A Government of Men Episode 17: Amnesty and reconstruction

  • Tuesday, June 12, 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article may include historical materials that could contain offensive language or negative stereotypes. Such materials must be viewed in the context of the relevant time period. The Georgetown Times does not endorse the views expressed in such materials.

“While there are many humorous things, one of the most ludicrous is the fact that the white man thinks he is less savage than the other savages.” — Mark Twain

By Tom Rubillo

On May 29, 1865, President Andrew Johnson pardoned and granted amnesty to all who had fought for the Confederacy, senior military, government and diplomatic officials excluded. To be forgiven their disloyalty, all this leadership cadre had to do was to sign a pledge of allegiance to the United States. Most did, if reluctantly. A few did not.

Former slave Aunt Mariah Heywood told a Depression-era chronicler about one reluctant Georgetown planter who had to choose whether to rejoin the Union.

“Major Charles [Alston] say he’d die in Sunnyside yard before he’d go there [to Georgetown] and take off his hat and ‘swear against my swear.’ He’d die in Sunnyside yard.”

But then reality set in. As it turned out, lands of the unrepentant could be forfeit to the government if they did not “swear against [their] swears.” Quite a conundrum.

“My Massa, Major Charles Alston, was the last one to gone Georgetown and gone under that flag. He was Charles, Jr. but after Confederate war he was Major Charles. Major Charles the last man of Waccamaw gone under the flag! At Georgetown,” Aunt Mariah Heywood continued.

“Went down in row-boat. My father gone and tell old man Tom Nesbitt to have his boat and four of his best mens. Got to go off a piece. Pa gone. Have boat ready. Ma got up. Cook a traveling lunch for ‘em. Fore day. Blue uniform. Yellow streak down side-just like this steak in my dress. Yellow bar. Most of ‘em had to rob dead Yankees or go naked. Last gentleman gone under the flag.”

On the other hand, the January 27,1933 Georgetown Times told of one former rebel who never capitulated.

“David J. Elliot, the only Confederate living in Georgetown County, related at a recent meeting of the Pension Board the fact that he never surrendered to the Yankees or signed a parole. Mr. Elliott, now 94 years old, stated that he and a comrade named Exum left the Confederate army while it was surrendering and come on home, determined not have anything to do with such affairs.”

He had done his duty and was unrepentant. The same was true for many other former Confederates, pardoned or not.

Resistance and insurrection

Shortly after President Johnson issued his pardon, members of the ante-bellum South Carolina Bourbon Legislature gathered and passed the infamous “Black Codes.” Those laws sought, as much as possible, to return newly freed slaves to their previous state of servitude. Former slaves who signed “labor contracts” and remained on plantations could not leave without written permission of the land owner, among other things. Homeless people were subject to new, very strict vagrancy laws carrying lengthy sentences at hard labor for those not giving a satisfactory explanation of their circumstances. The bodies and labors of these unfortunate souls could then be hired out for up to a year. Once released, “vagrants” remaining in the area were subject to arrest once again. It was slavery on the installment plan.

In reaction to these repressive laws and budding practices, in December 1865, Southern delegations were refused seats in the U.S. Congress. Instead, six months later, on June 13, 1866, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted. Among other things, it extended the right of equal protection of the law to everyone, or so it said.

Nine months after adoption of the 14th Amendment, en March 2, 1867, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act. It placed the South under marital law. It also granted the right to vote without regard to a voter’s prior state of servitude. (This legislative change was chiseled in stone on March 30, 1870 with the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)

Washington’s efforts to expand the franchise to black voters stirred fear in the hearts of their former oppressors. Fear, as it almost always does, resulted in a great deal of violence. Many former Confederate soldiers joined the Ku Klux Klan or similar insurgent groups to resist the abrupt changes occurring throughout the South. It has been estimated that as many as 50,000 blacks, white sympathizers and Northerners were killed in riots, raids and lynchings connected to the 1868 election.

A number of perpetrators of this election terrorism were arrested and brought before the Federal District Court in Charleston. What happened there was described by Georgetown’s own William A. Sinclair some years later. Sinclair was born into slavery, but rose to became a distinguished doctor, author and public speaker after his emancipation. In a book entitled The Aftermath of Slavery, Sinclair told what happened:

“The white people of the state engaged the most eminent counsel for their [the KKK members’] defense. Their leading lawyer was the noted and learned Reverdy Johnson of Maryland, who, after hearing the evidence, much of it confessions by the Ku Klux themselves, his honest nature revolting, refused to make a plea for his clients, but left them to the mercy of the Court, saying:

“’I have listened with unmixed horror to some of the testimony which has been brought before you. The outrages proved are shocking to humanity; they admit of neither excuse or justification; they violate every obligation which law and nature impose upon man; they show that the parties engaged [Johnson’s own clients!] were brutes, insensible to the obligations of humanity and religion.

“The day will come, however, if it has not already arrived, when they will deeply lament it. Even if justice shall not overtake them, there is one tribunal from which there is no hope. It is their own judgment; that tribunal which sits in the breast of every living man; that small, still voice that thrills through the heart, the soul, and the mind, and as it speaks give happiness or torture; the voice of the conscience, the voice of God. If it has not already spoken to them in tones which have startled them to the enormity of their conduct, I trust, in the mercy of Heaven, that that voice will speak before they shall be called above to account for the transactions of this world; that it will so speak as to make them penitent, and that trusting in the dispensations of Heaven, whose justice is dispensed with mercy, when they shall be brought before the bar of their great tribunal, so to speak, that incomprehensible tribunal, there will be found in the fact of their penitence or their previous lives some grounds upon which God may say ‘Pardon.’”

Not a customary elocution from a defense attorney, even one sickened by a client’s doings.

An uneasy peace

Outnumbered eight or nine to one, Georgetown whites moderated their behavior throughout much of the post-war period. Instead, after the riot of 1870 between former field hands and former house servants, Georgetown’s citizens embarked on a power sharing agreement called “the fusion.” Under the terms of the agreement, white Democrats would be unopposed for election to the offices of Sheriff, Coroner, and various other county offices that controlled the courts and the county’s cash. Black Republicans were assured one seat on the County Commission, a spot in the South Carolina Legislature, and the position of local Superintendent of Education, among other offices. With one exception, this peace treaty lasted until 1901. (A back room political deal of this type today would violate the Federal Voting Rights Act because it usurps every voter’s right to choose between candidates.)

Having been emancipated by a Republican, newly freed slaves across the South joined the Republican party in droves. Their overwhelming numbers at the polls resulted in many Republican victories. Black faces began to be seen in the halls of government, all to the consternation of South Carolina’s old Bourbon leadership and their followers. In response, an insurgent campaign was mounted in resistance to Republican rule. It took many forms, some under the banner of the Democratic Party and some under more hateful cloth symbols.

As discussed in an earlier episode of this series, the notion of the racial superiority of whites was a prominent part of the propaganda of slave owners in recruiting non-slaveholding whites to the causes of Nullification, then Secession, then war. Over time, this racist belief had taken a strong hold on those inclined to believe it - those believing they were better than their neighbors. It did not take long for belief to turn into action, political and otherwise.

Violence brews and breaks out

Upon returning home to campaign for reelection in 1874, while he traveled by horseback on the road from Cheraw to Bennettsville, Georgetown Congressman Joseph H. Rainey was met by a group of about 60 blacks. They warned him that area whites had been bragging for days that they were going to break up Rainey’s scheduled political rally in that town, among other threats. A man of considerable personal courage, Rainey was not to be deterred from his intended path.

Arriving in Bennettsville, Rainey was greeted by a very large crowd of armed and angry white men on horseback. They had come to silence him, or worse. He was rescued from the mob by a company of soldiers of the U.S. Army stationed nearby that had been summoned to help.

“The presence of the troops was most providential. I am confident that members of both parties who are alive at this time, if it had been otherwise, would have been numbered among the dead” Rainey later wrote.

Not everyone was as lucky as Rainey. For example, many blacks were shot and killed by rioting whites in Hamburg, SC on the nation’s Centennial celebration of July 4, 1876. The blacks were attempting to have a parade. The whites stopped them from proceeding. Of that massacre, Rainey later spoke to his fellow Congressmen about the incident, saying:

“Why sir, Just think of it! What would be thought if here in Washington City, when a military company was parading on the Fourth of July, two men should come by in a buggy and demand of the officers that the company should get out of the way, and if they did not, should at once set to work and murder the men of that military company?

“I ask you, citizens of the United States, would you stand it? I ask you, brave men who fought for your country’s liberties long before you took part in the war of rebellion, would you stand it? If ask you, proud Southern men who boast of your gallantry and your intelligence and your superiority to my race, would you stand it? I ask you, man of the North who sacrificed your book and treasure, who scarified the lives of your sons and your relatives, would you stand it?

“Do you then expect Negroes to stand all this? Do you expect my race to submit meekly to continual persecution and massacre by these people of the South? Are you not going to allow us any right of self-defense?”

The decades that followed would provide cold answers to these rhetorical questions.

A stroll by the bull’s pen

Disorder returned to Georgetown briefly in 1878. S. M Ward of Georgetown had retained his land and benefited from the “fusion” that helped maintain the peace. Nonetheless, he became a member of the Georgetown Bulldozers, an all-white group organized during Reconstruction for, according to a later newspaper account, “protection against negroes, carpetbaggers and scalawags.”

Ward and his Bulldozer companions came to be tried in Federal District Court in Columbia for attempting to overthrow the government for events occurring in Georgetown on October 7, 1878.

In the decade following the Civil War, many of South Carolina’s overwhelmingly white Democrats adopted the red shirt as a symbol of their defiance of the Reconstruction government. When, on October 7, 1878, a delegation of these white Democrats arrived by boat in Georgetown on the steamer “Planter,” they were met by some 100 blacks dressed in red shirts-the same color shirts worn by the arriving Democrats. Whether intended or not, offense was taken. The Georgetown Rifle Guards, Marion’s Men of Winyah, the Salamander [fire] Truck company, the Fraser Comet club, the Hampton Boys Red Shirts, the Red Shirt Brigade and mounted riflemen under Captain Ralph Nesbit responded. “General disorder broke out,” is the way the press reported what followed. Many were beaten, some senseless.

After order was restored, Ward made a fiery speech. People mulled around for a while, but the crowd thinned out and eventually dispersed. As a result of the speech and earlier disorder, Ward and other members of the Bulldozers were arrested and charged with and sedition. A photograph of some of the Bulldozer defendants appears in the August 2, 1940 Georgetown Times, along with· a short article about the entire situation. The speech had followed the disorder. It had not started it. Charges against Ward and his companions were dismissed. The Constitutional principle applied back then still applies today. Unless intended to incite the audience to violence, speech cannot be criminalized, no matter how hateful or wrongheaded. In a free society, the law punishes wrongful acts, not thoughts or words, be those ideas or utterances right, wrong or anywhere in between.

Harsh and cruel times

The next half-century or more was one of the most violent in American history. T. Thomas Fortune, a former slave, described the overall state of affairs in a 1884 book titled Black and White: Land. Labor and Politics in the South. There, he bitterly reported that “[w]hile the white men of the South, the capitalist, the land sharks ..., with a thousand years of Christian civilization and culture behind them, with the ‘the boast of chivalry, the pomp of power,’ these white scamps who have imposed upon the world the idea that they were paragons of virtue and the heaven sent vice-regents of civil power, organized themselves into a band of outlaws [with auxiliaries throughout] ... the entire South, and deliberately proceeded to murder innocent men and women for political reasons and to systematically rob them of their honest labor....”

Georgetown’s own Dr. William A. Sinclair described the era that followed as one “of mob rule and lynch law, oppressive, proscriptive, and unlawful legislation; harsh persecutions and general ostracism; and debasement of all colored people, regardless of their moral worth, their thrift and industry, their superior mental endowments, their value to the community, or their services and sacrifices for the nation in the storm and stress of war....”

Economic woes

Racial rancor was one problem. Economics was yet another. Important parts of state’s infrastructure lay in ruins at war’s end. Many farms had been burned. Stockpiles of rice, grain, corn and other staples had been stolen or destroyed. There were many bank failures. Having been shipped to Columbia for safekeeping, all the deeds, maps, case files and other legal records belonging to Georgetown County were destroyed by General Sherman’s men as they sacked and burned Columbia on their way to Camden and beyond. Confederate bonds and money were now worthless. There was relatively little cash to pay for the necessities of life, not that there was much to buy.

As usually happens when people really need to borrow money, the large Northern banks (the only ones with money at the time) became very reluctant to extend credit anywhere in the South. Instead, collection demands were made. Foreclosures followed. This state of affairs had serious, long term consequences.

In 1862, the South Carolina Legislature repudiated all debts owed to Northern creditors. This defiant move was sharply resented by the lenders. After the war, that official default came back to haunt the people of the South as they tried to put the pieces of the region’s economy back together.

The State of South Carolina was deeply in debt at war’s end. Its economy in shambles, tax revenues were almost non-existent. To finance its operations, the provisional government of old Bourbon Democrats met shortly after cessation of the war and, as one of their first acts, borrowed $500,000 (by issuing government bonds), to finance its operations. These funds were not closely audited. That same body then issued $1,000,000 in bonds to pay the interest due on the unpaid debt the State had left over from the war. It issued yet another $1,250,000 in bonded indebtedness to redeem notes issued by the State Bank during the war. Those notes had been backed by the full faith and credit of the State of South Carolina. Several zeros have to be added to these totals to adjust for inflation to give a total count in today’s dollars. Suffice it to say that the State’s public debt had become huge under the old Bourbons.

As might be imagined, the State’s credit rating — along with similar ratings of all other members of the former Confederacy — was not good. A book entitled The Prostrate State includes the following except from the January 9, 1872 special message of South Carolina’s Republican Governor sheds some light on the problem. It reads:

“In the fall of 1868, I visited New York City for the purpose of borrowing money on the credit of the State on Coupon bonds, under the provisions of the acts of August 26, 1868. I had the assistance of Mr. H. H. Kimpton, United States Senator F. A Sawyer, and Mr. George S. Cameron. I called at several of the most prominent banking houses to effect the negotiation of the required loan, and they refused to advance any money upon our State securities, for those securities had already been branded with the threat of a speedy repudiation by the political opponents of the administration [old Bourbon Democrats], who have ever since howled the same cry against the State credit. As the persons who made this threat controlled the press of the State, they were enabled to impress capitalists abroad with the false idea of a speedy reaction that would soon place them again in authority.”

The Governor finally succeeded in borrowing money in anticipation of future tax revenues, but at a rate of four dollars in bonds for each one dollar in currency received by the State. “This loan, however, was only effected at the extravagant rate of one and a half percent per month, or eighteen percent a year — a rate only demanded on the most doubtful paper, to cover what is deemed a great risk — for the money loaned, the Governor reported.

With attorney fees and bank charges, this four-for-one arrangement cost the state $9,514,000 in bonded indebtedness, plus 18 percent annual interest on the unpaid balance, in exchange for $3,200,000 in credit. Loan sharks offer better rates.

Hunger and housing

Racial violence and traditional thievery by Wall Street were not the worst of the calamities that fell on struggling South Carolinians during these times.

Hunger was widespread. Bad sanitation practices and untreated drinking water help spread contagious diseases. Something had to be done. At the end of the fighting, the federal government had stepped in and supplied basic relief supplies of food, blankets, clothing and the like through its Freedman’s Bureau. It did that for several years after the war. But it was not enough. Thousands died anyway.

In the months and years immediately following the war, homelessness became an ever more serious problem. Many of the newly freed had no place to call home. At the same time, many land owners lost their property to foreclosure or at a tax sale.

In response to the ever growing crisis, after martial law was declared the new Republican State government stepped in and set up a Land Commission. It was established to buy realty and provide homes to destitute laborers at lower rates and affordable payments. The Legislature earmarked $700,000 for that purpose.

When the books of the Commission were examined in October of 1870, they showed that less than $90,000 of the total allocation had been spent and $610,000 on hand. Problem was nobody knew were the $610,000 was.

On closer examination, it was discovered that some $562,063 of the total had already been paid out. Included among the disbursements was an invoice for $120,752 that had been paid to the ante-bellum owner of “Hell Hole Swamp” bordering Georgetown County on the Santee River.


At the end of the day, “a greedy avidity by the owners of land to sell; a willingness to insert in their deeds a price higher than they obtained - the difference to be used as a corruption fund between themselves and [Land Commission] officers [along with]; making purchases of land unfit for the purpose at exorbitant prices,” defeated “the benevolent purposes of the act,” is how the situation was described by one harsh critic of Reconstruction government in the book, The Prostate State. He was right. The end result was this:

Most of South Carolina’s landless poor - be they black, white or anywhere in between were left to the tender mercies of landowners and sharecropping leases written by lawyers for those owners. By that time, leases were replacing the earlier, much despised, post-war labor contracts.

In short summary, during the period traditionally called “Reconstruction"-that era of government dominated by carpetbaggers, scalawags and Republicans -there was a great deal of nepotism, favoritism, bribery, and corruption. That is why those times are referred to as “the era of good stealing.” All that dishonesty seriously impaired the economic development of the State at a critical time in its history, just like corruption in modern day Iraq is one of the major problems holding that nation back.

Returning home, it is true that many fortunes were amassed during Reconstruction, many of which have since been passed down through intervening generations of South Carolina’s Who’s Who. To compile a list of crooks, follow the dollars. One thing is certain: The lucre of those times will not be found in the pockets of the poor.

Ultimately, “Reconstruction” ended. More about that will appear in future episodes of this series. By not focusing on the continuing problems of dishonesty and favoritism in government, some modern politicians, political scientists, historians and others seem to tacitly acquiesce in the notion that all the stealing and corrupt practices by officeholders and bureaucrats stopped when red-shirted Democrats regained control of state government. They didn’t. More about that subject will appear in future episodes too.

Tom Rubillo used to practice law, but is now retired. He has held public office, taught government, ethics and law at area colleges and has published several books. The episodes written in connection with this project will be, at its conclusion, available in one volume, or at least that is his best laid plan.

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