The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War
Stephen V. Ash
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
An article on the front page of the May 26, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly reported that, “There was in Memphis on the first two days of May an excitement unequaled since the close of the war.” The riot that provoked that “excitement,” has been largely forgotten, even though, as Stephen Ash’s new book, A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War makes clear, it was one of the most important events of the Reconstruction Era. It was also one of the bloodiest race riots in American history, one in which simmering tensions over black freedom erupted, leaving scores of people dead and destroying black churches, schools, shops, and homes – the institutions that symbolized the achievements of the South’s freed slaves.
Memphis was an important and distinctive city in the 1860s, a bustling river port and cottontrade entrepôt with a strikingly diverse population. It was captured early in the war by Union forces, and during and right after the war its population mushroomed with the influx of Union occupation troops, freed slaves, Yankee missionaries and carpetbaggers, Irish-born laborers and shopkeepers, and surrendered Rebel soldiers. Always an interesting albeit rowdy and dirty and sickly place, by May 1866 the city was also a boiling cauldron of social, political, and economic conflict.
The three-day upheaval put the nation on notice that two crucial matters left unsettled by the Civil War—the restoration of the seceded states to the Union and the future of the South’s four million freed slaves—would not be easily resolved. And three weeks after the riot, Congress convened a committee to investigate it. A Massacre in Memphis begins with the committee’s arrival in Memphis, and then scrolls backward to reveal what the investigators discovered. By bringing a fresh perspective to the Reconstruction era, A Massacre in Memphis challenges myths about the period that have propagated some of our most troubling attitudes about race and civil rights.