Northern Indifference, Southern Violence, and the Collapse of Reconstruction

this-is-a-white-mans-government

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is another of my continued series of articles pulled from my various Civil War texts dealing with Emancipation and the early attempts to gain civil rights for African Americans. This section that I will cover for the next few days deals with the post-war period, a period marked by conflicting political and social desires for equality, justice, revenge, and the re-victimization of Blacks who had so recently been emancipated.

I hope that you find these helpful.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Collapse of Northern Support for Reconstruction

It is all too easy to simply blame recalcitrant Southerners for the collapse of Reconstruction. However, it is impossible not to explore this without addressing responsibility of many leaders and citizens in the North for the failure of Reconstruction and the return of “White Man’s Rule” to the South. Like today, people faced with economic difficulties sought out scapegoats. When the country entered an economic depression in 1873 it was all too easy for Northern whites, many of who were willing to concede “freedom” to turn on blacks. Racism was still heavily entrenched in the North and for many, economic considerations trumped justice as the North tried to move away from Reconstruction and on to new conquests, including joining European powers in attempts to gain overseas colonies and territories.

As Southern extremists turned the Federal effort at Reconstruction into a violent quagmire that seemed to have no end, many Northerners increasingly turned against the effort and against Blacks themselves. Like so many victorious peoples they did not have the political or moral capacity to remain committed to a cause for which so many had sacrificed and they began to abandon the effort after two short years of congressionally mandated Radical Reconstruction.

Likewise, the men who had so nobly began the effort to enfranchise African Americans failed to understand the social and political reality of the South. To the average Southerner of the era “political equality automatically led to social equality, which in turn automatically led to race-mixing. It was inevitable and unthinkable. To a people brought up to believe that Negroes were genetically inferior – after all, that was why they were slaves – the mere hint of “mongrelization” was appalling.” [1] This was something that most Northerners, even those committed to the political equality of African Americans could not comprehend, and the ignorance of this fact would be a major reason for the collapse of Northern political and social support for Reconstruction.

thaddeus-stevens-3400gty

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens 

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most effective leaders of the Radical Republicans died in 1868 in despair that the rights of blacks were being rolled back even as legislation was passed supporting them. A few weeks before his death Stevens told a friend “My life has been a failure…I see little hope for the republic.” [2] The old firebrand asked “to be buried in a segregated cemetery for African American paupers so that “I might illustrate in death the principles which I advocated through a long life, Equality of man before his creator.” [3] Others including Senator Ben Wade, were not returned to office while others including Edwin Stanton, Salmon Chase and Charles Summer all died during Grant’s administration.

While Grant attempted to smash the Ku Klux Klan by military means, both his administration and Congress were of little help. He faced increased opposition from economic conservative Republicans who had little interest in the rights of African Americans and who gave little support to those fighting for equal rights for blacks. The situation was further complicated by the “financial panic which hit the stock market in 1873 produced an economic downturn that soon worsened into a depression, which continued for the rest of the decade.” [4] The result was that Republicans lost their majorities in the House and in many states, even in the North.

It was clear that “1870 Radical Republicanism as a coherent political movement was rapidly disintegrating” [5] and during the early 1870s many of the antislavery activists had left the Republican party either to death or defection, many “no longer felt at home in a party that catered to big business and lacked the resolve to protect black rights.” [6]

In 1872, some former radical Republicans revolted against Grant and the corruption in the Republican Party. Calling themselves “Liberal Republicans” they supported the candidacy of Horace Greeley uniting with Democrats to call for an end to Reconstruction. For many this was not so much because they no longer supported the rights of African Americans, but because for them, like so many, “economic concerns now trumped race relations…. Henry Adams, who shared the views of his father, Charles Francis Adams, remarked that “the day is at hand when corporations far greater than [the] Erie [Railroad]…will ultimately succeed in directing the government itself.” [7] The numbers of Federal troops in the South continued to be reduced to the point where they could offer little or no support to state militia.

The combination of all of these factors, political, racial, economic, and judicial doomed Grant’s continued efforts at Reconstruction by executive means. Despite the hard fought battle to provide all the rights of citizenship and the vote to African Americans racism remained heavily entrenched in all regions of the country. In the North and the South the economic crisis of 1873 caused people to look for scapegoats, and blacks were easy targets. With economics easily trumping the cause of justice, “racism increasingly asserted its hold on northern thought and behavior.” [8] The Northern press and politicians, including former abolitionists increasingly took the side of Southerners, condemning Freedmen as lazy and slothful usurpers of white civilization.

Likewise the growing problem of labor unrest in the North brought about by the economic depression made “many white northerners more sympathetic to white southern complaints about Reconstruction. Racial and class prejudices reinforced one another, as increasing numbers of middle-class northerners identified what they considered the illegitimate demands of workers and farmers in their own society with the alleged misconduct of the former slaves in the South.” [9]

The depression hit Freedmen in the South with a vengeance and unable to pay their bills and mortgages many lost everything. This left them at the mercy of their former white masters who were able to force them into long term employment contacts which for practical purposes was a reversion to slavery, albeit under a different name. Those whites who were still working for Reconstruction in the South were increasingly marginalized, stigmatized and victimized by a systematized campaign of propaganda which labeled them Carpetbaggers and Scalawags who had gained power through the votes of blacks and who were profiting by looting Southern Whites. In the end Southern intransigence wore out the political will of Northerners to carry on, even that of strongest supporters of emancipation and equality.

black-voter-threatening

Violence now became a means to further politics in the South and carried out in broad daylight and “intended to demoralize black voters and fatally undermine the Republican Party…. They paraded at regular intervals through African American sections of small towns in the rural black majority areas, intimidating the residents and inciting racial confrontations.” [10] These armed bands were highly successful, if they were successful in provoking a racial incident they would then fan out throughout the area to find blacks in order to beat up and kill, hundreds of blacks were killed by them.

During the elections of 1876 the White Liners, Red Shirts, White League and others would be seen in threatening positions near Republican rallies and on Election Day swarmed the polls to keep blacks and Republicans out, even seizing ballot boxes either destroying them or counting the votes for Democrats. The strategy employed by the Democrats and their paramilitary supporters was to use “Lawless and utterly undemocratic means…to secure the desired outcome, which was to win a lawful, democratic election.” [11]

The pressure was too much for most Republicans in the South, and many who did not leave the South “crossed over to the Democratic fold; only a few stood by the helpless mass of Negroes….” [12] Of those in the North who did nothing to confront the resurgence of neo-Confederate mythology and who had worked against equal rights for African Americans during the Reconstruction era, “many embraced racism in the form of imperialism, Social Darwinism and eugenics.” [13]

The elected governor of Mississippi, Republican General Adelbert Ames, who was one of the most able and honest of all the Northerners to hold elected office in the South wrote in 1875 about the power of the paramilitary groups, “The “white liners” have gained their point – they have, by killing and wounding, so intimidated the poor Negroes that they can in all human probability prevail over them at the election. I shall try at once to get troops from the general government. Of course it will be a difficult thing to do.” [14] Ames requested Federal troops “to restore peace and supervise the coming elections” [15] but did not get them due to the subterfuge of Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont.

Grant told Pierrepont, a former Democrat who was critical of Grant’s insistence on the rights of African Americans that he must issue a proclamation for the use of Federal troops if Ames’s local forces could not keep order. He told Pierrepont “the proclamation must be issued; and if it is I shall instruct the commander of the forces to have no child’s play.” [16] Instead, Pierrepont altered Grant’s words and told Ames, “The whole public are tired out with these autumnal outbreaks in the South…and the great majority are now ready to condemn any interference on the part of the government….Preserve the peace by the forces in your own state….” [17] Ames, who had been a strong proponent of emancipation and black suffrage understood that he was being abandoned by Pierrepont and in order to prevent more bloodshed gave up the fight, negotiating a peace with the White League. Sadly, he like Grant realized that most of the country “had never been for Negro civil rights in the first place. Freedom, yes; but that didn’t mean all the privileges of citizenship.”  [18]  Ames’s deal with the Democrats and the White League resulted in blacks being forced from the polls and the Democrats returning to power in the state.  When Ames left the state, the discouraged veteran of so many battles including Gettysburg wrote, “A revolution has taken place – by force of arms – and a race disenfranchised – they are to be returned to a condition of serfdom – an era of second slavery.” [19]

The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre and Beyond

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.” [20]

blacks at colfax

Colfax Massacre

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, who worked with the former slaves who were now freedmen. The town itself “composed of only a few hundred white and black votes” [21] 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.” [22] 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.” [23] The blacks of parish fled to the courthouse 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 of Colfax, protected by just a few armed black militiamen and citizens deputized by the sheriff took shelter in the courthouse knowing an attack by the White Supremacists 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.” [24] 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.” [25]

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.” [26] 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.” [27]

Federal authorities arrested nine white men in the wake of the massacre and after two trials in which white majority juries were afraid to go against public opinion, three were “convicted of violating the Enforcement Act of 1871.” [28] None were convicted of murder despite the overwhelming evidence against them and even the lesser convictions enraged the White Supremacists in Louisiana who had employed the best lawyers possible and provided them and the defendants with unlimited financial backing. Assisted by the ruling of Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph Bradley, who had a long history of neglecting Southern racism, white Democrats appealed the convictions to the Supreme Court.

The attack, and the court cases which followed, notably the judgment of the Supreme Court in United States v. Cruickshank which dealt with the appeal of 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.” [29] 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.” [30] 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.” [31] Northern politicians and newspapers, reeling under the effects of the stock market crash of 1873, which had denounced the massacre just a year before now ran from the story and from support of African Americans. A Republican office holder wrote, “The truth is, our people are tired out with this worn cry of ‘Southern outrages…. Hard times and heavy taxes make them wish the ‘nigger,’ the ‘everlasting nigger,’ were in hell or Africa.” [32] Racism and race hatred was not exclusively the parlance of the South.

In the wake of Justice Bradley’s reversal of the Colfax convictions whites in Grant Parish engaged in brutal reprisals against blacks, leading to many murders and lynching’s, crimes which law enforcement, even that favorable to the rights of African Americans were afraid to prosecute for fear of their own lives. Louisiana’s Republican Governor, William Pitt Kellogg wrote Attorney General Williams blaming the violence on Bradley’s ruling, which he wrote, “was regarded as establishing the principle that hereafter no white man could be punished for killing a negro, and as virtually wiping the Ku Klux laws of the statute books.” He added that with the Army leaving the state that his government and other Reconstruction governments would fall, “if Louisiana goes,” Kellogg wrote, “Mississippi will inevitably follow and, that end attained, all the results of the war so far as the colored people are concerned will be neutralized, all the reconstruction acts of Congress will be of no more value than so much waste paper and the colored people, though free in name, will be practically remitted back to servitude.” [33] Governor Kellogg could not have been more correct.

In the years that followed many of the men involved in the massacre and other murders before and after were hailed as heroes, some, including the leader of the attackers, Christopher Columbus Nash were again appointed to office in Colfax and Grant Parish and blacks were reminded every day of just what they had lost. On April 13th 1921 the men who committed the massacre were honored with a memorial in the Colfax cemetery honoring them as “Heroes… who fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for White Supremacy.” In 1951 the State of Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry dedicated a marker outside the Courthouse which read: “On the site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three White men and 150 Negroes were slain, this event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of Carpetbag misrule in the South.” [34] That marker still stands, there is no marker commemorating the victims.

Other massacres followed across the South, aimed at both blacks and their white Republican allies. In Louisiana the White League had some 14,000 men under arms, in many cases drilling as military units led by former Confederate officers. A 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.” [35] This became known as the Coushatta Massacre and it was a watershed because for the first time the White League targeted whites as well as African Americans. 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.

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant including comments about the Colfax massacre and the subsequent court decisions in his message to Congress. Grant was angry and wrote: “Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office-holding and election matters in Louisiana…while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime.” [36] President Grant, the man who so wanted to help African Americans attain the full measure of freedom, was unable to do more as the Congress and Courts took sides with the Southern insurgents.

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.11

[2] Ibid. Langguth, A.J. After Lincoln p.233

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.504

[4] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South p.458

[5] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.170

[6] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.337

[7] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.337

[8] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.192

[9] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.191

[10] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South pp.459-460

[11] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South p.461

[12] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.15

[13] Loewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. Editors The  Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause” University Press of Mississippi, Jackson 2010 Amazon Kindle edition location 5258 of 8647

[14] Ames, Adelbert Governor Adelbert Ames deplores Violence in Mississippi, September 1875 in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.434

[15] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.17

[16] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.243

[17] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 190

[18] Ibid. Lord The Past that Wouldn’t Die p.17

[19] Watson, Bruce Freedom Summer: The Savage Summer of 1964 that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy Viking Press, the Penguin Group New York and London 2010 p.41

[20] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.151

[21] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.312

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

[23] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

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

[25] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

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

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

[28] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.494

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

[30] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.314

[31] Ibid. Goldfield American Aflame p.494

[32] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.213

[33] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.217

[34] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died pp.261-262

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

[36] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.228

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1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, laws and legislation, Political Commentary

One response to “Northern Indifference, Southern Violence, and the Collapse of Reconstruction

  1. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Really enjoying your posts, thanks Padre!!

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