Hampton And His Red Shirts
Alfred B. Williams

At the ferry we disembarked to the alternating strains of "The Bonnie Blue Flag" and "Wearin' of the Green" and marched to the meeting place. Local preparation for the occasion was simple. It consisted of a two-wheeled plantation cart, with the shafts propped on a log, placed in a grove of splendid old live oaks, thickly festooned with gray moss. This was the stand for the speakers. We Carolinas were drawn in line and given specific instructions, individually. Each of us was to select a colored man and talk with him. The character and scope of these conversations will be indicated by my own experience.

The negroes arrived soon after us, marching in a disorderly procession and evidently amazed and disturbed. An old man in one of the front ranks was intenesely excited and held aloft a white cloth on a pole while he shrieked "Peace!" incessantly. Of the others some carried old muskets, such as were used to shoot rice birds flocking on the fields, others army rifles, many bayonets stuck on ends of sticks or heavy clubs. We were told to watch especially those with no visible arms as probably they had army revolvers. The negroes numbered three or four hundred men and half as many women, some of the women armed one way or another, all of them furious.

We had found awaiting us all the few white men resident in that section, the gallant little "Hampton Mounted Social Club," from St. James Goose Creek, and the faithful Mount Pleasant mounted club. Presumably these men in the country had been notified by rumors and couriers and the negroes, noting their passing, had armed and hastened to the meeting, in belligerent mood, to be confronted with a body of riflemen and a brass band. The band, raw as it was, unquestionably did good. It was a novelty there and the rice field people could not avoid interest in it and enjoyment of its lively strains.

Obeying instructions received, I waited until the negroes had broken ranks and grouped about the cart, selected a large dark mulatto of middle age and got his attention.

"You see this gun?"

He stared and said nothing.

"It carries sixteen balls and is loaded full. Look at it."

He looked, with silent, sullen curiosity.

"Well, take good notice and mind what I'm saying to you. My orders are to stick right by you all day and if any trouble is started here to shoot you until you're dead, first thing; and I'm going to do it."

He turned away, yet silent. Most of the forty of us had a similar conversation with a chosen subject.

This sounds now like very cruel bullying, but it was necessary for our own protection and the best mercy for those people, misguided and betrayed. They were incited carefully to rage and hate, beset and controlled by diabolic influences. The slightest relaxation of vigilance or failure to show overwhelming armed strength by white men brought tragic disaster, as was proved at Cainhoy, which should have been less a danger point than Strawberry Ferry, and elsewhere.

My selection was a lucky one. Some of my comrades picked men who wandered and kept them moving continually. Others were led into the thick of the crowd and held there, suffering and suffocated. It was somewhat trying for a young gentleman of rather fastidious habits as most of our men were, to stand, with rifle and heavy belt and cartridge box, wedged in a dense mass of rice field hands nearly all day on the thirty-first of August, with weather appropriate to the day. Also it was a strain on the feelings of a rifleman bearing a distinguished name to hear himself described by derisive women, packed closely about him, as a "Po' buckra hired, with a boat ride, by rich buckra to be there fer t' bodduh we." None of these troubles afflicted me. My man, after standing about uncertainly, climbed a tree within easy earshot of the cart, stretched comfortably along a large limb some ten feet above the ground and stayed there, plainly in sight. It was some time before his strategy became clear. Even if his inaction did not deceive me to carelessness it was hardly likely I would shoot while he lay quiet; but if trouble started and my attention was withdrawn a moment he could drop into the melee, maybe on top of a white man, and be out of my view.

Colonel Alfred Rhett, who had commanded the Confederate garrison at Fort Sumter through several engagements, was a resident of that part of the county and among those present. He was in a buggy, with a shotgun at his side, and presently beckoned to me. His eyes were hard and he spoke sharply and in commanding tones, like a man giving military orders, as he did always when angered or much in earnest.

"Who's in command of your company?" he demanded.

The officer was pointed out - probably it was Captain Frost. Officers were assigned for our expeditions as they happened to be available. The Colonel gave me a message:

"Give him my compliments and say to him anybody who shoots that so-and-so Buttz," indicating the Solicitor, "will be held personally responsible by me. Buttz is my meat. I came here especially to make sure nobody would get him but me."

The Colonel shifted his shot gun affectionately and sat back with it resting in the hollow of his arm. In after years he was chief of police of Charleston under its first Democratic administration - and a corker he was, proud of his force, after he weeded it out. He was said to be the only policeman who ever attended a St. Cecilia ball in full uniform. He maintained that the Charleston police service had become so honorable that its uniform might be taken anywhere.

"So-and-so" were not precisely the words used and the message was delivered as given and respectfully received. I never did know the reason for the Colonel's special grudge against Buttz, who while the privilege of removing him was being claimed, stood at the back of the speaker's cart, glowering behind blue goggles. He was said to suffer from an offensive disease and was not an attractive object.

There was no trouble. The colored audience milled and stirred uneasily and heaved in a mass at times as Major T. G. Barker and J. W. Barnwell poured denunciation on Bowen. No definite hostile move was made, although George Sass, Bowen's precinct leader, a mulatto, seemed to intend something once when he mounted the cart and ordered, "All men wid guns come thisaway," and formed them in line. If he was considering war he thought better of it. Perhaps Solicitor Buttz didn't like the way Colonel Rhett was looking at him and fondling the shot gun.

Major Barker believed, from information he had, that the meeting had been called to give Bowen, Buttz and Sass opportunity to stir new trouble on the rice plantations. He said so distinctly and repeatedly in his speech and strove to impress the workers with Bowen's unworthiness as a leader, reminding them that the man they were following had been in jail at the end of the Civil War, charged with instigating an assassination. Mr Barnwell, too, was unsparing in his language.

Colonel Ferguson, who confessed that he never had seen in Mississippi a joint discussion more efficiently conducted, was another speaker. He told how much better and more peaceful conditions were in his state since the Democratic victory. The contrast between the clean cut, well groomed Democratic speakers and the slouchy, untidy looking Bowen and Buttz must have impressed people who judged by appearance as did the rice field population of that time. The day accomplished much, temporarily, at least, toward weakening Bowen's influence and power for mischief, which was the purpose in view. Thomas Fraser, colored Democrat, who went up and returned on the boat, was allowed to speak undisturbed, except for bitter abuse and derision from the women. It is safe to say that but for the presence of the armed force protecting him he never would have spoken nor come away alive. Bowen's speech gave me, new then, in the state and trying to be an impartial observer, an impression which became stronger as the campaign went on to its end. This was the pitiful lack of brains in the entire Radical Reconstruction outfit. Chamberlain had intellect highly developed, but was hopelessly self deceived and befogged. Elliott was a well informed and adroit lawyer. Several of them were capable and catchy speakers. None of them had, or showed, capacity to meet adequately an emergency or a new condition. They had three ideas -

To control the masses of the negroes by exciting fear and hate of the white people, making promises impossible to fulfil and telling lies which only the most ignorant could swallow;

To corrupt and control the more intelligent negroes with bribes or opportunity to share plunder;

To cow and repress the white people with troops, armed constabulary and the black militia.

Baffled in any one of these three methods, they were helpless - even the boldest and most resourceful of them. They lacked the skill and ingenuity of the ordinary tricky demagogue and politician. At this Strawberry Ferry meeting Bowen made a blundering, confused attempt to retaliate for the attacks on his party and himself by denouncing the "aristocracy," repeating the worn assertion that the Civil War was "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." He tried, in an awkward way, to appeal to the Irish members of the band by quoting the verse from "Wearin' of the Green" about "Tis the most distressful country that iver you have seen," warning tht South Carolina under Democratic rule would be in like condition. He lacked the sense to understand what the dullest should have known, that it was the working people and the small and middle class farmers who gave the Straight-out movement backbone and impelling force and Hampton the army he had looked for, that the upheaval really was something like a poor man's war and a rich man's fight - so far as anybody then might be called rich. Yet Bowen droned along, talking to white men as he might have talked to his rice field constituents, apparently thinking he was scoring heavily, unsuspecting that he was doing worse for himself than wasting breath. Throughout the campaign there was, as at Strawberry Ferry, case for wonder whether the used and abused negro ever would awake and, like Caliban in "The Tempest," tell himself "What a thrice-double ass was I, to take this drunkard for a god and worship this dull fool."

When the speaking ended Bowen and Buttz lingered. Replying ungraciously to questions, they said it was too late for them to catch a train for town at the nearest station and they would stay where they were until morning.

"You will not," said Major Barker, having in mind a probable night meeting which would offeset possible good results of the day. He was polite but firmly hospitable. Bowen and Buttz returned with us on the boat, Sheriff and Solicitor virtually prisoners, and on the voyage down sat apart, listening through the forty miles to "Wearin' of the Green" and "The Bonnie Blue Flag."

This was the first division of time in Charleston County, the first invasion of Bowen's innermost stronghold, gave Strawberry Ferry its first Democratic speeches since 1860, gave many of the black inhabitants of the interior their first knowledge that there was a powerful and energetic Democratic party and the scanty white population its first gleam of cheer and glimpse of a living hope since the end of the Civil War.


Hampton And His Red Shirts, South Carolina's Deliverance in 1876 by Alfred B. Williams
Walker, Evans, and Cogswell, Charleston, 1935, pages 112-118.