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.
On April 9, a Civil Rights bill was passed granting universal citizenship to anyone born in the United States, regardless of race or prior status. On April 12, the Norfolk-Virginian published the text of the bill, followed by editorials condemning it. For the white population, any advancement of black civil rights was a step towards the long-feared “slave revolts.” Whites in Norfolk feared a genocidal uprising, as one skeptical resident recorded in his journal, “The people still talk of a rise among the negroes — poor fellows [the negroes] never think of it; how idle and foolish these fears.” (1)
Abuses by black troops were frequently reported in newspapers. On April 6, a South Carolina farmer shot a black soldier who called his wife a “d— b—” and threatened to spank her. In the ensuing fracas, his 12-year old daughter was shot in the hip and beaten while she lay bleeding. Naturally, these reports were heavily biased and are impossible to verify. But for readers at the time, they were absolutely true – even galvanizing.
“When negro soldiers were sent to the South,” lamented the editor of the Norfolk-Virginian, “Was it not known these things would be of frequent occurrence?” (2)
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.
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.
Immediately, Stanhope ordered a company of soldiers to surround the crowd, keeping them contained within the fair grounds. A sergeant ordered every marcher with a weapon to come stand before Stanhope. Most were discharged USCTs, who had recently purchased weapons and still had receipts. The guns were not in firing order, nor correctly loaded. “I never saw such a load as that in my life,” Stanhope remarked of one particular gun. “I took it away because it was dangerous to anyone.” Eighteen rifles, two sabers and several boxes of ammunition were seized. (3)
“I want this day to pass with honor and credit to yourselves,” Stanhope addressed the black citizens. “If there is any disturbance, I will give you protection.” Stanhope begged them not to commit any outrage, promising to protect both “white or colored.” (4)
Even though Stanhope had disarmed the blacks, popular rumors said he would do the opposite. The newspapers attributed false, unfounded statements to him: “Major Stanhope declared that if his command was ‘menaced by white men,’ he would ‘arm the blacks to assist him in carrying out his orders’.” (5)
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)
Whitehurst fled home, where his stepmother caught him in the doorway. When she attempted to take his gun away, the revolver went off and shot her in the neck. By this time, the angry mob had caught up with Whitehurst and they gunned him down. Stanhope arrived too late — Whitehurst was dead.
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.
“There goes that military major, about twenty yards,” A voice called from the crowd, and another added, “Shoot him!” Sporadic shots were fired, mostly into the air. Stanhope’s horse reared, and he temporarily lost control of the animal (this may have also been due to his paralyzed arm). Suddenly, a voice in the crowd called out orders, and the men stopped shooting. They formed into an organized military line, and fired a full volley (fifty or more rounds) directly over Stanhope’s head, which momentarily lit up the entire street. (7) They could have killed him, but they purposely chose not to — they were sending a message. Once they fired their warning shot, the mob dispersed into the city, scurrying back to a million possible hiding places where Stanhope couldn’t catch them.
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.”
Within twenty-four hours, the request was granted. On April 17th, Norfolk swelled with blue-coat troops, some brought from as far away as Washington. The city was placed under martial law for several days, until tempers had cooled. Stanhope later remarked that without these troops, Norfolk would have suffered “a very desperate riot.” He had saved Norfolk, but the Norfolk-Virginian disagreed. “Major P. W. Stanhope, U. S. A., was in command of this post at that time — is he proud of the honor he enjoyed?” (4) The editor wrote sarcastically, portraying the whole debacle as Stanhope’s personal failure.
By sundown on the 17th, the rioting had ceased. Racial anger was still strong, however, and on the 19th a pair of black men severely beat a white man. Their motivations remain unknown, but it was assumed to be a reprisal. Newspapers crucified Stanhope, adding “does the negro suppose that freedom means to butcher indiscriminately men, women and children whenever they choose to have a procession?” (9) Of course, no indiscriminate butchering actually occurred — but people believed what they heard in the news media (just like nowadays). Newspapers encouraged white Virginians to believe that black freedom posed a threat to their lives.
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.
Quotations are sourced from the Report to the House of Representatives, thirty-ninth Congress of the United States, 1866-’67.
- Lamb, William. “Diary, 1855.” William Lamb Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Accessed 5 February 2016.
- Article, The Norfolk-Virginion. 19 April 1866. Microfilm. Sergeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library. Accessed 28 March 2012.
- Testimony of Major P.W. Stanhope, Norfolk, Virginia. May 3, 1866. H. Ex. Doc. 72-13. Google Documents.
- Testimony of Edward W. Williams (colored) Norfolk, Virginia. May 3, 1866. H. Ex. Doc. 72-13. Google Documents.
- Burton, H.W. “History of Norfolk, Virginia.”
- Testimony of Samuel Westheimer, butcher. Norfolk, Virginia. May 10, 1866. H. Ex. Doc. 72-13. Google Documents.
- Testimony of Private Daniel V. Fenton, 12th U.S. Infantry. May 3, 1866. H. Ex. Doc. 72-73. Google Documents.
- Testimony of Major Eggbert, 12th U.S. Infantry. May 3, 1866. H. Ex. Doc. 72-10. Google Documents.
- 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.
- House documents URL.