A State Divided
Louisiana was the only region deep within the Confederacy where Union authorities implemented experimental Reconstruction policies during the Civil War. The Crescent City served as a prime testing ground for race relations under the new order.
Within occupied south Louisiana citizens were torn in their loyalties, goals, and visions for the future. When parts of Louisiana returned to Union control, some residents championed conciliation and cooperation with Union authorities, while other whites just as strongly resisted any show of reconciliation and sought vindication for southern deaths and wounded honor. They advocated white supremacy and the need for social control within a changed racial order.
New Orleanians were especially stubborn in refusing to accept defeat and occupation. Because the city fell early and did not suffer from battle, most citizens were not driven by desperation to want an end to the war. They refused to give up hope for a southern victory and thus were reluctant to cooperate with Union forces.
Constitution of 1864
Louisiana responded to President Abraham Lincoln's plan to readmit southern states into the Union by selecting delegates to write a new constitution. The Constitution of 1864 abolished slavery and disposed of Louisiana's old order of rule by planters and merchants, although it did not give African Americans voting power. It was the first state charter to incorporate Lincoln's conciliatory approach and was the leading test case for postwar policy.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did not apply to Union-held territory. Thus, slavery continued in the thirteen Louisiana parishes under Union control. After much debate, delegates to the constitutional convention agreed to abolish slavery without compensation for masters but not to give the vote to black men. The new constitution, however, authorized the state legislature to extend voting rights to black men who fought for the Union, owned property, or were literate.
The constitution also enabled the legislature to establish a free public school system for all children aged six to eighteen, with no mention of race. Legislators elected under the Constitution of 1864 established schools for whites but not for blacks.
A New Racial Order
Initial goals of the African-American civil rights movement of the 1860s did not include the abolition of slavery but eventually took on the cause of freedom for all African Americans. As the civil rights movement in Louisiana, the earliest civil rights campaign of the Reconstruction era, and the national movement gained strength, African Americans and their white allies escalated their demands to include universal male suffrage and other rights.
Not convinced that former slaves were ready to enter society, the United States Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands--commonly called the Freedmen's Bureau--in 1865. Agents of the bureau tried to solve many of the problems associated with the ending of slavery. Bureau agents worked to solve labor disputes, prevent reenslavement of former slaves, protect freedpersons from violence, operate schools for blacks, keep former slaves on plantations, and distribute food, clothing, and fuel. Agents served mainly as moderators rather than reformers and could do little to affect postwar social and economic relations. Restricted resources, especially manpower, and lack of initiative kept the Freedmen's Bureau from having much beneficial impact in Louisiana.
The Black Press
Louisiana had the first black newspaper in the South, L'Union, and the first black daily in the nation, the New Orleans Tribune. Working along with other groups and institutions, the free black press strove to give voice to and unite the desires of Louisiana African Americans.
L'Union was founded in 1862 and circulated as a biweekly and triweekly. Published primarily in French, the paper ran a few issues in English beginning in 1863. Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez was L'Union's primary financier and Paul Trévigne its editor. Both men were prominent leaders in Louisiana's civil rights movement, and under their direction, the paper primarily spoke for Louisiana's established community of free people of color, although also for slaves and newly freed blacks. The paper suspended publication on July 19, 1864.
The New Orleans Tribune was the successor to L'Union when it folded, with Louis Charles Roudanez and Paul Trévigne again at the helm. The Tribune served as a voice for both free and freed African Americans in Louisiana, reflecting the changing attitudes of civil rights leaders. The Tribune printed the first page in the French of many free blacks and the reverse in the English mainly read and spoken by freedpersons. Jean-Charles Houzeau, a white journalist from Belgium whom many believed to be of African-American ancestry because of his long association with the civil rights movement, replaced Trévigne as managing editor in November 1864. In 1867 the federal government designated the Tribune an official paper of the United States, one of only two in the state given the responsibility of publishing the authentic texts of laws, administrative announcements, and judicial decisions. The paper was published weekly by 1869 and folded the following year.
Getting Out the Vote
The persistent efforts of African Americans and their white allies in Louisiana forced the issue of voting rights for blacks into the national arena. In 1864 they sent a delegation to Washington to petition for enfranchisement. Louisiana blacks valued the right to vote above all other rights because they could not hope to protect their property or their lives without political power.
When a petition taken to President Lincoln resulted in no change in the situation, freeborn and newly freed blacks came together at the Convention of Colored Men in January 1865, calling for the organization and unity of all persons of African descent. The convention's 107 delegates voted to petition commanding military authorities to integrate streetcars and rejected the idea of extending voting rights to only a small group of black men.
Louisiana Black Code of 1865
Not only did African Americans fail to gain civil and political rights, they also experienced increased regulation over their private lives. To control the behavior and actions of former slaves in the "free" postwar society, Louisiana and other southern states enacted Black Codes, modeled on restrictions in force under slavery.
The Louisiana Black Code did grant certain rights to freedpersons--to acquire and own property, marry, make contracts, and testify in court--but its primary purpose was to restore the plantation economy by using blacks as poorly paid laborers instead of outright slaves.
The severity of Louisiana's and other states' Black Codes convinced many northerners that only with more radical forms of Reconstruction would southern society change to accommodate ex-slaves as citizens and free workers. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which defined the rights that all citizens were to enjoy equally without regard to race: to protect person and property, make contracts, and bring lawsuits. This federal legislation prevailed over all state laws and revealed the Republican Party's acceptance of what it had once considered Radical policy.
Riot of 1866
Radical Republicans in Louisiana, both black and white, reacted to the passage of the Black Codes and the legislature's refusal to enfranchise black men by recalling delegates who had written the Constitution of 1864. Twenty-five white delegates, along with some two hundred supporters, met for their first day of deliberations on July 30, 1866, in New Orleans at the Mechanics' Institute, then used as the statehouse.
On that same afternoon a group of white citizens, aided by the New Orleans police and firemen, attacked the delegates and their supporters. These white assailants, many of them Confederate veterans, opposed the convention's goals and were enraged at the prospects of the new Reconstruction order.
Federal troops were called in to stop the violence but by the time they arrived the mayhem had run its course. Official reports from the massacre, one of the bloodiest riots of the Reconstruction era in the United States, listed 37 persons (34 black and 3 white Radicals) killed and 146 wounded. Contemporary witnesses believed the numbers to be much higher.
Radical Reconstruction in Louisiana
Radical Reconstruction in Louisiana was an intense, occasionally violent, contest between those who favored Radical Reconstruction policies and those who fought for white supremacy as the philosophy that would guide public policy in Louisiana.
Civil rights legislation, as passed and applied in Louisiana, placed the burden of proof on the injured parties, and with little national, state, and local protection, African Americans and their white allies found that they had very little power to enforce laws that attempted to erase the color line.
"Carpetbaggers"--black and white northerners who moved to the South after the Civil War--were never in the majority in the 1867-68 Louisiana consitutitional convention or subsequent Reconstruction legislatures. White supremacist opponents of Radical Reconstruction developed and perpetuated the tale of the greedy, corrupt northern "stranger" who stripped Louisiana of its resources.
Most carpetbaggers were former soldiers from middle-class families who went south seeking a livelihood, not political office. Carpetbaggers who did participate in politics usually did not seize power, as the myth claims, but rather were elected by black and white voters or appointed by Radical Reconstruction officeholders.
Constitution of 1868
The Constitution of 1868 was one of the best in Louisiana history and at the time was one of the most forward-looking constitutions in the United States. It extended voting and other civil rights to black males, established an integrated, free public school system, and guaranteed blacks equal access to public accommodations. The 1868 constitution was also the first one in Louisiana to provide a formal bill of rights. The Black Codes of 1865 were eradicated, as were property qualifications for holding office. Writers of the constitution also disfranchised former Confederates.
In real terms the new constitution did little to end racial discrimination. Although blacks tested antidiscrimination legislation in the courts and authorities occasionally enforced its provisions, the color line was rarely challenged in Louisiana. Most African Americans could not afford to ride trains and steamboats, attend the opera, or eat and drink at exclusive clubs, nor could they pay the costs of bringing the offending institutions to court.
Primary Black Leaders
In general, African-American leaders in Louisiana during Reconstruction were very different from the people they sought to represent. Most were free before the Civil War, born in Louisiana, financially secure, and literate. They were skilled workers, businessmen, and professionals, and had owned property, including slaves, before the war.
John Willis Ménard was the first African American in the United States to speak from the floor of Congress. Although voters in Louisiana elected Ménard to the United States House of Representatives in 1868, Congress contested the election and refused to seat him.
Charles E. Nash was the only African American actually to represent Louisiana in the United States Congress during the Reconstruction period. A native of New Orleans, Nash was a bricklayer and a former sergeant in the Union army.
Oscar J. Dunn was the first black lieutenant governor of Louisiana, elected in 1868 and serving until his death in 1871. Dunn was born in New Orleans, learned the plasterer's trade, and rose from private to captain in the Union's First Louisiana Regiment of black troops.
P. B. S. Pinchback finished Dunn's term as lieutenant governor and served as acting governor of the state during the thirty-five day period after the state legislature impeached Governor Henry Clay Warmoth. Voters elected Pinchback to the United States Congress twice, but he lost his seat both times when challenged by his opponents. Born in Georgia, Pinchback worked as a ship's steward prior to the Civil War and commanded a Union Native Guard company during the war. Following Reconstruction, he earned a law degree at Straight University, a black university in New Orleans, and accepted a presidential appointment as surveyor of customs in New Orleans.
Antoine Dubuclet served Louisiana as state treasurer from 1868 to 1878, the only African American in the reconstructed South to hold that office for more than one term. A sugar planter born free in Iberville Parish, Dubuclet was the wealthiest free black in Louisiana prior to the Civil War.
C. C. Antoine was the third black lieutenant governor of Louisiana, serving from 1872 to 1876. Antoine had served previously as a state senator from Caddo Parish and was a planter, barber, and grocery store owner.
Thomy Lafon was active in the Republican party and contributed financially to the civil rights movement. A New Orleans native, Lafon built a fortune as a merchant and real estate investor and left much of his estate to charitable, educational, and cultural institutions that served African Americans.
Primary White Leaders
Henry Clay Warmoth, a carpetbagger from Illinois, served as the first Reconstruction governor of Louisiana, 1868 to 1872. A mere twenty-five years old when elected, Warmoth at first held high ideals. He also tried to please all Louisianians, failing to take a firm stand on many important issues and alienating much of the population. During his term Warmoth gradually abandoned the Radical cause, vetoing civil rights legislation, refusing to enforce desegregation of public schools, and appointing Democrats to offices.
In the 1872 election both Democrats and Republicans claimed victory, but a federal board decided in favor of the Republicans, who immediately moved to impeach Warmoth, leaving lieutenant governor Pinchback as acting governor during the last days of Warmoth's term.
Thomas Jefferson Durant was one of the few Louisianians who supported Lincoln's presidency in 1860. During federal occupation Durant emerged as the leading spokesperson for the Radical faction, actively campaigning for black voting rights.
William Pitt Kellogg was the state's leading Radical Republican and served as its second Reconstruction governor, 1873-77, a period of intense political turmoil. During his administration Kellogg and the Republican legislature enacted additional civil rights legislation and tried to eradicate corruption and bribery. Kellogg served as a United States senator twice and once as a United States representative.
James Madison Wells was elected lieutenant governor in 1864, taking over for Governor Michael Hahn when Hahn was chosen by the state legislature as Louisiana representative to the United States Congress. He was reelected as governor in 1865. Wells was known as a "scalawag," a southern-born white who supported the Republican Party.
Opponents of Reconstruction
Several terrorist organizations sprang up in Louisiana during the Reconstruction era. They primarily aimed to intimidate Republican voters and officeholders of both races, obstruct implementation of Radical Republican policies, and restore Louisiana to rule by native whites.
The main instruments of white terror in Louisiana were the Knights of the White Camellia, formed in 1868, and their successor group, the White League, which had spread across the state by 1874. The earliest of white supremacy groups was the Ku Klux Klan, formed in Tennessee in 1866, but evidence of the Klan's activity in Louisiana is scanty.
Whites, many of them Democrats, joined these terrorist organizations when they began losing power to Radical Republicans, both white and black. The immediate goal of these groups was to keep white and black Republicans away from polling places. Their violent tactics, targeted at black leaders, escalated during Reconstruction. White mobs killed three state legislators during these turbulent times.
The Colfax Riot was the bloodiest single instance of racial violence in the Reconstruction era in all of the United States. Disputes over the 1872 election results had produced dual governments at all levels of politics in Louisiana. Fearful that local Democrats would seize power, former slaves under the command of black Civil War veterans and militia officers took over Colfax, the seat of Grant Parish, and a massacre ensued, including the slaughter of about fifty African Americans who had laid down their arms and surrendered.
White League influence spread to northwest Louisiana in the summer of 1873. Its brutal actions targeted whites as well as blacks. One such episode was directed against the family of carpetbagger policitian Marshall Harvey Twitchell. In 1874 the White League, who arrested and executed Twitchell's brother, two brothers-in-law, and three other white Republicans, while Twitchell was in New Orleans. Twitchell returned to Coushatta from New Orleans with two companies of federal troops, his goal to restore Republican rule in the parish. Democratic leaders continued to control local politics, however. In 1876 they assassinated Twitchell's brother-in-law, and tried to kill Twitchell, who lost both arms in the fray.
First Battle of the Cabildo
The so-called First Battle of the Cabildo, fought on March 5, 1873, pitted Democrats who supported John McEnery against the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, an integrated militia that protected the Republican administration under Governor William Pitt Kellogg. Both candidates had claimed victory in the 1872 election and established dual military forces and legislatures, resulting in a McEnery coup attempt directed at Metropolitan Police headquarters in the Cabildo. Kellogg and the Republicans maintained power, although their tenure was unstable throughout the remaining years of Reconstruction.
Battle of Liberty Place
On September 14, 1874 the Metropolitan Police once again clashed with Democratic militia forces, now organized as the Crescent City White League, in a conflict known as the Battle of Liberty Place. This time the Metropolitan Police, numbering about 600, assisted by an additional 3,000 black militia, lost to the White Leaguers, who numbered about 8,400. Casualties included eleven killed and sixty wounded Metropolitans and sixteen killed and forty-five wounded White Leaguers. Today a controversial monument stands near the site of battle honoring White League members killed in the combat.
President Ulysses S. Grant called in federal troops from Mississippi to restore Governor Kellogg to office. They helped maintain Kellogg in power until the end of Reconstruction.
Second Battle of the Cabildo
Tensions between Radicals and white supremacists climaxed after the disputed gubernatorial election in 1876, in which both Republican Stephen B. Packard and Democrat Francis T. Nicholls claimed a majority of votes and established separate governments, just as the 1872 candidates had done. In January 1877, on the morning after Nicholls's inauguration, he sent 3,000 men to take the Cabildo, seat of the Louisiana state supreme court and headquarters for the Metropolitan Police. Heavily outmanned, federal and Metropolitan forces offered no resistance. The supreme court justices gave up their courtroom, and Nicholls appointed a new judiciary.
Political happenings in Washington, however, decided whether the Packard or Nicholls government would triumph. On the national level the two major parties disagreed over which presidential candidate, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden or Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, had truly won the election of 1876. A compromise worked out in February 1877 provided that disputed votes went to hayes and in exchange Hayes permitted southern Democrats, also known as redeemers, to take over governments in the three remaining militarily occupied states, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana.
Once the federal government agreed to pull its troops out of Louisiana, the Nicholls administration took over. Packard's Republican supporters maintained a shadow government until the end of April 1877. A mostly Democratic convention wrote a new constitution that voters ratified in 1879, returning Louisiana to "home rule," with white supremacist Democrats controlling most of the state, parish, and municipal institutions.
Although the promise of change pervaded Louisiana during the era of Reconstruction, few lasting transformations took hold. African Americans were now legally free--a major advance for democracy and humanitarianism--and for a while at least, black men could vote. Suffrage, however, only had symbolic value if citizens could not earn enough to provide basic necessities for their families and had to send their children to substandard, underfunded schools. Few Louisiana blacks and even many whites could purchase their own plot of land, with such economic arrangements as tenant farming, sharecropping, and debt peonage reducing them to continued dependency. As a result, many of the civil rights battles fought in the 1860s and 1870s had to be waged again one hundred years later.