Echoes of the Reconstruction Era: The Political Violence of 1868

detail from Thomas Nast’s Sept. 5, 1868 Harper’s Weekly cartoon “This Is a White Man’s Government”

ECW welcomes back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog

Over the last month I have been researching political violence during the lead-up to the Election of 1868. This is remembered today as the year that Ulysses S. Grant was elected president, but it was also the year of the first United States election in which hundreds of thousands of African Americans voted. While the 15th Amendment removing the color bar on voting was still two years off, the Radical Republicans had forced the states that had joined the Confederacy to open up voting to Black men. Blocking Blacks from voting for president, and a whole host of state and local offices, was the primary motivation for the eruption of brutality during the six months before voting began. In my discussion below of the terrorism that resulted, you can find links to the primary sources in the text.

Beginning in 1866, white terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia were organized by Confederate veterans. While these agents of political violence sowed fear locally in Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, the groups first came to national attention in January of 1868. That month, the New York Times published its first-ever article on the Klan, which it correctly identified as originating in Pulaski, Tennessee.

The Klan, according to the article, had initially presented itself as a harmless fraternal organization. By 1868, it was in the words of the Times “terrorizing the whole region,” for the purpose of “driving the Union men out” in order to “overawe the negroes and prevent them from exercising their rights at the ballot box.” The article detailed an attack on a Black man by the group. With four of the victim’s friends forced to watch, twenty to twenty-five Klansmen took him and administered 100 lashes to the Black man, just as a slave master might have done three years earlier. This was no disorganized mob. The attackers were organized along military lines, with, said the Times report, a “Major and Lieutenant, the men obeying their leaders as though they were in a regular military organization.”

When Grant was nominated for president that summer, many of his supporters adopted a campaign song that included the promise that Grant would “make the Ku Klux Klan shiver.” Meanwhile, Grant’s Democratic opponents sang their own song “Raise High the White Man’s Banner.”  There were clear lines of division between the parties on the race question, and it was prominent in the electoral struggle.

Suppressing the Klan before the election was not possible, given the resources available. One of the most persistent myths of Reconstruction is that a massive Federal military presence overawed and oppressed the white Democrats of the South. In fact, not only was the military presence very small in the Reconstructing states, the total size of the military nationally was small. After June of 1865 the army began a rapid demobilization. By 1868 it was roughly 5% of the size it had been at the end of the Civil War, just three years earlier. A significant part of the army of 48,000 in late 1868 was assigned to operations against Native Americans and to garrisoning coastal fortifications and posts along the Mexican and Canadian borders. This left few soldiers to try to control the outbreaks of violence occurring during the months before the election. The lack of presidential will on Andrew Johnson’s part to curtail the Klan and the Knights and the scarcity of military resources allowed the white terror groups free rein in rural areas of the South.

Freedmen’s Bureau report from September, 1868 told the story of voter intimidation in Virginia:

“The fundamental doctrine of the Conservative whites has been that negro suffrage is an insult to their race and an outrage upon their rights. This feeling is intense, and causes the negro to be regarded as a positive enemy. In many sections of the State large numbers of blacks are under warning that they will be turned out of employment and driven off their lands if they vote Republican. In the scenes of violence…the negroes were always the victims, and the whites always the assailants.”

The terrorists operated with impunity because even when the killers apprehended, locally empaneled white juries would not convict. The report concluded that the “trials of whites for the murder of negroes is generally a farce.”

The suppression of the Black vote was defended by the conservative Southern media. In fact, the Charleston Mercury argued that it was the duty of white Southerners to refuse to employ African Americans who voted for the Republicans. With former Confederate among the largest landholders and employers in the Southern states, threats of firing were as effective as threats of violence in discouraging Black voting.

Louisiana became a particular focus of the resistance to Black equality. A December, 1868 report from the Louisiana legislature said that the “history of the last twelve months presents a frightful record” during which “great numbers of colored men and white Republicans were slaughtered.” The source of the violence was, according to the report, “a fixed predetermination on the part of…the white people…to resist…impartial suffrage.”

In addition to masked night riders committing acts of terror against Blacks, there were also “mobbings.” These were organized uprisings by armed whites against Black communities. One was the October St. Bernard Parish Massacre. Shortly before the election, word leaked out that the local Democrats planned to assassinate a prominent Republican landowner named Thomas Ong, as well as former Union General Albert Lindley Lee and Mike Curtis, a police officer. The Seymour Infantus and the Seymour Innocents, Democratic paramilitary organizations from New Orleans, came to St. Bernard on October 25 to reinforce the gatherings of local armed Democrats.

During a march from a Catholic church, the armed groups came upon a freedman and insisted that he cheer for Democratic candidate Horatio Seymour. When he refused, they killed him. The man who shot the African American, Valvey Veillon, announced that he was “ready to kill twenty more damned n@ggers.” The Democrats next came across an elderly freedman working in the fields. His throat was cut, though he survived the attack. Jane Ackus, a freedwoman, was the next victim. She was beaten and kicked. As they came upon other freedpeople, the armed men ordered them to “hurrah for Seymour and Blair,” or else face assault. When they encountered white police officer Mike Curtis they chanted “Death to the Police” and killed him. Curtis, a Union veteran, had been a favorite of the black community. Later some Blacks later tried to bury Curtis, but they were shot, one fatally.

The newspapers created a panic in New Orleans by claiming that a caravan of up to 2,000 armed blacks were marching from St. Bernard’s towards the city, burning and killing along the way. In fact, by the time the alarmist articles appeared, many freedpeople had fled to the swamps to evade the bands of mounted and armed whites marauding through the region.

On October 26, the white mob grew larger and more violent. Groups of men went to the old slave quarters of plantations and looted them and assaulted or killed the blacks they found there. Where the first day of attacks targeted political opponents, the second day involved indiscriminate attacks on anyone who was black. Freedmen who were captured were taken to a coffee shop, where they were imprisoned. When Federal troops arrived in the parish, some of the captives were executed by the conservatives.

A similar massacre had taken place a month earlier in St. Landry Parish. A Freedmen’s Bureau report estimated that over 200 people were killed, including two dozen Black men who were taken prisoner by the whites and later executed in cold blood by them.

While Grant was elected president that November, the violence in Louisiana succeeded in preventing a Black Republican majority from being recorded in that state. The dry numbers of the census and voting records reveal dimensions of the terrorist success story.

St. Bernard Parish, scene of the October bloodbath, had 1,640 whites in the 1870 Census and 1,913 blacks. There were 1,187 total registered voters in November 1868 in the parish. Of these 679, more than half, were Republicans. In the November 3, 1868 balloting, 473 votes were recorded for the Democrats and only one for the Republicans!

The St. Landy Parish Massacre was even more effective. St. Landry Parish had 13,776 whites in the 1870 Census and 11,694 blacks. There were 5,113 total registered voters in November 1868 in St. Landry. Of these 2,102 were Republicans. In the November 3, 1868 balloting, 4,616 votes were recorded for the Democrats and ZERO for the Republicans!

The Louisiana experiment in Black voter suppression would be a model for the rest of the South in the years to come.

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10 Responses to Echoes of the Reconstruction Era: The Political Violence of 1868

  1. johncfazio says:

    Not very different from the persecution and murder of Jews in Germany and in German-occupied lands in Europe from 1933 through 1945. We are all the same animal. We all have the same nature, which is immutable. Manifestations of different behavior are attributable to differences in climate, geography and historical happenstance. American Exceptionalism is a myth. The near annihilation of Indians and the enslavement of an entire race of people, including the 11-year aftermath known as Reconstruction and the 100-year aftermath known as Jim Crow, place us squarely in the mainstream of humanity, together with those who have committed every crime and every atrocity imaginable.

    • Lyle Smith says:

      Interestingly it was Jim Crow America that defeated the Nazis.

      • Gene Betit says:

        Yes, the armed forces were segregated during WW II, but the Nuremberg War Crimes made many Americans aware that we badly needed to “clean up our act.” The State Department and Attorney General both wrote “Friend of the Court” letters to the Supreme Court urging the end of segregated education.

      • Lyle Smith says:

        Just to be pedantic, before anyone else is, Jim Crow America, Imperialist Britain, and Stalinist Russia defeated the Nazis like a Boss.

    • Thomas M Fleming says:

      American exceptionalism is not a myth. America has had its shares of flaws as any civilized country but no other country in the history of the world has provided such a haven for freedom on all levels. In addition no country in history has shared and sacrificed. For the freedom of other nations. Your statement’s ignorance is only surpassed by your elitist arrogance. You should be ashamed of such a an ignorant post, but as is well known, fools are incapable of being embarrassed.

  2. BillF says:

    The North didn’t have the will or the interest to carry out a proper reconstruction. Many of them had the same racial bias as the South and were fighting to preserve the Union. Once that was done they considered that their job was finished.

    If Lincoln hadn’t been shot he might have been the first president to be impeached as the policies he seemed to favor closely resembled those that Johnson implemented. I do think Lincoln cared more about the slaves, though.

    • patyoungcarecen2019 says:

      Thanks for commenting. I don’t think many Northerners had a comprehensive view of what should be done in the South at the close of the war. The passage of the Black Codes almost immediately after the surrenders awakened an interest in the fate of the freedpeople that had not existed before the Fall of 1865.

  3. scott s. says:

    Something I’ve wondered about is whether slavery as practiced in sugar culture was different than that in the more predominant cotton culture. I base this on the West Indies which seem to be a particularly brutal slavery experience. It would be interesting to me to see if there were significant differences in reconstruction Louisiana between the southern sugar region and central and northern LA which couldn’t support sugar.

    • Lyle Smith says:

      No… there was a lot of violence in north Louisiana as well. See the Colfax massacre. Antebellum slave rebellions occurred in non-sugar crop states, like South Carolina and Virginia. Also the Ku Klux Klan was formed in Tennessee where no sugar is grown.

    • Lyle Smith says:

      Harvesting sugar cane was just way more dangerous than harvesting cotton. You picked cotton and you cut cane. Big difference. I think even the sugar mill grinding process was dangerous and still is today to some degree. Also sugar is grown in more humid, mosquito infested places where mortality was higher thanks to the latitude.

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