Echoes of the Reconstruction Era: The 1876 Election—“A Dead Radical Is Harmless”

The cartoon “A National Game That Is Played Out” by Thomas Nast appeared in Harper’s Weekly Dec. 23, 1876. The cartoon depicts the ballot box as a football being kicked around by politicians.

ECW welcomes back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog

The Election of 1876 was the most contentious in United States history. While Lincoln’s election in 1860 had more tumultuous consequences, once the Democratic Party split into its “National” and “Southern” wings, Lincoln’s victory was assured. The winner of the 1876 race was hardly certain for nearly four months after the citizenry had cast their ballots. Even the method for determining the victor was in doubt for months.

I want to look at the days leading up to Election Day on November 7, 1876 ,and the thirty days immediately following. These weeks did not resolve the electoral crisis; they only set the stage for the struggle in which neither side would concede defeat, and both parties used every means at their disposal to try to conjure victory. As usual, you can find my sources by following the links.

By the Fall of 1876, Reconstruction was in retreat across the South. Bi-racial Republican governments lost most of their Federal support after the Democratic Congressional victories in the Elections of 1874. Democrats in control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War broke out used their power of the purse to starve the already small army forces fighting white terror groups in the South.

The Election of 1876 is most well-known today for what happened after the polls were closed. Fraudulent and delayed vote counts, rival state tallies of votes, and intense political maneuvering to determine the outcome after the last votes were cast is what is remembered now. Just as important was what happened before Election Day. The election is known for marking the end of Reconstruction not just because of a backroom deal for the presidency, but also because “Redeemer” governments dedicated to white supremacy took hold in all of the Southern states.

The Redeemers were typically former Confederates who formed the conservative wing of the Democratic Party in the South. Dedicated to “redeeming” their states from Black Republicans and white Radicals, they had tallied victories in elections in states with white majorities for several years. The states where Blacks were in the majority, South Carolina and Mississippi, were tougher nuts to crack. Only a tiny percentage of African Americans voted Democratic, and at least a sliver of the white vote went to the Republicans, seemingly giving the Republicans a good chance of victory.

In 1875 the Redeemers in Mississippi pioneered a path to white power even in those states and counties of the South where whites were outnumbered by Blacks. Called the “Mississippi Plan” the strategy used thousands of armed white militias to eliminate white defections to the Republicans and to intimidate Blacks into not voting.

In South Carolina, the friends of gubernatorial candidate Wade Hampton hoped to emulate the white Mississippians. They sought advice from the leaders there on how to organize the redemption of their own state.

One of the men they asked for guidance was General S. W. Ferguson of Washington County, Mississippi. Ferguson wrote to Theodore G. Barker, of Charleston, Wade Hampton’s adjutant during the Civil War and a close friend of Hampton’s. Ferguson, originally from South Carolina, served as a Brigadier General of Confederate cavalry during the Civil War and moved to Mississippi after the Confederate surrenders.

Martin Gary, another former Confederate general, apparently obtained a copy of S.W. Ferguson’s letter. Gary had taken on himself the organizing of a “Mississippi Plan” style of campaign for the 1876 Election in South Carolina, so Ferguson’s missive provided useful intelligence on how to use violence to secure victory.

Ferguson described how in a county where Blacks outnumbered Whites by five to one, a hotbed of Black Republicanism, the decision by the whites to used concentrated political violence had given them control of the election.  Ferguson wrote that “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 we let this be known as a fixed and settled thing.” White Republicans, he said, were not willing “to sacrifice themselves on the altar of rascality.” Blacks did not turn out to vote when they saw the white Republican leaders “cower and finally retire from the contest.”

He advised that armed white men needed to be posted at the polls to control the votes of African Americans, and if necessary, to kill them. He famously told the 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.”

Gary drew up his own “Plan No. 1 of Campaign.” Plan No. 1, called the “Shotgun Policy” was written in secret and distributed to Democratic clubs in all of the counties of South Carolina in secret, but it was a proud legacy of the Gary family and the General’s widow archived it after her husband’s death. (You can read the full plan here.)

Gary’s plan called for an armed force organized along military lines. Here is how Gary put it:

That the Democratic Military Clubs are to be armed with rifles and pistols and such
other arms as they may command. They are divided into two companies, one of the old men the other of the young; an experienced captain or commander to be placed over each of them. That each Company is to have a 1st and 2nd Lieutenant. That the number of ten privates is to be the unit of organization. That each Captain is to see that his men are well armed and provided with at least thirty rounds of ammunition. That the Captain of the young men is to provide a Baggage wagon, in which three days rations for the horses and three days rations for the men are to be stored on the day before the election in order that they may be prepared at a moment’s notice to move to any point in the County when ordered by the Chairman of the Executive Committee.

This paramilitary force was to have a uniform colored shirt:

Every club must be uniformed in a red shirt and they must be sure and wear it upon all public meetings and particularly on the day of election.

The men are known to history as the Red Shirts.

Even those who were not paramilitaries had a coercive role to play. Gary wrote that all Democrats were required to “control the vote of at least one negro”:

Every Democrat must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one negro, by intimidation, purchase, keeping him away or as each individual may determine, how he may best accomplish it.

The sun dawned bright over the White South the day after Election Day. Early returns favored the Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden. The headline in the Richmond Dispatch described the “Rejoicing of the People” as the partial vote counts seemed to spell defeat for the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.

The Republican candidate told his diary that he had been defeated through the massive violation of the 15th Amendment right to vote of African Americans. When party loyalists insisted that Hayes claim victory in spite of his belief that he had lost the election, the Ohio governor warned them that the returns were so close that premature announcements of triumph were destabilizing and dangerous. According to Hayes, “In the very close political contest, which is just drawing to a close, it is impossible, at so early a time, to obtain the result…”

In his November 12 diary entry Hayes said that he saw defeat as inevitable. He wrote, “In the old slave States, if the recent [13th, 14th. and 15th] Amendments were cheerfully obeyed, if there had been neither violence nor intimidation nor other improper interference with the rights of the colored people, we should have carried enough Southern States to have held the country and to have secured a decided popular majority in the nation.”

While Rutherford B. Hayes seemed to accept his defeat through voter intimidation, many other Republicans did not. On Election Night former Union General Dan Sickles dropped by Republican headquarters in Madison Square in Manhattan to review the results. Republican Party chairman Zachariah Chandler had already gone to bed when the notorious political general arrived. Looking at the returns, he became convinced that the vote would be close in Oregon, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina and that if the Republicans won those states Hayes would be the next president.

Sickles composed a telegram to Republican leaders in those four states which he, with the collusion of Chester Arthur, sent out signed by Chairman Chandler even though the Republican boss was not told of “his” telegram before it was sent out. The telegram said “With your state sure for Hayes, he is elected. Hold your state.” Each Republican recipient was to believe that he alone could save the party.

Sickles sat through the night waiting for telegrams in response. Finally, Republican Governor Daniel Chamberlain of South Carolina wired back; “All right. South Carolina is for Hayes. Need more troops. Communications with interior cut off by mobs.”

The same night, John Reid, managing editor of The New York Times, learned that the Democrats seemed worried about their margins of victory in some states. Reid was an Andersonville Prison survivor with strong feelings about the restoration of former Confederates to power in the South. As the other New York papers were awarding the election to Democrat Samuel Tilden, the Times called the contest too close to call.

With the conservative Southern media claiming Tilden had triumphed and the Republican organ, The New York Times, arguing for a close count, the path was laid for months of destabilizing conflict. In an era when a media organization could seem identical to the party it supported, editor John Reid went to Republican Chairman Chandler and demanded that he order Republicans in Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon to refuse to concede defeat. He took the telegrams to the Western Union office and sent them charged to a New York Times account. In the days that followed, both parties dispatched prominent lawyers and political leaders to the disputed Southern states to try to win the election long after the last ballot had been cast.

Former Union generals Francis Barlow and Lew Wallace were part of the Republican observation team.  The count in Alachua County in Florida was so troubling that Francis Barlow said that he could not back the Republican position on the vote tally. Lew Wallace would publicly praise the Florida vote counting system while writing to his wife that:

“It is terrible to see the extent to which all classes go in their determination to win. Conscience offers no restraint. Nothing is so common as the resort to perjury, unless it is violence—in short, I do not know whom to believe.”

By November 30, 1876, with votes being challenged and some thrown out, the questionable tally from Florida had flipped the state from a tiny plurality of fewer than 100 votes for Tilden to an even smaller one for Hayes. The Republican was now ahead by 40 votes!

In Louisiana, the Republican partisans led by Senator John Sherman, brother of the general, hunted down anyone who claimed to have been disenfranchised from whom they obtained an affidavit. This was not a difficult task. Louisiana had been the cradle of the Knights of the White Camellia terrorist group, the White League armed militia had seized New Orleans in 1874, and the state was an important recruiting ground for the Ku Klux Klan. Riots in New Orleans and massacres of Blacks in rural parishes were almost annual occurrences in the state.

In Louisiana in 1875, there were 104,192 Black voters and 84,167 white voters, the racial breakdown of the state’s electorate in itself made vote tallies favoring Tilden by 6,000 votes inherently suspicious. The only way for the Republicans to “win” the state was to change the vote count. If Blacks had been barred from voting in a Louisiana parish, should all of the votes of that parish be thrown out? At this point the only path to Republican victory was mount legal challenges to throw out some of the white votes cast.

Then there was Oregon. Oregon was a young state in 1876 and its politics were unpredictable. With only three Electoral votes, it did not get much attention during the presidential campaign, but Democrats expected to win it. They had won the governorship in 1874 and the following year they had won the state’s only Congressional seat, albeit by fewer than 300 votes. In 1876 though Republican Rutherford B. Hayes triumphed by 1,057 votes out of 29,881 cast.

This should have given Hayes all of the state’s three Electoral votes, but there was a problem. One of the three Republican Electors was allegedly legally ineligible to serve and it was unclear as to who, if anyone, would replace him. Normally, losing a single Elector would be a minor problem, but Hayes ultimately won the tally in the Electoral College 185 to 184. Losing one Oregon Elector could spell defeat for the Republicans.

John Watts was the allegedly illegal Elector. His problem was that he was the deputy postmaster of Lafayette in Yamhill County. Watts indicated after the election that he had been concerned that even though his postal position was a low-paying part-time job, it might violate the Constitutional prohibition of government workers serving as Electors. Republicans argued that as long as Watts resigned his postal job before he was sworn in as an Elector, there was no violation. Democrats claimed that his election was itself a violation of the Constitution and demanded that the candidate with the next highest vote total, a Democrat, be named one of the state’s three men to cast votes in the Electoral college. The Oregon Secretary of State announced that the three Republicans had the most votes to serve as Electors, but during the first week of December 1876 the Democratic governor issued a certificate to the Democrat as an Elector. In other words, the voters of Oregon went for Hayes, but one of the Electors was set to vote for Tilden.

2 Responses to Echoes of the Reconstruction Era: The 1876 Election—“A Dead Radical Is Harmless”

  1. There is always a great deal of focus on the Deep South’s 1876 vote, but the border south is completely ignored. What made the congested states’ votes essential for a Republican victory was the fact that not a single loyalist border state went Republican. Even West Virginia, which had gone for Abe in 1864 and Grant twice, went Democratic.

    1. The states that are focused on in this article were chosen because they are the state where the vote was contested after the election. These states include Oregon, which is not a Deep South state.

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