This week the mayor of Augusta, Georgia appointed a commission to study public spaces throughout the city that honor Confederate leaders and make recommendations as to how to move forward. This includes the city’s large Confederate monument. My hope is that they do a thorough review of the relevant history surrounding this particular monument.
I have suggested more than once that Confederate monuments and memorials dedicated during the Jim Crow era need to be understood, in part, as a response to Reconstruction. The proliferation of monuments in public spaces by the turn of the twentieth century represents the success at overturning Reconstruction and the establishment once again of white supremacy.
As anyone who has studied this subject knows, white southerners celebrated the return of white rule in their monument dedication addresses and on the monuments themselves.
Augusta’s Confederate monument is a case in point. It was dedicated in 1878, just after the formal end of Reconstruction, but a closer look allows us to see it as part of this turbulent and violent period in American history.
First, the monument’s inscription is instructive, which reads in part: “No nation rose so white and fair, none fell so pure of crime.”
Like most of these celebrations, the dedication of Augusta’s Confederate monument would have brought out most of the city’s white population as well as from the surrounding area. The local Ladies Memorial Association raised the funds for the monument and helped to plan the event itself.
While searching newspaper articles about the dedication of the monument I learned more about who attended. Interestingly, it included the governor of South Carolina, Wade Hampton. The crowd also included four companies of Red Shirts from Edgefield, South Carolina.
The Red Shirts functioned as the paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party. Like the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts challenged Military Reconstruction and wreaked havoc on Black communities. But why were they in Georgia for this particular monument dedication?
Historian Bruce Baker helped me make the connection. Two years earlier in July the Hamburg Massacre took place just across the Savannah River from Augusta in the small, but predominantly African-American village. You can read a thorough account by historian Stephen Berry, but the violence involved Red Shirts and a local Black militia unit that eventually found itself confined to a warehouse. The stalemate was broken by the arrival of cannon from Augusta.
According to Hampton biographer, Rod Andrew Jr., “the tragedy led indirectly to his nomination for governor.” In October 1878 Hampton was in the midst of a reelection campaign, which he went on to win.
Hampton’s presence at the dedication ceremony could easily be seen as just another campaign stop, but the presence of the Red Shirts may perhaps be interpreted as a collective “Thank You” to the people of Augusta.
With Hamburg still fresh in the minds of local residents, the presence of the governor and Red Shirts was a show of solidarity between white Georgians and South Carolinians in their commitment to reimposing white rule in their respective states.
The cheers and martial music that rang out that October day in Augusta were not in recognition of a dead past, but a rallying cry for the work that would need to continue to ensure that a “nation so white and fair” did not die in vain.
Hey folks, there is still time to pick up a signed/personalized copy of Searching for Black Confederates and calling it summer reading.