A Massacre in Memphis The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War

Stephen V. Ash

Hill and Wang




288 Pages



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In May 1866, just a year after the Civil War ended, Memphis erupted in a three-day spasm of racial violence that saw whites rampage through the city’s black neighborhoods. By the time the fires consuming black churches and schools were put out, forty-six freed people had been murdered. Congress, furious at this and other evidence of white resistance in the conquered South, launched what is now called Radical Reconstruction, policies to ensure the freedom of the region’s four million blacks—and one of the most remarkable experiments in American history.

Stephen V. Ash’s A Massacre in Memphis is a portrait of a Southern city that opens an entirely new view onto the Civil War and its aftermath. A momentous national event, the riot is also remarkable for being “one of the best-documented episodes of the American nineteenth century.” Yet Ash is the first to mine the sources available to full effect. Bringing postwar Memphis to vivid life, he takes us among newly arrived Yankees, former Rebels, boisterous Irish immigrants, and striving freed people, and shows how Americans of the period worked, prayed, expressed their politics, and imagined the future. And how they died: Ash’s harrowing and profoundly moving present-tense narration of the riot has the immediacy of the best journalism.

Told with nuance, grace, and a quiet moral passion, A Massacre in Memphis is Civil War–era history like no other.


Praise for A Massacre in Memphis

"In May of 1866, a race riot occurred in Memphis that few today have heard of, although many would be surprised that they haven’t. With A Massacre in Memphis, Stephen V. Ash has issued the first book-length treatment of the incident, in which a three-day maelstrom of violence killed 46 former slaves who were recently freed in the Civil War that had ended hardly a year before. Ash writes with the circumspection properly due to a historian, but he also has a moral streak: this book is not only a needed addition to academia, but also an act of social remembering that he calls 'a historical and moral imperative.' Towards this end of bringing the incident to life in the consciousness, and the conscience, of the reader, he makes the bold choice of narrating the riot in present tense. 'At a point just south of South Street . . . A crowd of fifty or more has surrounded a uniformed black man. He has tried to escape, but now, seeing that that is impossible, he turns and moves towards his pursuers with his arms outstretched in surrender and supplication. A white citizen steps up and slams him in the head with the butt of a pistol.' The gambit pays off. The tense doesn’t only enliven the narrative flow, but also drives home the reality of an ugly incident that we should not soon, or ever, forget."—Daily Beast

“Meticulous . . . Ash offers remarkable portraits of ordinary Memphians . . . caught up in the tumult of their time . . . riveting.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This detailed account of the lengthy riot and its reverberations surges at the reader . . . For those who want to understand the roots of America’s racial issues, Ash’s captivating and thoughtful book offers explanations and raises many new questions.”—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Yankee Memphis
I have always counselled [the freed people] that liberty meant the right to work for themselves, to get their own living, and live honestly as white people do;… I have told them … that they must be obedient to their employers, and peaceable.
—Testimony of Benjamin P. Runkle, superintendent of Memphis Freedmen’s Bureau office
[The Rebels] call me a pimp. I have served the United States government in the army five years, and I am called a pimp in the public press.… I came here ready to take these people
Read the full excerpt


  • Stephen V. Ash

  • Stephen V. Ash is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of Firebrand of Liberty, A Year in the South, and other books on the Civil War era. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.

  • Stephen V. Ash © Jean Ash