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Originally published Sunday, January 12, 2014 at 5:03 AM

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‘A Massacre in Memphis’: a day of shame in the River City

Stephen V. Ash’s new history, “A Massacre in Memphis,” examines a bloody, little-known event in post-Civil War history: a multiday riot in Memphis, Tenn., that killed 46 African Americans.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘A Massacre in Memphis’

by Stephen V. Ash

Hill and Wang, 288 pp., $27

Even by conservative estimates, there are more than 80,000 books about the Civil War, making the topic one of the most popular in American history. Given that, what seems most remarkable about Stephen V. Ash’s “A Massacre In Memphis” is that this book is the first to document the Memphis race riot of 1866, according to the author’s note. The riot followed the war by less than a year and was very much an extension of it.

The Union had taken Memphis early in the war, and by 1865, freed slaves and returning Confederate vets ballooned the city’s population. The tension exploded in May 1866, with a multiday riot that killed 46 African Americans. Exact numbers are impossible to determine because the local press and government sought to downplay the carnage, as it was almost exclusively the result of whites attacking blacks.

Ash, professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee, writes that the Memphis riot is “crucial to understanding one of our original and most intractable matters, the role of race in American life.” The flash point was not just racial hatred, but what often lurks under that: competition for jobs.

The riot was, however, extensively investigated by the U.S. government, with months of hearings. Those hearings also provide insight into African American history, which is one of several reasons that “Massacre In Memphis” is an important book.

The individual stories are moving, but also horrific. Much of the violence was from white Irish policemen, who previously had been the disenfranchised, using their official status to attack unarmed blacks. This is not easy history to read, and also not for the faint of heart: there’s murder, rape and schoolhouses set ablaze.

The riot embarrassed the federal government and forced it to play a bigger role in Reconstruction, which may have prevented other incidents. Federal troops did little to stop lynchings and murders on a smaller scale, by the Ku Klux Klan, for example.

Benjamin Runkle’s testimony in 1866 seemed to predict some of that further hostility: “[The riot] has put [the freed people] back further than they were when I began,” said Runkle, the Union officer in charge of the city. In the end, Memphis became even more racially divided — a trend that continues a century and a half later, with a clear divide between black and white.

Few chapters in Civil War history, or in U.S. history, are as dark as the Memphis race riot, or provide as much insight into the chasm of racial inequality in that era. “A Massacre in Memphis” is just one of many Civil War-era histories, but it tells us more about our nation’s wounds than any battlefield history ever could.

Seattle author Charles R. Cross is the author of biographies of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.

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