The Baseball Race Riot of 1869
The Savannah Base Ball Club set sail the evening of Saturday, July 24, 1869 on the steamer Nick King. They were traveling to Charleston, South Carolina to play the Carolina Base Ball Club. The game was much anticipated, and the excursion a gala affair. The party was over a hundred persons, including not only the members of the baseball club but also assorted friends of the club and a brass band. They arrived early Sunday morning where they were met at the wharf by the Carolina Club, and spent the day sight-seeing. The band in the meantime gave an open air concert.
The game itself was set for Monday afternoon on the grounds of the Citadel, to be followed by a throwing contest and a banquet hosted by the Carolinas. The ensuing riot was not on the programme, but in the end affected the plans surprisingly little.
The game went off successfully, ending around five o’clock. I know what you are wondering: The Savannahs won 35-17, which was a perfectly plausible score at that time. The game was witnessed by a large, mixed-race crowd. What “large” means precisely is not entirely clear. Given the absence of seating infrastructure, one or two thousand spectators would entirely surround and tend to press in on the field, which was merely roped off. At the conclusion of the game the crowd spilled onto the field, which also was typical of the era. Ordinarily this would not be a problem, but the clubs had also planned the throwing contest. So the club members and the four policemen assigned for crowd control, assisted by a half dozen soldiers from the Citadel, cleared the crowd off the field.
This resulted in the first phase of the riot. One Rafe Izzard, a “colored” man, was ordered by a policeman off the field. Izzard responded “in a sulky manner” and words ended up being exchanged. The policeman then arrested Izzard. Izzard resisted, and other blacks in the crowd joined in. A general melee ensued. The police succeeded in holding onto Izzard and eventually got him into the Citadel. In the meantime a squad of soldiers under the command of Major Ogilby arrived, armed and with bayonets fixed. History has shown that disciplined soldiers with bayonets wonderfully demoralize unarmed crowds. There are exceptions, but this was not one of them.
That would, it seemed, be that. The throwing contest seems to have been called off. The Savannah players left to their hotel to change out of their baseball uniforms, going from there to the hall of the Vigilant Fire Company for the banquet. They left the band on the grounds to accompany the Carolina Club to the hall.
Thus commenced round two. The procession formed, headed by the band. The band emerged from the Citadel gate playing ‘Dixie’ and ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag.’ It was met by a volley of stones. The bandsmen had to use their instruments as weapons to fend off the attackers. The group retreated back into the Citadel. The mayor of Charleston was present, and was appealed to for police protection, but the police had neither the numbers nor the equipment for the task. They appealed therefore to the colonel commanding the troops, who provided an armed detachment to escort the party. They marched to the hotel, and from there to the fire house.
You will be relieved to learn that they enjoyed the banquet. The president of the Carolina Club gave “a most cordial, kindly and eloquent speech hoping they would forget the unpleasantness of the past hour” and the president of the Savannahs replied with “a happy little speech” and then they dug in. In the meantime the troops remained on guard. Then it was time for the excursionists to return to the Nick King for the trip home. The procession formed up again and they marched down to the wharf, the band playing ‘Dixie’ and the soldiers periodically clearing the way with bayonets. For those interested in period cursing (and who isn’t?) it is disappointingly similar to modern cursing: “take away those bayonets and we’ll soon clean out the d – – d white sons of ‘b – -s.” They saw the Savannah party off and the Charleston force returned to the hotel until the crowd eventually dispersed.
What the hell had just happened? I’m glad you asked. You can’t tell the players without a score card, so in order to sort this out we need to look at the various groups that interacted in such a lively manner.
[Edit: See update below.] First the players and the accompanying party. These were white Southerners of the gentry class. A few years earlier they had been officers in the Confederate army (or would have been had they been old enough). Some were quite prominent. The Savannah party was led by Robert H. Anderson, who had been a general in the Confederate Army and presently was the chief of police of Savannah. There is a notion out there that Southerners rejected baseball, despising it as a Yankee game. This is a complete myth. It is true that organized baseball was slow to develop in the South, but this had to do with the postwar economy and limited urbanization and the special sort of crazy it takes to put on a flannel suit and go chase after a ball in a South Carolina summer. But within these limitations, Southerners were as enthusiastic about baseball as the rest of the country. They adopted along with the game all the social functions surrounding it. These were passe in the North by this time. Northern games had developed into serious competitive enterprises, with the social niceties largely abandoned. What we see here in Charleston resembled the New York matches of a decade earlier. There was competition, but it was also about strengthening fraternal ties between the white elites of the two cities. This explains the involvement of someone like General Anderson. He might or might not have been a baseball enthusiast, but he had reason to participate either way.
Then there are the soldiers. This being Reconstruction, these were federal troops. The common imagination is of them as an occupying army keeping down the white elite. Notice, however, that everything they did in this tale was in support of that white elite. It is a mistake to imagine them as abolitionists or eager proponents of the rights of the black man. The request for an escort officially came from the mayor, but it had been set up Anderson and the Union commander (either a Col. Eddy or Col. Andrews: accounts differ), who had served in the army together before the war. There also is the detail that when Izzard was placed in the guardhouse he was in the same cell as several Irish soldiers confined “for violations of army regulations.” They immediately took this as a signal to lay a beating on him, and he had to be taken out to save his life. These were not a bunch of hippies singing ‘Kumbaya.’
Next come the rioters. Most of these had been slaves a few years previously. Charleston in the 1860 census had a total population of about 40,200. Of these about 13.600 were slaves, 3,800 free blacks, and the rest white. How were these groups to interact? There obviously was a new social order, but no clarity abut what form it would take. The fear of the whites was that they would now be treated as they had treated the slaves. The riot did nothing to allay this. The newly freed slaves had been taught all their lives that whites could commit acts of violence against them with impunity. Now, it would seem, they were returning the favor. The whites were still in the majority, but not so much so as to dominate by sheer force of numbers. How this would play out was play out was unclear, and violence on both sides was part of the process of clarification.
This brings us next to the mayor, Gilbert Pillsbury. Of all the parties in this story, I think he is the most sympathetic. Pillsbury was a New Englander and an abolitionist. He had joined the Freedman’s Bureau (the same agency where Frederick Douglass worked) and was sent south during the war, where his job was to educate newly freed slaves. He was, in other words, a “carpetbagger”– and the fact that this term is widely used and accepted as if it were neutral speaks volumes about the historiography of Reconstruction. Charleston was under direct military rule until 1868, when elections were held. The Republican Party nominated Pillsbury for mayor, and a slate of alderman candidates equally balanced between black and white. The black candidates were of the artisan class, had been free before the war, and were better educated (for the obvious reason) than their recently freed brethren. The Republicans won a clean sweep, but Pillsbury won by only 22 votes. He began integrating the police force, even placing some blacks in positions of authority. Several of the police opposing the rioters were black.
Pillsbury was trying to create a racially integrated society with blacks and whites sharing in both civil and economic life. In other words, he was caught in the middle. He wasn’t entirely alone. A week after the riot a meeting of about two hundred persons, mostly black, adopted a resolution condemning the violence. The black middle class supported Pillsbury’s goals, but they were a small minority of the black community. The white establishment vilified Pillsbury, while mass of the black population wasn’t of a centrist mind either.
What we have here is a powder keg. For the spark, there is one more piece to the puzzle: that band the Savannah Club brought with them that kept playing ‘Dixie’–and I don’t believe for a moment that this wasn’t a direct provocation. I omitted one detail about the band: they were black. It comes through clearly from the accounts that the band was what really set off the rioters. An additional bit of context is that Savannah was not run like Charleston. Charleston had a strong federal presence and the city government was under Republican control. The hand of Reconstruction was lighter in Savannah, and the local white elite retained control. As one Savannah paper was happy to explain, “There is not a more peaceable, well behaved and orderly negro population in the Union than we have here, and it is all owing to the thoroughness of the police and firmness of the citizens generally. We have bad negroes amongst us… but they are made to know their places, and that punishment is the sure consequence of a violation of the law.” Everyone was aware of the difference. Quotes ascribed to the Charleston blacks include “This is no Savannah,” and “The colored boys run this town.”
The band represented one possible resolution to the new social order: blacks being free, but servile. They were rewarded for this. They were praised by the white press, the Savannah Club took up a collection on the trip home for the replacement of their instruments, and the citizens of Charleston contributed an additional $160. This was not trivial. Even apart from inflation, you don’t need to read too far between the lines to realize that in the aftermath of the war money was tight, for all the show they put on of Southern gentry life. The oppressor loves it when the oppressed are not only compliant, but cheerful. It puts a pretty face on the relationship. I have no idea what the bandsmen really thought, but to the Charleston black the situation was obvious: the bandsmen were Uncle Toms. Collaborators always evoke special loathing.
Of course Savannah was the future of the South, not Charleston. Nothing that happened in Charleston mattered to this in the long run. Reconstruction was ended for national electoral reasons, and the issue not reopened until the mid 20th century.
I describe this a baseball race riot, but was it really? It clearly was a race riot, but was it really a baseball riot? The classic baseball riot is centered around the events of the game: disgruntlement with the umpire or a particularly hated visiting player. None of that applies here. The accounts of the players and of the game itself are all hail-fellow-well-met. There aren’t even any complaints about the umpire. Furthermore, dig a little and you will find any number of race riots in Reconstruction South that had no connection to sporting activity. There clearly is an argument that baseball is incidental to the riot. (The same, by the way, could be said of the Disco Demolition Day riot: that it was merely the manifestation of artistic differences.)
I argue to the contrary. Baseball history, in my view, is part of cultural history. This is to say, it is part of history. Baseball history often is reduced to winning percentages and batting averages. This is a mistake. If that were all there is to it, I would be bored out of my skull by it. But as cultural history, there is much to be fascinated by: Frederick Douglass played baseball, and his son was an officer of a baseball club for over a decade. Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized a female baseball club. These were serious people with serious concerns, which somehow translated into baseball. If we want to understand what was going on, baseball is a part of this process. The Charleston riot occurred within the context of baseball traditions and practices. The game itself was an attraction to black and white alike. (There also were black baseball clubs in Charleston in this era, though you have to dig a bit deeper to find them.) Any given riot occurs for many reasons, both proximate and further removed. This one was, in part, because of how a baseball match created the proximate conditions for a riot to occur.
The Savannah Club returned three weeks later. It was met with a heavy police and military escort. Savannah won again, this time 57-36. There was only limited violence. Pillsbury wasn’t reelected. He returned North and lived the rest of his life in Massachusetts.
My primary sources for this were the Charleston Daily News and Courier and the National Chronicle Journal of American Sports and Amusements, which quoted extensively from the Savannah Advertiser. Gilbert Pillsbury’s obituary is in the New York Times of January 5, 1893. This research was usefully supplemented with Black Charlestonians: A Social History 1822 – 1885 by Bernard E. Powers, Jr.
UPDATE: My colleague in geekery, Bruce Allerdice, has gently pointed out that a screwed the pooch on the Savannah Club membership. See his comment. Having slept on this, I think there are two possibilities. The Savannah Club might have had a relatively large membership of mixed economic status, with the best nine players picked for the big game regardless of their status, and possibly with some players recruited who weren’t the sort the rest would ordinarily hang out with. This pattern was typical of the top New York clubs a decade earlier. The second possibility is that the club membership was small–perhaps even just the nine players and the club officers, with the officers subsidizing the club finances. In this scenario General Anderson, and perhaps a few others, are supporting the club for reasons of his own, lending his social prestige to it. This pattern was found in New York, with the most notable example being Boss Tweed and the Mutual Club. My guess is that the first pattern applies, but this is just a guess.
I don’t think it affects the general gist of my argument about what happened. Whether the class status lay with the players themselves or was borrowed for the occasion doesn’t change the dynamic.