Starting points

39th Congress, "Memphis Riots and Massacres," a Special Report

No understanding of the events of May 1866 is possible without paying careful attention to the eye-witness testimony gathered three weeks after the massacre by a specially-appointed Congressional delegation.  Headed by Elihu B. Washburne, an Illinois Republican, the committee listened as 170 women and men came forward to bear witness to a wave of terror, death, rape, arson, and theft.  Their accounts are often heartbreaking and always moving.  Their accounts are also the material from which historians work.  We read their words, sift them, weigh them, think about them, and use them to come to know more about the past.  We invite you to join us in this endeavor.  Take a few minutes to dip into this report.  Read for yourself about what happened over those fateful three days in early May 1866.

The Freedmen's Bureau Report

Congress was not the only federal agency interested in uncovering the truth about the violence that ripped through Memphis on May 1-3, 1866.  The Freedmen's Bureau wanted to know too, and on May 7, 1866, its commissioner, General Oliver Otis Howard, ordered his aide-de-camp, Major T. W. Gilbreth, to go to Memphis to conduct a separate investigation.  Working with another Freedmen's Bureau officer, Col. Charles F. Johnson, Gilbreth produced a "Report of an investigation of the cause, origin, and results of the late riots in the city of Memphis" that he delivered to Gen. Howard on May 22.  Read for yourself what Gilbreth and Johnson discovered, and think about how the results of their investigation added to, complemented, or perhaps complicated the information developed by the Congressional delegation.


Thinking Points

Introducing Contextually Speaking

The racial violence that swept Memphis in early May 1866 was no accident. Indeed, very little happens in a vacuum: not wars, not revolutions, not even the sinking of the Titanic. Histories, it turns out, have their own histories, and one of the historian's tasks is to figure out why things happened. Our column, Contextually Speaking, raises this question with respect to Memphis and invites viewers to come along as we work to understand why it was that violence swept Memphis, why it took place in May 1866, and why it was that the mob paid special attention to black soldiers, their families, and the churches and schools that served the black community. In developing our understanding of the larger context of Civil War and Reconstruction America, we will deepen our understanding of the Memphis Massacre.

Contextually Speaking: Black Soldiers in the Post-Emancipation South

Contextually Speaking: Congress, Federal Power, and the Fort Pillow Massacre