Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Bloody Interregnum


Civility in the political arena has taken a real beating in the last year. Most of the time it seemed that no matter what the Democrats liked the Republicans were bound to hate it. Sometimes it seemed that no legislative act and court decision could ever settle the running sore differences between the opposing factions. Other times, it has appeared that both major political parties had actually turned in on themselves.

It was less than three years ago that Richmond’s government split into pieces and turned against itself. That happened with the Friday Night Fiasco (Sept. 21, 2007). But, if the reader thinks that strange stunt, engineered by then-Mayor Doug Wilder — to evict local public schools officials from City Hall — was totally unprecedented, in that it had the local government at odds with itself, then read on.

That little tiff was small potatoes compared to what happened in these parts in 1870-71. Here's a glance at the disastrous outcome of allowing a perpetual feud to take root. Here's what can happen, even in Richmond, when people refuse to accept the results of elections or ruling from the court:

The Bloody Interregnum was the name given to the politics-gone-wrong brouhaha over whether George Chahoon or Henry K. Ellyson was the lawful mayor of Richmond. When the five-year military occupation of Virginia following the Civil War ended on January 26, 1870, Gov. Gilbert C. Walker promptly appointed a new City Council for Richmond. That body in turn selected Henry K. Ellyson, publisher of The Dispatch — forerunner to today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch — as the city’s mayor.

However, George Chahoon, who had served as mayor during the last two years of Reconstruction, refused to recognize the validity of the process. Although the transplanted New Yorker had a considerable following around town, he was seen by Ellyson’s backers as a lowdown “carpetbagger.” After all, Chahoon had served at the pleasure of the military overlords.

When neither man would give ground, the city itself fractured. As positions solidified, the split became a chasm; the result of which created two separate city governments. There were two police departments, two City Halls, etc. Brawls became commonplace as the supporters of both men sought to press their case on every street corner. Chaos, with gun-play aplenty, ensued.

Notably, in spite of the fact that Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy during a portion of the Civil War, it was not without its Union sympathizers. In fact, Richmond was quite divided on the topic of secession before the war. During and after the war there were substantial elements present that could have been characterized as pro-Union.

Like America’s 2000 presidential election, in 1870 the impasse found its way into court. On April 27, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals met to hear arguments from the two camps on the third floor of the state Capitol building.

The anxious citizens shouldered onto the balcony to witness the spectacle. Suddenly it collapsed under all the weight. The balcony and spectators crashed onto the hapless below. Widely known as The Capitol Disaster, when the smoke cleared the tragedy left 62 people dead and 251 injured.

Two days later, the court reconvened at City Hall. In due time, a verdict favorable to Ellyson was returned. A month later, a citywide election took place. But no clear winner emerged from that exercise, either. This time the contentiousness stemmed from the disappearance of a ballot box from a precinct friendly to Chahoon. Same as ever, both sides traded more accusations. Although Ellyson was certified as the winner by the election board, he declined to serve because the election results were tainted, therefore inconclusive. Thus, the battle raged on.

Eventually Chahoon left town to avoid facing the consequences of several felony indictments — supposedly of a nonpolitical nature — that were heaped upon him. For his part, Ellyson grew weary of the struggle and withdrew from the race.

It finally ended on July 1, 1871, with the election of Anthony Keily as the one and only mayor of the exhausted city of Richmond. The actions of those who were most caught up in the 17 months of The Bloody Interregnum left stains that perpetuated grudges in Richmond for generations to come.

As a child growing up in Richmond, I heard adventure tales from my grandfather about this bizarre time. He claimed his salty old Uncle George (who was a sheriff, among other things) told him that most men in Richmond carried guns on the street in those wild days, much like what we’ve seen in western movies. Duels were not unusual.

All of which makes our current political scandals and imbroglios seem rather tame.

– Illustration: W. L. Sheppard’s wood engraving of the Capitol Disaster for Harper’s Weekly (1870)

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