inside the fort, police began attacking any freedmen they saw. With no longer even a semblance of organization or discipline, the policemen singly and in groups prowled the streets beating and shooting Negroes. One officer urged the mob to kill all ‘god d****d [n-word]s,’ large and small alike; black prisoners were beaten on their way to the station house. White citizens joined the police in entering Negro shanties to search for new victims, ransacking the humble dwellings and often shooting the occupants. Ignoring professions of innocence and pleas for mercy, the mob continued to assault helpless blacks well into the night.” [Ibid.]

City officials encouraged the mob’s violence. The next day, white citizens broke into gun stores to steal weapons, powder, and ammunition. “The mob quickly became intoxicated, and several Irish policemen, swearing to kill all the Negroes, began assaulting blacks. Hearing news of the fighting, armed whites from the countryside poured into Memphis by train.” [Ibid. p. 39] The Sheriff was able to get a posse together, but it formed too late to be effective at controlling anything. General Stoneman finally took action and took personal command. Soldiers with loaded muskets and fixed bayonets dispersed the crowd by 1 PM that afternoon. “That evening police and civilians swarmed into the Negro quarter near the fort, knocking down doors and robbing and shooting the terrified freedmen. In cruel mockery of white racial ideology, some of these men brutally raped several Negro women. Setting fire to Negro homes, schools, and churches, drunken citizens and police howled like maniacs around the rising flames and shot at blacks trying to escape the burning buildings. Several blacks burned to death in their own homes. The few whites who tried to protect the blacks or dissuade the rioters were ignored or overpowered.” [Ibid.]

May 3 and 4 saw some sporadic shooting and burning, but the main violence was on May 1 and 2. General Stoneman finally reestablished order, late though he was. We can’t fault him too much, though, because he had only 150 soldiers at his disposal, and he was understandably reluctant to risk their lives against so many in the armed mob.

The Memphis white press deserves much of the blame for inciting the violence. “Freedmen’s Bureau investigators condemned the newspapers for instilling a belief in the community that northerners, Negroes, and schoolteachers could be murdered with impunity and blamed such outpourings for stirring up rowdy elements in the city. After the riot was over, local editors blasted the Yankees, and particularly the bureau, for arousing the passions of the freedmen and sustaining the black soldiers in their reign of terror. Adopting a practice that would become common during the Reconstruction period, the perpetrators of violence placed the blame squarely on the victims and their friends.” [Ibid., p. 40]

Even these editors, however, repudiated the attacks on black churches and schools, as well as attacks on obviously innocent African-Americans. “In classic paternalistic style, white leaders claimed to have only the kindliest feelings toward the Negroes and held the lower classes (and particularly the Irish) responsible for the terrorism.” [Ibid.] Here we see blame on “lower orders” of white men, not the “best” white men, even though many of the so-called “best” white men were active participants in the violence. Professor Rable tells us that even though many of the men who participated in the massacre were well known, city officials made no attempt to arrest or charge them with any crimes. “As Memphis judge William Hunter admitted to the congressional investigating committee, no jury was likely to convict white men of crimes against blacks.” [Ibid., p. 41] In my opinion, this is the root of the Black Lives Matter movement. During slavery, black lives at least had value as property. Freed, they were no longer property. During Reconstruction, black lives had no value to many white men.

In concluding, Professor Rable tells us, “In its own historical context, the Memphis riot [aka massacre] reflected the upheaval and disorder of the postwar era. In the time of the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia,, and the White League, it stood out as a fascinating and horrible anachronism. In the age of Watts, Detroit, and Newark, it casts a long shadow across a century.” [Ibid., p. 42] I think we can add to that list Ferguson, Cleveland, and Baltimore, at least in the perceptions of many, whether or not investigations will show a factual basis.

The massacre was without doubt racially motivated. Former confederate soldiers and their supporters among the populace, enraged that African-Americans were exercising their freedom and in many cases were soldiers and thus had positions of authority with firearms, took action on that rage and murdered as many African-Americans as they could find.


  1. Al, thanks for your post on the Memphis Massacre. I think it is very important that other Civil War bloggers follow your example and devote a significant number of posts to the Reconstruction Era.

    I have compiled a number of additional materials that your readers might want to look at:

    For background, you may want to read my two articles on the riots.

    The first article looks at the situation in Memphis prior to the riots:

    The second article describes the immediate cause of the riots and what happened during them:

    The full Congressional report of nearly 400 pages can be found here:

    The Freedmen’s Bureau investigation report can be found here:

    You can access some of the Affidavits collected by the Freedmen’s Bureau after the riots here:

    An article on the new historical marker remembering the Memphis Massacre:

    Here is a discussion of the riots on Civil War Talk:

    My own blog, The Immigrants’ Civil War, will devote at least 25% of its articles to Immigrants and Reconstruction over the coming years. In the Memphis Massacre case, the immigrant story is not one that anybody can be proud of. I am happy to report that even though many of my readers are Irish Americans, that my own effort at presenting an honest account of the crucial role Irish immigrants played in leading the riots and in murdering and raping freed slaves has been met with nothing but appreciation from my readers. In fact, the two articles I posted recently on this subject have received more hits than any other new articles I wrote this year.

    I hope that my own experiences can convince Civil War bloggers that they will not lose their readers by moving past the Spring of 1865 or taking on the issues of race and Reconstruction.

    Ending Civil War history with Lee’s surrender is like ending a history of the Iraq invasion with the capture of Saddam.

    1. Thanks, Pat, and thanks for the updated links [these are the corrected links you sent].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: