Bulldozing Reconstruction and Southern Voters



“Bull-Dozing” circa 1877.
Source: Library of Congress.

This is one of the more… stunning images that I’ve seen from the Reconstruction/Redemption era. It speaks to the practice of “bull-dozing” in the South. Bulldozing was the name given to the sometimes violent, always coercive methods that were used to suppress the southern black vote in the mid to late 1870s.

The Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War saw a profound growth in the political power of African Americans in the South. This included, for example, the election of over a dozen black men to the United States Congress. All of the these men were members of the Republican Party, AKA the party of Lincoln. The period also saw a disturbing amount of political corruption, not just in the South, but in parts of the North and the federal government as well.

This led to a white backlash, and black voters and the Republican Party in the South were the main victims. In 1875, the “Mississippi Plan” was implemented to limit black voting power in a state whose population was over 50% African American. As noted by Wikipedia, “The Mississippi Plan of 1875 was devised by the Democratic Party to overthrow the Republican Party in the state by means of organized threats of violence and suppression or purchase of the black vote, in order to regain political control of the legislature and governor’s office. The Mississippi Plan was successful in those aims… violence [against black voters] went unchecked… during Mississippi’s 1875 election, five counties with large black majorities polled 12, 7, 4, 2, and 0 votes, respectively. The Republican victory by 30,000 votes in 1874 was reversed to a Democratic majority of 30,000 in 1875.”

Whites in Louisiana and South Carolina, whose states were also at least 50% African American, followed suit. As noted in Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People, by Murrin, Johnson, McPherson, Fahs, and Gerstle:

Democrats entered the [1876 presidential] campaign as favorites for the first time in two decades. It seemed likely that they would be able to put together an electoral majority from a “solid South” plus New York and two or three other northern states. To ensure a solid South, they looked to the lessons of the Mississippi Plan. In 1876 a new word came into use to describe Democartic intimidation techniques: “bulldozing.” To bulldoze voters meant to trample them down or keep them away from the polls. In South Carolina and Louisiana, the Red Shirts and the White League mobilized for an all-out bulldozing effort.

The most notorious incident, the “Hamburg Massacre,” occurred in the village of Hamburg, South Carolina, where a battle between a black militia unit and 200 Red Shirts resulted in the capture of several militia men, five of whom were shot “while attempting to escape.” This time president Grant did send in federal troops. He pronounced the Hamburg Massacre “cruel, blood-thirsty, wanton, unprovoked… a repetition of the course that has been pursued in other Southern States.”

The federal government also put several thousand deputy marshals and election supervisors on duty throughout the South. Though they kept an uneasy peace at the polls, they could do little to prevent assaults, threats and economic coercion in backcountry districts, which reduced the potential Republican tally in the former Confederate states by at least 250,000 votes.

The 1876 election between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes resulted in disputed electoral vote totals, and neither man was immediately declared the election winner. After a series of political maneuvers and compromises, Hayes was determined to be the winner. But part of the deal was that Hayes had to remove all Federal troops from Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida (by then, troops had been removed from the rest of the former Confederate states).

Lacking the protection of federal troops, large portions of the southern electorate were disenfranchised, leading the way to the Redemption era and the creation of the Jim Crow South.

The image is from the Library of Congress’ William A. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs. It was made by James Landy, a Cincinnati photographer.

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One thought on “Bulldozing Reconstruction and Southern Voters

  1. Pingback: Lovely Words | Magnificent Nose

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