January 13, 1875: Grant on Reconstruction

On January 13, 1875, in response to a Senate resolution, Ulysses S. Grant offered his views on violence in Louisiana politics during Reconstruction.

Rather than give you a lot of background, I simply thought I’d link to the speech here. In it he recounts events such as the massacre of some one hundred African Americans in Colfax, Louisiana, on April 13, 1873, as well as a series of other events, notably the assassination of Republican officeholders at Coushatta.

Here’s what he had to say about Colfax:

After stating the origin of the difficulty, which grew out of an attempt of white persons to drive the parish judge and sheriff, appointees of Kellogg, from office, and their attempted protection by colored persons, which led to some fighting, in which quite a number of negroes were killed, the judge states:

Most of those who were not killed were taken prisoners. Fifteen or sixteen of the blacks had lifted the boards and taken refuge under the floor of the court-house. They were all captured. About thirty-seven men were taken prisoners. The number is not definitely fixed. They were kept under guard until dark. They were led out, two by two, and shot. Most of the men were shot to death. A few were wounded, not mortally, and by pretending to be dead were afterwards, during the night, able to make their escape. Among them was the Levi Nelson named in the indictment.

The dead bodies of the negroes killed in this affair were left unburied until Tuesday, April 15, when they were buried by a deputy marshal and an officer of the militia from New Orleans. These persons found fifty-nine dead bodies. They showed pistol-shot wounds, the great majority in the head, and most of them in the back of the head. In addition to the fifty-nine dead bodies found, some charred remains of dead bodies were discovered near the court-house. Six dead bodies were found under a warehouse, all shot in the head but one or two, which were shot in the breast.

The only white men injured from the beginning of these troubles to their close were Hadnot and Harris. The court-house and its contents were entirely consumed.

There is no evidence that anyone in the crowd of whites bore any lawful warrant for the arrest of any of the blacks. There is no evidence that either Nash or Cazabat, after the affair, ever demanded their offices, to which they had set up claim, but Register continued to act as parish judge and Shaw as sheriff.

These are facts in this case as I understand them to be admitted.

To hold the people of Louisiana generally responsible for these atrocities would not be just, but it is a lamentable fact that insuperable obstructions were thrown in the way of punishing these murderers; and the so-called conservative papers of the State not only justified the massacre, but denounced as Federal tyranny and despotism the attempt of the United States officers to bring them to justice. Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office holding and election matters in Louisiana, while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime.

Then he dealt with Coushatta in a far more concise fashion:

Not unlike this was the massacre in August last. Several Northern young men of capital and enterprise had started the little and flourishing town of Coushatta. Some of them were Republicans and officeholders under Kellogg. They were therefore doomed to death. Six of them were seized and carried away from their homes and murdered in cold blood. No one has been punished, and the conservative press of the State denounced all efforts to that end and boldly justified the crime.

Grant then reflected on why the federal government had to intervene to stop such violence:

I have deplored the necessity which seemed to make it my duty under the Constitution and laws to direct such interference. I have always refused except where it seemed to be my imperative duty to act in such a manner under the Constitution and laws of the United States. I have repeatedly and earnestly entreated the people of the South to live together in peace and obey the laws; and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see reconciliation and tranquillity everywhere prevail, and thereby remove all necessity for the presence of troops among them. I regret, however, to say that this state of things does not exist, nor does its existence seem to be desired, in some localities; and as to those it may be proper for me to say that to the extent that Congress has conferred power upon me to prevent it neither Kuklux Klans, White Leagues, nor any other association using arms and violence to execute their unlawful purposes can be permitted in that way to govern any part of this country; nor can I see with indifference Union men or Republicans ostracized, persecuted, and murdered on account of their opinions, as they now are in some localities.

What say you?

10 thoughts on “January 13, 1875: Grant on Reconstruction

  1. Lyle Smith January 13, 2014 / 9:03 pm

    Grant didn’t win this war.

    Although not an especially apt comparison, to me, his speech reads similar to myriad political speeches about a lot of the political violence in the world today. President Obama or Ban Ki-Moon on Syria maybe?

  2. Noma January 13, 2014 / 10:13 pm

    This is the Ulysses S. Grant that no one knows.

  3. Noma January 14, 2014 / 1:19 pm

    “To hold the people of Louisiana generally responsible for these atrocities would not be just, but it is a lamentable fact that insuperable obstructions were thrown in the way of punishing these murderers; and the so-called conservative papers of the State not only justified the massacre, but denounced as Federal tyranny and despotism the attempt of the United States officers to bring them to justice.

    “Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office holding and election matters in Louisiana, while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime.”

    It would be quite interesting to see links to the articles that Grant refers to here — or any similar articles from the period which hypocritically decry the so-called “Federal tyranny and despotism.”

    Does anyone have such links?

  4. Noma January 14, 2014 / 5:32 pm

    Thanks very much for the link, Brooks! I seem to notice that most biographies of Grant do not go into much detail about his activities and the substantial campaign of violent terrorism that he faced (such as indicated above) during Reconstruction.

    On the other hand, sources which do give a thorough presentation of Reconstruction (W.E.B. DuBois and Eric Foner) don’t seem to say much about Grant’s involvement.

    I feel like your books “Let Us Have Peace” and “Reconstruction Presidents” do the most to combine the two topics.

    I feel like Reconstruction is Part II of the Civil War, and seems to be muddy, complicated, and little known or appreciated by the general public.

  5. John Randolph January 14, 2014 / 9:15 pm

    I agree with you, Noma. In fact, I would say that Reconstruction is not only Part II of the Civil War, but its failure led to Jim Crow and segregation which then led to the Civil Rights movement. I think one can trace an unbroken line from 1865 to 1965. It took 100 years for the Federal government to finally act to redeem the constitutional promises made to African Americans under the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. President Grant may not have won “Part II of the Civil War” in the short-run, but given the long-view of history I think he certainly should be given credit for being on the right side of history in his attempts to do so.

  6. Noma January 14, 2014 / 9:37 pm

    Yes, John. On one hand we have DuBois’s tragic, poetic summary: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

    But, on the other hand, even though the bright fruit of equal rights soon rotted, the potent seeds had been created, and they remained. People knew that there was a time when blacks had voted and held high office. Grant carved out the space for them to do that.

    Even when he finally accepted defeat and retreated in 1877, still those high points of history had been reached and those stories would resonate long into the future. It could happen again…

    *************

    And also, even in 1877, not everything was lost. In reading DuBois, I was quite surprised to learn that it was the efforts of the freed people that were the decisive factor in establishing free public education — for blacks *and* whites throughout the South (you can google it). So, it wasn’t a total defeat. Lasting good did result, in spite of the South having to live through a hundred years of Jim Crow barbaric terrorism.

  7. eshonk March 22, 2014 / 4:51 pm

    The unfortunate cases of “vigilante justice” in no way, shape, or form gave cause for United States armed soldiers to remove any duly-elected representatives, of the people of the State of Louisiana, from their seats in the legislature. Such an action was unconstitutional, and should have been reprimanded by the people of the State of Louisiana. Such unconstitutional actions should send a shock-wave through the bodies of every citizen of the United States of America, and they should make sure no such actions are ever permitted in the future…in any State of the Union.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 23, 2014 / 10:43 am

      The problem with your understanding of history, Ed, is that the people involved were not duly elected representatives, and guess who called for federal assistance? Duly elected representatives.

      You might want to do a little research before pretending to offer historical insight.

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