Colfax riot or massacre: a brutal defining moment

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Louisiana was a bloody place in the aftermath of the Civil War. For nearly a decade, Republicans, including many newly freed Blacks, struggled against mostly White Democrats who hoped to resurrect something like the old social and political order and resented the federal government’s interference in the state’s affairs.

Intimidation and outright violence, much of it against freed Blacks and the White Republicans who supported them, were weapons in that struggle. In her book “The Colfax Massacre,” Keith said an inquiry by Philip Sheridan, the Union general who served as military governor of Louisiana and Texas during Reconstruction, determined that political violence killed 2,500 people between the end of the Civil War and 1875.

In September 1868, wrote Charles Lane in “The Day Freedom Died,” 200 Blacks were killed in St. Landry Parish.

The election of Ulysses S. Grant as president in 1868 helped bring about the Enforcement Act and anti-Klan legislation as well as the 15th Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote regardless of race.

But Louisiana’s 1872 election was the occasion for more violence. Pro-Reconstruction Republicans were led by governor candidate William Kellogg. The “Fusionist” blend of Democrats and anti-Grant Republicans were intent on electing John McEnery. Both sides claimed victory and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other. A federal judge seated Kellogg and other pro- Republican candidates

In spring 1873, a group of African-American men acting as a militia helped a young boy through a window into the Grant Parish Courthouse. The boy unlocked the door and let the men in, allowing Black Republicans to take control of the courthouse. Later, they dug a defensive trench.

Tensions continued to rise. Violent incidents, including the shooting death of African American farmer Jesse McKinney, sent Black residents fleeing to the courthouse for refuge. The ransacking of White resident Rutland’s home by Blacks incensed White residents.

A group of more than 100 armed White men, led by a Confederate veteran named Christopher Columbus Nash, began moving on Colfax.

On April 13, Nash’s men fired a small cannon at the defenders of the courthouse. The Black militiamen retreated into the courthouse. The attackers tried to burn them out. At some point, the courthouse defenders waved a piece of cloth as a white flag. White witnesses claimed that as three attackers approached, they were fired upon by someone inside the courthouse.

When the defenders were finally forced out, they were held under guard for a few hours.

Some were hanged. Many were shot to death.

Keith’s book quotes a contemporary newspaper account in which the attackers are said to have referred to the prisoners as “beeves,” or cattle. And as one man shot prisoners, hearing the weeping of the women gathered nearby, he said, “‘Listen to the cows bellowing over the dead bulls!'”

The final death toll for the Whites is undisputed. The names of the fatalities — Stephen Parrish, James Hadnot and Sidney Harris — are inscribed on an obelisk, erected in 1921. The inscription on the obelisk says they “fell in the Colfax Riot, fighting for white supremacy.”

The African American casualty numbers are harder to pin down. Lane believes that the real number is between 60 and 80, and may be closer to 60. The historical marker says 150 Blacks died, but Lane thinks that number was exaggerated.

“I don’t know why,” Lane said. “I have a guess. You look at it today and you say, ‘How evil.’ But back then, you’d have said, ‘How powerful.'”

David Blight, a Yale history professor who has written extensively about slavery and Reconstruction, said, “Colfax is an egregious case, when people really understand it and really look it. It’s a case of political murder. It’s murder for political reasons, a political end. … That’s the kind of
society we always say we are not.

“A lot of places in the world have a devil of a time having peaceful elections. We pride ourselves on peaceful transitions,” he continued. “We fight it out in campaigns, and then we accept the results.

“Well, during Reconstruction, in any number of these elections, mostly in the South, people didn’t want to accept the results. Clausewitz said war is politics by other means. Sometimes politics is also war by other means.”

 

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