reconstruction and counterrevolution -- 4/22/24

Today's selection -- from Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic by Manisha Sinha. The late 1870s saw the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction:

“The  fall  of  the  Second  American  Republic  was  a  historical  tragedy  of  global  proportions,  and  its  roots  lay  in  President  Ulysses  S.  Grant's  second  term.  Grant's  reelection  in  1872  should  have  signaled, as most African Americans and radicals hoped, that the federal government's commitment to Reconstruction would remain in place, or at least would not collapse. Yet his second term was marred not only by an increase in racist terrorism in the South, a crippling depression, and corruption scandals, but also by the fall of Reconstruction state governments. As the enthusiasm and political will necessary to buttress black citizenship waned, white conservatives in the South retook control in one state after another. The federal retreat from Reconstruction would also be epitomized by a series of Supreme Court decisions that vitiated Reconstruction laws and constitutional amendments.

“If Reconstruction was a revolution, the campaign against it was a counterrevolution. Though terrorist violence predated it, the period between the so-called Mississippi Plan of 1875 and the overthrow of the last Reconstruction state governments in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina after the presidential elections of 1876, was the crucible moment. It was in this twenty-four-month span that the incipient interracial democracy in the South itself was murdered. If the presidential election of 1860 inaugurated the rise of the Second American Republic, that of 1876 signaled its demise.

“Three Deep South, black-majority states-Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina-led the counterrevolution. Louisiana was an epicenter of racist terror. In 1868, the violent campaigns of the Knights of the White Camellia and other Klan-like groups had handed the recently reconstructed state to the Democratic presidential candidate, Horatio Seymour. Republicans were murdered in cold blood and massacres of freed people became common. In Natchitoches, for example, Klansmen assassinated the black Republican Alfred Hazen and came close to lynching a white Republican officeholder and freedmen's teacher, Richard Faulkner. They murdered Hal Frazier, who ran a mill and housed a freedmen's school on his land, as well as his hired hand. In 1871, they assassinated Delso White, an ex-Freedmen's Bureau agent and Republican who was determined to bring them to justice for Frazier's murder. Even as terrorism surged in the state, federal troop levels dropped precipitously, from around two thousand in 1868 to just over four hundred in 1872.

“Reconstruction in Louisiana had led to the election of Republican governor Henry Clay Warmoth. He established the Metropolitan Police force in New Orleans and an interracial state militia, under the command of ex-Confederate general James Longstreet, a convert to Reconstruction, to contain domestic terrorism. An opportunist, Warmoth tried to empower himself by changing the state constitution, which limited the governor to one term, and established a regulatory commission, to be appointed by the governor, to verify election results. He also vetoed a black civil rights bill and adopted an almost whites-only patronage policy, antagonizing African Americans, including his own lieutenant governor, Oscar J. Dunn.

“In 1872, Warmoth, now a Liberal Republican, joined with conservatives to support the fusion gubernatorial candidate, Democrat John McEnery, and oppose the regular Republican, or radical, candidate, William Pitt Kellogg. Warmoth was impeached by members of his own party and was opposed by the so-called Custom House clique in New Orleans. When the impeachment proceedings started, Warmoth was forced to resign, as required by state law. Lieutenant Governor P. B. S. Pinchback, who had replaced Dunn on his death, briefly occupied the governor's chair, becoming the only black Reconstruction governor. (Dunn had served as interim governor briefly when Warmoth was incapacitated.) The 1872 elections resulted in competing state governments in Louisiana and two presidential electoral slates from the state. Backed by a federal judge and the Grant administration, Kellogg assumed the governorship and had the electoral victory of Republicans certified. McEnery's attempt to violently overthrow the Kellogg government in New Orleans on March 5, 1873—what became known as the Battle of Cabildo—backfired. Longstreet's forces stopped the putsch and arrested fifty-three men in McEnery's armed militia, while Grant dispatched federal troops to the state, including the Seventh Cavalry, which had quelled Klan terror in upcountry South Carolina.

Thomas Nast illustration entitled "Halt," published October 17, 1874

“The armed McEnery insurgents roamed the countryside, however, attempting to capture local county governments. In the newly created Grant Parish, with its seat at Colfax—named after the president and his former vice president, respectively—bands of paramilitary groups led by a McEnery-appointed ‘sheriff,’ Christopher Columbus Nash, as well as Klansmen, began killing African Americans indiscriminately. One victim was Jessie McKinney, whose only crime was that he owned his farm. Republicans, led by black militia captain and state representative William Ward, fortified the Colfax courthouse in preparation for an attack, while other black people fled their homes. On April 13, Easter Sunday, armed white men with guns and cannons perpetrated one of the worst mass murders of Reconstruction, soon called the Colfax massacre of 1873. Between sixty and a hundred people—though with some claiming one hundred fifty—were murdered, burned alive in the courthouse, or shot as they escaped. The thirty to forty more men taken prisoner were assassinated in cold blood later that night. Almost all the victims were black. Three of the perpetrators were killed, including ex-Confederate and Klan leader James Hadnot.

“Governor Kellogg and the Grant administration sent marshals and troops to Colfax, and they reported horrific accounts of butchered and mutilated bodies lying around the courthouse. The US attorney in New Orleans, the New York-born James R. Beckwith, brought indictments against a hundred men, of whom only five were prosecuted and a mere three convicted. But Supreme Court justice Joseph Bradley, riding circuit in Louisiana, voided even these meager convictions, despite the dissent of the local judge, arguing that the crimes committed were state, not federal, crimes, and casting doubt on the constitutionality of the Enforcement Acts. Decades later, the town of Colfax would erect a monument to the three white men ‘who fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy.’ Nash lived long enough to see his heinous crimes commemorated. The victims, whose bleached bones lay exposed into the twentieth century, were forgotten. In 2021, the marker was finally removed thanks to the dogged efforts of history graduate students from Louisiana State University."


Manisha Sinha


Rise and Fall of the Second American Repulic




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