Confederate Generals and Racial Moderation

The Battle of Liberty Place (Harper’s Weekly)

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Sean Michael 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.

9 Responses to Confederate Generals and Racial Moderation

  1. Thanks Sean Chick. Very enlightening. As a Civil War buff, I find that literature on reconstruction period scanty by comparison. Didn’t know that Longstreet had a post-war position in New Orleans for a time. I just knew that he was looked down on by the Lost Cause writers. Keep them coming!

    1. His time in New Orleans is what caused him to become a villain of the Lost Cause. He also questioned the worship of Lee in direct terms. Beauregard was actually more critical of Lee, but he showed restraint in his published writings.

  2. I suggest that all interested in this topic read “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” by C. Vann Woodward. This book was called by Dr. Martin L. King “the bible of the civil rights movement.” The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court allowed “separate but equal” laws to exist anywhere in the nation, and they existed widely. Segregation was the policy of the U.S. armed forces until 1948. It should be noted that the 1954 Brown v.Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court dealt with segregation in Topeka, Kansas–hardly a southern town! Segregation was practiced in 20+ of the 48 states in 1954. In Plessy v. Ferguson the court cited the city ordinances of Boston to show that “separate but equal” could work fairly. Eight justices wrote opinions in Plessy v. Ferguson; one justice recused himself. The seven affirmative opinions were written by justices from northern states, the lone dissenting opinion was written by a justice from Kentucky whose family had once owned slaves.

    History is like swimming in muddy water, I have been told. Nothing is as clear as might be thought or desired. Segregation and a belief in white supremacy { A.K.A. scientific racism, Anglo-Saxon superiority, and a variety of other names} has never been merely “a Southern thing.” Moving beyond that stereotype is necessary if we are to confront the problem of race today.

    1. Agreed in full, although Bob is right to caution against false equivalency. The lynch mob of Dixie is no stereotype. I have seen photographs of people eating cotton candy with hanged men behind them.

      Also keep in mind Edward Douglas White was one of the seven to vote for it. He was a Louisiana native and one of the young men radicalized by the war. He was calling for Segregation as early as 1866. Sadly, White saw his side win after the war.

  3. Michael:

    Your points about Northern complicity in segregation and racism are well taken. Even today, there are significant pockets of racism in the North.

    But I hope you don’t mean to imply that Northern racism equates, in any significant way, to white supremacy as practiced in the South in the decades after the Civil War and the later Jim Crow era. Sure, African-Americans faced discrimination throughout the North after the Civil War. But it was nowhere near as virulent and violent as the apartheid-like racism of the South. That’s one of the major reasons for the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to Northern urban centers.

    1. Racism in both quarters was quite different. The North did not go in for legal segregation (although the unofficial variety is common even today) and most of all did not restrict voting rights. Lynch mobs were more rare. The situation was hardly ideal in the North, and in the end most blacks did stay in the South and led the next generation in the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 60s.

      Yet, we misunderstand Reconstruction if we do not acknowledge that the North was at best ambivalent about freedmen’s rights. It is the key to understanding why Reconstruction failed. The political will was never really there; indeed the “harsh” reconstruction of Grant’s presidency was often sold more as punishing the traitorous and aristocratic South than raising up freedmen. Then there were the politicians who saw in the freedmen not a race only recent raised out of oppression, but a voting bloc to exploit. Louisiana in particular had a large share of these political adventurers.

      The Union side as of late is often portrayed heroically. I am glad the Union won, but I cannot stand the manichean vision I see becoming codified. It creates a bland spot in understanding the limits of the North’s commitment to true equality, and blurs the fact that the uniting force in the Northern war effort was saving the union. The trouble is to balance it with the fact that even though the North was fighting to preserve the union and democracy, the South was certainly fighting to maintain a slave society that was trending towards a faux aristocracy.

      Pointing out blind spots and shortcomings does not make one a devotee of the Last Cause; arguably ignoring those blind spots only gives the Lost Cause ammunition. I have seen it first hand in New Orleans with the statues debate. My article was mostly to show what I find more interesting in history and art: complications.

      1. Bob and Sean, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey all had de jure segregation of schools and housing. Indiana eliminated their segregation laws in their schools in 1949.As I pointed out in my original post, more than 20 states had de jure school segregation in 1954, so one cannot say that the North did not go in for legal segregation. Housing covenants made many Northern cities strictly segregated and those lines can still be easily observed. In the 19th Century the lynching rate of Mexicans in California was 27.4 per 100,000 of population; in South Carolina the lynching rate of African Americans was 18.8 per 100,000. Much of Northern racial violence has been attributed to economic conflict but the battle lines have been white vs black. Does racism in one area equate racism in another? I wonder what the victims of racism thought and think?

  4. And yet Michael, segregation was more pervasive in the South, rigidly enforced, and matched with violence and more importantly the elimination of voter’s rights. Voting rights was ultimately the worst thing the South did after the war, the most inexcusable. It meant that unless blacks took to the streets, there was no hope for change.

    It is a matter of degrees. Racism existed and still exists in the North, and there is a treasure trove of evidence you have not even brought up, such as Boston’s resistance to school busing in the 1970s. I have little love for anyone wanting to make the North into the epitome of racial justice. Yet, if we create a false equivalency then we fail to understand the special place race has had in Southern history, and the Confederacy in particular. The experience of racism in Mississippi is not the same as that in Pennsylvania.

    As to lynching in California as opposed to South Carolina, it is an interesting point. Yet, California is not the North; it helps your case only in so far as it shows the obvious: racism is not a solely southern or even Confederate property.

  5. Michael:

    Like so many Lost Cause apologists, you try to downplay the barbarity of the South’s post-CW Black Codes and Jim Crow by saying in effect, “Well, the North was guilty of racism, too.” As Sean and I have conceded, racial discrimination occurred throughout the North following the CW and can still be found in many places in the North.

    However, Northern racism of the past and present day – while inexcusable and despicable – pales in comparison to the apartheid version practiced in the South. The vast majority of black lynchings – often for no other reason than a black man showing “disrespect” for a white – were in the post-CW South. Keeping blacks from voting and serving on juries was rampant throughout the old Confederacy until the mid-1960s, for God’s sake, as were segregated drinking fountains, public pools and hospitals, hotels, restaurants, buses, etc. And these overt forms of apartheid would have continued in the South – probably until today – without a strong response by the federal government. Michael, as you well know, the civil rights legislation that Americans now take for granted, was vigorously opposed by Southern political leaders throughout most of the 1960s.

    On the other hand, such radical forms of Jim Crow apartheid had been abandoned – voluntarily – in the North decades earlier.

    To reiterate, Northern racism is, and was, wrong. But to equate the type of racism in the North with the type practiced in the South is historically incorrect. As a historian yourself, you should know better.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!