One subject that is seldom addressed in standard US history courses is Redemption. Small wonder, since it concerns the means whereby white Southerners wrested control of local and state governments from the black and white Republican majority– a process that lasted decades and involved terrorism — murder, wide-spread violence, threats of violence, fraud and intimidation, as in threats of job loss.
One must first understand that the two parties’ stance was 180 degrees opposite what we know today. The Republicans stood for progress – the emancipation of slaves, for instance, whereas Democrats were the conservative party, holding on to the institution of slavery. Once the Civil War emancipated slaves, a gradual process even after the war due to vehement resistance in many areas of the South, “Radical” Republicans passed the 13th , 14th, and 15th Amendments giving blacks citizenship and the right to vote.
Besides the Souths’ bitterness over losing their most valuable asset — slaves — whites faced a colossal problem. They were the minority in South Carolina and Mississippi, as well as in many counties of other states. Convinced of white supremacy, they chaffed at the fact that their former “property” could vote. Despite subsequent fabrication of tales of corruption and fear of domination by blacks, of the 100 delegates to the Mississippi constitutional convention which drafted the state’s Reconstruction constitution, only 16 were black, and only 10 out of 36 seats in Mississippi’s legislature in 1874. But the mere fact that blacks could vote was utterly unacceptable.
The solution to these unfavorable demographics emerged in the “Mississippi Plan,” drafted in part by General Samuel W. Ferguson, originally from South Carolina, who was a brigadier general of cavalry in the western theatre during the Civil War. The plan was so effective that a Republican victory of roughly 30,000 votes in the previous election became a victory of about the same margin for Democrats in 1876. Democrat paramilitary forces – “red shirts” – blocked access to the polls. Some had intimidating cannon, to be used for “rejoicing,” they claimed. The results were striking. In one precinct, out of 1,400 Republicans, only ninety dared to vote. The “red shirts” operated throughout the South for decades. They spearheaded the coup d’état that threw out a legitimately elected government in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1896.
Ferguson shared the plan with Charleston’s Theodore G. Barker, Wade Hampton’s adjutant during the Civil War and a close friend of Hampton’s. Hampton, of course, had commanded Lee’s cavalry after JEB Stuart’s death. In his letter, Ferguson emphasized that focused political violence yielded control of the government, even in counties where blacks outnumbered whites by five to one and were hotbeds of Black Republicanism. Ferguson wrote, “We determined to carry the election at all hazards, and, in the event of any blood being shed in the Campaign, to kill every white Radical in the Country; we made no threats, but let this be known as a fixed and settled thing.” White Republicans, he observed, were not willing “to sacrifice themselves on the altar of rascality.” Blacks did not turn out to vote when they saw the Republican leaders “cower and finally retire from the contest.”
Martin W. Gary, another former Confederate general, obtained a copy of Ferguson’s letter. Gary organized a “Mississippi Plan” in South Carolina for the 1876 election. Armed white men were posted at all polls to control the votes of African Americans, and if necessary, kill them. He famously told South Carolinians: “never threaten a man individually; if he deserves to be threatened, the necessity of the times require that he should die. A dead Radical is very harmless—a threatened Radical . . . is often very troublesome, sometimes dangerous, always vindictive.”
The worst violence occurred in the small town of Hamburg, where a black company of South Carolina national guardsmen was annihilated. Some members were shot and mutilated after they surrendered because they had no more ammunition. One of the leaders of the red shirts who perpetrated this atrocity was future long-time Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman.
Gary’s plan was a smashing success: in a close election, Wade Hampton won the governorship by slightly more than 1,100 votes. In Edgefield county, 2,000 more votes were counted than registered voters!!
Final “Redemption” was achieved in the close presidential election of 1876, when New York governor and Democrat Tilden won the popular vote and 184 electoral votes to Ohio governor and Republican Hayes’s 165. There were disputed results in three Southern states – Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida – not yet “redeemed,” which held 20 votes and there was a disputed elector in Oregon.
Congress enacted a law on January 29, 1877 forming a 15-member Electoral Commission to settle the result. Five members were selected from each house of Congress, and they were joined by five members of the Supreme Court. The majority party in each house named three members and the minority party two. Since Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats the House, there were five Democratic and five Republican members of the commission. Of the Supreme Court justices, two Republicans and two Democrats were chosen, with the fifth to be selected by the four. The commission met on January 31, perilously close to Inauguration Day.
During intense closed-door meetings, Democratic leaders agreed reluctantly to accept Hayes as president in return for withdrawing federal troops from the last two still-occupied Southern states, South Carolina and Louisiana. This was agreed to after a series of 8–7 votes that gave all 20 disputed electoral votes to Hayes, giving him a 185–184 electoral vote victory before adjourning on March 2. Hayes privately took the oath of office the next day and was publicly sworn into office on March 5, 1877.
Absent the violence and intimidation throughout the South that disenfranchised many African Americans eligible to vote under the 15th Amendment, it is likely that Hayes would have won the election with 189 electoral votes to Tilden’s 180, winning all the states he ultimately carried, plus Mississippi and minus Florida. In a truly fair election, it seems probable that South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi, which all had majority-black populations, would have gone Republican, while Florida, which had a majority white population, would have likely gone to Tilden. Doubtless, Hayes would have won appreciably more of the popular vote in a fair election, perhaps even a plurality or majority.