Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Sean Chick
When I volunteer at the Historic New Orleans Collection, I naturally prefer the room dealing with the Civil War and Reconstruction (a close second is the Battle of New Orleans followed by the French colonial room). The room has changed over the years: photographs of Pierre Beauregard and John Bell Hood have come down, replaced with photographs of the Union officers who fought at Port Hudson. One that has remained is sheet music for the “White League Waltz.” The White League was a paramilitary organization started in 1874 to combat the Republican Party and limit the political power of the recently freed slaves. In New Orleans in 1874, they fought the pro-Republican Metropolitan Police in a sprawling street fight dubbed the Battle of Liberty Place. In discussing this incident, one person said, “and then came Segregation.” To which I said no, it came to Louisiana nearly twenty years later. This always raises an eyebrow.
In many circles, the bridge from the Compromise of 1877 to Segregation is fixed. The compromise was an unofficial political bargain that allowed Rutherford B. Hayes to become president in return for an end to reconstruction in the South. The compromise though did not bring on an immediate end to civil and voting rights for freedmen. The degree to which the shift to Segregation was set in stone is a matter of some debate. The popularization of scientific racism, social Darwinism, and the overall economic decline of the South during and after the war was a toxic mixture that was made combustible by the radicalization of Southern youth during the war. It was likely unavoidable.
The key to understanding why the shift occurred lies in the membership of the White League. It is often portrayed as being made up of former Confederates, and they were led by Robert Nash Ogden, Jr., a veteran cavalry commander. Yet, as author Justin Nystrom points out in New Orleans After the Civil War, much of the league’s rank and file were not Confederates. They were those too young to fight in the war, often younger brothers of veterans. Nystorm believes they were eager to prove their manhood and snapped at the chance to do battle with the integrated police of New Orleans. This younger generation was itself opposed by some noted moderates, many of which were Confederate generals. James Longstreet led the integrated Metropolitan Police of New Orleans at Liberty Place. Longstreet was himself an extreme example of a cadre of Confederate generals who generally supported more equitable race relations after the war. This group is under-studied, perhaps because their efforts failed and their thinking seems more idiosyncratic in hindsight. These “Fusionists” such as Longstreet, Beauregard, Wade Hampton III, and Francis T. Nicholls had varied political fortunes.
Longstreet was the most famous of the group. After the war, Longstreet unsurprisingly embraced the New South ethos of business; he was never a romantic of the “Jeb” Stuart variety. He also went over to the Republican Party, supported his friend Ulysses S. Grant, and became leader of the mostly black Metropolitan Police. He was wounded at Liberty Place and ostracized, moving away from New Orleans in 1875.
One general who was less extreme, and also living in New Orleans after the war, was Beauregard. He did not embrace the Republican Party, but in 1873 he supported the Unification Movement. It was an effort led by Creoles, who were generally understood in New Orleans at the time as descendants of the French, Spanish, and African families that had been in the city since the colonial era. The Unification Movement rejected the Carpetbaggers but also the emerging racial bitterness in the Democratic Party. Even Harry T. Hays, a Confederate general who played an insidious role in the 1866 New Orleans riot, lent his support. The movement though was short-lived. It was racked by the contradiction of moving forward with race relations while also looking backwards towards antebellum Creole customs. Beauregard, whatever his personal views, seems to have been upset over the negative reaction to the movement and soon switched his energies to his business pursuits. He never again tried his hand at political reform.
Hampton’s career was in many ways a study in contradictions. Before the war he was one of the biggest planters in the South, owning nearly 1,000 slaves. Yet, he opposed South Carolina Secession and gave only qualified support to the Confederacy until Fort Sumter fell. By war’s end he was calling for a continued struggle, even after Joseph E. Johnston surrendered. Hampton’s postwar politics defy easy categories. He certainly used combative rhetoric from 1869-1874 and counted among his allies Martin W. Gary, a fellow cavalry general and violent white supremacist. However, relations between Gary and Hampton were complicated, and once Hampton became governor, they became rivals. Hampton, as well as his successor and ally Johnson Hagood, pursued racial accommodation. As such, Hampton supported funding for black schools, continued to use blacks in government posts, did not zealously prosecute former Republican office-holders, and himself publicly denounced calls for segregation.
Hampton despite his popularity, failed to create a lasting political order. The rising tide of agrarian protest in the 1890s was harnessed by Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, who combined racism with class-warfare rhetoric. In the 1890s Hampton, who was elderly and hobbled by an amputation from a hunting accident, was removed from the United States Senate. He watched dumbstruck as his political influence vanished.
One oddity worth mentioning is Francis T. Nicholls. Few doubted his courage. He lost an arm and a leg fighting in Virginia. A noted lawyer, he ran for governor of Louisiana as a reform candidate in 1876. Many of his supporters were shocked to find that he meant it, engaging in epic battles over corruption. Nicholls mostly lost these fights, and was not renominated in 1880, but he became a beloved figure for his earnest efforts. He also openly condemned racial violence and as such received strong support from black voters. Indeed, many accused him, and his less savory allies, of buying the votes of freedmen. One argument for the disenfranchisement of blacks was to end this kind of “voter fraud.”
Except for Nicholls, who was younger, all of these men were roughly the same age, born just before the South moved from seeing slavery as a necessary evil towards John C. Calhoun’s “positive good.” Beauregard in particular, hailing from a society where the Creole Free People of Color had on occasion amassed fortunes and slaves, was not attune to ideas of scientific racism. Nicholls came from Ascension Parish, an area that arguably had more harmonious race relations. Ascension Parish had a sizable population of Free People of Color. After the war it was the power base of Pierre Caliste Landry, the first black mayor in America who ran on a biracial platform of moderation.
Despite these efforts, none of the men believed in true or full equality. Beauregard publicly argued that integrated schools and public transportation did not mean social equality. Longstreet in his letters saw blacks as more of a means towards continued supremacy for white elites. Hampton’s antebellum power was based on slaves, so it might not be surprising that he embraced the freedmen so long as they voted for him. His tacit willingness to allow Gary to run a campaign of violence in 1876 showed the limits of Hampton’s biracial rhetoric. To be fair though, his policies and break with Gary also reveal a man who, unless backed into a corner, desired more harmonious, if still generally unequal, race relations. In the end, only Longstreet made equal rights a cause he was willing to die for but after Liberty Place he mostly withdrew from politics. Hampton and Nicholls condemned Segregation, but neither man had the same power and influence in the 1890s and neither risked their positions to stem the tide. Nicholls even served as Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1892 to 1911. Hampton managed to become commissioner of railroads under Grover Cleveland, and was later succeeded in the post by Longstreet.
The Confederate generals who opposed Segregation and racial violence, and their allies, are a worthy subject of study. They defy the manichean stereotype of Reconstruction as mostly a bitter war between freedmen and white scalwags against former Confederates over dominance and rights. Yet, they also show the limits of white acceptance of black rights and most of all the limits of resistance to the emerging tide of Segregation. To be fair, their efforts were likely doomed. The late 1800s was the heyday of colonial expansion in Africa, Herbert Spencer, the “Yellow Peril,” and Pan-nationalism.