‘Riot’ or ‘Massacre’ – Revisiting the reporting of the Memphis Riot and Massacre of 1866

By Robert A. Lanier

Riot: Public violence, tumult, or disorder; a violent public disorder. (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1977 edition); A disturbance of the peace by a crowd; an occurrence of public disorder. (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 9th Edition, 1995) 

Massacre: The act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty. (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1977 edition). 

 In the first days of May, 1866, White men, mostly first or second generation residents in Memphis, numbering some two or three hundred in all, went on a rampage murdering 46 African American Memphians, injuring many more, and burning every Black school and church. Apparently many of the victims were family members of local African American soldiers.1 No one was ever prosecuted for these crimes. The foregoing facts have been well recorded in three published official investigations and have appeared in more or less detail in virtually every history book about Memphis and the United States during the post-Civil War period. They are clearly mentioned even in publications which tried to imply some blame on the part of the victims in instigating the mayhem. 

There are two recent books specifically on this subject. In 2013, A Massacre in Memphis, by Stephen V. Ash, a retired University of Tennessee History professor, was published. Although its bibliography meticulously lists a myriad of sources, it relies heavily upon three official hearings which were held shortly after the events described. In 2020, Remembering the Memphis Massacre, a collection of essays about slavery and Reconstruction edited by Susan Eva O’Donovan and Beverly Green Bond, University of Memphis history professors, was published. From them, the authors glean these seemingly undisputed facts: 

The American Civil War ended in the spring of 1865 with the surrender of all of the Confederate armies. Memphis had been occupied by Union military forces since June of 1862. A Union Army fort, called Fort Pickering, was located in the contiguous separate town of South Memphis. For our purposes, the area of the events in question is roughly south of Beale Street and bounded on the west by the Mississippi River. The fort had included in its garrison a unit of Black soldiers, primarily enlisted from the area. South Memphis was inhabited by a number of Black Memphians, as well as some Whites. As most of the long-time White residents of Memphis had been either actively Confederate or refused to take an oath of loyalty to the Union during the war, they were now ineligible to vote. As a result, Irish immigrants who could vote had elected and appointed officials, including the police, who controlled city government. These Irish Memphians had long harbored hostility toward the Blacks, not only due to racial prejudice, but because of rivalry for menial jobs. 

In April of 1866, the Black troops at Fort Pickering were released from the Army in the postwar reduction of forces. They turned in their rifles, but some had personal firearms and many still wore their uniforms. Many got liquored up and indulged in rowdy behavior, including profanity and fights. There was also some theft and burglary and selling of stolen government property, as well as occasional interference with lawful arrests. 

On May 1, three Black ex-soldiers in uniform were walking south and met four policemen going north. The Blacks yielded the right of way, but unfriendly words were exchanged. One Black man ran into the street, tripped and fell. One of the policemen then followed him, but also fell. Everyone began cursing each other and the policemen drew their pistols. The two groups separated and the Blacks walked on, but one defied the policemen to follow them. One did, and clubbed a Black ex-soldier on the head with his pistol so that it began to bleed. At that point, another Black picked up a stick and hit a policeman. The injured ex-soldier then dared the policeman who hit him to fight. Another policeman then threw an object, hitting a Black on the head. The ex-soldiers then moved on, cursing and issuing challenges. The parties separated. 

That evening, farther south in South Memphis, several dozen ex-soldiers, about half of whom were visibly drunk, stood around on the street and sidewalk, yelling and laughing loudly, irritating nearby White residents and shopkeepers. Memphis city judge (“Recorder”) John Creighton heard of the disturbance and (without legal authority) ordered four Irish Memphis policemen to cross into South Memphis and disperse the crowd. One policeman protested this crossing into another jurisdiction, but Creighton insisted and they proceeded to the crowd. 

Upon reaching the assembly, a policeman asked one of them known to him what they were doing. “Just drinking and going on,” was the reply. “This will not do,” the officer said, and told them to quiet down and get off the street. They traded insults and the police were told by the crowd to leave. One Black man who hated all Whites and had previously been arrested and beaten (probably by one of these policemen), cursed a policeman and brandished a club before he was restrained by some of his companions. The four policemen then backed away and started to leave. The crowd followed, picking up clubs and stones and yelling, “stone them, club them, shoot them,” and “kill them.” One of the closest shoved a policeman, but the policemen moved on. At this point, several ex-soldiers fired their pistols into the air. The policemen then turned around and three of them reached for their own pistols. Two policemen fired and wounded three ex-soldiers slightly. In return, some twenty of the Black men fired at the policemen, but hit none. Then one policeman accidentally shot himself in the leg. Everyone thought that the fusillade from the ex-soldiers had hit him. Nobody else was wounded. 

At this point, two of the policemen ran away, followed by a few Blacks. One policeman stayed to help the wounded policeman with the aid of a couple of Black people. One soldier who was following the two fleeing policemen returned to his companions and stated that the police had killed one of the ex-soldiers. They then located one of the policemen and someone shouted, “Kill the God-damned white livered son of a bitch.” As the policeman tried to reload his pistol he was shot in the back, falling to the ground, but still alive. The Blacks thought they had killed him and dispersed. 

Judge Creighton then heard that two policemen had been shot and so reported to the Memphis chief of police, the county sheriff and others. White mobs then formed, invading South Memphis and attacking both ex-soldiers and entirely innocent and uninvolved Black men, women and children. At the end of two days, 46 Black Memphians were dead, 75 were injured, 5 Black women were brutally raped, and 100 Blacks were robbed of their pitiful possessions and money. In addition, 4 Black churches, 12 Black schools and 91 Black dwellings were destroyed. No Whites were killed by the Blacks. 

The Memphis Massacre. Harper’s Weekly, May 26, 1866

The foregoing summary from Ash’s 2013 book presents an objective picture, based on eyewitness accounts, of two discrete but interlocked situations: (1)The atmosphere of hostility between Irish and working class Whites and Black Union Army soldiers, superimposed upon general racist attitudes, and (2) simple racist and hate-motivated acts of brutality, murder and crime. The former provided an explanation but no excuse for the latter. 

Not mentioned in Ash’s book, but reported in at least one Memphis newspaper of the period, were several killings of Whites at the hands of Black soldiers in late 1865 and early 1866. On December 13, 1865, a soldier was reported to have shot a Mr. Roland to death as he was crossing the street. On December 19, armed soldiers entered the store of a J.W. Hanks and reportedly killed him.2 The background to these acts of violence is not known. 

Older histories of Memphis, written usually by White Southerners, generally do not attempt to excuse the orgy of murder, brutality and arson which followed the preceding clashes between the police and the ex-soldiers. But they do not fail to note anecdotal misbehavior by the latter, in an attempt to place the massacre in some sort of context. A lack of identification of sources makes these later reports of doubtful value to the modern reader. 

Goodspeed’s History of Hamilton, Knox and Shelby Counties of Tennessee, published in Nashville and Chicago in 1887, (without identifying the author[s]), places the date of “a conflict. . . between the police, citizens and the negro soldiery stationed at the forts” at May 11, 1866. Possibly this is a typographical error. It states that “bad feeling” existed between the police and the soldiers, some of the latter being “of a very disreputable class,” and “some of the police were not of the best.” The book maintains that, because the soldiers were used to execute the orders of Federal authorities, they were frequently “brought in conflict with the police,” and “a deadly feud grew up, which was encouraged by agitators and demagogues.” The account then simply states that “a reign of terror existed from the 1st to the 3rd of May, which was only suppressed by General Wallace [sic] and the leading citizens.” The toll is placed at “about twenty-four negroes…killed, and property estimated at $120,000 was destroyed.”3 

“The Memphis Riots,” Harper’s Weekly Magazine, May 26, 1866, p. 321.
 Kevin Hardwick, “‘Your Old Father Abe Lincoln is Dead and Damned’: Black Soldiers and the Memphis Race Riot of 1866”. Journal of Social History 27(1), Autumn 1993; pp. 109–218.

Perhaps the oldest serious history of Memphis, dating from 1888, was written by John McLeod Keating, a newspaper editor born in Ireland and educated in Scotland, who immigrated to the U.S. and after some years moved to Memphis in 1858. He was pro-Confederate but remained in Memphis during the Union occupation and was 36 at the time of the massacre.4 He wrote in his standard history of Memphis that, before the riot, the Black ex-soldiers were “intruding themselves in an overbearing manner upon the notice of the poor White people residing in the vicinity who…finally becoming incensed to a point beyond endurance resented it to the extent of personal chastisement . . . The Negroes became more and more threatening, . . . when on the 2nd of May a White man struck a Black boy who had knocked a little White boy down. For this he was killed by a Negro soldier.”5 

No mention of such an incident is made by Ash in the 2013 book, which emphasizes that no Whites were killed by Blacks in the ensuing violence. He presumably read every word of the voluminous testimony contained in the three official investigations made in 1866. It is often noted that the inquiries were conducted by the Federal authorities. 

In 1912, Judge J.P. Young, a Mississippian, produced a more authentic version when he wrote that, on the afternoon of May 1, 1866, the ex-soldiers were “on a spree” and “making great disturbance in …South Memphis.” At 3 p.m., he wrote, a policeman arrested one especially unruly ex-soldier, but he was rescued by his companions, who “made great threats about what they meant to do to White people and to the policeman especially.” When six policemen came an hour later and two of them arrested two “particularly boisterous soldiers,” the other soldiers yelled, “stone ‘em! Shoot ‘em! Club ‘em!”6 

Around 1916, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, a fiery pro-Confederate resident and widow of a Confederate officer, wrote, (without specifying a date) that, “. . . for a while delicate white women were elbowed off the sidewalks into the muddy streets by coarse Negro men — then something happened, something which is known in history as the ‘Memphis Riots.’” Mrs. Meriwether’s writings reveal her to have been an especially racist and biased source even for her time, and it is by no means clear that she had personal knowledge of such incidents.7 

Shields McIlwaine, a Memphis college professor, wrote in 1948 of a similar incident as follows: “A Memphis gentlewoman with her two small boys was walking down a muddy sidewalk. A big negro met them, shoved her sprawling into the sloppy road, and stalked on.” She allegedly crawled onto the sidewalk and warned her sons not to mention the incident to their father, or he would kill the Black man and “the Yankees would hang him.”8 It seems entirely possible that the source of this account was Mrs. Meriwether, who had two sons, but McIlwaine gives no attribution, nor does he place the incident in a specific time period. In any event, it would in no way justify the cruel and bloodthirsty events that followed the encounters with the ex-soldiers. 

In 1939 a Tulane University History professor named Gerald Capers gave a less than objective account of the entire incident. He wrote that the ex-soldiers, “emboldened by whisky, persecuted the poor whites in [sic] Fort Pickering. Naturally the police force, over 90 per cent Irish…waited impatiently for an opportunity to revenge the treatment of their brethren.” He recites the attempt to prevent the arrest, when “. . . at once the rest of the force, the firemen, the politicians, and the rabble all rushed to the scene . . .” He then reports that the result was 46 dead, of which two were White, 75 wounded and “property damage” estimated at $130,000.9 

A historian of the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, wrote in 1971 that “The rioting broke out spontaneously between recently discharged Negro soldiers and lower class Whites . . . Three days of rioting resulted in more than $125,000 in property damage and the deaths of two White men and 46 Negroes.”10 This was perhaps the least accurate and most trivializing of all the accounts, making the massacre sound rather like a deadly bar-room brawl. 

Controversy arose in 2016 over the proposal of the Tennessee Historical Commission to sponsor a metal historical “marker,” or sign, referring to the events as a “riot.” Some Memphians insisted that the incident be referred to as a “massacre” instead. As the dictionary definitions at the head of this article demonstrate, the mob crimes fit both definitions. While the word, “riot” sometimes carries the connotation of a mutual affray between two or more groups, it does not necessarily do so. The conclusion seems inescapable that the atrocities committed by the white mob in Memphis in May of 1866 justify both descriptions. As to their deeper cause, perhaps only a psychiatrist or sociologist, if anyone, could explain them. 

Robert A. Lanier was born in Memphis in 1938, and has spent most of his life in the city as an attorney, with stints serving as a Circuit Court judge from 1982 until his retirement in 2004. Lanier also served as an Adjunct Professor at the Memphis State University School of Law (U of M) in 1981. He was a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission from 1977 to 1982, and was a founder of Memphis Heritage Inc., the historical preservation group still active today. He is the author of several books about Memphis history, including In the Courts (1969), Memphis in the Twenties (1979), and The History of the Memphis & Shelby County Bar (1981), and his most recent, Memphis in the Jazz Age (2021). Lanier also donated hundreds of his personal historic Memphis photographs to the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library – part of Lanier’s personal interest with Memphis history and historic preservation – and they can be viewed on the library’s digital archive and collection (DIG Memphis) under the Robert Lanier Collection

1 Eric Foner, Reconstruction (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1988) p. 262. 

2 The Memphis Appeal of December 14 and 20, 1865, quoted in the doctoral dissertation of Douglas Cupples of Memphis, Tennessee. 

3 Goodspeed’s History of Hamilton, Knox & Shelby Counties of Tennessee,(Nashville and Chicago, 1887, reprinted by Elder Booksellers, 1974) page 837. 

4 Internet; John McLeod Keating; Find a Grave. 

5 J.M Keating, History of the City of Memphis & Shelby County Tennessee, Vol. 1 (Syracuse: D. Mason & Co., 1888), p.569. 

6 J.P. Young, Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee (Knoxville: H.W. Crew & Co., 1912)< p. 141. 

7 Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, Recollections of 92 Years, 1824-1916 (Nashville: Tennessee Historical Commission, 1958), p.178.

8 Shields McIlwaine, Memphis Down in Dixie (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1948), p.149. 

9 Gerald M. Capers, Jr., The Biography of a River Town (New Orleans: Tulane University, 1939), p. 177. 

10 Thomas Harrison Baker, The Memphis Commercial Appeal (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U. Press, 1971), p.116.  

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