When ‘Taking Our Country Back’ Led to a Massacre

In the aftermath of the Civil War, devotees of the Lost Cause wanted to take back America, and proceeded to slaughter African Americans.

Library of Congress

On July 30, 1866, “taking our country back” left our country bloodied and scarred in a now-forgotten event called the New Orleans Massacre.

One of Reconstruction’s deadliest days started over the refusal to accept civil rights as a verdict of the Civil War and, more broadly, because whites left behind tried to turn back the clock with violence. The New Orleans Massacre left 48 men dead and over 200 injured, nearly all African Americans. The massacre was naked political violence, organized beforehand, and directed at black delegates to the Louisiana constitutional convention of 1866. Attackers included policemen led by ex-Confederate Mayor John T. Monroe.

On a hot summer day, a gathering of over 200 African American New Orleanians marched to the Mechanic’s Institute (now the Roosevelt Hotel on Canal Street and Roosevelt Way) where 30 of them planned to take part in drafting a new state constitution that included the right to vote for all men.

Vowing to preserve law and order, Monroe directed police to block Canal Street. A scuffle broke out nearby, a black man was shot, and black veterans and police rushed to the scene. African American delegates pressed on to the Institute. Inside, Louisiana’s Republican Governor James Madison Wells and other delegates were preparing to surrender peaceably should the disruption continue.

But police opened fire instead. Some black delegates took refuge inside, and the mob surrounded the building. Some shot through windows, seemingly indiscriminately, until their bullets ran out. African American Union veterans struggled against their attackers with brickbats and broken chairs. “We returned no shots from the Mechanic’s Institute at all,” a witness told a Congressional investigator, “all the shooting came from them.” Delegates initially beat back the police storming the hall.

Attackers reloaded and reorganized, battering down doors and gunning down African Americans. “I saw a colored man kneel down and pray to go out,” a witness testified, “the only reply the policeman made was, the click of a pistol, discharging a shot into his bowels.” That delegate—a white physician—tried to escape too. He was beaten, shot, and “stabbed in the region of the heart.” The massacre spread as desperate black delegates and supporters fled bullets and clubs. Several blocks away from the Institute, an injured black man dragged himself into a gutter. “A policeman took a club and beat his brains out.” Attackers assaulted black bystanders. One African American was returning from paying his rent on Poydras Street “a considerable distance from the Mechanic’s Institute,” a witness said, when “he was met by a white man, who, without any provocation whatever, took his hatchet and felled him to the ground, cleaving his skull.” Some surrendering delegates were taken to jail. Others made it to hospitals and residences for first aid. Late in the afternoon federal troops arrived to restore order.

None of the attackers were charged, but the massacre sent a shockwave to Washington, D.C., putting a gruesome head on a tortuous process of reunion. It came just 10 weeks after the Memphis Massacre killed more than 46 African Americans, burning several black neighborhoods, and terrorizing the city’s black residents. It need not have turned out that way.

Louisiana was a laboratory for Reconstruction in wartime. Union forces captured New Orleans in April, 1862, early in the war, and President Abraham Lincoln was optimistic about planting the Republican Party in new soil and growing moderate reunion policies there. Louisiana seemed fertile ground. It was the most urban southern state with a vibrant and diverse population including African-descended Creoles many of whom were middle class. Late in 1863, Lincoln ordered military governor (and former U.S. House Speaker) Nathaniel P. Banks to “give us a free-state re-organization of Louisiana, in the shortest possible time.” Early in 1864 General Banks ordered new elections for state offices and constitutional convention delegates. Louisiana’s 1852 constitution, amended in 1861 to pledge allegiance to the Confederacy, needed to be scrapped. Banks beamed that a new constitution would abolish slavery “with the general consent of the people” rather than by the wartime Emancipation Proclamation, which left out 13 Union-occupied parishes.

Lincoln’s approach was moderate, aimed at drawing in Unionists and former enslavers, and downplaying civil rights for African Americans. Slavery was over. But African Americans gained nothing else. In Louisiana, formerly enslaved people were forced to sign year-long labor contracts with former owners. Supposedly protected from whippings, they nevertheless returned to work in slave-like conditions. And when elections were held in 1864, voting was restricted to white males who swore a loyalty oath. Ex-Confederates could vote so long as they took the oath; black Unionists and even veterans could not. That arrangement brought in moderates like 33-year-old Michael Hahn, a German immigrant and former enslaver.

Hahn joined the Republican Party and served as Louisiana’s first Unionist representative before being elected governor in February 1864. Lincoln wrote Hahn asking for some concessions on black voting rights. “I barely suggest for your private consideration,” the president wrote, “whether some of the colored people may not be let in—as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would… help… keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.” But that jewel needed to be cut and polished, Hahn shrugged. African Americans would not be included.

The 1864 Louisiana constitution was a victory for moderates. It abolished slavery with no compensation to owners. (Whether to compensate those formerly enslaved was not discussed.) It provided for free public education for all Louisianans 6 to 18, set minimum wages of public employees, and established the state capital at New Orleans. But it also denied black men the ballot box, leaving it open to future legislators to decide the issue. White Louisiana voters adopted it by more than a 4 to 1 margin. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s 14 delegates to the Republican Convention voted unanimously for Lincoln’s re-nomination (and ultimately supported Andrew Johnson of Tennessee for vice president). Lincoln supported the compromise constitution, but it was undermined by Radicals in Congress. Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts filibustered it, arguing that black voting rights were essential. Congressional Republicans refused to seat representatives elected under it.

Moderates’ optimism was sunk after Lincoln’s assassination in April, 1865, replaced by President Andrew Johnson’s opportunism. The war was over, Confederates surrendered, and the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was undergoing ratification. But instead of traveling Lincoln’s road to backing black civil rights, President Johnson built a bridge back to the antebellum South. In 1865 Hahn resigned the governorship to take his seat in the U.S. Senate, but as Johnson pardoned ex-Confederates the Democratic Party came roaring back. Its 1865 Louisiana convention resolved: “we hold this to be a Government of white people, made and to be perpetuated for the exclusive benefit of the white race; and… that people of African descent cannot be considered as citizens of the United States.”

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Like Mississippi and South Carolina, old Rebels in the new Louisiana legislature passed Black Codes in 1865 and 1866. Louisiana’s was a revision of the antebellum slave code with “negro” substituted for “slave.” Vagrancy and unemployment were criminalized. “Every negro is required to be in the regular service of some white person, or former owner, who shall be responsible for the conduct of said negro,” and “impudence, swearing, or indecent language” to white people were crimes.

To stem that tide of postwar reaction, Congressional Republicans went to war with their own president. They overrode Johnson’s vetoes of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection of the laws and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 invalidating black codes. In Louisiana, the overwhelmingly ex-Confederate legislature clashed with Republican Governor Wells, a Unionist and former sugar planter. Wells was no Radical but decided that enfranchising black men was the best antidote to the conservative ascendancy.

The right to vote was becoming a matter of life and death as white citizens’ clubs became the nucleus for an armed white supremacist insurgency. Wells joined Radicals in reconvening the constitutional convention in New Orleans, delegates exploiting a loophole in the 1864 convention, which adjourned with a provision that it might reconvene at a future date to finish unfinished work.

African-descended Louisianans decided to participate whether invited or not. Black political activism was nothing new. In Virginia in 1865, 1,000 Black voters in Norfolk turned away from the polls under that state’s constitutional exclusion registered their votes at houses of worship instead. They were not looking for handouts either. In Louisiana free black farmers formed co-ops to allocate credit to buy farmland, seed, and mules, running cotton and sugar farms. But they realized that a political solution was necessary in a state that was half African American.

And facing them that day was a force composed of many ex-Confederates whose main qualification for police work was dedication to the Lost Cause. African American New Orleanian Albert Pitman put it more bluntly. The metropolitan police “were organized as ‘thugs,’” he told investigators. The New Orleans Coroner agreed, saying that applicants were “selected and put on the police because they were thugs” who were committed white supremacists. And after losing the Confederacy, on July 30 they fought to take back their vision of their country.

The New Orleans Massacre forced Congress to militarize Reconstruction. Gone was any moderate solution. It woke the nation up to the fact that the Civil War was not really over. In March, 1867, Congressional Republicans passed the Reconstruction Acts over President Johnson’s vetoes dividing the old Confederacy into five military districts and requiring each state to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before readmission. Louisiana’s 1868 constitution enfranchised black men, disenfranchised ex-Confederates, and laid the groundwork for readmission. Yet even federal troops could not stem the tide of emerging white political violence, which reached its bloody apex in the 1873 Colfax Massacre of over 80 African Americans—perhaps many more—and a grim reminder that defeat did not change minds, and many whites fighting for a failed vision of America still saw no need to be reconstructed.