Memphis Riots of 1866

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"The Memphis Riots", Harper's Weekly, 1866 May 26, p. 321.

The Memphis Riots of 1866 refers to the violent events that occurred from May 1 to 3 in Memphis, Tennessee. The racial violence was ignited by political, social and racial tensions following the American Civil War, in the early stages of Reconstruction.[1] Investigation of the riot suggested specific causes related to competition for housing, work and social space between Irish immigrants and their descendants, and the freedmen.[2] After a shooting altercation between white policemen and black soldiers recently mustered out of the Union Army, mobs of white civilians and policemen rampaged through black neighborhoods and the houses of freedmen, attacking and killing men, women and children.

Federal troops were sent to quell the violence and peace was restored on the third day. A subsequent report by a joint Congressional Committee detailed the carnage, with blacks suffering most of the injuries and deaths: 46 blacks and 2 whites were killed, 75 blacks injured, over 100 black persons robbed, 5 black women raped, and 91 homes, 4 churches and 8 schools burned in the black community.[3] Modern estimates place property losses at over $100,000, also suffered mostly by blacks. Many blacks fled the city permanently; by 1870, their population had fallen by one quarter compared to 1865.

Public attention following the riots and reports of the atrocities, together with the New Orleans Riot in July, influenced passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution to grant full citizenship to freedmen,[4] as well as passage of the Reconstruction Act to establish military districts and oversight in certain states.


After the capture of Memphis by Union forces in 1862 and occupation of the state, the city became a center for contraband camps as well as haven for fugitive slaves seeking refuge from their former owners. In Shelby County and the four adjacent counties around the city, the slave population in 1860 was 45,000. With the people migrating to the city, the black population of Memphis increased from 3,000 in 1860 to nearly 20,000 in 1865.[4] While some lived in camps, families of the 3rd Artillery, a black unit that had been stationed there for a time, built cabins and shacks. They settled beyond the city limits near Fort Pickering, in what was called South Memphis.

Prior to the war, Irish immigrants had constituted a major wave of newcomers to the city: ethnic Irish made up 9.9 percent of the population in 1850, but 23.2 percent by 1860.[5][6][7] They had encountered considerable discrimination but by 1860, they occupied most positions in the police force, and had gained many elected and patronage positions in city government, including the mayor's office.[2][8] But the Irish also competed with blacks for lower-class jobs rejected by native whites, contributing to animosity between the two groups.[4]

In the early years of the occupation, the Union Army permitted civil government, while prohibiting known Confederate veterans from taking office. Many ethnic Irish entered city government. General Washburne dissolved the city government in July 1864; it was restored after the end of military rule under the occupation in July 1865.[9]

The Daily Avalanche was one of the local papers that exacerbated tensions toward blacks, as well as against the federal Reconstruction efforts after the war.[4] The report by the Freedmen's Bureau after the riot described the long "bitterness" between the blacks and the "low whites," aggravated by some recent incidents between them.[10] Having been told by the mayor and citizens of Memphis that they could keep order, Major General George Stoneman had reduced his forces at Fort Pickering, and had only about 150 men assigned there. They were used to protect the large amount of material at the fort.[11]

Social tensions in the city had been heightened when the US Army used black Union Army soldiers to patrol Memphis. There was competition between the military and local government as to who was in charge; after the war, the developing role of the Freedmen's Bureau added to the ambiguity.[9] Through early 1866, there were numerous instances of threats and fighting between black soldiers going about the city, and white Memphis policemen, who were 90% Irish immigrants. Numerous witnesses testified to the tensions between the ethnic groups. Most of the Irish had arrived beginning mid-century, since the Great Famine of the 1840s, and settled near South Memphis. Officials of the Freedmen's Bureau reported that police arrested black soldiers for minor offenses and usually treated them brutally, in contrast to their treatment of white suspects. "One historian described the composition of the police force as being like “taking a troop of lions to guard a herd of unruly cattle”(U.S. House 1866:143)."[9] Accounts gathered in the later investigation showed the Irish police resented the black newcomers and feared having to compete with them for work and neighborhoods.[2]

Although black soldiers were commended by their officers for restraint in these cases, rumors spread among the white community that blacks were planning some type of organized revenge for such incidents. Trouble was anticipated when most black Union troops were mustered out of the army on April 30, 1866. The former soldiers had to remain in the city for several days while they waited to receive their discharge pay; the Army took back their weapons, but some of the men had gained private ones. They passed the time by walking around town.


On the afternoon of May 1, the tensions between the city police and the now discharged black soldiers erupted into armed conflict. Details of the specific incident that initiated the conflict vary. The most widely held account, collected in the Congressional investigation, is that policemen in South Memphis were attempting to take into custody several ex-soldiers for disorderly conduct and were resisted by a crowd of their comrades.[4] Some historians attribute the inciting incident to the collision between two carriages of a black man and a white man. After a group of black veterans tried to intervene to stop the arrest of the black man, a crowd of whites gathered at the scene, and fighting broke out.[12]

In each incident, white police officers (ethnic Irish) confronted black Union Army soldiers. There also appeared to have been multiple confrontations followed by waves of reinforcements on both sides, extending over several hours. This initial conflict resulted in injuries to several people and one policeman's death, believed to be self-inflicted due to the mishandling of his own gun.[4][10]

The initial skirmish ended after dusk, and the veterans returned to Fort Pickering,[13] located on the south boundary of downtown Memphis. Having learned of the trouble, attending officers disarmed the men and confined them to the base. The ex-soldiers did not contribute significantly to the events that followed.

After the first day, as General Stoneman later said, the blacks had little to do with the riot except be killed and abused.[14] That evening, at the site of the initial incident, City Recorder John Creighton incited a white crowd to arm and go to kill the blacks and drive them from the city.[10] There were also rumors of an armed rebellion of Memphis' black residents.[12] These false claims were spread by local white officials and rabble rousers. Memphis Mayor John Park was suspiciously absent (said to be intoxicated),[10] General Runkle, head of the Freedmen's Bureau, had insufficient forces to help,[10] and General George Stoneman, the commander of federal occupation troops in Memphis, was indecisive in trying to suppress the early stages of the rioting, increasing the scale of damages.

When white mobs gathered at the scene of the initial skirmish and found no one to confront, they proceeded into nearby freedmen's settlements of South Memphis and attacked the residents, as well as missionaries (mostly from the North) who worked there as teachers. They attacked houses, schools and churches, burning many, as well as indiscriminately attacking black women and children as well as men, killing many and committing atrocities.[10][15] The conflict continued from the night of May 1 to the afternoon of May 3, when General Stoneman declared martial law and restored order by force.[4]

The total damages committed against black residents was appalling: 46 blacks and 2 whites were killed (one wounded himself and the other was apparently killed by other whites), 75 persons injured (mostly black), over 100 persons robbed, 5 black women raped, and 91 homes (89 held by blacks, one held by a white and one by an inter-racial couple), 4 black churches and 8 black schools burned.[4] Modern estimates place property losses at over $100,000, including pay taken from black veterans by the police in the first encounters.[4]

No criminal proceedings took place against the instigators or perpetrators of atrocities committed during the Memphis Riots. The United States Attorney General, James Speed, ruled that judicial actions associated with the riots fell under state jurisdiction.[4] But, state and local officials refused to take action, and no grand jury was ever invoked. Although criticized at the time for his inaction, General Stoneman was investigated by a congressional committee and was exonerated. He said that he was reluctant to intervene initially, as the people of Memphis had said they could police themselves, and he needed direct communication and a request from the mayor and council. On May 3, when they asked for his support in putting together a posse, he told them he would not permit that and refused to allow groups to assemble. The riot lost its power. The Memphis Riots did not mar his political career, as he was later elected governor of California (1883–87).


The Memphis Riot was investigated by the Freedmen's Bureau, aided by the Army IG for Tennessee, who also gathered affidavits from those involved.[10] In addition, there was investigation and report by a Congressional committee, which reached Memphis on May 22 and interviewed 170 witnesses, gathering extensive oral histories from both blacks and whites.[11] Historian Altina Waller noted these accounts attest to specific, local factors related to competition between Irish and blacks for space and work that contributed to the riot. She argues that the rioters were operating from a tradition of "collective violence" as a ritualized way to deal with perceived threats to community.[2]

The outcome of the Memphis riot and a similar incident (the New Orleans Riot in July 1866 of whites against blacks) was to increase support for Radical Reconstruction. Reports of the riot discredited President Andrew Johnson, who was from Tennessee and had been military governor of Tennessee under Lincoln. Johnson's program of Presidential Reconstruction was blocked, and the Congress moved toward Radical Reconstruction.[1] The Radical Republicans swept the congressional elections of 1866, obtaining a veto-proof majority in Washington. Subsequently, they passed key pieces of legislation, such as the Reconstruction Acts, Force Acts, and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution which guaranteed citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and due process to former slaves. The change in political climate, catalyzed by response to the race riots, ultimately enabled former slaves to obtain the full rights of citizenship.[15]

Many blacks left the city permanently because of the hostile environment, and the Freedmen's Bureau continued to struggle to protect them. By 1870, the black population had declined by one-quarter from 1865, to about 15,000.[4]

Waller related the white attacks to a "pre-modern," ritualized community response to perceived threats and attempts to keep order.[2] Locally, the Memphis Riots resulted in major changes directed to modernizing the city's police force. The state legislature took over control of the city's police force.[9][16]


  1. ^ a b Zuczek, Richard (ed.). 2006. Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction Era: Memphis Riot (1866).
  2. ^ a b c d e Waller, Altina L. (1984). "Community, Class and Race in the Memphis Riot of 1866", Journal of Social History 18 (2): 233-246.
  3. ^ United States Congress, House Select Committee on the Memphis Riots, Memphis Riots and Massacres, 25 July 1866, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (reprinted by Arno Press, Inc., 1969)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Ryan, James G. (1977). "The Memphis Riots of 1866: Terror in a black community during Reconstruction", The Journal of Negro History 62 (3): 243-257, at JSTOR.
  5. ^ Carriere, Marius. (2001), "An Irresponsible Press: Memphis Newspapers and the 1866 Riot," Tennessee Historical Quarterly 60(1):2
  6. ^ Bordelon, John. (2006), "Rebels to the Core‟: Memphians under William T. Sherman," Rhodes Journal of Regional Studies 3:7
  7. ^ Walker, Barrington. (1998), "'This is the White Man's Day': The Irish, White Racial Identity, and the 1866 Memphis Riots," Left History, 5(2), p. 36
  8. ^ Congress (1866), Memphis Riots and Massacres, p.6
  9. ^ a b c d Art Carden and Christopher J. Coyne, "An Unrighteous Piece of Business: A New Institutional Analysis of the Memphis Riot of 1866", Mercatus Center, George Mason University, July 2010, accessed 1 February 2014
  10. ^ a b c d e f g "Report of an investigation of the cause, origin, and results of the late riots in the city of Memphis made by Col. Charles F. Johnson, Inspector General States of Ky. And Tennessee and Major T. W. Gilbreth, A. D. C. To Maj. Genl. Howard, Commissioner Bureau R. F. & A. Lands", 22 May 1866, Freedmen's Bureau Online, website, accessed 31 January 2014
  11. ^ a b Congress (1866), Memphis Riots and Massacres, p.1
  12. ^ a b "The Memphis Riots", Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization, 26 May 1866 (Also see editor's note.)]
  13. ^ Civil War Album: Fort Pickering
  14. ^ Congress (1866), Memphis Riots and Massacres, p.4
  15. ^ a b "Memphis Race Riot", Tennessee Encyclopedia
  16. ^ Lovett, Bobby L. (1979). "Memphis Riots: White Reaction to Blacks in Memphis, May 1865-July 1866", Tennessee Historical Quarterly 38: 9-33

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