Reconstruction Period Research Forum
Terrorists in Laurens SC
Posted By: Cathy Freeman to Benham Research Notes
Sadly, sadly. I finally found out why Benhams are so sparse in Laurens SC after 1870.
"From 1870 to 1872 a resurgent Ku Klux Kan fought an ongoing terrorist campaign....In Oct 1870, after Republicans carried Laurens County in South Carolina, bands of white people drove 150 African Americans from their homes and murdered 13 black and white Republican activists...."
"..on the floor of the US Senate, South Carolina Senator Tillman justified violence against blacks.. Speaking on how S.C. whites gained power in 1876, "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman said in a Senate speech: "WE STUFFED BALLOT BOXES. WE SHOT THEM (BLACKS). WE ARE NOT ASHAMED OF IT." Tillman was also famous for his "lynching pledge."
Hamburg, SC in Laurens County became a haven for freedmen after the Civil War. On a July 4th 1876 celebration of the Nations's centenniel, white Red Shirts became angry seeing Union Blacks marching. There was a July 4th Hamburg Massacre led by CSA Matthew Butler. In 2004, Hamburg no longer exists. It lies flooded underneath waters caused by the Senator Strom Thurmon Damm.
Both the SC state and national elections in fall 1876 were tumultuous. White Democrat and Black Republican votes in Laurens and Edgefield County exceded the adult population. Two competing SC Governors declared victory and went to DC to plead their case. But President-elect Hayes had made a deal. To get Southern elector votes, he would remove all Union Army soldiers from the South. They were the only protection of the Freedmen. So the Democrat Wade Hampton overcame the Republican Gov Chamberlain using the admittedly fraudulent votes of Laurens and Edgefield County, SC.
Ben Tillman founded the Sabre Rifle Company in adjacent Edgefield County which spearheaded the Hamburg massacre. He became governor in 1892 and began a 24 year US Senate career until death in 1918. His successor from Edgefield and in the US Senate was Strom Thurmond.
Within South Carolina, the counties of Barnwell, Aiken, Greenwood, Laurens, Orangeburg and York had the most lynchings. An epidemic of mob killings broke out in South Carolina in the 1890s, and in the upcountry counties of Abbeville, Edgefield, Laurens and Newberry, Lynchings outnumbered legal executions during that decade.
Today, Laurens SC is most proud that President Andrew Johnson once had a tailor shop on its Courthouse Square, where all the buildings today are on the National Historic Register. Johnson was VP for Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln's assasination, He nullified General Shermans Field Order 15 which gave 40 acres and mule to Sea Island Blacks. Johnson also tried to end the Freedmen's Bureau to end Reconstruction, but his veto was overruled by Congress and almost impeached.
The black man, in Senator Tillman's words, "must remain subordinate or be exterminated."
Sound far-fetched? Remember, after the Civil War many Union Generals (including Sherman) were sent out West to just so handle the Dakota and Sioux Indians. Battle of Wounded Knee......
No wonder Jessee Benham went to Arkansas. The families of Aaron and Gabe Benham have vanished since 1870.
Since 1996 in Laurens SC, John Howard and Michael Burder have operated the Redneck Shop and "World-Famous Klan Museum" in the Courthouse Square.
Sources: Report of the Special Committee of the House of Representatives of SC...adopted Dec 21, 1876. E. Baker, "Under the Rope: Lynching and Memory in Laurens County, South Carolina. Eric Foner, Reconstruction in America. Fox Butterfield, NY Times Reporter and Pulitizer Prize Winner, "All God's Children".