|A contemporary magazine illustration of the siege of the Colfax courthouse|
The violence against the newly freed black populace and their white defenders had been slowly ratcheted up by a series of increasingly horrifying acts of individual violence -- school burnings, lynchings, floggings, assassinations -- that began to reach a fever pitch that finally exploded in the spring of 1872.
There can only be one inevitable outcome to that much unrestrained and unrequited hate: an act of near-genocide like the Colfax Massacre.
It grew out of the realization that Democrats in the South, particularly Louisiana, were beginning to seize back political control not through the ballot box but by force -- literally sending in armed militias to take control of local government officers. One of the places where this was particularly acute was in Grant Parish, Louisiana. Wikipedia:
Fearful that the Democrats might try to take over the local parish government, blacks started to create trenches around the courthouse and drilled to keep alert. The Republican officeholders stayed there overnight. They held the town for three weeks.In his excellent reconstruction of the tragedy, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, Charles Lane describes how McKinney, who had just returned to his home from the courthouse, was killed:
On March 28, Nash, Cazabat, Hadnot and other white Fusionists called for armed whites to retake the courthouse on April 1. Whites were recruited from nearby Winn and surrounding parishes to join their effort. The Republicans Shaw, Register and Flowers and others began to collect a posse of armed blacks to defend the courthouse.
Black Republicans Lewis Meekins and state militia captain William Ward, a black Union veteran, raided the homes of the opposition leaders: Judge William R. Rutland, Bill Cruikshank and Jim Hadnot. Gunfire erupted between whites and blacks on April 2 and again on April 5, but the shotguns were too inaccurate to do any harm. The two sides arranged for peace negotiations. Peace ended when a white man shot and killed a black man named Jesse McKinney, described as a bystander.
McKinney was repairing his fence, no more than twenty-four paces from his front door. As he worked, a group of about a dozen white riders suddenly galloped up. Some of them jumped their mounts over the fence. A man in a white shirt and black vest raised a pistol and fired it at McKinney's head. McKinney let out a ghastly scream, like the wail of a slaughtered pig, and sank to the ground. "I got him, he's dead as hell!" his attacker cried. The group whooped and capered around his body. It had all happened in an instant -- right in front of Laurinda McKinney, who was standing on the front porch, with her six-year-old son, Butler. She hugged Butler to her knees and waited for their turn to die.Lane explains that though "the whites rode off," the murder "was the end of the peace conference. The whites had drawn first blood." Soon, the number of blacks at the courthouse increased to 500, including women and children seeking refuge from the violence breaking out all across the countryside.
Another armed conflict on April 6 ended with whites' fleeing from armed blacks. With all the unrest in the community, black women and children joined the men at the courthouse for protection. William Ward, the commanding officer of Company A, 6th Infantry Regiment, Louisiana State Militia, headquartered in Grant Parish, had been elected state representative from the parish on the Republican ticket.Henry Louis Gates, in his review of Lane's book, describes the melee that ensued, leading up to the final bloodletting:
He wrote to Governor Kellogg seeking U.S. troops for reinforcement and gave the letter to William Smith Calhoun for delivery. Calhoun took the steamboat LaBelle down the Red River but was captured by Paul Hooe, Hadnot and Cruikshank. They ordered Calhoun to tell blacks to leave the courthouse.
The black defenders refused to leave although threatened by parties of armed whites commanded by Nash. To recruit men during the rising political tensions, Nash had contributed to lurid rumors that blacks were preparing to kill all the white men and take the white women as their own.
On April 8 the anti-Republican Daily Picayune newspaper of New Orleans distorted events by the following headline: “ THE RIOT IN GRANT PARISH. FEARFUL ATROCITIES BY THE NEGROES. NO RESPECT SHOWN TO THE DEAD. ”
Such news attracted more whites from the region to Grant Parish to join Nash; all were experienced Confederate veterans. They acquired a four-pound cannon that could fire iron slugs. As the Klansman Dave Paul said, "Boys, this is a struggle for white supremacy."
Cazabat had directed Nash as sheriff to put down what he called a riot. Nash gathered an armed white paramilitary group and veteran officers from Rapides, Winn and Catahoula parishes. He did not move his forces toward the courthouse until noon on Easter Sunday, April 13. Nash led more than 300 armed white men, most on horseback and armed with rifles.
Nash reportedly ordered the defenders of the courthouse to leave. When that failed, Nash gave women and children camped outside the courthouse thirty minutes to clear out. After they left, the shooting began. The fighting continued for several hours with few casualties. When Nash's paramilitary maneuvered the cannon behind the building, some of the defenders panicked and left the courthouse. About 60 defenders ran into nearby woods and jumped into the river. Nash sent men on horseback after the fleeing black Republicans, and his paramilitary group killed most of them on the spot.
Soon Nash's forces directed a black captive to set the courthouse roof on fire. The defenders displayed white flags for surrender: one made from a shirt, the other from a page of a book. The shooting stopped. Nash's group approached and called for those surrendering to throw down their weapons and come outside.
What happened next is in dispute. According to the reports of some whites, James Hadnot was shot and wounded by someone from the courthouse. "In the Negro version, the men in the courthouse were stacking their guns when the white men approached, and Hadnot was shot from behind by an overexcited member of his own force." Hadnot died later, after being taken downstream by a passing steamboat. In the aftermath of Hadnot's shooting, the white paramilitary group reacted with mass killing of the black men.
Sensing trouble, the few remaining whites inside the courthouse fled, leaving approximately 150 black men to fight for the Republican cause.
At high noon, literally, the white riders galloped through town, with former sheriff Nash shouting at the women whose husbands had gone up to the courthouse: "You see these damned sons of bitches have run off and left you to take care of yourself. Now you women get out of here, and not a damn one of you will get hurt."
Once at the courthouse, Nash and the other members of the white mob set up their cannon and fired it and their guns. The blacks in and around the courthouse met their volley and tried using their own cannon, but in the heat of battle, it simply exploded. For two hours, the fighting continued without either side claiming the advantage until the whites relocated their cannon to an unguarded levee around the blacks' left flank. One black defender, Adam Kimball, was struck in the abdomen, and "[w]hen he looked down," Lane writes, "he saw his intestines falling out."
Outgunned, the black defenders inside the trenches retreated to the courthouse. Others fled, many of them captured or killed by the whites. The quickest way to smoke the rest of them out, ex-sheriff Nash decided, was to set the two sides' long-fought-over prize on fire, which his men did by hoisting kerosene-soaked cotton wads to the end of a bamboo fishing pole and forcing one of their black prisoners at gunpoint to take it inside. "You're a good old nigger," his former boss, William "Bill" Cruikshank, proclaimed.
Christopher Lemann, in his book Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, describes the horrifying denoument inside the courthouse:
Inside the building they pried up floorboards and tried, unsuccessfully, to hide beneath them. They were all killed, unarmed, at close range, while begging for mercy....What was happening now was not a hard military fight but a killing frenzy after the battle was over, after the outcome had been clearly settled, and with [the whites'] opponents unarmed.The aftermath, from Wikipedia:
As more than 40 times as many blacks died as did whites, historians describe the event as a massacre. The white paramilitary group killed unarmed men trying to hide in the courthouse. They rode down and killed those attempting to flee. They dumped some bodies in the Red River. About 50 blacks survived the afternoon and were taken prisoner. Later that night they were summarily killed by their captors, who had been drinking. Only one black from the group, Levi Nelson, survived. He was shot by Cruikshank but managed to crawl away unnoticed. He later served as one of the Federal government's chief witnesses against those who were indicted for the attacks.The historian Eric Foner, a specialist in the Civil War and Reconstruction, wrote about the event:
... The officers filed a military report in which they identified by name three whites and 105 blacks who had died, plus noted they had recovered 15-20 unidentified blacks from the river. They also noted the savage nature of many of the killings, suggesting an out-of-control situation.
The exact number of dead was never established.: two U.S. Marshals, who visited the site on April 15 and buried dead, reported 62 fatalities; a military report to Congress in 1875 identified 81 black men by name who had been killed, and also estimated that between 15 and 20 bodies had been thrown into the Red River, and another 18 were secretly buried, for a grand total of "at least 105"; a state historical marker from 1950 noted fatalities as three whites and 150 blacks.
The bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era, the Colfax massacre taught many lessons, including the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority. Among blacks in Louisiana, the incident was long remembered as proof that in any large confrontation, they stood at a fatal disadvantage. "The organization against them is too strong. ..." Louisiana black teacher and Reconstruction legislator John G. Lewis later remarked. "They attempted [armed self-defense] in Colfax. The result was that on Easter Sunday of 1873, when the sun went down that night, it went down on the corpses of two hundred and eighty negroes."
The case did not end with the smoldering wreckage of the courthouse. Federal authorities attempted to prosecute the main perpetrators, and the case wound up going all the way to the Supreme Court -- where the cause of the Reconstruction itself was dealt a deadly legal blow. From Wikipedia:
When the federal government appealed the case, it was heard by the US Supreme Court as United States v. Cruikshank (1875). The Supreme Court ruled that the Enforcement Act of 1870 (which was based on the Bill of Rights and 14th Amendment) applied only to actions committed by the state, and that it did not apply to actions committed by individuals or private conspiracies. ... The Federal government could not prosecute cases such as the Colfax killings. The court said plaintiffs who believed their rights were abridged had to seek protection from the state. Louisiana did not prosecute any of the perpetrators of the Colfax massacre; most southern states would not prosecute white men for attacks against freedmen.The Washington Post noted:
The publicity about the Colfax Massacre and subsequent Supreme Court ruling encouraged the growth of white paramilitary organizations. In May 1874, Nash formed the first chapter of the White League from his paramilitary group, and chapters soon were formed in other areas of Louisiana, as well as the southern parts of nearby states. Unlike the former KKK, they operated openly and often curried publicity. One historian described them as "the military arm of the Democratic Party." Other paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts also arose, especially in South Carolina and Mississippi, which also had black majorities of population.
As Lane points out, nowhere in Chief Justice Morrison Waite's 5,000-word opinion did he mention the fact that dozens of black men had been murdered in cold blood at Colfax. Cruikshank hammered the final nail into the coffin of federal efforts to protect the basic rights of black citizens in the South. Reconstruction effectively ended a year later, and the Jim Crow era began.If you travel to Colfax, Louisiana, today, there isn't much left to remind people of these events, except for this sign, erected by the state in 1950:
"On this 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."
That would be one way of putting it.
Another can be found down at the old Colfax cemetery, where the following memorial can be found:
"Erected to the memory of the heroes, Stephen Decatur Parish, James West Hadnot, Sidney Harris, who fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy. April 13, 1873"
As Richard Rubin observed in The Atlantic: "It is the frankest monument I have ever seen."
Confederate Heritage Month:
Day 1: Strange Fruit
It Was About Slavery
That Peculiar Institution
How Poor Whites Got Suckered
The First American War Criminals
'The River Was Dyed'
War By Other Means
Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and the Liars Who Named Them
Crying Bloody Shirt