Massacre at Hamburg (1876)

We have chosen to include certain racial epithets in this handout in order to honestly communicate the bigoted language of the time. We recommend that teachers review the section “Addressing Dehumanizing Language from History” on page xiv before using this material.

The Hamburg massacre occurred on July 4, 1876, in South Carolina. The Republican governor raised a state militia to stem the spreading violence in the state. An all-black regiment of the militia, led by Dock Adams, was stationed in Hamburg, angering white paramilitary groups, known as the Red Shirts, in nearby towns. Hundreds of Red Shirts surrounded and eventually attacked the 84-member black militia regiment, killing seven. The following is testimony by Adams before a congressional committee describing what he witnessed while hiding near his house.

I could look right into my bedroom and sitting room window. I saw them taking down my pictures and breaking up the furniture. They took all my clothes, my mattresses and feather-bed and cut it in pieces, destroying everything I had. They took all my wife’s clothes and everything.

By that time they commenced getting very thick in the [town] square. I jumped over a little fence and went up in the postmaster’s house . . . Right on the street, there were over a thousand men. They had their headquarters there. Every time the party would bring a colored man that they had captured they would bring him to what they called the “dead-ring.” Every time they would come in General Butler would yell, “Good boys! Goddamnit! Turn your hounds and bring the last one in,” and they would ask, “Can you find that Dock Adams? We want to get him.” Some asked what kind of man I was and some would agree—“man with side-whiskers and a moustache.” One man said, “We’ll have him before day.” And I was standing right there looking at him through the blinds. That was between two and three o’clock. So finally they said, “Well we had better go to work and kill all the niggers we have. We won’t be able to find that son of a bitch.” They called them out one by one and would carry them off across the railroad, and stand them up there and shoot them. M.C. Butler was telling them what men to kill. They were shot, I guess, about four o’clock in the morning. The moon was shining very bright—about as bright as ever you seen it. I remained in the house until you could just discover day. I went out through the back way and got on the South
Carolina Railroad and came to Aiken.

Q: When they were killing those colored men, was anything said about politics?

A: Yes, sir. You could hear it all the time. “By God! We will carry South Carolina now. About the time we kill four or five hundred men we will scare the rest.” Even before it begun you could hear, “We are going to redeem South Carolina today!” You could hear them singing it on the streets, “This is the beginning of the redemption of South Carolina.”1


  • 1 : In Dorothy Sterling, ed., The Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the Words of African Americans (Da Capo Press, 1994), 463–464.

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