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A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War

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An unprecedented account of one of the bloodiest and most significant racial clashes in American history

In May 1866, just a year after the Civil War ended, Memphis erupted in a three-day spasm of racial violence that saw whites rampage through the city’s black neighborhoods. By the time the fires consuming black churches and schools were put out, forty-six freed people had been murdered. Congress, furious at this and other evidence of white resistance in the conquered South, launched what is now called Radical Reconstruction, policies to ensure the freedom of the region’s four million blacks—and one of the most remarkable experiments in American history.
    Stephen V. Ash’s A Massacre in Memphis is a portrait of a Southern city that opens an entirely new view onto the Civil War and its aftermath. A momentous national event, the riot is also remarkable for being “one of the best-documented episodes of the American nineteenth century.” Yet Ash is the first to mine the sources available to full effect. Bringing postwar Memphis to vivid life, he takes us among newly arrived Yankees, former Rebels, boisterous Irish immigrants, and striving freed people, and shows how Americans of the period worked, prayed, expressed their politics, and imagined the future. And how they died: Ash’s harrowing and profoundly moving present-tense narration of the riot has the immediacy of the best journalism.
    Told with nuance, grace, and a quiet moral passion, A Massacre in Memphis is Civil War–era history like no other.

288 pages, ebook

First published October 15, 2013

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Stephen V. Ash

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews
Profile Image for Manray9.
376 reviews101 followers
November 8, 2016
Karr's famous epigram -- plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose -- stuck with me throughout reading Stephen Ash's A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War. In 1866, during the uneasy aftermath of the Civil War, Memphis was swept by an orgy of racial violence. How did it start? Armed white policemen sparked a confrontation with a group of young black men – many of whom were Union veterans. Sound familiar? By the time the situation was brought under control, the grim tally was: 46 African-Americans and three whites killed, 75 blacks injured, five black women raped, 100 blacks robbed, 96 homes destroyed, as well as four black churches and twelve black schools burned to the ground. Of the African-American dead, fourteen were former Union soldiers and three were women or girls. Interestingly, all three white casualties were caused by other whites. In the initial confrontation which precipitated the reaction by white mobs, a police officer shot himself in the thigh (fatally) while attempting to draw his revolver. This incident was blamed on black rioters (as is too often the case in such situations, the facts were irrelevant). Another white man was shot dead by a white mob by accident. The last white casualty was a former Confederate soldier who was wantonly murdered by an Irish ruffian for the heinous act of sharing drinks with a friend -- a black man.

Memphis society in the immediate post-war period featured three prominent groups: The so-called “old citizens,” the white population dating back to the antebellum era; the Irish immigrants who flooded the city just before and during the Civil War; and the black freedmen. Prior to the Civil War, blacks made up about twenty per cent of Memphians. Memphis was occupied by Union forces early in the war (June 1862). Thousands of escaped slaves from western Tennessee and northern Mississippi fled to the city in search of freedom. After the war, the freed blacks comprised about fifty percent of Memphis' population. The Irish made up twenty per cent. As Ash pointed out, of the 177 men on the city's police force, 162 were Irish, as were the mayor, the judge of the recorder's court, the fire chief, most of the aldermen, and other municipal officials. Friction was, perhaps, inevitable. Ash wrote:

The most critical law enforcement problem facing the suburbs and the city alike in early 1866 was the hostility between the Irish and the freed people, which had a long history. In the antebellum years, Irish workers in the city – especially draymen, hack drivers, and day laborers – had to compete for jobs with slaves whose masters hired them out for such work. The Irish made no secret of their resentment, which they directed more at the slaves than at their owners. The slaves repaid Irish anger and contempt in full. Rabid anti-black sentiment pervaded not only the ranks of Irish laborers, but also the city police force; but it was held in check by the power of the masters, who would not tolerate abuse of their slaves by anyone but themselves. With emancipation, that restraint on Irish belligerence evaporated.

The events in Memphis in 1866 are often referred to as a riot. To me a riot is a civil disorder resulting from some real or perceived injury by a segment of a community. The Memphis events weren't a riot. Ash used the word massacre. That's closer to the reality. An even better word would be pogrom. The events in Memphis were an anti-black pogrom sparked by Irish racial resentment, fueled by the precariousness of social and economic life in the post-war South, aided by the blatant discrimination practiced by the city government, and not thwarted by the feckless local Union Army commander, Major General George Stoneman.

Stephen Ash is professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee. His book is insightful, thoroughly-researched, and well-written. He delved deeply into the post-massacre reports produced by Congress and the U.S. Army, as well as the verbatim testimony recorded by the Freedmen's Bureau from over 200 eye-witnesses. The first half of the book deals well with the complicated social, economic, and political background leading up to the initial clash on the Bayou Bridge. The book's second half explores the violence in chronological detail and reviews the aftermath with an eye toward the political repercussions. Stephen Ash's book is a short read, only 196 pages of text, followed by 79 pages of notes, bibliography and index. I recommend A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War to Civil War enthusiasts or any reader interested in a long-range perspective on the racial cauldron that is American history. 2016 marks the sesquicentennial of the Memphis pogrom. And Karr was right.

Stephen Ash earned Four Stars from me.

The bibliography led me to two books of interest on the post-Civil War racial climate –

Masters without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction by James L. Roark

Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery by Leon Litwack. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
Profile Image for sappho_reader.
408 reviews2 followers
June 29, 2015
In order to fully understand the Memphis Race Riot of 1866 one needs to be familiar with the massive political and socioeconomic changes of the early days of Reconstruction. Memphis was a tinder box of racial tensions as the population of Rebels, Yankees, Freedmen, and Irish Immigrants clashed on the streets. After the massive catastrophe of the Civil War the City of Memphis, along with the South, had a long road ahead to repair the damage. Stephen Ash did an admirable job in reconstructing the events from the plethora of eyewitness testimony available. What was most surprising to me was that this was the first book written about this specific event. File this under "Things they never taught you in high school."
Profile Image for Edgar Raines.
125 reviews7 followers
April 6, 2015
Stephen V. Ash’s A Massacre in Memphis is a brilliant social history of the city in the year following the Civil War. Ash examines in detail the conditions and outlook of four social groups who he identifies as “Yankee Memphis,” “Rebel Memphis,” “Irish Memphis,” and “Black Memphis.”

Yankee Memphis included the small contingent of the 16th Infantry stationed in the city (four under strength companies totaling 180 men), representatives of the Freedman’s Bureau, various Northern ministers and teachers who had come South to assist the freedmen, various Northern businessmen with ties to the Republican Party, and white Southern Unionists who supported emancipation.

Rebel Memphis included the former political and economic elite, still strongly pro-Confederate, now disenfranchised because of their participation in secession. They believed that slavery was a positive good. That emancipated slaves were simple souls easily manipulated by Yankees for no good end. Educating African-Americans was simply a waste of time and effort as they were only intellectually capable of the most menial of tasks. The well-born Southern white man, they held, was the true friend of the black race. In politics they vocally supported President Johnson and a lenient reconstruction policy toward the South. The two leading Memphis papers, edited by prominent Rebels, mirrored these attitudes. In editorials they blamed Memphis’ ills on the Yankees and blacks and whipped up race hatred.

The Irish represented yet a third element in a combustible mix of hatred and prejudice. Among whites Irish-Americans, most recent immigrants or at most second generation Americans, were at the bottom of the white social structure. They were the hewers of wood, the drawers of water—the difficult jobs requiring muscles not brains. They were in direct economic competition with the newly emancipated freedmen for jobs. As such, they became bitter racists, perhaps in part to emphasize their “whiteness.” They were particularly sensitive to any signs that blacks were becoming “uppity” or “putting on airs.” Projects to educate African-Americans thus touched a sensitive nerve. Equally provocative was the sight of armed blacks. The 3d Heavy Artillery, a regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, recruited locally, had formed part of the Memphis garrison during the war and the early months of Reconstruction. Between them and some local Irish-Americans a bitter enmity arose.

Irish-Americans in Memphis were primarily Unionist in political leanings, and the early fall of Memphis in 1862 to Union forces meant that they were never subjected to the Confederate conscription laws. Consequently, in the immediate postwar period, they dominated not only the electorate but also the municipal and county officers. Both the mayor of Memphis and the county sheriff were Irish-Americans as were most of the police and volunteer fire companies in the city. The Memphis Police Department had a horrible reputation as one of the most corrupt, brutal, and incompetent departments in any Southern city.

Some 20,000 or so African-Americans lived in Memphis and its suburbs in 1866. Most worked as day laborers or servants. Many had migrated to the city during the war to escape the customary confinement that slavery placed on their movement. Although they accepted assistance from the Northern missionaries and representatives of the Freedman’s Bureau, they felt most comfortable with their own leaders and were busily engaged in founding and strengthening black institutions, particularly churches. They eagerly supported the black schools that Northern teachers established. There were never enough classes to meet the demand. Politically their leaders aspired for full citizenship—the right to vote, to hold elected office, to testify in trials, and to sit on juries. In addition, the black community included the recently mustered-out but not yet paid-off members of the 3d Heavy Artillery. They remained in Fort Pickering, the local garrison, awaiting their pay. They had turned in their government-issued arms but some still retained personal weapons.

As in any community, there existed in Memphis a class of people more inclined to prey upon their fellows than to work. During 1865 and 1866 there were a series of robberies and murders that the police proved incapable of solving. The Rebel press blamed the black community in virulent, racist language. Irish-American politicians harangued voters about the need to “clean out” South Memphis were many poor African-Americans lived. A shooting incident between a police patrol and armed ex-members of the 3d Heavy Artillery set off two days and nights of murder, arson, rape, robbery, and other brutalities. When it was over, three whites, all killed by whites, and some forty-six blacks were dead. Arsonists had destroyed every black school and church in the city. Ash’s account of the riots, written in the historical present, are hard to read even 150 years after the events he recounts. The U.S. Army, slow to react, finally concentrated a large enough force in the city to quell the disturbance on the third day. No rioters were ever indited, let alone convicted. Only a rather small segment of the Irish-American community was involved—primarily police and firemen—but most of the voters, from among whom juries would be formed, made the possibility of successful prosecution in local courts look hopeless from the beginning. President Johnson blocked any federal attempt to prosecute the rioters.

The Memphis riot of 1866 was a Janus-faced event. In its immediate aftermath, the Yankee interpretation prevailed and it sparked passage of Radical Reconstruction measures but as time passed and the political will and energy to fundamentally change Southern society waned, the Rebel interpretation of the meaning predominated: Ex-slaves, only two centuries removed from African savagery, led astray by manipulating Yankees, had attacked inoffensive white men. When those men struck back, they showed that Southern whites would not be cowed. So interpreted, Memphis became just a step toward the institution of a system of rigid racial segregation embodied in the Jim Crow legislation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that remained in force until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

A Massacre in Memphis is the work of a great historian. It deserves the widest possible readership.

14 reviews1 follower
April 15, 2014
I found it hard to believe I had lived in Memphis for more than 25 years and had no knowledge of this event. Shortly after the end of the Civil War the various constituencies in Memphis (who knew there was a large Irish immigrant population?), experienced increasing tensions which resulted in a "riot". (Finish the book and you will know why I used quote marks for the term riot.) It turns out this event was fundamental in the formulation of most of the Reconstructionist policies which were implemented by the Federal government shortly thereafter.

Although this book is somewhat dry in its presentation (it is written by a former UT history professor), it is still a good read, and if you're either a Civil War history buff, or from the greater Memphis area, it is a must read. It is also interesting to compare the causes of the problems of the day to current day Memphis.
Profile Image for Larry.
310 reviews
May 1, 2014
This is a very interesting and rather unique "history" book. In many ways, it reads more like a non-fiction crime case than a civil war reconstruction or black civil rights book. At times, I half expected Sherlock Holmes to go into a litany of how the butler couldn't have done the crime. Moreover, while the book is marketed primarily as a civil war or civil rights history, it is also very much a case study of mob rule. In short, it is much more complex and thorough than I was expecting. The author admits to having an unusual amount of documentation available for his work, but that does not eliminate the fact that he applied great care to giving a balanced and candid assessment of both what happened and the validity (or lack of it) of the historical resources available to him. Well worth the investment in time for even non-history buffs.
Profile Image for Paul Lunger.
943 reviews4 followers
June 30, 2018
As a Civil War buff and as well as one of the period of Reconstruction, I was very surprised to come across Stephen V. Ash's "A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War" since it brought to life a period in May 1866 that has at times been brushed under the radar in the events just after the war. Ash sets the scene as to what exactly life was like in Memphis among the various groups that were there & sets the stage for the events of May 1-3, 1866 which has it as if we the reader were reliving the events as they happened. Once we reach the events, then we the reader are thrust into a world that is at times similar to things today albeit a very scary one which would've been terrifying for both the whites & blacks in the city at the time. With precision to detail & a lot of care, we the reader are given a look at this first period of unrest in the south in the post-Civil War era whose events would eventually set the stage for injustices that occurred across the better part of the next century and beyond. This is a stunning book & must read for anyone interested in this period of history since it will shine a very bright light on this often forgotten piece of American history.
38 reviews
January 17, 2022
I bought this book on a whim, seeing a nice hardcover version available in a dollar store for minimal price and not having heard of the riot in Memphis in 1866. This turned out to be a great value as the book was a well written and balanced account of the horrific race riot in Memphis, Tennessee, right after the Civil War where Irish thugs and racist residents killed around 46 recently freed black citizens, raped several and burned down all black schools and close to 100 dwellings. The white victims? Three dead, all killed by other white residents. Those who have a hard time understanding black anger at their treatment in the South would do well to read this account. Of course this was just one of many incidents but this one seems to have been buried in history and not well known. The author does a good job at analyzing the source of the three day riot - Irish thugs, racist Memphis residents, ineffective military and police officials and rowdy black soldiers share the blame for what occurred, although not in equal measures. Highly recommended for U.S history buffs, particularly since Reconstruction history is not as robustly written on as the war the caused it.
Profile Image for Gary.
151 reviews
November 19, 2019
A little known, but well documented event that shows how things were in the South after the Civil War. Most of the riots occurred very close to what is now the Lorraine Motel (Civil Rights Museum) where MLK was assassinated about 100 years later.
24 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2022
I thought this was a very interesting, well written and told narrative about a piece of history I was not very aware of. As a life long Memphian, I learned a lot about this period and event I did not know. I would highly recommend.
Profile Image for James.
23 reviews2 followers
July 7, 2021
An informative but dry read. It is detailed and offers various perspectives on the horrors of May 1-3, 1866.
Profile Image for Michael Gerald.
380 reviews44 followers
April 11, 2022
Another book about racism and violence in the US, this time just after the Civil War. The book would have been better if there were photographs.
Profile Image for Mallory.
6 reviews1 follower
June 18, 2016
Having grown up in Memphis and not heard of the "Memphis Massacre" before this book, I found it a good overview of the general sentiment of the white Irish, the freedmen sympathizers, the Memphis Blacks, and the rebels and the culmination of underlying hate and fury that burst into a bloody riot.

For those interested in:
Memphis history
Tennessee history
Civil war
Southern history
Civil Rights
Profile Image for Jackson.
34 reviews7 followers
October 5, 2016
offered very interesting insight on a historical event that i didn't even know occurred. it also showed how tense racial relations were right after the civil war ended, and i could definitely see a few parallels between America then and America now. a decent, quick read if you have the love for history and unknown events.
Profile Image for Chris.
136 reviews4 followers
January 10, 2016
A real mess of a book. The tense changes halfway through the book in an effort to "excite" things and then just as abruptly switches back. The book contains no real characters for the reader to anchor to.
Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews

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