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In September 1868, a dispute over a column published in an Opelousas, Louisiana partisan newspaper provoked one of the bloodiest incidents of racial violence in the Reconstruction era. The attackers' goal: to reverse dramatic political gains made by Black citizens after the Civil War, intimidate them from exercising their newly found rights and restore the racial hierarchy of the slavery era.
The Opelousas massacre remains one of the harshest examples of African American voter suppression in U.S. history, with estimates of the dead ranging from several dozen to several hundred. Occurring in the run-up to the 1868 presidential election, which pitted conservative Democrat Horatio Seymour against Republican war hero Ulysses S. Grant, the killings also underlined the importance of partisan media in shaping the postwar political discourse.
Throughout American history, political parties have used partisan newspapers to influence the electorate, starting with the Federalist party’s Gazette of the United States, founded in 1789. (Motto: "He that is not for us, is against us.") After the upheaval of the Civil War, newspapers became a hotly contested space for Democrats and Republicans to communicate their competing visions for the political, economic and social futures of some 4 million formerly enslaved people. While Republicans used their newspapers to advocate expanding Black people’s rights and privileges, Democratic papers aligned with the slogan of their party’s presidential nominee Seymour: “This is a White Man’s Government,” one that hoped to keep Black Americans in perpetual bondage—or at least perpetual servitude.
In Opelousas, the seat of Louisiana’s St. Landry parish, The St. Landry Progress served as the official organ of the local Republican Party—one of 73 Republican papers in the state. And in fall 1868, a strongly worded editorial, penned by a precocious young editor, ignited a firestorm.
READ MORE: How Power Grabs in the South Erased Reforms After Reconstruction
In the South, Postwar Politics Hinged on Rights for the Formerly Enslaved
That year hadn’t been good for Louisiana Democrats. The state’s white planter class, beset by labor shortages and repeated crop failures, was suffering financially. Politically, their world order was crumbling as formerly enslaved people gained new rights. In April, Louisiana’s new state constitution, one of the most far-reaching pieces of Radical Reconstruction legislation, passed on the strength of Black Republican support, granting full citizenship to Black men with equal civil and political rights, while banning segregation in public schools and on public transportation. In July, the Fourteenth Amendment gave African Americans equal status under federal law.
“The April election returns left white leaders fully cognizant of the radical Black voting strength and the future implications that strength had for the Democratic party,” wrote Carolyn DeLatte, an early historian of the Opelousas massacre.
But while Black voters immediately after the Civil War skewed largely Republican, they weren’t a monolithic group. Some did join the Democratic party—a fact that, in St. Landry parish, drew ire on both sides. In early September 1868, a rumor circulated among local Democrats that Republican Blacks were going to reclaim Black Democrats for the party, if they had to do it “at the point of a bayonet.”
These rumors led to a mostly peaceful standoff on September 13, 1868 between Black Republicans and white Democrats, where leaders of each party gave speeches and negotiated a peace accord between the two parties that banned guns at gatherings. It also required the editor of the St. Landry Progress, Emerson Bentley, to refrain from making “incendiary” comments about the Democrats in the paper or in speeches.
An 18-year-old Ohio native, Bentley also served as secretary of the local Radical Republican party and taught at a Methodist school for Black students. Deemed by local Democrats a “carpetbagger,” a derogatory term used for Northerners who came South after the war to profit economically or politically, Bentley regularly received threats. But he himself expressed religious motivation for his politics, crediting his “Christian spirit, and a desire to do something for the general good.”
READ MORE: When Did African Americans Get the Right to Vote?
'They Are Killing Mr. Bentley!'
On September 19, 1868, Bentley broke the truce by lambasting Democrats in a Progress editorial. “The assembly of armed men from all parts of the parish did not indicate peaceful intentions, but a total blindness to the interests of the people,” he wrote. Declaring a measure of moral authority over the Democrats, Bentley added that Republicans “do not plot in the dark; we do not assassinate inoffensive citizens or threaten to do so; we do not seek the lives of political opponents; we do not seek to array one class against another; but we do intend to defend our just rights at all hazards.” In the article, he appealed to Black Democrats to rejoin the party that didn’t seek to intimidate them with violence.
On September 28, Bentley was teaching at the Methodist church on the outskirts of Opelousas when three Seymour Knights, the local branch of the white supremacist organization, came to confront him about his “incendiary” article.
“You have a published a report which is both false and malicious,” said one of the Seymour Knights, according to an account in the New Orleans Advocate.
“Do you mean to say that I lied in that report?” Bentley asked.
The Seymour Knight replied, “ Yes sir, God Damn you, I do,” and then began hitting Bentley with a cane on his back and shoulders.
“They are killing Mr. Bentley!” the Black children shouted, running from the schoolhouse.
Before leaving, the Seymour Knights forced Bentley to sign a retraction of the story. When word spread about the attack, Republicans, fearing for their lives, assembled in Opelousas. Rumors spread among white citizens that armed Black locals were plotting an uprising. After signing an affidavit with legal authorities about the attack and then hiding overnight in a barn behind the Progress office, Bentley left town. Eluding a white mob with help from numerous Republican party safe houses, he eventually made his way to New Orleans.
READ MORE: How the 1876 Election Tested the Constitution and Effectively Ended Reconstruction
The Ultimate Goal: Destroying the Republican Party
As Bentley fled, white mobs began a killing rampage that lasted several weeks, targeting Opelousas’ Black citizens—ostensibly to keep them from organizing. “Colored men were not allowed to stand in groups upon the sidewalks,” according to the New Orleans Advocate. “Each day new victims fell.” In St. Landry parish, dozens of black bodies were found scattered in shallow graves. The Republican party estimated casualties at between 200 and 300, while Democrats put it between 25 and 30. An Army investigation cited 233.
Over time, the real agenda—of demolishing St. Landry parish’s Republic party—became clear. Several white party leaders were hunted and killed, with one corpse displayed outside the local drugstore as a warning. Mobs destroyed the Progress office’s press and ransacked the Methodist school. “The Negroes all over the Parish have been disarmed, and have gone to work briskly,” declared the Franklin Planter’s Banner, a Democratic party paper. “Their Loyal League clubs have been broken up, the scalawags have turned Democrats…and their carpet-bag press…have been destroyed.”
Republicans who weren’t killed fled or switched parties.
Back in April 1868, when they’d voted to ratify the new state constitution, Bentley and a very active local Black Republican party had looked excitedly to the November presidential election, when they would support Ulysses S. Grant over white supremacist Horatio Seymour. But they never got to cast those ballots. The former Union Army general didn’t receive a single vote in St. Landry parish.
“I am fully convinced that no man on that day could have voted any other than the Democratic ticket,” said the parish voter registration supervisor, “and not been killed inside of 24 hours.”
A braham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in November 1863, along with Reconstruction’s three amendments, gave the country a fundamentally new constitution. The Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments abolished slavery, gave black males civil rights and the vote, and, more importantly, established a national citizenship whose rights, protected by the federal government, were to be enjoyed by all Americans. But the US Supreme Court—beginning in 1873 with the Slaughterhouse decision and continuing with the Cruikshank decision in 1876—restricted the rights protected under these amendments. The United States v. Cruikshank case arose from the Colfax Massacre, the bloodiest act of terrorism during Reconstruction.
Louisiana’s 1872 gubernatorial election produced two rival claimants for the office: Democrat John McEnery and Republican William Pitt Kellogg. President Ulysses S. Grant and his administration declared Kellogg the rightful claimant. But the election, full of fraud and intimidation, incited turmoil all over the state. In the small village of Colfax, 220 miles northwest of New Orleans, a Democrat and a Republican each claimed to have won the office of sheriff. Kellogg sent rifles to the Republican claimant in order to arm his black followers. The Democratic claimant and his supporters, all white, launched an attack on the Republicans as they conducted a meeting in the courthouse. When the Republicans inside refused to stop the meeting and leave, the Democrats torched the building. Many gathered inside died, and those who fled were shot. The twenty or so who survived the fire and the shootings were jailed. The next night, even those survivors were killed in cold blood. No one is certain how many black men died the number ranges from a low of 60 to a high of 250. In 1950 the Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry installed a plaque that reads, “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 Negroes were slain. The event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” The message engraved on a twelve-foot-tall marble obelisk in the Colfax white cemetery provides a more accurate description of the motivation for the violence: “In loving remembrance/Erected to the memory of the [three] heroes … who fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for white supremacy. April 13, 1873.”
Nine white men, accused of having taken part in the massacre, were arrested and put on trial in federal court in New Orleans. They were charged not with murder but with having deprived the murdered men of their civil rights, as enumerated in the Enforcement Act of 1870. After an initial mistrial, a second trial convicted four of the nine men, including William B. Cruikshank. The conviction was appealed and heard by the US Circuit of Appeals. Because the circuit court judges disagreed over the matter of guilt, the case went to the US Supreme Court.
Finally, on March 27, 1876, almost three years after the massacre, the convictions of Cruikshank and his companions were reversed. Chief Justice Morrison Waite issued the majority opinion. He began with a general statement of principles, citing the Slaughterhouse case: “The same person may be at the same time a citizen of the United States and a citizen of a state.” Then he went on to say that the Fourteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to prohibit states from denying life, liberty, or property without due process of law, but the Colfax murders had been the work of private parties, not the state of Louisiana. The implication was that this case should have been left for adjudication within the court system of Louisiana.
The Cruikshank decision left the federal government all but powerless to protect freedmen, except by the use of troops—and these troops had to be requested by the state legislature or the governor. In fact, James R. Beckwith—US attorney for the District of the Circuit Court of Louisiana and the person who had drawn the initial indictment in the Cruikshank case—wrote to inform the US attorney general that after the Cruikshank matter, various White League organizations in the South had sprung to life and grown influential precisely because of this decision. The Enforcement Act and its proposed application in the Cruikshank case posed a classic instance for which the Fourteenth Amendment and enforcing legislation was devised. The states had defaulted in their duty to protect citizens, so the federal government had to step in. Yet the court argued that the Reconstruction-era amendments only empowered the federal government to prohibit violations of blacks’ rights by states the responsibility for punishing crimes by individuals rested where it always had—with local and state authorities. The Cruikshank decision therefore gave a green light to acts of terror wherever local officials either could not or would not enforce the law.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Gelderman, Carol. A Free Man of Color and His Hotel: Race, Reconstruction and the Role of the Federal Government. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012.
Gilette, William. Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869–1879. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Irons, Peter. A People’s History of the Supreme Court. New York: Viking, 1999.
Lemann, Nicholas. Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
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The Reconstructed South
The postwar South, where most of the fighting had occurred, faced many challenges. In the war’s aftermath, Southerners experienced collapsed property values, damaged railroads, and agricultural hardships. The elite planters were faced with overwhelming economic adversity perpetuated by a lack of laborers for their fields. However, it was the newly freed slaves in the former Confederate states that faced the greatest challenge: what to do with their newfound freedom.
Blacks acquired new rights and opportunities, such as equality before the law and the rights to own property, be married, attend schools, enter professions, and learn to read and write. One of the first opportunities the former slaves took advantage of was the chance to educate themselves and their children. The new Radical Republican state governments took steps to provide adequate public schools for the first time in the south.
Nearly 600,000 black students, from children to the elderly, were in southern schools by 1877. Although State Reconstruction officials tried to prohibit discrimination, the new schools practiced racial segregation, and the black schools generally received less funding than white schools. Black churches, recognizing the importance of the education initiatives, helped raise money to build schools and pay teachers, and many northern missionaries moved south to serve as teachers.
Another opportunity the former slaves pursued was involvement in politics. When the Fifteenth Amendment offered the chance for suffrage, black men seized the opportunity and began to organize politically. The freedmen affiliated themselves with the Republican Party, and hundreds of black delegates participated in statewide political conventions. Blacks used the Union Leagues to organize into a network of political clubs, provide political education, and campaign for Republican candidates. Black women did not have the right to vote at the time, but they aided the political movement with rallies and meetings that supported the Republican candidates.
In the new state governments of the south, black participation was a novelty. As their political involvement grew, several freedmen were elected to office. Those who were elected generally had some education, had served in the Union Army during the Civil War, had been free before the 1860s, or had some prior experience in public service.
Nearly 600 blacks served as state legislators, and many participated in the local governments as mayors, judges, and sheriffs. Between 1868 and 1876 at the federal level, 14 black men served in the House of Representatives and two black men served in the Senate--Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, both born in Mississippi and educated in the north. The freedmen’s involvement in politics caused a great deal of controversy in the south, where the idea of former slaves holding office was not widely supported.
While several black men held political offices, the top positions with the most power in southern state governments were held by the freedmen’s white Republican allies. The Confederate-minded whites soon came to call them “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags,” depending on their place of birth.
The Confederates described “carpetbaggers” as Northerners who packed all their belongings in carpetbag suitcases and rushed south in hopes of finding economic opportunity and personal power, which was true in some instances. Many of these Northerners were actually businessmen, professionals, teachers, and preachers who either wanted to “modernize” the south or were driven by a missionary impulse.
The “scalawags” were native Southerners and Unionists who had opposed secession. The former Confederates accused them of cooperating with the Republicans because they wanted to advance their personal interests. Many of the “scalawags” became Republicans because they had originally supported the Whig Party before secession and they saw the Republicans as the logical successors to the defunct Whig Party.
Some Southern whites resorted to savage tactics against the new freedom and political influence blacks held. Several secret vigilante organizations developed. The most prominent terrorist group was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), first organized in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866. Members of the KKK, called “Klansmen,” rode around the south, hiding under white masks and robes, terrorizing Republicans and intimidating black voters. They went so far as to flog, mutilate, and even lynch blacks.
Congress, outraged by the brutality of the vigilantes and the lack of local efforts to protect blacks and persecute their tormentors, struck back with three Enforcement Acts (1870-1871) designed to stop the terrorism and protect black voters. The Acts allowed the federal government to intervene when state authorities failed to protect citizens from the vigilantes. Aided by the military, the program of federal enforcement eventually undercut the power of the Ku Klux Klan. However, the Klan’s actions had already weakened black and Republican morale throughout the south.
As the Radical Republican influence diminished in the south, other interests occupied the attention of Northerners. Western expansion, Indian wars, corruption at all levels of government, and the growth of industry all diverted attention from the civil rights and well-being of ex-slaves. By 1876, Radical Republican regimes had collapsed in all but two of the former Confederate states, with the Democratic Party taking over. Despite the Republicans’ efforts, the planter elite were regaining control of the south. This group came to be known as the “Redeemers,” a coalition of prewar Democrats and Union Whigs who sought to undo the changes brought about in the south by the Civil War. Many were ex-plantation owners called “Bourbons” whose policies affected blacks and poor whites, leading to an increase in class division and racial violence in the post-war south.
May 1 – 3, 1866: Memphis Massacre
Freedmen’s School burning during the Memphis Riots of 1866. Source: Alfred Rudolph Waud Harper’s Weekly, Tennessee State Library and Archive.
From May 1-3 in 1866, white civilians and police killed 46 African-Americans and injured many more while burning houses, schools, and churches in Memphis, Tennessee.
No criminal proceedings were held for the instigators or perpetrators of atrocities committed during the Memphis Massacre (also referred to as the Memphis Riot). Here is a description of the riot in historical context by Lerone Bennett Jr. from Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (pages 224 – 226):
The land problem was linked to the larger problems of the South and the status of Blacks. Nothing could be done with the conquered South until the status of Blacks was settled. The reverse was also true. Nothing could be done for Blacks until the status of the conquered South was settled. Lincoln’s answer to this problem was liberal to the South. He wanted to readmit the Southern states as soon as 10 percent of the prewar electorate had qualified by taking an oath of allegiance to America. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was substantially of the same mind. Neither man came to grips with the status of Blacks, although Lincoln suggested that “very intelligent” Blacks and Union veterans be given the right to vote.
[Thaddeus] Stevens and [Charles] Sumner were aghast at the presidential innocence. To turn the former slaves over to their former master without adequate safeguards, they contended, would be madness. It was soon apparent that their apprehensions were all too well founded. For the conservative provisional governors appointed by President Johnson organized lily-white governments with blatant proslavery biases. In 1865 and 1866 these governments enacted the Black Codes which indicated that the South intended to reestablish slavery under another name. The codes restricted the rights of freedmen under vagrancy and apprenticeship laws. South Carolina forbade freedmen to follow any occupation except farming and menial service and required a special license to do other work. The legislature also gave “masters” the right to whip “servants” under eighteen years of age. In other states Blacks could be punished for “insulting gestures,” “seditious speeches” and the “crime” of walking off a job. Blacks could not preach in one state without police permission. A Mississippi law enacted late in November required Blacks to have jobs before the second Monday in January.
Even more serious was the vindictive attitude of Southerners, who vented their frustration on unarmed Blacks. Gen. Carl Schurz, who made a special investigation for the president, was astonished by postwar conditions in the South. “Some planters,” he said, “held back their former slaves on their plantations by brute force. Armed bands of white men patrolled the country roads to drive back the Negros wandering about. Dead bodies of murdered Negroes were found on and near the highways and by-ways. Gruesome reports came from the hospitals—reports of colored men and women whose ears had been cut off, whose skulls had been broken by blows, whose bodies had been slashed by knives or lacerated with scourges. A number of such cases, I had occasion to examine myself. A . . . reign of terror prevailed in many parts of the South.”
Throughout this period, and on into the 1870s, hundreds of freemen were massacred in “riots” staged and directed by policemen and other government officials. In the Memphis, Tennessee, “riot” of May 1866, forty-six Blacks (Union veterans were a special target) were killed and seventy-five were wounded. Five Black women were raped by whites, twelve schools and four churches were burned. Two months later, in New Orleans, policemen returned to the attack, killing some forty Blacks and wounding one hundred.
“The emancipation of the slave,” General Schurz concluded, “is submitted to only in so far as chattel slavery in the old form could not be kept up. But although the freedman is no longer considered the property of the individual master, he is considered the slave of society. . . . Wherever I go—the street, the shop, the house, the hotel, or the steamboat—I hear the people talk in such a way as to indicate that they are yet unable to conceive of the Negro as possessing any rights at all. Men who are honorable in their dealing with their white neighbors will cheat a Negro without feeling a single twinge of their honor. To kill a Negro, they do not deem murder to debauch a Negro woman, they do not think fornication to take property away from a Negro, they do not consider robbery. The people boast that when they get freedmen’s affairs in their own hands, to use their own expression, ‘the niggers will catch hell.’”
All of these factors—Southern intransigence and arrogance, the Black Codes, the Memphis and New Orleans “riots” – changed the national mood. Here and there, men fell into step with Sumner and Stevens. They did so for many reasons. Some believed it would be a major tragedy to hand the freedmen over to their former masters. Others saw a chance to insure the continued supremacy of the Republican party. Still others believed it would be dangerous to return ex-Confederates to national power. For various reasons, some of them contradictory, some of them noble, some of them base, people began to march by the sound of a different drummer.
Read more in this detailed thread from Professor Shawn Leigh Alexander:
The Memphis Massacre is one of countless massacres in U.S. history and one of many key stories from the Reconstruction era of the United States history.
Below are resources to teach outside the textbook about Reconstruction, reparations, policing, and more.
Abram Colby on the Methods of the Ku Klux Klan
The following statements are from the October 27, 1871, testimony of fifty-two-year-old former slave Abram Colby, which the joint select committee investigating the Klan took in Atlanta, Georgia. Colby had been elected to the lower house of the Georgia State legislature in 1868.
Why did the Klan target Colby? What methods did they use?
Congress also passed a series of three laws designed to stamp out the Klan. Passed in 1870 and 1871, the Enforcement Acts or “Force Acts” were designed to outlaw intimidation at the polls and to give the federal government the power to prosecute crimes against freed people in federal rather than state courts. Congress believed that this last step, a provision in the third Enforcement Act, also called the Ku Klux Klan Act, was necessary in order to ensure that trials would not be decided by white juries in southern states friendly to the Klan. The act also allowed the president to impose martial law in areas controlled by the Klan and gave President Grant the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, a continuation of the wartime power granted to President Lincoln. The suspension meant individuals suspected of engaging in Klan activity could be jailed indefinitely.
President Grant made frequent use of the powers granted to him by Congress, especially in South Carolina, where federal troops imposed martial law in nine counties in an effort to derail Klan activities. However, the federal government faced entrenched local organizations and a white population firmly opposed to Radical Reconstruction. Changes came slowly or not at all, and disillusionment set in. After 1872, federal government efforts to put down paramilitary terror in the South waned.
In opposition to Johnson, they started passing reconstruction acts, including an extension of The Freedmen’s Bureau (1868), a measure begun under Lincoln to aid the transition of blacks into freedom. Johnson vetoing bills Congress passed would become the norm. His 29 vetoes shattered the previous record of 12. Johnson was overturned by Congress 15 times which is still a record.
The Civil Rights Bill of 1866
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first United States federal law to define citizenship and affirm that all citizens are equally protected by the law. It was mainly intended, in the wake of the American Civil War, to protect the civil rights of persons of African descent born in or brought to the United States.
The Act was passed by Congress in 1865 and vetoed by United States President Andrew Johnson. In April 1866 Congress again passed the bill to support the Thirteenth Amendment, and Johnson again vetoed it, but a two-thirds majority in each chamber overrode the veto to allow it to become law without presidential signature.
John Bingham and other congressmen argued that Congress did not yet have sufficient constitutional power to enact this law. Following passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, Congress ratified the 1866 Act in 1870.
Tenure of Office Act of 1867
The Tenure of Office Act was a United States federal law (in force from 1867 to 1887) that was intended to restrict the power of the president to remove certain office-holders without the approval of the Senate. The law was enacted on March 2, 1867, over the veto of President Andrew Johnson. It purported to deny the president the power to remove any executive officer who had been appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, unless the Senate approved the removal during the next full session of Congress.
The act was significantly amended by Congress on April 5, 1869, under President Ulysses S. Grant. Congress repealed the act in its entirety in 1887, exactly 20 years after the law was enacted.
Opelousas Massacre: When over 150 Black Republicans were hanged by White Democrats
On September 28, 1868, Democrat Judge James Dickinson led a mob that killed over 150 black residents in Opelousas, Louisiana. The event is known as the Opelousas Massacre.
It started when local blacks expressed outrage when a white newspaper publisher, Emerson Bentley, was severely beaten. Bentley was beaten because he published an article that criticized white democrats for beating and removing black Democrats from the local party.
Dickinson, and a small army of heavily armed white supremacist members, converged on the city to wipe out its black population. The above photo is of the remaining blacks being hung for speaking out against the Democrats for beating Emerson Bentley.
The Opelousas Massacre occurred on September 28, 1868 in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. The event is also referred to as The Opelousas Riot by some historians. There is debate as to how many people were killed. Conservative estimates made by contemporary observers indicated about 30 people died from the political violence. Later historians have placed the total as closer to 150 or more.
While most Reconstruction-era violence was sparked by conflicts between black Republicans and white Democrats, the initial catalyst for the Massacre was the attempt by some Opelousas blacks to join a Democratic political group in the neighboring town of Washington. White Democrats in Opelousas, mainly members of the Seymour Knights, the local unit of the white supremacist organization Knights of the White Camellia, visited Washington to drive them out of the Party. In response Emerson Bentley, an Ohio-born white school teacher and editor of The Progress, a Republican newspaper in Opelousas, wrote what many local whites thought was a racially inflammatory article which described the violence that the Seymour Knights had used against the African American Democrats in Washington. Bentley argued that such violence should persuade the blacks to remain loyal to the GOP.
Shortly after the article appeared, Bentley was assaulted by a group of whites while he taught his class. He was severely beaten and whipped although he survived the assault. In response he fled the town, literally running for his life for nearly three weeks before escaping back to the North.
Meanwhile numerous reports circulated that Bentley had been killed in retaliation for his news article. His mysterious absence was enough to support rumors of his death. Now black Republicans urged retaliatory violence on the Knights, who in turn viewed this as the beginning of the long anticipated, and inevitable, “Black Revolt” and race war. The Knights of the White Camellia mobilized thousand of members. Both sides were armed and prepared for conflict as they gathered in Opelousas.
It is unclear as to who initiated the battle that began on September 28. What is clear is that the white Democrats had the overwhelming advantage in numbers and weapons. By the afternoon of September 28 the battle had become a massacre. A number of blacks were shot and killed or captured and later executed. Those who were not captured were chased into the swamps and killed on sight. Twelve leaders of the black Republicans who surrendered were executed the next day on the edge of town. Those executions seemed to encourage a wave of anti-black violence that spread throughout the parish. No one will ever know how many people were killed but the best estimate is that the number was at least 150 and may have exceeded that total.
Ted Tunnell , Crucible of Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984) John Ficklen, History of Reconstruction in Louisiana (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1910).
In March 1865, Unionist planter James Madison Wells became governor. As the Democratic-dominated legislature passed Black Codes that restricted rights of freedmen, Wells began to lean toward allowing blacks to vote and temporarily disenfranchising ex-Confederates. To accomplish this, he scheduled a new constitutional convention for July 30, 1866. 
It was postponed because of the New Orleans Massacre that day, in which armed Southern white Democrats attacked blacks who had a parade in support of the convention. Anticipating trouble, the mayor of New Orleans had asked the local military commander to police the city and protect the convention. The U. S. Army failed to promptly respond to the mayor's request and a group of numerous unarmed blacks was attacked by whites, resulting in 38 deaths: 34 black and four white and more than 40 wounded, most of them black. 
When President Andrew Johnson blamed the massacre on Republican agitation, a popular national backlash against Johnson's policies led to national voters electing a majority Republican Congress in 1866. It passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over Andrew Johnson's veto. Earlier the Freedmen's Bureau and the occupation armies had prevented Southern Black Codes, which had limited the rights of freedmen and other blacks, (including their choices of work and living locations) from going into effect.   On July 16, 1866, Congress extended the life of the Freedmen's Bureau, also over Johnson's veto. On March 2, 1867, they passed the Reconstruction Act, over Johnson's veto, which required that blacks be given the franchise—in Southern states but not in Northern states—and that reconstructed Southern states ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before admission to the Union.  
By April 1868, a biracial coalition in Louisiana had elected a Republican-majority state legislature but violence increased before the fall election. Almost all of the victims were black and some white Republicans who were protecting the black Republican freedmen. Insurgents also attacked men physically or burned their homes to discourage them from voting. President Johnson, a Democrat, prevented the Republican governor of Louisiana from using either the state militia or U.S. forces to suppress the insurgent groups, such as the Knights of the White Camelia.  [ page needed ]
The Red River area of Winn and Rapides parishes was a combination of large plantations and subsistence farmers before the war, African Americans had worked as slaves on the plantations. [ citation needed ] William Smith Calhoun, a major planter, had inherited a 14,000-acre (57 km 2 ) plantation in the area.  A former slaveholder, he lived with a mixed-race woman as his common-law wife and had come to support black political equality, encouraging the political organization of the local African-American-based Republican party. 
On election day in November 1868, Calhoun led a group of freedmen to vote. [ citation needed ] The ballot box was originally at a store owned by John Hooe,  who had threatened to whip freedmen "if they voted Republican".  Calhoun arranged for the ballot box to be switched to a plantation store owned by a Republican. [ citation needed ] In addition, he oversaw the submission of 150 black votes from freedmen on his plantation land.  The Republicans received 318 votes, and the Democrats received 49.  A group of whites threw the ballot box into the Red River, and Democrats arrested Calhoun, alleging election fraud. [ citation needed ] With the original ballot box gone, Democrat Michael Ryan went on to claim a landslide victory.  [ clarification needed ]
The election was also marked by violence. [ citation needed ] Election commissioner Hal Frazier, a black Republican, was murdered by whites.  After this, Calhoun drafted a bill to create a new parish out of parts of Winn and Rapides parishes, which passed the Republican legislature as a major planter, Calhoun thought he would have more political influence in the new parish, which had a black majority. [ citation needed ] Other new parishes were created by the Republican state legislature to try to develop areas of Republican political support. [ citation needed ]
According to Lane, after Ulysses S. Grant became President in 1869, he "lobbied hard for the Fifteenth Amendment" (ratified February 3, 1870),  which guaranteed that black men, most of whom were newly freed slaves, would have the right to vote.  However, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) continued violent attacks and killed scores of blacks in Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and elsewhere.  In response, on May 31, 1870 Congress passed an Enforcement Act which prohibited groups of people from banding together to violate citizens' constitutional rights.  Soon afterwards on April 20, 1871 Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which Grant used to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and sent federal troops to South Carolina, a state with particularly egregious Klan activity. 
Governor Henry Clay Warmoth struggled to maintain political balance in Louisiana. Among his appointments, he installed William Ward, a black Union veteran, as commanding officer of Company A, 6th Infantry Regiment, Louisiana State Militia, a new unit to be based in Grant Parish to help control the violence there and in other Red River parishes. Ward, born a slave in 1840 in Charleston, South Carolina, had learned to read and write as a valet to a master in Richmond, Virginia. In 1864 he escaped and went to Fortress Monroe, where he joined the Union Army and served until after General Robert E. Lee's surrender. About 1870 he came to Grant Parish, where he had a friend. He quickly became active among local blacks in the Republican Party. After his appointment to the militia, Ward recruited other freedmen for his forces, several of whom were veterans of the war. 
In Louisiana, Republican governor Henry Clay Warmoth defected from the Liberal Republicans (a group that opposed President Grant's Reconstruction policies) in 1872. Warmoth previously supported a constitutional amendment that allowed former Confederates, who had been denied the right to vote, to be re-enfranchised. A "Fusionist" coalition of Liberal Republicans and Democrats nominated ex-Confederate battalion commander and Democrat John McEnery to succeed him as governor. In return, Democrats and Liberal Republicans were to send Warmoth to Washington as a U.S. Senator. Opposing McEnery was Republican William Pitt Kellogg, one of Louisiana's U.S. Senators. Voting on November 4, 1872, resulted in dual governments, as a Fusionist (Liberal Republicans and Democrat)-dominated returning board declared McEnery the winner while a faction of the board proclaimed Kellogg the winner. Both administrations held inaugural ceremonies and certified their lists of local candidates.
After failing to win their case in state court, the Kellogg forces appealed to federal judge Edward Durell in New Orleans to intervene and order that Kellogg and the Stalwart Republican-majority legislature were to be seated, and for Grant to authorize U.S. army troops to protect Kellogg's government. This action was widely criticized across the nation by Democrats and both wings of the Republican Party because it was considered to be a violation of the rights of states to manage their own (non-federal-office) elections. Thus, investigating committees of both chambers of the federal Congress in Washington were critical of the Kellogg choice. The House majority ruled Durell's action illegal and the Senate majority concluded that the Kellogg regime was "not much better than a successful conspiracy." In 1874 a House investigating committee in Washington recommended that Judge Durell be impeached for corruption and illegally interfering in the Louisiana 1872 state elections, but the judge resigned in order to avoid impeachment.  
McEnery's faction tried to take control of the state arsenal at Jackson Square, but Kellogg had the state militia seize dozens of leaders of McEnery's faction and control New Orleans, where the state government was located.  [ page needed ] McEnery returned to try to take control with a private paramilitary group. In September 1873 his forces, over 8,000 strong, entered the city and defeated the city/state militia of about 3500 in New Orleans. The Democrats took control of the state house, armory and police stations, where the state government was then located, in what was known as the Battle of Jackson Square. His forces held those buildings for three days before retreating before Federal troops arrived.   Warmoth was subsequently impeached by the state legislature in a bribery scandal stemming from his actions in the 1872 election.
Warmoth appointed Democrats as parish registrars, and they ensured the voter rolls included as many whites and as few freedmen as possible. A number of registrars changed the registration site without notifying blacks. They also required blacks to prove they were over 21, while knowing that former slaves did not have birth certificates. In Grant Parish, one plantation owner threatened to expel blacks from homes they rented on his land if they voted Republican. Fusionists also tampered with ballot boxes on election day. One was found with a hole in it, apparently used for stuffing the ballot box. As a result, Grant Parish Fusionists claimed a landslide victory, even though black voters outnumbered whites by 776 to 630.
Warmoth issued commissions to Fusionist Democrats Alphonse Cazabat and Christopher Columbus Nash, elected parish judge and sheriff, respectively. Like many white men in the South, Nash was a Confederate veteran (as an officer, he had been held for a year and a half as a prisoner of war at Johnson's Island in Ohio). Cazabat and Nash took their oaths of office in the Colfax courthouse on January 2, 1873. They dispatched the documents to Governor McEnery in New Orleans.
William Pitt Kellogg issued commissions to the Republican slate for Grant Parish on January 17 and 18. By then Nash and Cazabat controlled the small, primitive courthouse. Republican Robert C. Register insisted that he, not Alphonse Cazabat, was the parish judge and that Republican Daniel Wesley Shaw, not Nash, was to be the sheriff. On the night of March 25, the Republicans seized the empty courthouse and took their oaths of office. They sent their oaths to the Kellogg administration in New Orleans.  [ page needed ]
Grant Parish was one of a number of new parishes created by the Republican government in an effort to build local support in the state. Both the land and its people were originally tied to the Calhoun family, whose plantation had covered more than the borders of the new parish. The freedmen had been slaves on the plantation. The parish also took in the less-developed hill country. The total population had a narrow majority of 2400 freedmen, who mostly voted Republican, and 2200 whites, who voted as Democrats. Statewide political tensions were reflected in the rumors going around each community, often about white fears of black attacks or outrage, which added to local tensions. 
Fearful that the Democrats might try to take over the local parish government, black people 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. 
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.  [ page needed ]
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. 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.  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 inflamed tensions and 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." 
Suffering from tuberculosis and rheumatism, on April 11 the militia captain Ward took a steamboat downriver to New Orleans to seek armed help directly from Kellogg. He was not there for the following events. 
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 murders of the black men. 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 man 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. 
Kellogg sent state militia colonels Theodore DeKlyne and William Wright to Colfax with warrants to arrest 50 white men and to install a new, compromise slate of parish officers. DeKlyne and Wright found the smoking ruins of the courthouse at Colfax, and many bodies of men who had been shot in the back of the head or the neck. They described that one body was charred, another man's head beaten beyond recognition, and another had a slashed throat. Surviving blacks told DeKlyne and Wright that blacks dug a trench around the courthouse to protect it from what they saw as an attempt by white Democrats to steal an election. They were attacked by whites armed with rifles, revolvers and a small cannon. When blacks refused to leave, the courthouse was burned, and the black defenders were shot down. While the whites accused blacks of violating a flag of truce and rioting, black Republicans said that none of this was true. They accused whites of marching captured prisoners away in pairs and shooting them in the back of the head.  [ page needed ]
On April 14 some of Governor Kellogg's new police force arrived from New Orleans. Several days later, two companies of Federal troops arrived. They searched for white paramilitary members, but many had already fled to Texas or the hills. 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 historian Eric Foner, a specialist in the Civil War and Reconstruction, wrote about the event:
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." 
James Roswell Beckwith, the US Attorney based in New Orleans, sent an urgent telegram about the massacre to the U.S. Attorney General. The massacre in Colfax gained headlines of national newspapers from Boston to Chicago.  Various government forces spent weeks trying to round up members of the white paramilitaries, and a total of 97 men were indicted. In the end, Beckwith charged nine men and brought them to trial for violations of the Enforcement Act of 1870. It had been designed to provide federal protection for civil rights of freedmen under the 14th Amendment against actions by terrorist groups such as the Klan.
The men were charged with one murder, and charges related to a conspiracy against the rights of freedmen. There were two succeeding trials in 1874. William Burnham Woods presided over the first trial and was sympathetic to the prosecution. Had the men been convicted, they would not have been able to appeal their decision to any appellate court according to the laws of the time. However, Beckworth was unable to secure a conviction—one man was acquitted, and a mistrial was declared in the cases of the other eight.
In the second trial, three men were found guilty of sixteen charges. However, the presiding judge, Joseph Bradley of the United States Supreme Court (riding circuit), dismissed the convictions, ruling that the charges violated the state actor doctrine, failed to prove a racial rationale for the massacre, or were void for vagueness. Sua sponte, he ordered that the men be released on bail, and they promptly disappeared.  [ page needed ] 
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 (See, Morrison Remick Waite). This meant that 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. Thus, enforcement of criminal sanctions under the act ended. 
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, and in certain counties in North Carolina.
Paramilitary groups used violence and murder to terrorize leaders among the freedmen and white Republicans, as well as to repress voting among freedmen during the 1870s. Black American citizens had little recourse. In August 1874, for instance, the White League threw out Republican officeholders in Coushatta, Red River Parish, assassinating the six whites before they left the state, and killing five to 15 freedmen who were witnesses. Four of the white men killed were related to the state representative from the area.  Such violence served to intimidate voters and officeholders it was one of the methods that white Democrats used to gain control of the state legislature in the 1876 elections and ultimately to dismantle Reconstruction in Louisiana.
The scale of the massacre and the political conflict it represents are of state and national significance in relation to Reconstruction and United States racial histories.  Despite this, the event has been hidden in local history for decades. [ citation needed ] Moreover, the site has changed: some of the areas have been paved, and the old courthouse was torn down and a new courthouse was built. [ citation needed ] Finally, without archeological work to establish where victims were buried at the site, people have had difficulty defining a site to gain approval for a historic memorial. [ citation needed ]
In 1920, a committee met in Colfax to purchase a monument to memorialize the three white men who died. This monument stands in Colfax Cemetery and reads "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."  
In 1950, Louisiana erected a state highway marker noting the event of 1873 as "the Colfax Riot," as the event was traditionally called in the white community. The marker states, "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."    The marker  was removed on May 15, 2021, for eventual placement in a museum. 
The Colfax massacre is among the events of Reconstruction and late 19th-century history which have received new national attention in the early 21st century, much as the 1923 massacre in Rosewood, Florida did near the end of the 20th century. In 2007 and 2008 two new books were published on the topic: Leeanna Keith's The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction,  and Charles Lane's The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction.  Lane especially addressed the political and legal implications of the Supreme Court case, which arose out of the prosecution of several men of the white paramilitary groups. [ citation needed ] In addition, a film documentary is in preparation. [ citation needed ]
In 2007 the Red River Heritage Association, Inc. was formed as a group intending to establish a museum in Colfax for collecting materials and interpreting the history of Reconstruction in Louisiana and especially the Red River area. [ citation needed ]
In 2008, on the 135th anniversary of the Colfax massacre, an interracial group commemorated the event. They laid flowers where some victims had fallen and held a forum to discuss the history. 
The Thibodaux massacre was a racial attack mounted by white paramilitary groups in Thibodaux, Louisiana in November 1887. It followed a three-week strike during the critical harvest season by an estimated 10,000 workers against sugar cane plantations in four parishes: Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Mary, and Assumption.
The strike was the largest in the industry and the first conducted by a formal labor organization, the Knights of Labor. At planters' requests, the state sent in militia to protect strikebreakers, and work resumed on some plantations. Black workers and their families were evicted from plantations in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes and retreated to Thibodaux.
Tensions broke out in violence on November 23, 1887, and the local white paramilitary forces attacked black workers and their families in Thibodaux. Although the total number of casualties is unknown, at least 35 black people were killed in the next three days (more historians believe 50 were killed) and as many as 300 overall killed, wounded or missing,   making it one of the most violent labor disputes in U.S. history. Victims reportedly included elders, women and children. All those killed were African American. 
The massacre, and passage by white Democrats of discriminatory state legislation, including disenfranchisement of most blacks, ended the organizing of sugar workers for decades, until the 1940s. According to Eric Arnesen, "The defeated sugar workers returned to the plantations on their employers' terms."