“Waving the Bloody Shirt:” Reconstruction Era Violence and Political Identity

Content warning: This post discusses murders motivated by racism against African Americans. Some quotations include language that is considered inappropriate by today’s standards.

Red and navy trimmed wool shirt with brass buttons worn by Josiah McKie during the events of the Hamburg Massacre in 1876.

This object is an important piece of Reconstruction Era history in South Carolina – the Red Shirt. Shirts dyed red were once symbols adopted by white supremacist paramilitary organizations that emerged to oppose the Reconstruction government. This was supposed to be a mockery of the concept of “waving the bloody shirt.”

In April 1871, Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin Butler had made an impassioned speech on the floor of the House. He spoke about ongoing lynchings and racial tensions in the post-war South, encouraging military intervention. Supposedly, he spoke while holding up the bloodied shirt of a man who had been badly beaten by Ku Klux Klan members. While not true, this tall tale turned into a symbol, where Red Shirts mocked his suggestion that the adoption of martial law was necessary to prevent further violence.

“Too far gone, John!–That balloon will never rise again.” Eugene Zimmerman for Puck Magazine, 1885. Image courtesy of
The Library of Congress

Red Shirts were often worn by local chapters of what were socially known as “rifle clubs” but were in fact paramilitary groups across the South who worked to intimidate local freedmen and White sympathizers. Red Shirts often gathered at political rallies for candidates like Wade Hampton, or stood at polling places during elections, using intimidation and the threat of violence to prevent local Black residents from voting.

The Red Shirt in the collection here at The Charleston Museum was worn by Josiah McKie, who was present at the Hamburg Massacre in July 1876, one of the worst clashes between White supremacists and Black militia members in the state’s history.

Map of North Augusta, formerly the site of Hamburg, South Carolina. Screenshot by Virginia Theerman, June 18, 2024, via Google Maps.

On July 4th, 1876, Company A of the Eighteenth Regiment of the South Carolina National Guard, a Freedman’s company, was parading in Hamburg to celebrate the centennial holiday. Two White men, Thomas J. Butler, and Henry Getzen, wanted to drive their cart down the main road, and a disagreement broke out between them and the Captain of the Company, Dock Adams. Though Butler and Getzen were allowed to pass, the next morning Butler took out a complaint against Adams for obstructing the road. Things only became more heated in court that day, and the hearing was postponed until Saturday, July 8th.

Senator Benjamin Tillman, ca. 1910. Bain News Service, Publisher. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

The Struggles of 1876: How South Carolina was Delivered from Carpet-Bag and Negro Rule, by Senator B.R. Tillman, August 25th, 1909. Digitized by Google and the Hathi Trust, original from The University of Michigan.

In the intervening days, word spread, and many rifle club members found their way to Hamburg. Benjamin Tillman, who later became a United States Senator, was one of them. In a 1909 speech recalling the events of the day, he wrote that they wanted to:

“seize the first opportunity that the negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the negroes a lesson….nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state from negro and carpet bag rule.”

In the end, over 100 Red Shirts turned up to confront the 38 members of the militia. They had been cornered into a second floor room of a local meeting house, after refusing to attend the sham trial that was now clearly an ambush. After demanding the militia surrender their weapons, the situation devolved into a firefight. Thomas McKie Meriwether, cousin of Josiah McKie, was shot and killed. He would be the only White casualty of the day, and his death further incited an already violent atmosphere.

Thomas McKie Meriwether’s Dagger, c. 1870-1875. Steel, horn, brass, and leather. Donated to The Charleston Museum by
Josiah M. McKie, 1928.

Two men, Moses Parks and James Cook, the town marshal, were shot down in the street as dark fell. After attempts to break the stand off and escape, thirty militiamen were then captured by the Red Shirts. They chose five of these men to murder by firing squad as examples to the rest:

Allan Attaway
Albert Myniar
David Phillips
Hampton Stephens
Pompey Curry

Only Curry escaped, by making a running break for it and then playing dead when the Red Shirts’ shot hit him in the leg.

The consequences of the Hamburg Massacre were both far reaching and yet underwhelming. It made national news, and was even intensely debated in Congress. 94 Red Shirts were indicted as a result, but none were convicted. Two of the participants that day, Benjamin Tillman and Matthew Butler, went on to become U.S. Senators themselves.

Edgefield Advertiser, February 23, 1916. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Hamburg, however, became a ghost town, and today is part of North Augusta, near Augusta, Georgia. A memorial to Meriwether, the sole White casualty, was erected in 1916 as part of efforts to build the myth of The Lost Cause. It stands in John C. Calhoun Park, proclaiming on one side, “He exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization. By his death he assured the supremacy of that ideal.”

In recent years, efforts have been made to either remove or recontextualize the obelisk. This event of 150 years ago continues to have ripple effects as South Carolina works to reckon with that complex, divisive history today. Fortunately, a historic marker with a more complete history, as well as a headstone in tribute to all of the victims, has been placed near Providence Baptist Church.

“Red Shirt” Catalogue Card, July 1928. From the Records of The Charleston Museum.

Josiah McKie’s shirt was donated to the museum in 1928, after his death in accordance with his own wishes. This catalogue card, completed when the shirt was donated, describes the Red Shirts as a “home defense unit” who were “called out to aid state and federal troops” in dealing with a “black uprising” of “insurgents.”

In this case, the museum’s own history proves how strong the mythos was surrounding the Hamburg massacre, framing it as part of the Lost Cause, rather than intentionally provoked racist violence. Today, Museum staff continue to update the language in our records and add additional context to provide a more complete history of our region. Though a painful story, this shirt is an important piece of material culture, evidence of not only the violence in Hamburg, but of the way ordinary people worked to uphold white supremacy in the Reconstruction South.

This fall, our new permanent gallery exhibition, “Beyond the Ashes: The Lowcountry’s New Beginnings” will open to the public. Covering the Reconstruction Era through the Civil Rights movement and beyond, this new exhibit will include the Red Shirt on permanent display. We hope you will join us to mark the opening of this new section of our museum, and to better understand the history of Charleston and the Lowcountry from the late 19th century to the early 21st.

–Virginia Theerman, Curator of Historic Textiles July 2024

Red and navy trimmed wool shirt with brass buttons worn by Josiah McKie during the events of the Hamburg Massacre in 1876.

Select Bibliography

  • Budiansky, Stephen. The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War. Plume by The Penguin Group, 2009.
  • Heard, Shakailah. “North Augusta Still Waiting on Answers about Meriwether Monument.” Aiken Standard, June 23, 2021.
  • Heckel, Jenny, “Remembering Meriwether: White Carolinian Manipulation of the Memory of the Hamburg Massacre of 1876” (2016). All Theses. 2558.
  • Hodges, Lindsey. “Racially Divisive Symbol: What Is the Meriwether Monument in North Augusta?” Post and Courier, June 12, 2020.
  • “The Hamburg Massacre Historical Marker.” Accessed June 14, 2024. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=238696.
  • Tillman, Benjamin. “Struggles of 1876 : How South Carolina Was Delivered from Carpet-Bag and Negro Rule : Speech at the Red-Shirt Re-
  • Union at Anderson.” Anderson, South Carolina, August 25, 1909.