By Dr. Walter G. Howell
Newspapers across the country took up the story of the Clinton Riot. The Philadelphia Bulletin and the New York Herald printed the basic facts of the riot and explained it as a white reaction to Republican government in Mississippi. George Harper, in the Hinds County Gazette, wrote that the riot was “the result of Radical Republicans raising too high expectations for the colored with the result of colored hating whites, which led to the riot.”
W. T. Fisher, editor of the Weekly Mississippi Pilot, blamed George Harper’s inﬂammatory stories on Republican government and his promoting the “Mississippi Plan” to disrupt all Republican meetings. Fisher called the event “the Clinton massacre – the disgraceful and bloody carnage at Clinton.”
Charles Caldwell wrote a personal account of the Riot in the Weekly Mississippi Pilot. He was disappointed in the number of whites from Raymond who came to Moss Hill armed and drinking whiskey. When they interrupted W. T. Fisher with shouts of “liar” and “stopping telling lies,” Caldwell tried to calm the whites from Raymond, but with no success. Caldwell’s account of the events leading to the riot was supported by testimony from numerous other eyewitnesses a year later.
In October 1875, Governor Adelbert Ames directed Charles Caldwell, a captain in the state militia as well as state senator, to lead one of two militia companies to Edwards’ Station to secure a cache of ﬁrearms stored there. Ames feared vigilantes might seize the weapons and start a general uprising in Mississippi.
This show of force, just days before state elections, infuriated whites, who claimed the governor was deliberately trying to provoke a race war. Caldwell’s command of one of the companies made him a marked man.
Democrats followed the “Mississippi Plan” of winning by any means necessary – intimidation and ballot box stufﬁng – and captured both houses of the legislature and nearly all county governments. Amos Johnston and Charles Caldwell were both elected to the state senate, representing Hinds and Rankin counties. Johnston received the highest number of votes, but Caldwell beat him in the Clinton precinct.
Tensions in Clinton subsided somewhat after the November election. All citizens, black and white, were caught up in the spirit of Christmas. Walter Hillman’s students at the Central Female Institute and Sarah Dickey’s students at the Mount Hermon Colored Female Seminary went home for the holiday. George Harper, in a nod to the Christmas season, toned down his rhetoric in the Hinds County Gazette.
Charles Caldwell went fox hunting in the morning of December 29, 1875, a Thursday. During that day, his nephew David Washington was harassed by “Waddy” Rice and other whites at a blacksmith shop.
Rice, who was wounded during the Riot, wanted to know how many whites David had killed that day. Young Washington ran to Charles Caldwell’s home and told Mrs. Caldwell about the experience.
Caldwell came home that afternoon, having been told of the incident at the blacksmith’s shop. He couldn’t ﬁnd “Waddy” Rice, but returned to town late that afternoon seeking an explanation. Caldwell encountered Buck Cabell, a supposed friend, near the Chilton Store. Cabell persuaded Caldwell to join him for a drink in the cellar of Chilton’s. There were a number of other “friends” in the cellar.
Caldwell was accompanied by a black friend, identiﬁed as Preacher Nelson, who later told Margaret Ann Caldwell what happened to her husband. Nelson said that when Caldwell and Cabell raised their glasses, someone ﬁred a shot through a window of the cellar, striking Caldwell in the back. Mortally wounded, Caldwell asked Judge Edwin Cabaniss, then the store owner Chilton to help him to the outside. He wanted to see his wife. Both refused.
Caldwell then called for Preacher Nelson, who helped him through the door on to the outside of the cellar. About forty armed white men stood waiting. Caldwell looked at them and said: “Remember when you kill me, you kill a gentleman and a brave man. Never say you killed a coward. I want you to remember it when I am gone.”
He was then murdered by the forty men, each ﬁring at least one shot into the body.
Preacher Nelson hurried to Caldwell’s home and told Margaret Ann Caldwell what had happened to her husband. The widow went to Chilton’s Store, but was told to go home. Judge Cabaniss, who owed his judicial position to her husband, acted as though he did not know her.
The armed murderers stood guard over the bodies of Charles Caldwell and his brother Sam, who was shot and killed as he rode by Chilton’s on a mule. Later that night, Walter Hillman and Preacher Nelson pulled up in a wagon at Chilton’s. No one interfered as they loaded the two bodies and carried them to Caldwell’s home, where they were laid out in an upstairs bedroom.
In George Harper’s account of the murder, Caldwell was intoxicated when he arrived at Chilton’s Store. He drank in the cellar, bragging about being the best man in Hinds County, when a shot on the street was heard. According to Harper, Caldwell drew a pistol and began shooting at the whites in the cellar. They returned ﬁre, killing Caldwell. They then took his body outside onto Jefferson Street, where Walter Hillman later found it.
Charles Caldwell and his brother were the last victims of the Clinton Riot.
Editor’s note: The City of Clinton dedicated two historic 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 fourth 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.