"No Safety for Union Men": The Norfolk Race Riot of 1866 and Military Occupation

Kirk, Brianna, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Varon, Elizabeth, Department of History, University of Virginia

In the summer of 1866, the American South found itself plagued with outbursts of racial violence in the wake of the Civil War’s end. As civil rights legislation passed in Congress, former Confederates exploited openings left by the rapid demobilization of Union troops to reassert their racial supremacy and end Reconstruction before it had a chance to begin. This paper explores the Norfolk Race Riot of April 16, 1866, one of the first instances of racial violence to occur in 1866. Occurring one week after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act on the heels of the 13th Amendment’s ratification, this paper argues that military occupation in Norfolk only provided tenuous protection for blacks, as ex-Confederates turned to paramilitary violence to preempt further change. Testimony on the riot during a congressional investigation shows how Unionists made the case for a continued military presence in Norfolk by emphasizing the defiant methods and war-footing of recalcitrant rebels. The rapid reduction of Union troops allowed ex-Confederates to violently lash out against those newly emancipated as a way to reestablish their pre-war supremacy and political power. This testimony underscores how outnumbered the occupying forces were in the midst of such implacable hostiles. Norfolk’s riot shows that white southerners wished for the return of the old racial order, and also highlights the largely impossible task the post-war military occupation forces faced in trying to fully protect the rights of the freedpeople.

MA (Master of Arts)
Civil War, Reconstruction, Norfolk, military occupation, racial violence, Virginia
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