The Wings of Atalanta: Essays Written along the Color Line

You may enter South Carolina by many routes. Sail into Charleston Harbor and you pass Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, and Sullivan’s Island, where forty-percent of the Africans brought into North America during the international slave trade endured quarantine. Sail into Port Royal Sound, south of Charleston, and you enter precincts where—while occupied by Union forces (1862-1865)—the first experiment in multiracial social democracy was undertaken in the US. (Willie Lee Rose documents this in her Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment [1964].)

Fly into Columbia and you enter a city Sherman shelled in 1864, toward the close of the most remarkable campaign of the war––the March to the Sea that began in North Georgia, moved down on Savannah, then turned northeast through the Carolinas. Enter on I-95 and you pass through the state’s “Corridor of Shame”––the most impoverished counties of the Black Belt, to which aspirants for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party make pilgrimage every four years. Candidates for the 2020 primary have already come.

Figure 1: Central North Augusta, SC (Google Maps).

But place your automobile instead in Augusta, Georgia, where I was born in 1963, head toward 13th Street, and then drive across a bridge over the Savannah River to North Augusta, South Carolina, where I grew up. You are now on Georgia Avenue, passing City Hall to your left (and a Waffle House to your right). A few blocks further and you are flanked on the left by the mammoth campus of the First Baptist Church and on the right by the mammoth campus of Grace United Methodist Church. This is the heart of town, on a rise: the street divides into a perfect V. There stands a park named for John C. Calhoun, the Senator from South Carolina who laid the foundations for secession and war (see figure 1). At a midpoint within that V is the town’s sole conspicuous public monument. It honors not Calhoun but one of his ideological heirs: Thomas McKie Meriwether, born in 1852 in nearby Edgefield. Meriwether has the distinction of being the only white man killed in the Hamburg Massacre of July 8, 1876, during which a group of some 100 heavily-armed whites (they even secured artillery) murdered six freedmen, four of them while held captive in what came to be called the “Dead Ring.” Some of the slain belonged to the local company of the state militia, which was largely African-American during the Radical Reconstruction—entirely so in Hamburg. The men barricaded themselves within the militia’s headquarters, and, but for the courage of Dock Adams, the company captain, more would have died. He oversaw an evacuation that night by a route the white men failed to guard.

When the town of North Augusta was incorporated in 1906, it subsumed what remained of Hamburg—an African-American settlement since the close of the Civil War. The last vestiges of Hamburg were later destroyed by floods. In 1929, its residents relocated two hundred yards up to higher ground in the Carrsville neighborhood of North Augusta. Hamburg proper is a ghost town now (over the northwest end of which a golf course was lately built [see figure 2]). To go there is a haunting experience.

Figure 2: The small white pin marks what once was the center of Hamburg (Google Maps).

Figure 3: Obelisk honoring Meriwether. Photo by author.

But I left us standing at that monument to Meriwether (figure 3). Engraved on it are these words:

In memory of Thomas McKie Meriwether, who, on 8th July 1876 gave his life that the civilization builded by his fathers might be preserved for their children’s children unimpaired. In life he exemplified the highest ideals of Anglo-Saxon Civilization. By his death he assured to the children of his beloved land the supremacy of that ideal.

At the dedication (February 16, 1916), Daniel Henderson, a lawyer and Democratic Party activist, delivered a speech. “McKie Meriwether perished for the cause of liberty, and we are here today to perpetuate his memory and the cause he represented,” Henderson said: “As his flame of life was quenched, he lit the flame of victory for the white people of South Carolina.” Woodrow Wilson was then President, the first Southern Democrat to win the office since the Civil War (Henderson contributed to his campaign). In 1915 Wilson screened the first feature film shown in the White House: D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a celebration of the Klan.

Figure 4: Memorial installed in 2016. Carrsville neighborhood, North Augusta, SC. Photo by author.

In my youth, North Augusta Elementary School flanked Calhoun Park and the Meriwether monument––grades 1~4 to the right on Georgia Avenue, grades 5~6 to the left on Carolina. As a member of one of the earlier integrated classes to pass through that school, I walked by the monument to Meriwether and Anglo-Saxon supremacy hundreds of times, never noting its inscription. The curriculum, such as it was in that time, taught us nothing of value about the Reconstruction or the Hamburg Massacre. Yet, though only seven people died in it, the Massacre is essential to the history of the state and the nation. It was covered, at the time, in newspapers from coast to coast. The Massacre launched the “Red Shirt” campaign of terror, murder, and chicanery that stole the 1876 elections from the Republican Party in South Carolina, installing Democrat Wade Hampton III in the governor’s mansion. Hampton had been one of the wealthiest men and largest slaveholders in the entire United States (and, as a general in the Confederate Cavalry, had fled Columbia as Sherman’s troops arrived). Among the consequences of this bloody affair was that rival slates of electors were sent to the Electoral College, one Democratic, one Republican. This helped force the compromise of 1876-77, whereby Republican Rutherford Hayes secured the presidency after striking a bargain with Southern Democrats in Congress to withdraw Federal troops from the five departments of the South, end Reconstruction, and return African-Americans there to the Democrats and their terrorist constabulary.

Figure 5: Historical marker, Carrsville neighborhood, North Augusta, SC (erected in 2010). Photo by Author.

Only when I revisited North Augusta, after a year at the University of South Carolina, did I become aware of the history just laid out. After graduating from USC in 1985, I moved to New Jersey and entered the graduate program at Rutgers. When I left Rutgers eight years later, a scholar of Robert Frost, I had been reading about African-American history and the Civil War for a decade. My interest in that history only deepened as I taught lyric poetry at Western Michigan University from 1993 to 2003. I moved to Kyoto, Japan, in 2003, to work at Doshisha University, but maps of South Carolina and Georgia hang on my office wall, and every year, now, I teach a class on W.E.B. Du Bois.

The essays collected in The Wings of Atalanta arose out of that reading and that teaching, and out of an invitation (from Jay Parini) to write about Du Bois, Douglass, Wright, and Chesnutt for several reference works some years ago. I wasn’t very deliberate at the time. Later, I wondered how I might revise what I’d written toward the single end that is this new book. I thank Jim Walker at Camden House for encouraging me to do so.

While working on it all anew, I returned to the Hamburg Massacre (discussed in chapter two of my book), and indeed to Hamburg itself. With maps from Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War (2008), my wife and I took our iPhones and sought, in December 2016, to locate the site where the killings occurred (even as The Wings of Atlanta was under review). As nearly as we can reckon it, the site is as shown in figure 6, where gangs have (as a local informant advised me) “tagged” a piling that supports a disused section of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Bridge (figure 8) linking North Augusta to Augusta.

Figure 6: Likely site of the killings on July 8, 1876. Photo by author

Note, in the image of central North Augusta, how the Meriwether monument is designated: “Hamburg Riot [sic] Memorial” (figure 1). And note that in the photograph (figure 4) of a memorial to all of the men who died that wild day—installed in 2016—it is called an “incident,” not a “riot.” That “[sic]” should remain at Google Maps, because notwithstanding everything it came to mean, the event was neither a “riot” nor an “incident.” The event was what historians call it, and what newspapers in the North called it in 1876: a massacre outright. Or so anyway it was known before a mist of sentiment settled over the Civil War, the Reconstruction, and its long aftermath—distorting the meaning of it all for a century. If The Wings of Atalanta further dispels that mist, I’m satisfied.

In 2018, North Augustans met to determine what to do about their monument to “Anglo-Saxon supremacy.” They struck a compromise: additions will be made to Calhoun Park, where the obelisk stands, honoring the seven black men who were killed on July 8, 1876. The McKie obelisk remains singular: I anyway have never seen another monument to any white man who died or served not in the Civil War but in the Revolution of 1876 (as Du Bois calls it) that overthrew the Radical Reconstruction, our first attempt at something like real democracy. The fanged frankness of that monument still shocks me—more so than the one to Robert E. Lee that occasioned such violence in Charlottesville in 2017.

Figure 7: Prince Rivers, ca. 1868. Photographer unknown

The Hamburg Massacre need never have happened. It began as a trumped-up dispute over the right of Dock Adams and his company of militia to form a column and march through the town to celebrate the nation’s centennial (July 4, 1876). Two white men from Edgefield lodged a specious complaint against Adams for “blocking the public way.” That matter was to have been adjudicated by Magistrate Prince Rivers. Born a slave near Beaufort, SC, in 1824, near Port Royal Sound, Rivers escaped his master—Henry Middleton Stuart, Sr. (1803–1872)—early in the war. He joined the Union army in 1862 under General David Hunter (again, near Port Royal Sound), and fought with distinction in the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, under Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson (a man known in English Departments as a friend of Emily Dickinson). After the war, Rivers served in the state legislature and as commandant of the state militia before being named magistrate in 1868, when he settled in Hamburg. Newspapers as far away as Detroit, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Rutland, VT, reported his doings.

The complaint as to who or who didn’t “block the public way” was never rightly brought before him; it was a pretext anyway. He escaped death on July 8, though his house and papers were torched. Rivers died instead from Bright’s disease in 1887 while employed as a coachman at a hotel in Aiken, SC—the seat of a county he helped found in 1871. Rivers had always been good with horses. He is interred in the all-African-American Randolph Cemetery in Columbia, SC, at the terminus of Elmwood Avenue, though no stone marks his grave. His second wife Louisa—and two children from his first marriage, Jack and Sarah—survived him. (The name of his first wife, who died long before, is unknown.)So far as I’m aware, though he’s a worthy subject for a biography, no public monument to Rivers exists. The photograph in figure 7 is the only image of him I’ve seen. But on page 277 of my book you’ll find reprinted a remarkable description—by his commander, Col. Higginson—of the hostler once called the Ebony Murat, after Joachim Murat, the French Revolutionary and military commander on whom Napoleon bestowed the epithet “First Horseman of Europe.”

Figure 8: Disused section of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Bridge, aka the 5th Street Bridge (near the site where lower Hamburg lay, and where Rivers once made his home). Photo by author.

This guest post was written by Mark Richardson, Professor of English at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan. He is co-editor of The Letters of Robert Frost (Harvard University Press) and author of The Ordeal of Robert Frost (University of Illinois Press, 1997).

The Wings of Atalanta: Essays Written along the Color Line
by Mark Richardson
Hardback / 9781571132390 / £33.75 or $44.25