Prelude to a Reconstruction Riot: Irish and Blacks in Memphis in 1866

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Memphis was a busy transportation hub and a center for Irish immigrant life in the 1860s. After the war it became a place of racial turmoil.
Memphis was a busy transportation hub and a center for Irish immigrant life in the 1860s. After the war it became a place of racial turmoil.

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Immigrants lived in much of the United States at the start of the Civil War, but their numbers were not evenly distributed. Roughly 90% of Irish immigrants lived in the North at the time of the Civil War. Another 5% lived in the Border States, slave states that stayed in the Union. Only 5% lived in the states that would become part of the Confederacy.1

Irish immigrants avoided the states that would rebel against the Federal government largely because of slavery. Although few Irish were abolitionists, low-wage Irish workers understood that they could not compete with slaves for the kinds of backbreaking work that was often their only lot in the American economy. There were also social and cultural reasons for settling in the North, but the problem of wage competition with slaves was the most important single factor.2

There were 85,000 Irish immigrants living in the eleven future Confederate States according to the 1860 Census. Another 95,000 lived in the four Border States. Approximately 1.4 million Irish immigrants lived in the North.3

Only a few Confederate States had sizable Irish populations. About a third of the Irish in the Confederacy (28,207) lived in Louisiana. This community was concentrated in the South’s only large city, New Orleans. Virginia had the second largest Irish population at 16,501. The third largest was in Tennessee, the state that became the scene of a race riot led by some Irish immigrants after the war. 12,498 Irish called Tennessee home, most of them living in cities and towns along the Mississippi River where they did the dangerous jobs involved in the steamship industry.4

beale-street-memphis

Memphis was founded in 1819, but as late as 1850 it was still a small city of fewer than nine thousand people. Mass Irish immigration following the Great Famine more than doubled the population to almost 23,000 by 1860. The Irish made up 23% of all city residents that year. This view of Beale Street was taken in the 1860s.

The coming of the Civil War presented Irish in the South with a dilemma. While not abolitionists, the mostly poor Irish rarely owned slaves. They had come to America to become citizens of the United States and they rarely had a highly developed identity with the states they had settled in. The immigrant living in Richmond was likely to think of himself as an Irish American, not as a Virginian. Moreover, when war came, some pro-Confederate activists began to target men not from the South as potential pro-Northern subversives and the Irish, the quintessential outsiders in 1860s America, were sometimes targeted. Irish in the South often had families in the North with whom they felt greater kinship than with their Southern native-born neighbors. 5

For all of these reasons, historian David Gleeson says, the Irish in the South were “reluctant secessionists.” Although many Irish served in the Confederate armies, some fled to the North, or switched allegiances from Confederate to Unionist when Union troops occupied their areas. Gleeson writes that “As a result, some natives resented them for being so open, for example, in their acceptance of Confederate defeat and Federal occupation.”6

naval-battle-color-memphis

The Battle of Memphis was a naval action in the Mississippi River within sight of the city that took place on June 8, 1862.

As Union troops took control of more and more of the South, they sometimes looked to local Irish as potential allies. In New Orleans, for example, military commander Ben Butler courted the city’s Irish community and won many over to supporting the occupation. A similar pattern took place in Memphis, Tennessee. The Irish community in Memphis was new, but it made up a large part of the city’s white working class. Most Irish had arrived in the city only a decade before the Civil War. Although they were both poor and recent arrivals, the Irish had succeeded in building a Catholic Church, creating a mutual aid society, forming an Irish nationalist Fenian club, and organized labor unions. They had also become politically organized as a wing of the local Democratic Party where they had learned the strong lessons of that party’s virulent white supremacist teachings.7

memphis-naval-battle

The naval battle lasted less than two hours and resulted in a Confederate defeat. Soon afterwards the city was surrendered to the Union.

When the Union army occupied Memphis, the role of the Memphis Irish became unique. New laws barred from voting all men who had participated in the Confederate revolt. By law, writes historian Stephen Ash:

anyone who had aided the Southern rebellion could not vote in the municipal general election in June 1865. Most of the Irishmen (and most of the German men) residing in Memphis when the war began had declined to enlist in the army or in any other way serve the Rebel cause, and the early capture of the city by federal forces ensured that Confederate conscription was never carried out there. The twenty-five hundred voters in June 1865 were predominantly foreign-born; a majority were Irish.8

memhis-shipping-cotton-north

Soon after taking control of Memphis, the Union authorities gathered the valuable cotton being stored there for shipment to the North.

The immigrant vote elected an Irish mayor. Nine of the sixteen aldermen were also Irish. With both former Confederates and blacks barred by state law from voting, the Irish had achieved an unprecedented victory. The immigrant community used the electoral win to fill many city jobs with immigrants. For instance, forty of the forty-six men in the fire department were Irish. While the chief of police, Benjamin Garrett, was a native Southerner, 162 out of 177 men in his department were Irish.9

The months immediately after the April 1865 surrenders of the main Confederate armies had been a time of submission by Southern whites to Northern occupation. By the Fall, though, the defeated Confederates were reasserting themselves. Their particular target were the newly freed black slaves.10

union-troops-occupied-memphis

Union troops in occupied Memphis.

Blacks were freed from slavery as Union forces occupied the South, but their legal status and their future was unclear. Blacks were “free”, but the meaning of freedom was undetermined. Blacks were still not considered citizens in the Southern states, nor could they vote. They made up a quarter of Tennessee’s population, for example, yet they held no elective offices and wielded little power.11

Blacks trying assert the basic freedom to move from one town to another risked death. As the German immigrant leader Carl Schurz observed during his investigation of conditions in the South in the Summer of 1865:

In many instances negroes who walked away from the plantations, or were found upon the roads, were shot or otherwise severely punished, which was calculated to produce the impression among those remaining with their masters that an attempt to escape from slavery would result in certain destruction. A large proportion of the many acts of violence committed is undoubtedly attributable to this motive…12

New white-controlled state legislatures passed “Black Codes” that kept the freedmen in conditions as close to slavery as could legally be allowed. In Mississippi, for example, blacks were required to show papers from the white man the law referred to as their “Masters” in order to be on the road. If they did not have such papers, the black man could be arrested and sold to perform labor for another white man.13

The Black Codes in Mississippi controlled the most intimate elements of the life of the black population. The code in that state made it a felony for blacks and whites to marry, punishable by life in prison. Similar laws in other states defined a person as black if the person had one great-grandparent who was black. Blacks were forbidden to set up their own churches unless the local white authorities licensed them. While whites were heavily armed, blacks were barred from owning any weapons, even most types of knives.14

kkk-fleming-grand-cyclops

The Ku Klux Klan was first organized in Tennessee in 1866.

Edmund Rhett, the editor of the Charleston Mercury, wrote a letter explaining the need for the Black Codes:

the general interest of both the white man and the Negro requires that he should be kept as near to his former condition as Law can keep him and that he should be kept as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as practicable.15

Black codes were enacted in state after state in the eight months before the Memphis riots. Many of the states allowed blacks to be whipped for minor offenses, just like they had been in slave days. By the Spring of 1866 African Americans were finding their new “freedom” precarious and dangerous. As violence increased throughout the occupied South, conflicts developed between the freed people and Memphis’s important Irish community. The presence of black troops in the city led to a clash that set many of the city’s Irish on a path of destruction. 16

Video: Historian Eric Foner Discusses the Black Codes

Sources:

1. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013) p. 7; A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013).
2. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013) p. 5-10.
3. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013) p. 7-8.
4. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013) p. 7-8.
5. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013).
6. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013) p. 8.
7. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013) p. 57-59.
8. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013) p. 59.
9. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013). p. 52.
10. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013)
11. Census summary
12. Immigrants’ Civil War
13. Mississippi Black Code Nov. 22, 1865
14. Black Code of Nov. 29, 1865 Black Code Nov. 25, 1865
15. Edmund Rhett, Jr, letter to Armistead Burt, October 14, 1865.
16. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013).

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

139. Immigrant German “Hamburgers” Tormented and Captured at Petersburg

140. German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

141. Irish Regiment at the Beginning of the End of the Confederacy at Five Forks

142. Richmond Burning: The German Immigrant and Black Troops Who Saved the City

143. Appomattox: The Capture of a Confederate Army & the Fall from Grace of an Immigrant General

144. Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirators

145. Immigrants Hunt Lincoln’s Killers and Help Capture the Confederate President

146. Lincoln’s Murder and the New York Irish American

147. Lincoln’s Funeral in Immigrant New York

148. German General Carl Schurz Begins His Investigation of the Post-War South

149. Carl Schurz Warned That a “System of Terrorism” Was Taking Hold in the Post-War South in 1865

150. Immigrants in the Union Navy: Minorities in the Majority

151. How Immigrants Were Recruited into the United States Navy

152. African Canadian Sailors in the Union Navy

153. High School Student Proves Professor Wrong When He Denied “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Existed

154. The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

155. No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

156. Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

157.  A Scottish Socialist and a German General Work to Help Slaves Become Freedpeople-Robert Dale Owen, Carl Schurz and the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

158. Our Man in Sweden: Recruiting Immigrants to Strengthen the Union War Effort

159. German Immigrants and the End of Slavery in Missouri

160. 13th Amendment: Immigrants and the end of slavery in America

161. Finding Civil Immigrants Where You Wouldn’t Expect Them: The Irish and German Harvard Men

162. Recovering the memories of Jewish Civil War soldiers

163. Kate Cumming Confederate Immigrant Nurse and the Shiloh Disaster

164. Immigrant nurse reports on Civil War hospital organized by Nursing Nuns after Shiloh battle

165. Sarah Emma Edmonds: The Immigrant Woman As “Male Nurse”

166. Immigrant Women Struggled to be Recognized as Nurses After the Civil War

167. Prelude to a Reconstruction Riot: Irish and Blacks in Memphis 1866

 

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