The Clinton Riot

By Charles Hillman Brought

1875, the second year of the administration of Adelbert Ames as the Carpetbag Charlatan of a mongrel governmental mixture, was made notorious by the outbreak of race wars over the State, in which freedmen were arrayed against freemen and aliens strove to expatriate native-born, home-loving citizens. Among these disturbances, denominated “riots” by the newspapers of the day, the most notable were those which occurred at Vicksburg on July 4th, at Clinton on September 4th, at Friars Point on October 9th, and at Rolling Fork in December, 1875. Perhaps the most important of these, and certainly the most tragic, was that which broke the vacation stillness of the little college town of Clinton on the September Saturday which had been set apart for an old fashioned political barbecue and joint discussion of the issues of the day.

In order to understand full the significance of the Clinton riot it is necessary to notice the political events which preceded it and made such a riot possible. The carpet-bag administration of Ames, with its mongrelism, ignorance and depravity thoroughly entrenched behind the armed and organized cohorts of the recently emancipated slaves had become continually bolder and more arrogant in its demands until in 1874 taxation was rapidly bordering on confiscation. As a result tax-payers’ leagues were organized throughout the State to Captain W. T. Ratliff is due the honor of organizing the first league in Hinds county in a little school house in the suburbs of the town of Edwards. However, the petitions of the tax-payers were insolently ignored by the Legislature, and men who had bravely stood on the “perilous edge of battle” a few years before were brought face to face with the problem of home rule.

In July, 1875, a meeting was held in Raymond, the county seat of Hinds county, to select a County Democratic Executive Committee and call a County Convention to nominate candidates for office. The committee worked energetically and by the time the convention met in August the county had been thoroughly organized by forming Democratic clubs in every precinct. The day the convention met a mass-meeting and barbecue were held at Raymond, and clubs of men wearing the expression of stern resolve to do or die rode in on horse back with bands playing and banners flying. From the date of this meeting the campaign in Hinds county really began. The Ames government realized that it meant a fight to the death and that the life of the Republican organization in Mississippi depended upon the issue of the campaign. The Democrats realized that defeat meant confiscation, insult to women, another long period of subjection to ex-slaves, and possibly riot and bloodshed with United States troops garrisoned in every town and village. The white people felt that they could easily handle Ames and his negro allies, but feared that the presence of Federal troops would throttle all plans for home-rule. It was, therefore, the aim of the Republicans to bring about such a condition of affairs as would compel President Grant to send troops to Mississippi indeed, in the early part of the canvass Gov. Ames is reported to have said that the blood of a few negroes would save the Republican party in Mississippi. The first step of the Ames cohorts in the campaign was to issue a challenge for joint debates at various places in the State, the Democratic speaker to open and the Republican speaker to close. The challenge was accepted and, accordingly, barbecues were arranged at Utica and Clinton, in Hinds county, and Vernon, in Madison county, on the same day, Saturday, September 4th. For weeks the grand rally and barbecue at Clinton had been publicly announced all over the county, and inasmuch as it was currently reported that the meeting would be addressed by Gov. Ames, it was expected that the main body of the whites would go over to Clinton and that there being only a small number at Utica the riot would be precipitated there. The Democratic Executive Committee acted quickly and dispatched messengers over the county, directing the clubs in the western part of the county to go to Utica, and those in the eastern part to go to Clinton. In this connection, Mr. T. N. Shelton, of Vicksburg, who was at that time a member of the Executive Committee, writes:

“We knew if we could secure the attendance of a large body of white men at both places, we would over-awe the negroes and at the same time avoid a collision, but we feared that if only a small body was in attendance a riot would be precipitated, because we knew that all the negroes would go there armed. So thoroughly convinced were we that the plan was to make the hostile demonstration at Utica that the western clubs turned out in full, and we easily captured a body of negroes, numbering over 1,000 many of whom had come from Copiah and Claiborne counties without a harsh word being spoken or a shot fired, and stationing guards conveniently to watch them, kept them together for several hours listening to Democratic speeches and applauding Democratic doctrines, and then gave them a dinner and sent them home happy.”

Although the riot at Clinton was in a sense an accident, it was the eternal fitness of things that it should have occurred at the home of Charles Caldwell, one of the most daring and desperate negroes of his day, a slayer of two white men, at that time State Senator from Hinds, the dominant factor in local Republican politics, the county Warwick of the Ames administration and the dispenser of carpet-bag patronage, and also the home of Eugene Welborne, a mulatto member of the House and a notorious character. Be it said to the credit of Caldwell that at that time he was in bad odor with the more radical element in his party, because of his natural hatred of the “Yankee” and his liberal policy in securing the appointment of whites rather than negroes to office, and further, that he executed his immense personal influence with the negroes to prevent the riot. However, opposition to Caldwell and his conservative policy was strongly manifested in the councils of the “Loyal League,” organized primarily to throttle white supremacy and foster negro rule, and there is little doubt but that the enemies of Caldwell in his own party, led by Welborne, relished the idea of a race conflict as a means of compacting the negroes and giving them control of the party machinery. Certain it is that secret orders were given the members of the “Loyal League” to prepare for any possible disturbance on the day of the barbecue, and that the 1,200 negroes who attended from all parts of the county were well armed with clubs and pistols.

“Moss Hill,” situated a quarter of a mile northwest of the Clinton depot, on the left hand side and a few hundred yards back of the road leading from Clinton to Livingston, elevated, well watered and shaded, the beautiful antebellum house of Chancellor Robert Buckner, later, of Col. William Smith, and at that time owned by Dr. Walter Hillman, was selected as the place for the barbecue. Gov. Ames, although advertised as the leading speaker, did not attend, so Judge Amos R. Johnston, a brilliant Democratic lawyer of Jackson and Captain H. T. Fisher, editor of the Jackson Daily Pilot, the State paper and leading Republican organ, were chosen as the representatives of their respective parties. The local celebrity of the orators, the fondness of negroes for political excitement, especially when served with a free lunch and an election for a member of the Board of Supervisors attracted an immense crowd from the surrounding country, and the modest college town wore a gala attire.

Organizing in some mysterious way among themselves a cavalry troop of fully a thousand, the negroes paraded the streets of Clinton from nine o’clock in the morning until time to assemble at the barbecue grounds. Their horses were trimmed fantastically and patriotically in red, white and blue ribbon, in some instances there being more ribbon than horse. “Old Glory,” mounted on a tall flag staff proudly floated in the public square. At the head of the column rode Oliver Cromwell, who at least resembled his illustrious Puritanical predecessor in “praying to the Lord and keeping his powder dry,” and Elder W. H. Davis, of the negro Baptist church at Edwards, wearing a waving plume in his stove-pipe hat and a cavalry sabre dangling at his side. This procession, composed of a negro club from Bolton 398 strong, a larger club from Edwards, and some negroes from Clinton, marched in solid phalanx to the speaker’s stand, shouting “Down with the Democrats,” “What do they call this place? we can clean it out by ourselves,” “I’d like to see a Democrat” and other whoops which presaged trouble.

About half past twelve the crowd had assembled at the barbecue grounds, all negroes save possibly 75 whites. Among the latter were: Capt. B. S. White, Major G. W. Harper, Dr. H. T. Dupree, Dr. W. A. Bracey, W. Calvin Wells, Baker Sively, A. H. Sivley, Martin Sivley, A. V. Shearer, W. T. Asquith, Ramsey Wharton, F. T. S. Thompson, Sam D. Harper, Vink Waddell, W. H. Sims, H. Casper, Frank Robinson and H. A. Huntley from Raymond; D. W. Rice, John C. Neal, Dr. W. E. Todd, John Todd, T. G. Rice, Captain W. H. Lewis, G. M. Lewis, Morris Ward, H. C. Marshall and Frank Guiol from Clinton, and Dr. W. S. West from the neighborhood. Fully three hundred of the negroes were armed with pistols, while not more than fifteen of the white men present participated in the fighting. After all had dismounted, Judge Johnston began the debate in. a very conciliatory way, but while he was speaking the negroes were boisterous and restless, apparently angry because he was allowed to speak at all. “Damn it, what do we want to hear a Democratic speech for?” “I did not come here to hear any such damned stuff as that; I want him to get down from there; I want to hear Fisher speak and put him out,” were expressions which illustrated the temper of the negro auditors. About 1.30 o’clock Judge Johnston concluded his address and Captain Fisher had been speaking for twenty or thirty minutes when a disturbance arose about seventy-five yards distant from the speaker’s stand and north of it in a little glen surrounded by underbrush and concealed from view. The inception of the quarrel is enveloped in mystery, one of the explanations being that some negro policemen patrolling the grounds attempted to arrest a party of young men from Raymond for drinking, another being that a personal difficulty between one of the men from Raymond and a negro was the immediate cause. Immediately orders were given by the negroes to “rally;” the snare drums began to beat a rapid and continual roll; the cry of “Kill the white men” was raised, and the woods fairly swarmed with negroes, armed with pistols and knives and brandishing clubs. The little band of whites, eleven in number, retreated about forty yards along a branch, asking the negroes to stand back and keep the peace, and saying they desired no difficulty. The negroes in their feint pressed on, crying, “Run over the whites; kill the damned whites; run over them; God damn them; run over them.” After retreating this distance, another crowd of negroes came down on them from an opposite direction, even Charles Caldwell being unable to stop the mad rush of his frenzied followers. “We did not come here to let no God damned white trash run over us; this is our day,” and “the ravens will not fly far today; we will clip their wings when they rise” seemed to be the negroes’ shibboleth. In the melee Louis Hargrove, a big, blustering negro policeman from Dry Grove, shot and desperately wounded Frank Thompson, one of the Raymond party, and Thompson returned the fire shooting Hargrove in his left temple, instantly killing him. The fusilade was furious, but before the smoke cleared away the negroes began to break, tumbling over one another as they ran, and thus made it possible for the whites to reach the little band defending itself against such heavy odds. An investigation showed that two negroes were killed outright and five desperately wounded, while among the whites John Neal was shot in the breast, the ball passing entirely through his body; W. T. Asquith was shot in the back and shoulders, a dozen or more irregular slugs having afterwards been extracted from his body; Ramsey Wharton was badly beaten about the head; Frank Thompson was shot through the thigh; and Dr. W. E. Todd was slightly wounded. In the haste of their retreat the negroes did not fail to take with them their wounded and run by the barbecue pits and carry off all the provisions they could find, this incident reminding one forcibly of the vandalism of the barbarians at the sack of Rome. It is related that Captain Fisher, the carpet-bag orator of the day, laid down under the speaker’s stand while the riot was in progress and afterwards left in such haste that he forgot his hat, actually beating a passing freight train into Jackson by running the whole ten miles on the cannon ball schedule.

Although most of the negroes were panic stricken, the situation of the few white men before the arrival of the troops was desperate. Some had no arms at all, and none were prepared for a pitched battle against overwhelming odds. Soon after the shooting in the hollow, the whites left the grounds in small parties, separate crowds of negroes pursuing in different directions. When within forty or fifty feet of the Livingston road and about 300 yards distant from the A. & V. Railroad crossing, one of these parties of whites, without a load left in their pistols, was met by a line of armed negroes, with drawn weapons, headed by Charles Caldwell, Jr., and Walter Welbourne, brother of Eugene Welbourne. They at once demanded the surrender of Martin Sivley, of Raymond, toward whom they showed unrelenting hatred, for Sivley had attended Mississippi College as a boy and had more than once had trouble with these two young negroes. After some parleying during which time the negroes kept their weapons drawn on the whites, they told Sively if he would give up his pistols they would do him no harm. Believing there was no other alternative, Sivley handed his pistol to a negro, holding it by the barrel and presenting the handle; as Charles Caldwell, Jr., took the pistol, Walter Welbourne knocked Sivley down with his pistol, Captain White says breaking the pistol by the blow. Staggering to his feet, the blood streaming down his face, and suffering from three wounds, Sivley ran across a road toward a cotton field, the negroes pursuing and shooting him as he went. Reaching a rail fence that surrounded the field back and north of the A. & V. depot he attempted to climb it but was beaten back. At length he managed to get over being followed by Sam Caldwell, Charles Caldwell, Jr., and Walter Welbourne, struck by a negro from behind and his head beaten into a jelly with fence rails by the cowardly brutes. In the meantime, Captain B. S. White, the leader of the Raymond party, who was with Martin Sivley when he was pursued, was overtaken at the railroad crossing by another squad of negroes, stabbed in the back, cut about the head, stamped and kicked, thrown into a ditch and left for dead. They would doubtless have mutilated Captain White’s son who pleaded for his father’s life, as they threatened to take him upon the hill in the woods and cut him up, had not their attention at that time been attracted to Calvin Wells coming in his buggy. A negro seized Mr. Wells’ horse by the bridle, and he would have shared the same fate as Sivley and Sterling Price but for the timely appearance of Capt. [now Colonel] W. A. Montgomery, who came to his relief with a double-barrel shotgun, firing both barrels loaded with birdshot at the retreating negroes. Mr. Frank Thompson, who was the first white man to receive a wound in the riot, became separated from the Raymond party, tried to make good his escape in the direction of Bolton, but falling from his horse through sheer loss of blood he was discovered by some brutal negroes who shot him down, disemboweled him, cut off his finger to procure a valuable ring, and ran an iron ramrod through his head. This atrocity occurred about a mile from town at the carriage gate of Mrs. Hillman’s plantation, and suspicion strongly points to Eugene and Walter Welbourne as the authors of the crime. On the hill northeast of the spot where the difficulty first originated lived Mr. Charles Norton Chilton, a quiet, useful and peaceable citizen, and a man of prominence. Hearing the shots he went into his yard and was opening his lawn gate, calling negro women and children into his ground for their protection, when he was shot in the back and instantly killed by an unknown negro riding by on a mouse-colored mule. The size of the ball penetrating Mr. Chilton indicated that either a Winchester rifle or a Colt’s Henry pistol was the weapon used. A party of three white men, Captain W. H. Lewis, G. B. Lewis and D. W. Rice, all without a grain of ammunition, were pursued by six well armed negroes across the railroad crossing and were compelled to hide in a pea field until the train come from Vicksburg bringing reinforcements. As it was Mr. Rice was shot in the hand, while on horseback, by Eugene Welbourne, but succeeded in keeping his assailants at bay with an empty pistol.

When the telegram sent by Judge E. W. Cabiniss announcing the riot reached Vicksburg, the regular eastbound passenger train had left. Upon its arrival at Edwards, the negroes gathered en masse and endeavored to prevent the whites from boarding the train, but a posse of twelve or fifteen determined citizens from Edwards and about the same number from Bolton, led by Colonel R. J. Harding, the present sheriff of Hinds county and a gallant ex-Confederate soldier, succeeded in boarding the train, and reached Jackson soon after the first shot was fired, obstructions placed on the track by negroes, who were hiding in thickets all along the way with their guns pointed at the train, prevented the car load of Jackson citizens under command of Mr. William Fitzgerald and Captain Frank Johnston, Mississippi’s brilliant ex-Attorney General, from reaching the scene of action until nightfall. Still later, between seven and eight o’clock that night. Captain Andrews and Captain Kinney, formerly of the Federal army, arrived on a special train from Vicksburg, bringing with them a company dubbed the “Vicksburg Modocs,” who soon put the countryside in fear, asking no questions and submitting to no commands. A partial muster of this company which did such valiant and vigorous work for the protection of life and property is as follows: Dr. R. O’Leary, Dr. A. O. Hardenstein, Captain P. W. Shearer, George Rector, Samuel Hanly, James P. Roach, L. A. A. Prescott, Captain Gunning, Ed. Miller, Tom Cooper, Jack Groome, Frank Broughton, William Price, T. C. Hayes, Eugene Platt, Lem Clark and Douglas Clark. When within two miles of Clinton, fearing an ambuscade and train obstructions, Conductor Charles Borchet, in charge of the special, got on with a lantern under his coat and advanced 300 yards ahead of the train, and thus, almost creeping, the company reached Clinton in safety. Upon the arrival of the special Conductor Borchet was asked to take the train to Jackson for more volunteers, who were eager to reach the scene of action, and picking Dr. O’Leary and forty others as a bodyguard, the conductor made the return to Jackson and returned successfully. One and a half miles east of Clinton this party was fired into, but the only damage done was the perforations of the tender of the engine in two places. Major Allen, commandant of the Federal post at Jackson, accompanied by Lieuts. Mahan and Brown, had driven through the country that afternoon to ascertain the cause and extent of the race war which had assumed such alarming proportions. Major Allen proved to be an affable gentleman, fully aware of the irresponsible character of ambitious negro leaders, and fairly inquired into the circumstances of the riot and the authority of those in command. To Captain Ratliff and Judge Cabiniss is due the credit for securing Major Allen’s cooperation with the citizens.

An arrangement was made with the citizen soldiery, now fully 200 strong, that if they would stop the killing of the negroes, the United States officers would not assume command but leave matters in charge of the civil authorities. Therefore, upon request of the citizens of Clinton and by virtue of the commission given him by its mayor, Col. J. B. Greaves, Colonel Harding became military governor “with consular powers.” Captain H. W. Montgomery was placed in charge of the mounted men. That the Federal officers and the citizen soldiery were in thorough accord as to the necessity of defending the town against further negro depredations may be seen from a little incident which occurred the morning after the riot. When Mrs. Hillman escorted the army officers to the dining room for breakfast, the Southern citizens, partaking of the hospitality, arose, saluted and loudly cheered until the whole building resounded with their tokens of good will.

No accurate estimate has been made, or can be made, of the number of negroes killed after the arrival of the troops; suffice it to say, that a mild reign of terror existed in the community for several days subsequent to the riot, because everyone feared that the negroes would burn the town and massacre men, women and children. The number is variously put at from ten to fifty, but the grand jury of Hinds county, after making a thorough investigation and examining over a hundred witnesses, reported that even the approximate number could not be determined. Louis Hargrove, Simon Jackson, Galilee Brown, Robert Beasley, Alex. Wilson, Albert Hudson, Daniel Dabney and Louis Russell are the only negroes killed whose names the writer has been able to discover from traditional history.

Saturday night and Sunday following the riot were marked by the energy of emergency and intense excitement in the little military camp. Everybody made coffee and biscuits for the troops, and headquarters at the Patrick Lewis hotel and Central Female Institute, now Hillman College, were beehives of cooking activity. All the roads leading into Clinton were picketed and scouting parties scoured the woods in all directions in search of negroes implicated in what seemed to have been a meditated conspiracy. Thoroughly alarmed, many negroes in the surrounding country left their homes and crops to seek shelter in the friendly woods and swamps, while others camped around the Federal courthouse at Jackson, feeding on the ill-advised charity of Governor Ames, who but a short while before had made the reckless assertion that “the killing of a few negroes would only have the effect of influencing Northern elections in the interests of the Republican party.” While their cotton crops were rotting in the fields, these African Cincinnati were besieging the Governor for the State arms, with which to defend themselves, and it actually became necessary to detail a squad of forty whites to guard the capitol where the arms were stored. However, nothing more was ever seen in the streets of Clinton of that famous cavalry troop of “Loyal Laguers,” whose bloodthirsty bravery had evidently evaporated in their blood-red plumes.

On September 7, three days after the riot, Governor Ames issued a proclamation commanding all members of military organizations in different sections of the State to disband forthwith and requiring all citizens to assist the peace officers in the preservation of order and the enforcement of the law. This the whites refused to do, at the same time placing at the disposal of the Governor a number of military companies composed of white men, irrespective of party affiliations, to maintain order. But Governor Ames, having little confidence in white militia, telegraphed President Grant on September 8th that “domestic violence in its most aggravated form prevails in various parts of the State beyond the power of the authorities to suppress.” Then it was that the laconic President advised the hot-headed Governor that the general public were tired of these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South, and announced a policy of non-intervention on the part of the Federal government. This opportunity for home-rule granted by the President sounded the death-knell of reconstruction rule in Mississippi and thus the Clinton riot of September 4, 1875, indirectly made possible the glorious triumph of Democracy at the polls in 1876.

The return of the terrorized negroes to their homes after the riot was gradual, and their return to municipal, county and State politics was like that of the ship homeward bound, but which never reached its long looked for destination. This lesson of Anglo-Saxon supremacy, written in letters of blood, will ever remain the most important of the many lessons taught in the modest college town of Clinton to the rising young manhood of a proud and untrammeled Commonwealth.

The writer acknowledges his indebtedness to Mrs. Adelia M. Hillman, Judge E. W. Cabiniss, President W. S. Webb, Captain W. H. Lewis, Mr. John Neal, Professor T. H. Eager, Mr. John Abou, and W. M. Turner, colored, of Clinton; to Col. R. J. Harding, Captain Frank Johnston, Mr. Ramsay Wharton, Mr. Frank Neal, Mr. J. L. Roberts and Calvin Wells, Esq., of Jackson; to Dr. A. O. Hardenstein, Dr. K. O’Leary and S. M. Shelton, Esq., of Vicksburg, and to Captain W. T. Ratliff and Major Harper, of Raymond for the data on which this paper is based. He also consulted Boutwell’s Report, p. 295; Campaign Document Number 2, published by the Democratic-Conservative Executive Committee; Garner’s Reconstruction in Mississippi, pp. 378-79, and Riley’s History of Mississippi, p. 317.

Back to: Mississippi History

2 thoughts on “The Clinton Riot”

  1. An excellent piece that can make people understand the idea that you can’t believe everything you read!

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