A former slave who rose to become the leading Republican in Hinds County and one of the county’s state senators during Reconstruction, Charles Caldwell embodied the radical changes that swept through Mississippi in the aftermath of the Civil War. His assassination in the wake of the 1875 Redemption campaign exemplified the closing of many of Reconstruction’s opportunities.
Caldwell was born in Hinds County of a slave mother and a white father. By the time of the Civil War, Caldwell had become a blacksmith, a relatively privileged position that afforded him more flexibility than most slaves had and left him well positioned to take full advantage of emancipation.
In the immediate postwar period, Caldwell assumed a leadership position among African Americans in the area of Clinton, twelve miles west of Jackson. Rewarded for his talents and persuasiveness, he was elected as one of sixteen African American members of the 1868 constitutional convention, which set out to dismantle the antebellum social and political order. Caldwell took an active if largely silent role in the convention, generally voting with the Radical majority. Shortly after the convention’s adjournment, an event involving Caldwell signaled the coming of a new order. Fired on by the possibly deranged son of a highly respected white judge, Caldwell returned fire, killing the young man. He was tried for murder and acquitted, underscoring the legal rights that Reconstruction granted to freedpeople.
With the inauguration of Republican power in the state, Caldwell became a member of Hinds County’s board of supervisors, a powerful position with tax and allocation powers. He forfeited this seat in 1871 to become a state senator, an office he held until his death. Like most African American politicians, Caldwell aligned himself with the Radical faction of the Republican Party, but he does not appear to have been dogmatic. Still, he remained a Republican stalwart, frequently offering advice and strategy on how best to preserve his party’s dominant position.
Caldwell played a crucial role in the climactic 1875 campaign that effectively ended Reconstruction in Mississippi. When the violent tenor of the Democrats’ efforts became clear, Radical governor Adelbert Ames called up the state militia, placing Caldwell in charge of the two companies based in Jackson. Caldwell marched his men from Jackson to Edwards Depot and delivered arms to another company there. The incident provoked fears of a race war among the state’s white population, and Ames was forced to broker an agreement that disbanded the militia in exchange for Democratic pledges to campaign peacefully. In a letter to Ames, Caldwell and another leading Hinds County Republican sharply questioned Democrats’ willingness to adhere to the agreement: “So far as the democracy in a large portion of this county are concerned, the peace agreement is held in utter contempt, and only serves as a cover for the very wrongs upon the freedom of the elective franchise which it was intended to prevent.” Ames either ignored such reports or felt he could do no more to help the Republican cause.
Deprived of any military support, Caldwell still managed to provide a forceful example for other Republicans in Clinton. On Election Day, when some of his Republican colleagues expressed a desire to heed the Democrats’ warnings not to vote, Caldwell insisted that surrender was not an option. “No; we are going to stay right here,” one ally quoted him. “You must just come right along, and keep your mouth shut. I don’t care what they say to you, don’t you say a word.” Although Caldwell lost his Senate seat that day, he proved that no amount of Democratic intimidation would shake him from his political resolve.
Caldwell’s powerful resistance to the Democrats helps explain his assassination a month and a half after the election. Invited to have a drink with a friend in the basement of a Clinton grocery store, Caldwell was ambushed and shot several times. He died after his last request was granted: he was carried out into the street so that all could see that he remained defiant.
Caldwell and other local leaders represented perhaps better than anyone else the opportunities that existed under Reconstruction for freedpeople to develop a potent and responsible class of leaders. That so many influential blacks met the same end as Caldwell illuminates the violence on which Democratic power ultimately rested.
- Herbert Aptheker, To Be Free: Studies in American Negro History (1969)
- Charles Hillman Brough, in Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, vol. 6, ed. Franklin L. Riley (1901)
- William C. Harris, The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi (1979)
- Mississippi in 1875: Report of the Select Committee to Inquire into the Mississippi Election of 1875, with the Testimony and Documentary Evidence (1876)