Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Assassination of Senator Charles Caldwell

Margaret Ann Caldwell
From Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality

The top half of a photographic montage showing portraits of members of the Mississippi State Legislature for the 1874–75 session. Senators are on the left, with about half the Republican members of the House on the right. Charles Caldwell is pictured in the bottom row of Senators, two photos to the left of Miss Adie Ball, the postmistress.
The editorial that appeared in the August 4, 1875, issue of the Hinds County Gazette sounded an ominous note for African American residents of Clinton and Raymond, two towns a few miles west of Jackson, Mississippi:
. . . Scoundrels, white and black, have obtained full control over the deluded and duped negroes, and have used them as tools—as the potter uses the clay in his hands—for the robbery of the people, for the exhaltation to office of thieves and rascals—and for the disgrace and ruin of the country. . . .

There are those who think that the leaders of the Radical party have carried this system of fraud and falsehood just far enough in Hinds county, and that the time has come when it should be stopped—peaceably if possible, forcibly if necessary. . . .

Desperate cases require desperate remedies. . . . We must use remedies equal to the emergency of the case, if we desire to arrest the disease.
The writer, presumably George W. Harper, a prominent local Democrat in Raymond who owned the newspaper, proposed that “committees” of “anti-Radical” men be formed to show up at Republican events and stop the leaders from presenting “falsehoods, and deceptions, and misrepresentations” to black audiences.

A month to the day after the editorial appeared, about 2,000 African Americans, along with 75 or so white allies, attended a Republican political rally and barbecue at Moss Hill, an abandoned plantation outside Clinton. “I suspicioned there was going to be some trouble about an hour before the meeting assembled,” Green Tapley, a local barber, later told a U.S. Senate committee. “Every store in Clinton was closed up.” He ran into a group of people from Raymond and “judged from that that this was a portion of this committee recommended by the Raymond Gazette.”

One organizer of the picnic recalled that Charles Caldwell, a freedman and successful blacksmith who had been the local State Senator for five years, “thought it would be conducive of good feeling to give the opposite party an opportunity to say what they might have to say, and that we could very well afford to hear them, because it would give us an opportunity probably of speaking to Democrats.” The Republicans thus invited the opposition candidate for State Senate, who opened the event with a speech that lasted about an hour and who afterward admitted to one of the organizers that “he was never listened to more attentively in all the days of his life.” But the moment a former Union Army officer representing Republican Governor Adelbert Ames began to speak, a group of eighteen men from Raymond moved to disrupt the rally. Caldwell tried to intervene to keep the peace, but gunfire broke out and Lewis Hargraves, a freedman, was shot in the forehead and killed instantly. “The thing opened just like lightning, and the shot rained in there just like rain from heaven,” said one witness. Three white men and at least five black attendees (including two children) were killed as hundreds of families fled the scene. As many as thirty people were wounded, some seriously.

Unfounded rumors spread through white communities that a mob of freedmen were amassing for an attack on Clinton. In reality, more than five hundred African American men fled to Jackson to be near the protection of the U.S. Army, while others went into hiding in the surrounding swamps and woods. During the next two days, September 5–6, several hundred members of the “White Line” militia moved unopposed through Hinds County and murdered between thirty and fifty African Americans, dragging many of them out of their homes and shooting them on the spot. Homes that were empty were looted for valuables.

Governor Ames wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant on September 8 and asked for federal assistance. Edwards Pierrepont, the Attorney General (who was, at best, indifferent toward the administration’s Reconstruction efforts), asked Ames if the “insurrection” could simply be put down with state forces. Ames replied that attempting to use white militia against the “White Liners” would be ineffectual and organizing a black militia risked “a war of races” that would spread through the South. Pierrepont forwarded the correspondence to Grant, along with several dispatches from Mississippi, including a message from the chairman of the Democratic-Conservative state committee claiming that “perfect peace prevails throughout the State.”

“The whole public are tired out with these annual, autumnal outbreaks in the South,” Grant responded, admitting his reluctance to get involved and advising Pierrepont to suggest to Ames that “he strengthen his position by exhausting his own resources” before resorting to federal assistance. “But,” he added, “Governor Ames, and his advisors, can be made perfectly secure. As many of the troops now in Miss. as he deems necessary may be sent to Jackson.” Pierrepont, however, selectively quoted from the president’s letter in his reply to Ames on September 14, encouraged him to suppress disorders with the state militia, and promised federal intervention only in the event of a rebellion against the state government itself. Ames received Pierrepont’s letter shortly before it appeared in various newspapers, which effectively announced to Mississippi residents that the federal government would not interfere. Sarah A. Dickey, a white educator who had just established a college for black women in Clinton, wrote angrily to Grant: “Whoever says to you that our troubles in Miss. are slight and that we do not need assistance from the Federal Government is an enemy to the colored people and sanctions their slaughter.” She added that she had been at the barbecue earlier that month, “I saw enough with my own eyes to convince any honest person that the republicans went there for nothing but peace, profit and pleasure, and that the democrats, who were on the ground, went there for the express purpose of creating a disturbance and of killing as many as they could.”

Ames began to organize and deploy black militia units, placing Senator Caldwell in charge of two companies based in Jackson. Caldwell took a small group of militiamen to deliver arms to another company in Edwards—an act which fanned fears of a race war. Bowing to the anger of white Mississippians, Ames acceded to a “peace conference” with Democratic leaders on October 13, at which he agreed to stand down the militia in return for a promise that White Line violence would cease. The militia was disbanded but the attacks on Republicans did not stop, and on November 2 the Democrats won control of the state legislature when many African American voters stayed home out of fear.

On December 30, 1875, the Thursday of Christmas week, Senator Caldwell went into town to investigate why his nephew, David Washington, had been taunted and harassed by a group of local white men. Upon his arrival, a white acquaintance, Buck Cabell, insisted that Caldwell share a Christmas drink—a ploy for the ambush that followed. Caldwell’s brother, Sam, was also murdered. The following summer, a five-member Select Committee of the U.S. Senate was appointed to investigate the events around the Mississippi election; during the hearings Senator Caldwell’s widow was questioned about the day her husband was killed, and we present her testimony below as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: Among the area residents mentioned by Margaret Ann Caldwell during her testimony are: George Washington, a blacksmith (and probably a relative) whose shop David Washington was visiting when he was harassed by the group of white men; Waddy Rice, a black man wounded at the Clinton Riot with a gunshot through his hand; Edwin W. Cabaniss, chancery judge of Hinds County and a friend of Senator Caldwell’s, who was at the scene of the assassination and whom Mrs. Caldwell accused of being a participant; Professor Walter Hillman, president of the Central Female Institute, a school for white women in Clinton; William P. Haffa, a white schoolteacher from Pennsylvania who served as a justice of the peace and who was murdered by “White Line” insurgents on September 6.

“Murdocs” were white men who named themselves after the Modoc Indians, who had fought the U.S. Army in northern California and southern Oregon, 1872–73.

Portions of the above introduction were adapted from the Chronology and Notes sections of Reconstruction, edited by Brooks D. Simpson.

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