After Slavery: Hamburg Massacre

Original map created by John Harris, updated by Beth Gniewek and Bradley Blankmeyer, 2013-2014.

The Hamburg Massacre

Republican Governor Robert Kingston Scott first organized the black militia in Aiken County in 1870 to protect predominantly black communities such as Hamburg, South Carolina. By 1876, this militia had grown to roughly eighty members. On July 4, 1876, their commander, Doc Adams, was parading his company through Hamburg when two white men, Thomas Butler and Henry Getzen, demanded to pass through. A heated argument ensued, ending with Adams ordering his men to open ranks and allow the men through. Afterwards Butler and Getzen solicited the legal services of Matthew C. Butler (no relation to Thomas Butler) and made a complaint to Hamburg trial justice Prince Rivers about the incident. Rivers then issued a warrant for Adams' arrest and set a trial date for July 8th. Meanwhile, M.C. Butler, who was also a former Confederate general, began recruiting men from various white military clubs in the area. They arrived in Hamburg for the trial on the morning of July 8th, and unlawfully demanded that the black militia company surrender their arms. When the militia men refused, Butler's men opened fire and one white man was killed. Butler's men then used a cannon to assault the barracks where numerous black militia men had retreated. Outnumbered and running out of ammunition, the black militia men fled the building. One militia man, Hamburg's Town Marshall, James Cook, was shot and killed while trying to escape. After the assault, Butler's men rounded up roughly two dozen black militia men and took them to what would later be called the "Death Ring." They executed five of the black militia men they had taken prisoner, and finished their attack by robbing villagers.

The unlawful violence of the Hamburg Massacre sparked an outcry amongst Republicans, particularly Republican Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain, who asked for help from the federal government and attempted to arrest the white military club men involved in attacking the black militia. The federal government did not respond, and no prosecutions took place. This lack of federal support weakened the authority of the state's Republican Party and demonstrated to Democrats that they could implement "straight-out" political strategies in the form of armed intimidation and even violence, particularly against black Republicans, without consequences. In addition, the conflict united former divisions in the Democratic Party. Democrats who had supported "fusion" policies with reform Republicans determined that this political cooperation was no longer possible. They believed that Republicans would use the national media outcry against the Hamburg Massacre to their political advantage. In this way, the Hamburg Massacre led to a more galvanized Democratic Party in South Carolina, a weakened Republican Party, and increased militarization in both parties that would continue to erupt in violence throughout the 1876 gubernatorial campaign, in the form of military clubs, parades, and riots.

Map of Hamburg, South Carolina, ca. 1875. This map depicts the layout of Hamburg at the time of the massacre.


Allen, Walter. Governor Chamberlain's Administration in South Carolina, A Chapter of Reconstruction in the Southern States. 1888. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Edgar, Walter. South Carolina: A History. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Foner, Eric. Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

Holt, Thomas. Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction. Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

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