- A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War by Stephen V. Ash
It is surprising that this is the first book-length study of the Memphis Race Riot of 1866. The three days of bloody violence little more than a year [End Page 622] after the end of the Civil War attracted extended national attention and affected the course of Reconstruction. The dramatic events were also well documented in a meticulous congressional inquiry, providing a treasure trove of primary sources to historians. Stephen Ash suggests that, “paradoxically, the extraordinary sources that the riot left in its wake are the kind of things historians who study the nineteenth century long for, yet they simultaneously vex the historian, whose job it is to analyze, synthesize, and contextualize, to make order out of chaos. Another way of putting this is to say that the Memphis riot raises challenging questions about the history historians write” (189). Perhaps that is why Ash chose to write a book on the riots in three parts, each with a distinct style and perspective. This book could easily have been a discordant jumble, but instead Ash shows that he is a master historian able to entertain and enlighten simultaneously.
The first part of the book provides a fairly traditional background history of Memphis before the riot. It is well balanced for different audiences, as the relevant literature is cited in notes, while terms like “Fenianism” and “Lost Cause” are deftly explained in the text. Ash divides the city into four different categories covered in separate sections: Yankee Memphis, rebel Memphis, Irish Memphis, and black Memphis. The combination of politically active Yankees, unrepentant rebels anxious about emancipation, a large number of poor Irish, and a huge influx of recently freed blacks seeking to define their won freedom created a volatile situation. Making matters worse was a long-standing antipathy between many of the Irish and blacks, which became even more problematic when the Irish took control of the city in 1865 because so many rebels were disenfranchised. Black soldiers and Irish policemen simultaneously tried to keep the peace while fighting with each other.
In the second part of the book, Ash re-creates how the simmering tensions in Memphis boiled over on April 30, 1866, and the following three days of rioting. Ash intentionally breaks many of the rules of historians here, such as writing about past events in present tense and jumping back and forth between different people’s perspectives with no transitions. It works, however, incredibly well. For instance, at the beginning of the riot, “Samuel Dilts leaves his house and goes down toward South Street to see what is happening. Ahead of him, the policemen and their citizen allies are emerging from Causey onto South, shouting and firing their pistols in every direction. Bullets zip by close to Samuel. He has no stomach for this sort of thing. He turns and goes back to his house” (102). Ash has not only provided by far the best account of the Memphis Race Riot, but he has done so in a literary style that makes one feel they are reading a novel instead of a meticulously researched and documented history. [End Page 623]
The last section of the book takes another turn in discussing the aftermath and memory of the riot. Ash explains how despite a congressional investigation into the riot and it becoming a rallying cry for national Reconstruction, neither the state nor the federal government ever took action against the perpetrators of the violence. Then, in striking contrast to the novel-like second section, Ash explicitly discusses how historians have studied and understood the riot. Similar to the first part of the book, though, this section is well balanced for different audiences, with a general explanation in the text and multipage discursive notes analyzing particular articles and interpretations. The paradox presented is that while historians agree that the riot was important...