Captain Hannibal C. Carter: Businessman, Civil War Officer, Reconstruction Politician, Freedom Fighter
The life of abolitionist, politician, and war veteran Hannibal C. Carter (1835-1904) was filled with both promise and daunting challenge during a radically transformative period in American History. Despite being born during the time of slavery, his parents, George Washington Carter and Ann Hill Carter, were business owners and prominent members of a free Black community in New Albany, Indiana. The Carters maintained strong ties to the Underground Railroad and educated Hannibal and his younger brother Edward, in Toronto, Canada. Both brothers grew up to become active participants in the Civil War as freedom fighting Union soldiers. Yet, despite the hard-earned promises of freedom and equality guaranteed by the 13th amendment, Hannibal’s aspirations to improve conditions for the newly freed in America were dashed with the failure of Reconstruction.
Beginning September 24, 2021, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will host the “Make Good the Promises: The Legacy of Reconstruction” exhibition. The museum’s holdings will explore this pivotal moment, known commonly as Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1896, and how it affected lives of free men like Hannibal and the four million newly freed African Americans who lived during it. The Reconstruction period laid the foundations for the evolution of African American institutions that sustained communities through subsequent decades of racial segregation, discrimination, and terrorism.
The Civil War
Hannibal and his brother Edward traveled down the Mississippi with their father on the eve of the Civil War and were living in New Orleans when Union soldiers arrived and occupied the city in April of 1862. Originally a member of the Louisiana Native Guards, Carter became one of the first African Americans to enlist in the Union Army and rose to the status of captain in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), in the 74th infantry. Based upon his family’s role in the Underground Railroad, it can be surmised that Hannibal Carter joined the Union effort in order to fight for the end of chattel slavery. His company, stationed at Ship Island and Fort Pike, guarded prisoners and protected the Opelousas Railroad until December 31, 1862. However, his military service was cut short when he signed a petition to Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, protesting the unequal pay of Black soldiers and was subsequently purged by General Nathaniel P. Banks in 1863. (Incidentally, his brother Edward Eugene Carter, also became a captain in the USCT, 73rd Infantry and fought valiantly in the Battle of Port Hudson before resigning in 1863.)
On December 6, 1865, just after the end of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery throughout the United States. African Americans, like Hannibal, continued to push for broader civil rights, such as the right to vote and the right to a fair trial. These rights were ultimately guaranteed by the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments.
During this early Reconstruction period, H.C. Carter, as he came to be known, fought to participate in politics. In 1867, Carter was hired as a speaker by the Republican Congressional Committee. Reflecting the racially turbulent and violent times, he shot back when the Ku Klux Klan fired guns at a Memphis political rally in August of 1868.
In 1869, just before the passage of the 15th Amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote, Carter moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi joining an influx of African Americans from other states who were perhaps attracted by the potential of a majority Black population. He eventually held several elective offices in Mississippi, including, state representative for Warren County in 1872-73 and Secretary of State, for a three-month period in 1873. The Republican Party Ticket of 1872 bearing Carter’s name is in our “Make Good the Promises” exhibition.
During this time, he was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1873 known as the Gray-Carter Civil Rights Bill. This bill had to do with upholding the rights of African Americans in public places. Carter had been refused a seat at the Angelo Concert Hall in Jackson, Mississippi and as a result had brought a case against the doorkeeper. This case went all the way to the State Supreme Court where Carter ultimately won, successfully utilizing the recently passed 14th Amendment. From 1876-1877, Carter was elected the state representative, again.
During Reconstruction, America enshrined the right to vote and hold elected office, equal protection under the law, and equal access to public accommodations, however the promise of these laws alone would not secure the visions of freedom that African Americans pursued. Eventually these rights were undermined and revoked by the rise of white supremacist terrorist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, state Jim Crow laws, black codes and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including United States v. Cruikshank (1876). When President Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the South in 1877, there was little to stop former Confederate officials and slave owners from returning to power and disenfranchising Black citizens.
In 1882, Carter ran unsuccessfully for Congress as an independent against General J.R. Chalmers. During these years, white southern democrats aggressively launched a reign of terror against the Republicans, particularly African Americans in elective office and African American men, in general, who attempted to exercise their newly granted voting rights. Therefore, Carter daily risked his life, to participate in Reconstruction politics. According to the Memphis Daily Appeal from November 17, 1882, he survived an attempted assassination by a US Marshal. Carter was not unlike many men who had survived acts of violence against them. Our exhibition underscores the story of the Vicksburg Massacre of 1874, in which 75-300 African Americans were slaughtered as they attempted to defend Peter Crosby, the formerly enslaved Union veteran, and elected sheriff, who was ultimately forced to resign. In this threatening climate, it is not hard to understand why, in 1886, Carter left Mississippi for good and moved to Chicago, saying the South had “ceased to be a healthy locality for a free man.”
Carter’s move from Mississippi to Chicago presaged the Great Migration of the early 20th Century by several decades. He remained politically active in Chicago, even as Reconstruction ended and white southerners regained control, effectively suppressing African Americans right to vote for the next sixty years. In fact, Carter expressed his disillusionment with the Republican Party by running as an independent and eventually switching to the Democratic Party once he left the South, foreshadowing the now historical shift of African Americans to the Democratic party in the 20th Century. Hannibal C. Carter died in Chicago in June of 1904, his obituary in the Broad Axe ending with the provocative line, “for all of his faults, Captain Hannibal C. Carter was a lover of his race.”
The story of Hannibal C. Carter and his progressive family illuminates the struggles and triumphs of free African Americans in the tumultuous years before, during and after the Civil War. The extent of their so-called freedoms was always limited by the condition of their brethren, whether as chattel, or as freedmen and women, lacking education and resources in the often hostile terrain of the United States during Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction. As it is often said, “No one is Free, until all are Free.”
In January 2020, while reading through pension records, I learned that Captain Hannibal C. Carter was the elder brother of my 2nd great-grandfather, Captain Edward Eugene Carter. Edward also participated in Reconstruction politics, but only on the local level, in Tunica, Mississippi, where he died in 1890, leaving his wife, Mary Victoria and their three young sons-Charles, Hannibal C., and John.
Written by Museum Specialist of Oral History Kelly E. Navies