Killing Freedom: The Colfax Massacre

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Those who invoke the argument that the Confederate Battle Flag is about “heritage and not hate” often overlook the heritage that the flag symbolizes. They often limit it to the four-year period of the Civil War itself, playing down slavery as a cause of the war and lamenting Reconstruction as an “unfortunate era” where blacks ravaged the South.

However, the fact is that the heritage cannot be separated from the cause of White Supremacy as I have argued in many articles. This article is a section of my Civil War and Gettysburg Staff Ride text and deals with one of the most despicable acts ever committed in the name of that heritage.

Have a good and thoughtful night.


Padre Steve+

blacks at colfax

Freed Blacks attempting to Defend Colfax Court House

The violence against Southern blacks escalated in the wake of the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and with the increasing number of blacks being elected to office in some Southern states during the elections of 1872. In Louisiana a Federal court ruled in favor of Republican Reconstruction candidates following a Democrat campaign to interfere with the vote which included attacks on polling sites and the theft of ballot boxes. As a result the Louisiana Democrats “established a shadow government and organized paramilitary unit known as the White League to intimidate and attack black and white Republicans.” [1]

The White League in Louisiana was particularly brutal in its use of violence. he worst massacre committed by the White League occurred Easter Sunday 1873 when it massacred blacks in Colfax, Louisiana. Colfax was an isolated nondescript hamlet about three hundred fifty miles northwest of New Orleans, it sat on the grounds of a former plantation whose owner, William Calhoun worked with the former slaves who were now freedmen. The town itself “composed of only a few hundred white and black votes” [2] was located in the newly established Grant Parish. The “parish totaled about 4,500, of whom about 2,400 were Negroes living on the lowlands along the east bank of the Red.” [3] Between 1869 and 1873 the town and the parish were the scene of numerous violent incidents and following the 1872 elections, the whites of the parish were out for blood.

White leaders in Grant Parish “retaliated by unleashing a reign of terror in rural districts, forcing blacks to flee to Colfax for protection.” [4] The blacks of parish fled to the court house seeking protection from a violent white mob following the brutal murder of a black farmer and his family on the outskirts of town. The people, protected by just a few armed black militiamen and citizens deputized by the sheriff took shelter in the courthouse knowing an attack was coming. As the White League force assembled one of its leaders told his men what the day was about. He said, “Boys, this is a struggle for white supremacy….There are one hundred-sixty-five of us to go into Colfax this morning. God only knows who will come out. Those who do will probably be prosecuted for treason, and the punishment for treason is death.” [5] The attack by over 150 heavily armed men of the White League, most of whom were former Confederate soldiers, killed at least seventy-one and possibly as many as three-hundred blacks. Most of the victims were killed as they tried to surrender. The people, protected by just a few armed men were butchered or burned alive by the armed terrorist marauders. It was “the bloodiest peacetime massacre in nineteenth-century America.” [6]

colfax newspaper

The instigators of the attack claimed that they acted in self-defense. They claimed that “armed Negroes, stirred up by white Radical Republicans, seized the courthouse, throwing out the rightful officeholders: the white judge and sheriff” and they claimed that the blacks had openly proclaimed “their intention to kill all the white men, they boasted they would use white women to breed a new race.” [7] The claims were completely fabricated, after sending veteran former army officers who were serving in the Secret Service to investigate, the U.S. Attorney for Louisiana, J.R. Beckwith sent an urgent telegram to the Attorney General:

“The Democrats (White) of Grant Parish attempted to oust the incumbent parish officers by force and failed, the sheriff protecting the officers with a colored posse. Several days afterward recruits from other parishes, to the number of 300, came to the assistance of the assailants, when they demanded the surrender of the colored people. This was refused. An attack was made and the Negroes were driven into the courthouse. The courthouse was fired and the Negroes slaughtered as they left the burning building, after resistance ceased. Sixty-five Negroes terribly mutilated were found dead near the ruins of the courthouse. Thirty, known to have been taken prisoners, are said to have been shot after the surrender, and thrown into the river. Two of the assailants were wounded. The slaughter is greater than the riot of 1866 in this city. Will send report by mail.” [8]

Nine white men were arrested by Federal authorities in the wake of the massacre and three were “convicted of violating the Enforcement Act of 1871.” [9] white Democrats appealed the convictions and using the best lawyers they could get with nearly unlimited financial backing the appeal reached the Supreme Court.


Colfax Blacks recovering their Dead and wounded

The attack, and the court cases which followed, notably United States v. Cruickshank which dealt with the men responsible for the Colfax Massacre led to a “narrowing of Federal law enforcement authority” and were “milestones on the road to a “solid” Democratic South.” [10] The decision of the court in United States v. Cruikshank was particularly perverse in its interpretation of constitutional rights and protections. The court ruled in favor of the terrorists and declared that “the right of the black victims at Colfax to assemble hand not been guaranteed because they were neither petitioning Congress nor protesting a federal law. Assembling for any other cause was not protected.” [11] The Cruikshank decision amounted to a Supreme Court endorsement of violence against blacks, and made it “impossible for the federal government to prosecute crimes against blacks unless they were perpetrated by a state and unless it could prove a racial motive unequivocally.” [12]

Other massacres followed across the South, aimed at both blacks and their white Republican allies. Another White League detachment southwest of Shreveport “forced six white Republicans to resign their office on pain of death – and then brutally murdered them after they had resigned.” [13] The violence, now protected by the courts ensured that neither would last long in the post-Reconstruction South and that the freedom of African Americans in those states would amount to a cruel illusion.


[1] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.151

[2] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.312

[3] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.42

[4] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

[5] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.91

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

[7] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.11

[8] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.22

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.494

[10] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.251

[11] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.314

[12] Ibid. Goldfield American Aflame p.494

[13] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 185


Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

4 responses to “Killing Freedom: The Colfax Massacre

  1. Jim

    I did not see a connection to the battle flag. Reconstruction was hard on everyone; maybe whites and blacks would have fared much better if the United States Government had stayed to rebuilt the South the way we did for Germany and Japan.

    I fail to see what we gain from a positive viewpoint raking up the past. My family lost nine members to the Nat Turner revolt in Virginia; I see no benefit to reliving it or stimulating anger over it; similarly, I think we have a lot more useful pursuits than reliving the Colfax affair. If you were not there, in their time with their affairs, it is very hard to understand; the misplaced intentions on both sides of the affair created the opportunity for murder and mayhem.

    • padresteve

      Jim, I am sorry but the historical ignorance you demonstrate would be unfathomable if it were not for the grossly racist historical revisionism of the Lost Cause which denies all the evils os slavery and the terrorism in the name of White Supremacy that your arguments rely. I write because far too many people today are all too ready to throw out the facts the make themselves feel better. The U.S. Government did try to rebuild the South and was met with defiance, violence and a continued desire of Southern whites to persecute and re-enslave blacks by other means. The fact that the designer of the Confederate Battle Flag called it a “symbol of White Supremacy” is irrelevant. And while you may have lost ancestors in the Nat Turner revolt, you might want to recall why that revolt happened, and how many millions of blacks were robbed of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by your ancestors and mine, at least mine who were slave owners in Virginia. The fact is a that I will not be silent in the face of a political movement in this country that seeks to sweep this history away in the new Texas textbooks, and those on the religious right who likewise seek to cover it up.

      If you don’t like it go read David Barton, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, not to mention the leaders of so many bro-Confederate organizations.

      Say what you want, be as aggrieved as you want, but I will never stop telling the truth until the day I die. Which if some of the threats to my life that I have received from White Supremacists since are true may be shorter than I like. But I would rather die speaking an uncomfortable truth than perpetuating a lie.

      Today, there are people who use the very same arguments and tactics as did the a White League? The Red Shirts, the White Lines and the Klan, and not just against blacks. Frankly I will stand against all of them, and as an honest historian that does necessitate dredging up a past than many would like to forget.

      If you can’t handle the truth then I dare suggest that you find a lie to believe that you can sleep with, because I won’t give it to you.



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