by S. Forester
April, 1866. Racial violence in America has reached a fever pitch; disagreements have escalated to brawls, and brawls have escalated to riots. A full year after Lincoln's assassination, the Civil War has ended on paper — but for the people on the streets, it may never fully end. On this rainy Monday morning, the passions of war are about to be reignited in Norfolk.
Maj. Phillip Stanhope, the Union commander of occupied Norfolk, has been dreading this morning for three days. Norfolk is a Southern town, and the white residents' blood runs hot with Confederate pride; this is no friendly place for Northern officers. Stanhope's first predecessor was shot and killed on the sidewalk. The second got a chamber pot of sewage dumped on his head.
Stanhope, a husband and father from Ohio, joined the Army shortly after the Rebellion broke out. He led the 12th US Infantry in all major Peninsula battles until a bullet shattered his left elbow. Captured, he convalesced in the hellish confines of a Confederate prison camp. After being freed in a prisoner exchange, he was commended for valor and restored to command (despite his nearly paralyzed arm). Stanhope was well-liked—described as an “amiable and pleasant character.” A fair-minded person, there is no evidence he bore ill will towards the Southern people.
|Yes, they really talked like that.|
On April 16th, the black citizens of Norfolk planned to march in celebration of the Civil Rights bill – a parade originally planned for Saturday the 14th, but rescheduled to Monday for unknown reasons. Veterans of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) would be marching in full uniform, complete with guns. Anonymous sources said that white men – a small minority, mostly in their late teens – were planning to attack the parade. As soon as he heard the rumors, Stanhope canceled leave, ordering his men to stay at their posts with a quarter-round of ammunition.
|Freemason Street, 1880s|
The parade started in the early afternoon. Stanhope rode several yards behind the procession, personally overseeing its security. The march was peaceable, although some ill-disposed white youths threw bricks. The procession reached the speaker's stand, but a sudden burst of rainfall dispersed them. Assuming the parade was over, Stanhope returned to headquarters and changed into dry clothes. But a short time later, he received word that trouble was occurring on the parade ground. The rain had only been a brief shower, and when the sun came back, so did the celebrants. Galloping back to the scene, Stanhope found a large black crowd gathered around a house. Inside, a white man lay dead.
|United States Colored Troops (USCT)|
|Stanhope never said that.|
Stanhope questioned witnesses and discovered that the dead man, Robert Whitehurst, age 19, had quarreled with a group of blacks several days ago. When Whitehurst saw them again at the parade, he resolved to settle their prior conflict with bullets. He took a pistol from his step-mother's bedroom drawer, and fired into the crowd — hitting a random innocent by mistake. A man in the crowd called out, “Rally, boys, rally—there is a goddamned son-of-a-bitch shooting our men!” The crowd rushed upon Whitehurst; another screaming, “Catch that white son of a bitch—catch him and kill him!” (6)
|Freemason Street, as seen from the Willoghby-Baylor House.|
Entering the house, Stanhope found Mrs. Whitehurst sitting in a chair, with a black servant cleaning her wound. She was calm and stable, telling Stanhope everything she knew about the situation. “Mrs. Whitehurst was then perfectly sensible and conscious,” Stanhope would later testify in court. “I had no idea she was mortally wounded.” Shortly after speaking to him, Charlotte Whitehurst succumbed to her wounds and expired. The death of Robert Whitehurst would have sparked anger, but the death of Charlotte Whitehurst sparked revolution.
The Whitehursts' deaths were an error, resulting from Robert's prior quarrel with specific black men. But this is not the story that circulated — instead, whites believed the Whitehursts had been targeted at random and killed solely for their race. Hungry for revenge, whites combed through the city all night, terrorizing blacks at every turn. Around 9:30pm, a group of eighty or more men wearing gray Confederate uniforms confronted Stanhope on Freemason street (not too far from the MacArthur Center today). They were about sixty feet away, marching by twos in cadence step. It was impossible to discern their faces or numbers by the soft, orange glow of the street lamps.
|"A body of not less than 80 men ... fired a|
regular volley, which lighted up the whole street."
Recovering control of his horse, Stanhope galloped back to headquarters. He passed a Navy paymaster in the company of two ladies. “Get indoors,” he advised them, “It isn't safe.” Beatings and gunshots continued throughout the night, with two more deaths and numerous injuries. The Confederate rioters were mostly members of the Hope Engine Fire Company, formerly an artillery unit during the war. They were as many as a hundred and fifty strong, according to eyewitnesses. One family hid from the violence by climbing up onto their roof. (8)
At 11:30pm, Stanhope sent a letter to his superiors in Richmond, informing them that "the city authorities are powerless to quell disturbances of any magnitude," and requesting that Norfolk and Portsmouth "be placed under martial law for the better protection."
|H.W. "Harry Scratch" Burton, editor|
of the Norfolk-Virginian newspaper
|Federal soldiers restore order.|
A similar riot broke out in Memphis, Tennessee, but it was far worse – 48 deaths, over 75 injured and 91 homes destroyed. New Orleans suffered a riot on July 30, with 238 killed. (10) Like the Norfolk indecent, these riots were a continuation of the war – most of the whites were Confederate veterans, acting against recently discharged US Colored Troops. In contrast to these bloodbaths, Norfolk hardly suffered at all; Major Stanhope's forward thinking, clear head and personal courage had triumphed.
No one had to die in April of 1866. Both blacks and whites wanted to live in peace and safety. Tragically, this was hindered by gossip, ignorance and misinformation distributed by a biased news media that encouraged fear because it sold papers. There was no evil afoot — only the unfortunate collision of defeated soldiers and a downtrodden minority.
Both fearing for their own survival, and following a thought paradigm of "us against them," they reacted in the only way they knew how: by inflicting on others what they expected to receive.
Part Two of this article deals with the trial, hearing ad aftermath from 1866 to 2016 (from Reconstruction to #BlackLivesMatter). Part 2 will be released May 3rd, 2016.
Quotations are sourced from the Report to the House of Representatives, thirty-ninth Congress of the United States, 1866-'67.
1. Lamb, William. "Diary, 1855." William Lamb Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Accessed 5 February 2016.
2. Article, The Norfolk-Virginion. 19 April 1866. Microfilm. Sergeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library. Accessed 28 March 2012.
3. Testimony of Major P.W. Stanhope, Norfolk, Virginia. May 3, 1866. H. Ex. Doc. 72-13. Google Documents.
4. Testimony of Edward W. Williams (colored) Norfolk, Virginia. May 3, 1866. H. Ex. Doc. 72-13. Google Documents.
5. Burton, H.W. “History of Norfolk, Virginia." https://archive.org/stream/historyofnorf00burt#page/101
6. Testimony of Samuel Westheimer, butcher. Norfolk, Virginia. May 10, 1866. H. Ex. Doc. 72-13. Google Documents.
7. Testimony of Private Daniel V. Fenton, 12th U.S. Infantry. May 3, 1866. H. Ex. Doc. 72-73. Google Documents.
8. Testimony of Major Eggbert, 12th U.S. Infantry. May 3, 1866. H. Ex. Doc. 72-10. Google Documents.
9. Article, Day Book. 17 April 1866. Cited in Moore, John. "The Norfolk Riot." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Volume 90. Issue 2. April 1982. Web. JSTOR. Accessed 26 March 2013.
10. Wikipeda. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Orleans_riot
House documents URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=xQZVAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA3&dq=google+documents+riot+at+norfolk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjno6nE7pvMAhUEYiYKHdWIDSsQ6AEIKTAB#v=onepage&q&f=false