Digital Library of Georgia > Civil Unrest in Camilla, Georgia, 1868

Civil Unrest in Camilla, Georgia, 1868
Historical Note

On September 19, 1868, violence broke out in the small town of Camilla, Georgia. Referred to as the Battle of Camilla, the Camilla Massacre, or the Camilla Riot, it was neither the first, nor the only incident of violence in the area, but it is the most notorious with long term implications for race relations in Mitchell County, the State of Georgia, and the New South.

Against a backdrop of Reconstruction politics, the Camilla Riot broke out on the day scheduled for a Republican political rally in Camilla at the Mitchell County courthouse. Republican speakers William P. Pierce, a congressional candidate from the district, John Murphy, the party elector, and F.F. Putney, a local party member, among others, set out from Albany with a bandwagon headed for Camilla. Included in the group was Philip Joiner, one of the thirty-two freedmen expelled from the state legislature in earlier that month. As they went, they gathered a crowd of between two to four hundred freedmen and women from the surrounding area. A number of freedmen, though probably fewer than half, carried with them either walking sticks or guns loaded with squirrel or birdshot. When the procession came within three to five miles of Camilla, they were met by Mitchell County Sheriff, Mumford S. Poore, who told them that he would not allow them to enter the town with firearms. Despite assurances of peaceful intentions from Pierce and Murphy, Sheriff Poore returned to Camilla and formed a posse of white townsmen to await the group's arrival. At the same time, Pierce and Murphy did not advise the freedmen to leave their walking sticks and shotguns, but continued on for Camilla as before, thereby setting the stage for conflict.

Coming into town, the group met James Johns. Johns, who was drunk at the time, ordered the band to stop playing, and when they did not, he fired his gun. Though accounts vary on the intent and direction of the shots, all agree that it was Johns who fired first, and most saw Johns fire purposefully, straight into the bandwagon. After the first shots, the other white townspeople joined in firing on the crowd. The Republicans and freedmen returned fire for less than two or three minutes before fleeing the scene into the surrounding woods. The Sheriff's men spent the rest of that day and several days following systematically pursuing the freedmen through the countryside as many as five miles from town and wounding or killing them as they tried to escape. According to documents collected by local agents of the government relief agency, the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands, at least nine freedmen were killed, and as many as twenty-five to thirty were wounded. No whites were killed or seriously wounded.

Following the incident, Freedmen's Bureau agents began the task of thoroughly documenting the event. Bureau members O.H. Howard, Christian Raushenberg, William Mills, and others chronicled the incident with letters to superiors, witness affidavits, and reports in an attempt to secure justice and greater protection for the freedmen in Mitchell County. The agency considered bringing in troops to calm the situation, but political difficulties prevented the Bureau from getting either justice or the support of government troops. No one was ever tried in the deaths of the freedmen in the riot. In the end, the presence of the Freedmen's Bureau itself was short-lived, as its role was greatly diminished in December of 1868, and by June of 1872 it was entirely abolished.

Historical Note by Jeanette Morgan

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