By Dr. Walter G. Howell
Senator Charles Caldwell planned the political rally in Clinton as a Republican response to the Democratic meeting in Raymond the previous month. He invited Democrats to send a representative to the Clinton barbeque as a gesture of practical bi-partisanship, hoping the Democrats would behave and not disrupt the Republican rally.
Amos Johnston, a long-time resident of Clinton and a Democratic candidate for the State Senate, accepted the invitation to speak for his party. Various Republican dignitaries were invited, including Governor Adelbert Ames; but most either declined the invitation or were unable to attend.
The Republican barbeque was held on the old Moss Hill plantation grounds, across the railroad tracks northwest of downtown Clinton. Union soldiers burned the plantation in 1863, and Walter Hillman purchased the property during Reconstruction. He allowed African-Americans to use the grounds. They called it “Moses Hill.”
The Republican rally took place on September 4, 1875, a Saturday. It was a day of anticipation for the people of Clinton. African-Americans looked forward to barbeque and political speeches. Whites in Clinton were apprehensive. Most store owners closed their shops early that day.
Senator Charles Caldwell organized the rally and speciﬁed that no weapons or alcoholic beverages were to be allowed on the grounds. He appointed a small cadre of Republican constables to enforce the rules. Caldwell and other Republican leaders arrived early at Moss Hill to set up the speaker’s stand and direct the different food vendors to their assigned locations on the grounds.
Around mid-morning, more than two hundred armed black males rode into Clinton on horseback and paraded along Jefferson, Leake, and Monroe streets before riding on to Moss Hill. Joseph Abou, who lived at China Hill on Jefferson Street, hurried home to retrieve a riﬂe. He returned to his store and stood on guard for the rest of the day.
Estimates put as many as 1,500 to 2,000 black men, women and children at Moss Hill that day. About seventy-ﬁve whites were present, most from Clinton and Jackson, but about eighteen came from Raymond. Captain William Lewis of the Mississippi College Riﬂes, Mayor William Archer, and Sarah Dickey were among the Clinton people at the rally.
John Chilton, a white Republican merchant in Clinton, presided over the speaker’s stand and introduced Amos Johnston to the crowd at 1 p.m. From all accounts, Johnston’s speech was well received, and he complimented the audience on their good behavior and asked the same courtesy for Captain H. T. Fisher, the next speaker. Fisher, editor of the Weekly Mississippi Pilot in Jackson, was the ﬁrst of several Republican candidates scheduled to speak.
Fisher spoke for about ﬁve minutes before he was interrupted with a loud “Stop lying!” The shout came from John Neal of Raymond. Neal and a small group from Raymond had been drinking on the edge of the crowd. They saw themselves as a “committee” entrusted with the mission of making Republicans tell the truth at their political “pow-wows.”
After Neal’s shouts of “Stop lying!” or “You are lying!” Caldwell left the area of the speaker’s stand and hurried to the edge of the open ﬁeld, where blacks and whites were already shoving. Caldwell saw one white, Frank Thompson of Raymond, with a gun in his hand, confronting one of the constables. Caldwell asked him to put it away, which Thompson did. Then as Caldwell walked away, shooting started.
The grounds at Moss Hill were empty within a few minutes, as men, women, and children ﬂed the pistol and riﬂe ﬁre between blacks and the men from Raymond. Many ﬂed to the Clinton railroad depot to await the four o’clock train to Jackson. When the train from Vicksburg arrived, about forty “white liners” from Bolton and Edwards got off and immediately took control of the railroad depot. They sent scouts to Moss Hill to determine what had happened and what their next steps would be.
Later that evening, another group from Vicksburg arrived. They called themselves Modocs, after a California Indian tribe noted for its vicious attacks on white settlers. The Modocs began a search for adult black males, killing any they could ﬁnd.
When Governor Ames learned of the rioting in Clinton that Saturday afternoon, he sent a telegram to President Ulysses S. Grant requesting federal assistance to restore order. When the President did not respond, Ames sent a telegram to the U.S. Attorney General; but, again, President Grant did not respond.
Sarah Dickey later wrote a letter to the President expressing her concern about the absence of a federal response to the Clinton situation: “[I] was on the ground early, and I saw enough with my own eyes to convince any honest person that the Republicans went there for nothing but peace, proﬁt, and pleasure, and that the Democrats…went there for the express purpose of creating a disturbance and killing as many as they could.”
The immediate death toll of the Clinton Riot included three white men killed and probably ﬁve African-Americans, two of whom were children. In the days and weeks that followed, after the night riders ﬁnished their work, dozens of African-Americans lay dead.
The Clinton Riot was the goal of a group of Democrats from Raymond who felt compelled to assert their “right” to disrupt Republican speakers if they disagreed with what was being said. Armed and bolstered by alcohol, they provoked the disturbance and ﬁred the ﬁrst shots. They achieved their goal of disrupting the meeting, but at a terrible price.
Editor’s note: The City of Clinton will dedicate two historical markers on September 4, 2015: one for the Clinton Riot, and the other for Charles Caldwell, victim of an assassination in December 1875. This is the third in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell, the City Historian, on the Clinton Riot of September 1875, an event that started the end of Reconstruction in Mississippi and the rest of the South.