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The Memphis Riots of 1866 refers to the violent events that occurred from May 1 to 3 in Memphis, Tennessee. The racial violence was ignited by tensions during Reconstruction following the American Civil War.[1] After a shooting altercation between white policemen and black soldiers recently mustered out of the Union Army, mobs of white civilians and policemen rampaged through black neighborhoods and the houses of freed slaves. Federal troops were sent to quell the violence and peace was restored on the third day. A subsequent report by a joint Congressional Committee detailed the carnage, including 46 blacks and 2 whites killed, 75 persons injured, over 100 persons robbed, 5 women raped, and 91 homes, 4 churches and 8 schools burned.[2] Modern estimates place property losses at over $100,000. Public attention following the riots and reports of the atrocities influenced the rapid proposal of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[3]


After the capture of Memphis by Union forces in 1862, the city became a concentration point for contraband camps as well as haven for freed slaves seeking protection from their former owners. The black population of Memphis increased from 3,000 in 1860 to nearly 20,000 in 1865.[3]

Following the end of the American Civil War, tension was heightened when black Union Army soldiers were used to patrol the city. Through early 1866, there were numerous instances of threats and fighting between black soldiers and white Memphis policemen, who were mostly (90%) Irish immigrants. Officials of the Freedmen’s Bureau reported that police arrested black soldiers for the minor offenses and treated them with brutality.[4] Although black soldiers were commended for restraint, rumors spread among the white community that blacks were planning some type of organized revenge. Trouble was anticipated when most black Union troops were mustered out of the army on April 30, 1866. The former black soldiers remained in the city while awaiting discharge pay.


On the afternoon of May 1, the chronic hatred between the city police and the now discharged black soldiers erupted into armed conflict. Details of the specific incident that initiated the conflict vary. The most widely held account is that policemen were attempting to take into custody several ex-soldiers for disorderly conduct and were resisted by a crowd of their comrades.[3]. Some historians attribute the inciting incident to the collision between two carriages of a black man and a white man. After a group of black veterans tried to intervene to stop the arrest of the black man, a crowd of whites gathered at the scene, and fighting broke out.[5] In each incident there was confrontation between white police officers and black Union Army soldiers. There also appeared to have been multiple confrontations followed by waves of reinforcements on both sides, extending over several hours. This initial conflict resulted in injuries to several people and one policeman's death, possibly self-inflicted due to the mishandling of his own gun[3]

The initial skirmish ended after dusk and the veterans returned to Fort Pickering[6], on the south boundary of downtown Memphis. Having learned of the trouble, attending officers disarmed the men and confined them to the base. The ex-soldiers did not contribute significantly to the events that followed.

The subsequent phase of the riots was fueled by rumors that there was an armed rebellion of Memphis' black residents.[5] These false claims were spread by local officials and rabble rousers. Matters were made worse by the suspicious absence of Memphis Mayor John Park and the indecisive commitment of the commander of federal troops in Memphis, General George Stoneman. When white mobs gathered at the scene of the initial skirmish and found no one to confront, they proceeded into nearby freedmen's settlements and attacked the residents as well as missionaries who worked there as teachers.[7] The conflict continued from the night of May 1 to the afternoon of May 3, when General Stoneman declared martial law and order was restored.[3]

No criminal proceedings were held for the instigators or perpetrators of atrocities committed during the Memphis Riots. The United States Attorney General, James Speed, ruled that judicial actions associated with the riots fell under state jurisdiction.[3] However, state and local officials refused to take action, and no grand jury was ever invoked. Although criticized for his inaction, General Stoneman was investigated by a congressional committee and was exonerated. The Memphis Riots did not mar his political career as he was later elected governor of California (1883–87).


The outcome of the Memphis riot and a similar incident (the New Orleans Riot) was to increase the political power of Radical Reconstructionists. Reports of the riot discredited President Andrew Johnson, who was from Tennessee and had been military governor of Tennessee under Lincoln. Johnson's program of Presidential Reconstruction was blocked, and the congress moved toward Radical Reconstruction.[1] The Radical Republicans swept the congressional elections of 1866, obtaining a veto-proof majority in Washington. Subsequently, the Radical Republicans were able to pass key pieces of legislation, such as the Reconstruction Acts, Force Acts, and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution which guaranteed citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and due process to former slaves. The change in political climate, initiated in response to the race riots, ultimately enabled former slaves to obtain the full rights of citizenship.[7]

Locally, the Memphis Riots resulted in major changes towards modernization of the city's police force.[8]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Zuczek, Richard (ed.). 2006. Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction Era: Memphis Riot (1866).
  2. United States Congress, House Select Committee on the Memphis Riots. 1866. Memphis riots and massacres. (reprinted by Arno Press, Inc. in 1969).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Ryan, James G. 1977. The Memphis Riots of 1866: Terror in a black community during reconstruction. The Journal of Negro History 62 (3): 243-257.
  4. Waller, Altina L. 1984. Community, class and race in the Memphis Riot of 1866. Journal of Social History 18 (2): 233-246.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. May 26, 1866: The Memphis Riots. (Also see editor's note.)
  6. Civil War Album: Fort Pickering
  7. 7.0 7.1 Tennessee Encyclopedia: Memphis Race Riot.
  8. Lovett, Bobby L. 1979. Memphis Riots: White reaction to blacks in Memphis, May 1865-July 1866. Tennessee Historical Quarterly 38: 9-33.

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