The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction

The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction

by Charles Lane

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"Absorbing . . . Riveting . . . A legal thriller."—Kevin Boyle, The New York Times Book Review

Following the Civil War, Colfax, Louisiana, was a town like many where African Americans and whites mingled uneasily. But on April 13, 1873, a small army of white ex–Confederate soldiers, enraged after attempts by freedmen to assert their new rights, killed more than sixty African Americans who had occupied a courthouse.

Seeking justice for the slain, one brave U.S. attorney, James Beckwith, risked his life and career to investigate and punish the perpetrators—but they all went free. What followed was a series of courtroom dramas that culminated at the Supreme Court, where the justices' verdict compromised the victories of the Civil War and left Southern blacks at the mercy of violent whites for generations. The Day Freedom Died is a riveting historical saga that captures a gallery of characters from presidents to townspeople, and re-creates the bloody days of Reconstruction, when the often brutal struggle for equality moved from the battlefield into communities across the nation.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805089226
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 03/31/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 314,030
Product dimensions: 7.98(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.92(d)

About the Author

Charles Lane learned about the Colfax Massacre case while covering the Supreme Court for The Washington Post. A former correspondent for Newsweek and editor of The New Republic, Lane has reported from Japan, Latin America, Europe, and southern Africa. His essays have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and studied law at Yale. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Read an Excerpt

The Day Freedom Died



A cloudy evening was fading into darkness as the steamboat Southwestern approached the eastern bank of the Red River on April 13, 1873—Easter Sunday. The boat had reached a bend in the river where Captain Thornton Jacobs was certain he would find pine logs for his vessel's four hungry engines. The woodpile was about a mile north of Colfax, Louisiana.

The Southwestern carried its own gangplanks: a pair of long wooden walkways which jutted like alligator teeth from the vessel's bow. Jacobs's crew had just lowered them when a young man charged out of the gloom onto the boat. Heavily armed, he was obviously agitated. Jacobs's crew looked him over, preparing for a fight; in these lawless times, robberies and gunplay plagued river traffic. Yet this gunman was not out to empty the safe or hijack the cotton. He wanted Jacobs to take the boat straight to Colfax.

The Southwestern was a 180-foot packet steamer, three years old and valued for insurance purposes at the princely sum of ten thousand dollars. Usually stacked high with cotton and crowded with passengers, it ran the New Orleans-Shreveport route along the Mississippi and the Red, twice a week in high-water season. Captain Jacobs had a schedule to maintain, but the wise river hand, careful of both his customers and his cargo, granted the gunman's request. He maneuvered his 411-ton steamer away from shore as gritty clouds, smelling of resin, poured from its smokestacks. In the stern, a paddlewheel churned the water with a steady slap-slap-slap.

There had been a gun battle in Colfax, the new passenger claimed; two men lay seriously wounded and needed to see the doctor in Alexandria, twenty-two miles downriver. Relaxing a bit, the man elaborated, even joked a little about all the killing. The fight had pitted white men against Negroes, he explained, and the latter had been soundly defeated. "If you ever wanted to see dead niggers," he mused, "this is your chance."

It was rare to see large numbers of people in Colfax; it was not aproper town but a scattering of buildings on flat "bottom land" sandwiched between the Red to the west and pine-clad hills in the east. Just a few white men—lawyers and merchants—actually lived within Colfax. Their little houses had extra rooms, grandly labeled hotels, which they rented to the odd traveler. In the country around the town lay cotton plantations, their tumbledown fences and skinny livestock showing the impact of the war and ensuing economic distress. The planters' houses were a bit grander than those in Colfax, but even their paint was peeling. In and around the cotton fields lived hundreds of Negroes, most still occupying the cypress-board cabins they had built before emancipation. They survived on modest wages from white employers—augmented by hogs, chicken, corn, and vegetables they raised, and small game they shot or trapped in the nearby woods.

Though Colfax epitomized Southern languor, it was the capital of Grant Parish, a new jurisdiction carved out of two older ones in 1869. A courthouse had been fashioned from the stable of a cotton plantation; parish court met here, as did the five-man legislature, known in Louisiana's distinctive parlance as the police jury. The sessions could be contentious, because there was a lot at stake: taxes, the control of stray animals, the fate of cattle thieves. Congress, the president, and the state government could affect how life in Grant Parish was lived, but generally locals were more concerned with what happened inside that stuffy old brick building, where the judge and the sheriff wielded power over life and death.



IT WAS RAINING WHEN THE SOUTHWESTERN PULLED INTO COLFAX AT ABOUT 8:00 p.m. The boat's passengers and crew went ashore over the gangplanks, moving gingerly through the dark and wet. In the damp grass, the men sensed something strange underfoot, as a lantern flickered and glowed, casting ghostly shadows. Gradually, they realized they were stumbling over dead Negroes, most facedown and shot almost to pieces. One of the men from the Southwestern, a Texan named R. G. Hill, counted eighteen. But the young gunman who had invited him and the others on this grisly tour boasted that was barely a quarter of the total.

Fewer than one hundred yards to the east, flames danced in the sky. The courthouse was on fire, and a terrible stench attacked the passengers' nostrils, making them ill. At least one of the dead, apparently, had been literally broiled in the courthouse. Hill could make out his charred remains. "Let's go back," someone cried.

But they did not go back. Somehow, they could not, and soon theycame upon more dead. Smoke was still winding upward from one corpse's scorched clothing. A passenger commented that he looked alive, and, hearing this, one of the local whites cocked a six-shooter. "I'll finish the black dog," he promised—but Hill and others from the Southwestern restrained him. When somebody turned the body over, it was stiff, and there was no life left in it. A tall, muscular Negro, probably a veteran of many years of labor in the fields, lay on the grass, propped up on one elbow as if he had died in the middle of a rare afternoon's rest. The white man with the six-shooter angrily kicked the corpse. "Oh, he's dead as hell," he muttered.

A crowd of armed white men milled around on the bank. Walking their guests back to the boat, they confirmed the story of a battle between the races. Three weeks earlier, they said, armed Negroes, stirred up by white Radical Republicans, seized the courthouse, throwing out the rightful officeholders: the white judge and sheriff. Then the Negroes installed defeated Republican candidates and rampaged around the town, driving out white families and robbing homes. They dug military-style trenches around the courthouse and even built a couple of cannon out of old pipe. Openly proclaiming their intention to kill all the white men, they boasted they would use white women to breed a new race.

In self-defense, the whites continued, men from Grant Parish and surrounding parishes had organized a posse, which had offered the Negroes a chance to lay down their arms. But the blacks refused, leaving the posse no choice: at midday, about eight hours ago, the whites counterattacked. Fighting was fierce; one white man died. The blacks retreated into the courthouse. The only option was to smoke them out, and a Negro was bribed to set fire to the building's wooden roof. At that point, the Negroes waved a white flag. Whites approached, but the blacks fired again, seriously wounding the two men now in need of a doctor, one of whom was James W. Hadnot, the Grant Parish state representative. After that treachery, the whites resumed firing and kept shooting at the Negroes even as they ran from the flames. They did not stop until they had killed or captured every black man they could find.



AS HADNOT AND SIDNEY HARRIS, THE OTHER WOUNDED MAN, WERE TAKEN aboard the Southwestern, R. G. Hill glanced at the Negro prisoners, huddled together in a wooden storehouse. About eight wounded captives were lying on the porch, trying to stay dry as white guards, heavily armed, eyed every twitch they made. Hill asked one guard if he might speak with the Negroes. "No," came the brusque response.

Hill did not press. He understood that ex-slaves and their white Republican instigators were forcing decent whites to endure the unendurable all over the South. In Hill's own hometown of Marshall, Texas, not far from the Louisiana border, a Negro policeman had shot and killed a white schoolteacher. Last Hill heard, it appeared a judge would grant the black killer bail. Meanwhile, whites had to pay taxes for a Negro school.

The boat's engine groaned, then roared, a blast of pine smoke sweetening the foul atmosphere as the steamer returned to the river. On board, Hill wrote down everything he had observed. It was a "very sad occurrence," he noted; the bare facts were terrible. "Excited" townspeople had told him there might be one hundred Negroes dead, but he felt that the true toll "will probably amount to between twenty-five and thirty." More important were the lessons of it all: In Hill's view, it might "be productive of good results ... for it will call the attention of the authorities in Washington to the fact that matters are becoming serious here, as well as in other places throughout the South." Once people up North heard about this outbreak of Negro violence, they would have to rethink their opinions of the situation in the South. "Hundreds of instances to illustrate the difficulties the Southern people are laboring under could be cited," Hill wrote, "and no observing Northern man can come here and not sympathize with them."

The Southwestern dropped off the wounded and continued to New Orleans, pulling in at about one o'clock in the afternoon of Tuesday, April 15. Hill took his news straight to the New Orleans Times, whose editors splashed it onto the next morning's front page, under a bold, black headline: WAR AT LAST!!



JAMES BECKWITH DID NOT KNOW QUITE WHAT TO MAKE OF THE ARTICLE. AS U.S. attorney for Louisiana, he (along with the U.S. marshal) was one of the state's top two federal law enforcement officials. Under the Enforcement Act, it was his job to prosecute political and racial violence. The events in Colfax, as recounted by Hill, riveted his attention. "You know workmen by the chips they leave," Beckwith liked to say. And that made him concerned; when dead Negroes lay thick on the ground in the post-Civil War South, it was usually the work of white terrorists.

According to Hill, though, the event had begun as a pitched battle between evenly matched armed groups. At least one white man was dead, and two others were badly hurt. The blacks might have brought on the worst killing by violating a flag of truce. Beckwith had never been to Colfax. He didn't know much about it except that it was once part of ahuge plantation run by a wealthy former Republican state legislator. Most Negroes who lived there were the man's former slaves or their descendants. Beckwith had heard whites say that the Negroes in Colfax were especially insolent and mean. Just a few days earlier, a white lawyer from Colfax had visited, claiming that the Colfax Negroes had staged a riot and were threatening white families in Grant Parish. He demanded that the U.S. attorney issue warrants for their arrest. Beckwith asked the man to swear out a criminal complaint, but the visitor left and did not come back. After finding out what he could, Beckwith had concluded that it might be wise for the U.S. Army to help keep peace in Colfax. He was surprised to learn upon reading the Times that no troops had been sent.



LOUISIANA HAD BEEN SEETHING FOR MONTHS. THE DISCONTENT AND RUMBLING originated in a split in the state Republican Party similar to the division in the national party. Governor Henry Clay Warmoth, elected as a Republican in 1868, defected to the Liberal Republicans in 1872 and, like the national Liberal Republicans, joined forces with the Democrats before the November 1872 election. The resulting "Fusionist" coalition in Louisiana nominated John McEnery, an ex-Confederate battalion commander, to succeed Warmoth. Opposing him on the Republican ticket was Vermont-born William Pitt Kellogg, one of Louisiana's U.S. senators.

Voting on November 4, 1872, was peaceful enough, but the vote count lit the spark for all that followed. A Fusionist-dominated state "returning board," which had absolute power to include or exclude votes based on whether it thought they had been validly cast, declared McEnery and his slate elected. But the board split, with a pro-Kellogg faction declaring the Republican governor. On January 13, 1873, each side staged a separate inauguration ceremony. The state could not pick a U.S. senator, since that required a vote by the legislature—and in Louisiana, two bodies, one dominated by Fusionists, the other by Republicans, claimed to be the legislature.

Kellogg had taken his case to a Republican federal judge in New Orleans, who ordered both Kellogg and the Republican-majority legislature to be seated. This gave the Republicans an advantage, creating a legal basis for federal military intervention on their behalf. President Grant authorized U.S. Army troops based near New Orleans to enforce the court order and protect Kellogg's government. Grant was "extremely anxious to avoid any appearance of any undue interference in state affairs," as he put it in a February 25, 1873, message to Congress. But given the federalcourt's presumably valid order, and the lack of any alternative plan from Congress, Grant explained, he had no choice.

Congress adjourned March 4 without settling the crisis—whereupon the heavily armed Fusionists attempted to shoot their way into power. On March 5, about two hundred armed McEneryites marched on the Cabildo, an old Spanish colonial building on Jackson Square then serving as the state arsenal. But state police and militia loyal to Kellogg had been tipped off and used artillery to pin down the insurgents. U.S. Army troops then appeared under a white flag of truce and ordered the Fusionists to disperse. The next day Kellogg's militia arrested dozens of McEneryites, including the leaders of the Fusionist "legislature."

The victory gave Kellogg control over New Orleans, but the interior of the state remained tense. Both would-be governors had attempted to fill parish offices by issuing purported commissions to their respective parties' candidates for judge, sheriff, police jury, and other posts. Even after the pro-McEnery coup failed, Fusionist and Republican claimants to these offices, brandishing their documents, struggled for power in towns and villages across rural Louisiana. One of those towns was Colfax.



THE TELEGRAPH LINES DID NOT REACH COLFAX, SO BECKWITH AND OTHER OFFICIALS in New Orleans followed the events in Grant Parish through reports from arriving steamboat travelers. These witnesses gave their accounts either in person or to the local newspapers: the pro-Kellogg New Orleans Republican and the pro-Fusionist Times, Bee, and Daily Picayune. Information was correspondingly sketchy and biased; by the second week of April, the two sides were publishing threats against each other in the papers. But from what could be determined, the parish had been in an uproar since late March, when Republican office seekers occupied the courthouse, supplanting Fusionists who had previously purported to run the parish.

Finally, on April 12, a day before the massacre, Kellogg had dispatched two state militia colonels, Theodore W. DeKlyne and William Wright, who doubled as deputy U.S. marshals, to Colfax—a two-day journey from New Orleans. The two officers carried arrest warrants for fifty white men, presumed instigators of the trouble, as well as a set of commission papers for a new, compromise slate of parish officers. Kellogg apparently hoped that these threats and inducements would pacify the parish. Beckwith decided to wait for the Kellogg emissaries to come back before ringing the alarm in Washington. "Reports from Colfax are conflicting and uncertain," he wrote to the Department of Justice on April 16. "A deputy marshal will arrive from there tonight with an authentic report. It isbelieved to have been a massacre of from twenty to thirty Negroes. I will report in detail as soon as I have reliable information."



THIS WAS THE SENSIBLE RESPONSE OF A GOOD YANKEE LAWYER, WHICH—despite the fact that he had spent most of his career in New Orleans—is what James Roswell Beckwith was. The oldest son of a prosperous farm couple, he was born in Cazenovia, New York, twenty miles south of Syracuse, on December 23, 1832. Cazenovia was part of upstate New York's "burned-over district," named for its successive evangelization by Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and spiritualists—and for the fiery feminism and abolitionism which flourished there. Madison County, which included Cazenovia, contained several stops on the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglass spoke at Cazenovia's Free Church, as did antislavery politician Gerrit Smith and Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott. In late August 1850, as Congress debated the Fugitive Slave Law, which made it a federal offense to harbor escaped slaves, Douglass, Smith, and other abolitionist leaders assembled in a Cazenovia orchard. This "Cazenovia Convention" drew more than two thousand people—roughly half of Cazenovia's population. It is hard to imagine that James Beckwith, then seventeen years old, did not join the crowd, if only out of curiosity.

A few weeks after the Cazenovia Convention, Beckwith enrolled at the Methodist-run Oneida Conference Seminary, whose teachers drilled their students in antislavery doctrine. But after a year there, he asked his parents for permission to go to New York City and read law. He aspired to be a "real, thorough" lawyer—"the noblest work of science," as he put it. In 1854, he joined the New York bar. After finishing his legal training, Beckwith headed west, first to Michigan, where he served as a district attorney. Somewhere along the way, Beckwith found a kindred spirit in a young lady named Sarah Catherine Watrous, and, in 1860, they married. Catherine, as she liked to be called, came from Ashtabula County, Ohio, which was also antislavery territory. She was not a conventional beauty: five feet, two inches tall, with a prominent forehead, an aquiline nose, and a pair of blue-gray eyes set off by light brown hair. In keeping with the progressive mood of her home county, Catherine was a feminist novelist; her nom de plume, "Mrs. J. R. Beckwith," mocked the prevailing subordination of wives to husbands.

The Beckwiths moved to New Orleans, 1,400 miles from Cazenovia; it was exotic, and not altogether pleasantly so. In 1860, the tropical port was the sixth-largest city in America; but its 169,000 residents included adisproportionate number of gamblers, prostitutes, and petty criminals. Outside of magnificent, cobblestoned Canal Street, there were three paved roads; everywhere else, horse-drawn streetcars meandered down narrow, muddy tracks. The city's highest point was just fifteen feet above sea level, and some parts were actually below it. Human and animal waste accumulated in the gutters. People took their trash to the Mississippi and tossed it in, or left it lying on the crumbling levees. Dead mules, dogs, and cats were disposed of similarly. Owing to high humidity and legendarily sweltering heat, the refuse sent up a melange of odors.

Yellow fever swept New Orleans thirty-six times between 1796 and 1869, including the 1853 epidemic which killed more than ten thousand people. Because of the foul water, there were also eleven cholera epidemics between 1832 and 1869. A public health expert described the city's record as "one long, disgusting story of stagnant drainage, foul sewerage, environing swamps, ill and unpaved streets, no sanitary regulations and filth, endless filth everywhere."

The Beckwiths braved the odors and the heat and the sickness. But they must have hated the slave markets, where human beings were herded into "showrooms" or displayed from balconies. When buyers came to inspect, the slaves would be lined up by height, in clean clothes and ordered to smile, lest they receive a whipping. If a buyer was interested, the merchandise would be taken behind closed doors and stripped. White men chose "fancy girls"—attractive, light-skinned women—to be auctioned off in front of French Quarter hotels.

For all that, the Crescent City was a logical destination for a lawyer. New Orleans was the point from which the Deep South's cotton and sugar flowed into the world market; textiles, farm implements, machinery, and immigrants flowed in. Commerce created work for bankers, insurance underwriters, cotton brokers—and lawyers. By 1855, there were seventy-five law firms in town. New Orleans was cosmopolitan; the soft cadences of French could be heard in its parlors, along with quick phrases of Spanish and guttural German—the latter spoken by central European immigrants, including Jews numerous enough to support several synagogues. New Orleans was home to roughly twenty thousand free people of color, the largest such community in the United States. These mixed-race New Orleanians were craftsmen, professionals, and businessmen who could sometimes be found shopping in the slave markets themselves. The native white Creole elite were as haughty as any Bostonians.

During 1860, the Beckwiths settled in the "American Sector," across Canal Street from the French Quarter. But on January 26, 1861, Louisiana seceded from the Union. The Unionist couple left New Orleans,but were determined to remain as close as possible to the city until it was safe to go back. James sent Catherine, accompanied by his sister, to a safe haven in Cuba. Meanwhile, he went to the Union-held island of Key West, where he practiced law in federal court.



THE BECKWITHS RETURNED SOME TIME AFTER MAY 1, 1862, WHEN FEDERAL LAND and naval forces took New Orleans and the "Florida Parishes" of southeastern Louisiana. The rebel state government fled north to Shreveport, and in 1864, after a period of military rule, the federals in New Orleans set up a "free state." The new regime gave the vote only to a limited number of colored men—those whom the legislature might later enfranchise by virtue of their Union military service, payment of taxes, or "intellectual fitness." This was essentially the policy Lincoln urged in his last public speech on April 11, 1865.

That was too much for John Wilkes Booth, who heard Lincoln and resolved to kill him. And it was too much for many white supremacists in Louisiana. Once the war was over, they reorganized the Democratic Party and announced in their 1865 platform, "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, and that there can, in no event, nor under any circumstances, be any equality between white and other races."

In March 1865, J. Madison Wells, a Red River Valley planter with conservative racial attitudes who opposed Negro suffrage, became governor. Though a Unionist, he courted ex-Confederates and did not prevent white-dominated local governments from harshly restricting civil rights: In Opelousas, 150 miles west of New Orleans, Negroes could not live in the town or carry firearms. In December 1865, a newly elected Louisiana state legislature, dominated by ex-Confederates, decreed that Negro laborers must make contracts with plantation owners in the first ten days of January, after which they could not leave their places of work without a pass. Negroes who refused to work could be arrested and sent to labor on public works without pay. As Carl Schurz observed, such legislation was "a striking embodiment of the idea that, although the former owner has lost his individual right of property in the former slave, 'the blacks at large belong to the whites at large."'

This was unacceptable even for Wells. He changed course, breaking with the "rebel" legislature and urging a "reconvocation" of the 1864 convention which had drafted the state's constitution. The meeting,scheduled for July 30, 1866, in New Orleans, would call for Negro suffrage and disenfranchisement of ex-Confederates—assuming it was allowed to take place peacefully.

It was not. On the morning of July 30, city policemen, the vast majority of whom were ex-Confederate soldiers, mobbed the gun shops of New Orleans, buying up pistols. Along with like-minded white civilians, they gathered around the convention site: the Mechanics' Institute on Baronne Street. As a parade of Negro Republicans led by colored Union army veterans approached the fortresslike building, black marchers and white onlookers exchanged a few pistol shots. When the parade reached the Mechanics' Institute at about 12:30, white civilians pelted the Negro marchers with bricks, the marchers fought back with shoves and gunfire—and police commanders sounded the local fire bell, signaling the cops to attack the Negroes.

As Negroes fled into the building, police fired wildly after them and eventually battered down the doors. Negro men swinging chairs and sticks tried to drive the police and white vigilantes back but were quickly overcome. The police grabbed Anthony P. Dostie, a white Republican who had given an incendiary speech at a mostly Negro rally the previous Friday, and shot him five times before running him through with a sword. The killing spilled over into the streets, where Negroes were chased and beaten to death or randomly dragged from streetcars and shot. When it was over, thirty-eight people were dead, all but four of them people of color; and 184 lay wounded.

James Beckwith witnessed the New Orleans Massacre, as it was called. The awful spectacle, which Andrew Johnson blamed on Republican agitation, helped convince Northern voters that the president could not be trusted to run Reconstruction. They elected an overwhelmingly Republican Congress in November 1866, which then overturned Johnson's policies. By April 1868, thanks to new laws passed by Congress, Louisiana had a Republican-drafted constitution and a newly elected Republican state government.

But soon Beckwith and the rest of the state saw even more devastating bloodshed in the countryside. In the second half of 1868, white terrorists tried to prevent the Republicans from winning the November presidential election. Over three days in September, they killed some two hundred freedmen in St. Landry Parish. Later that month, in Bossier Parish, just across the Red River from Shreveport, a drunken trader from Arkansas shot an elderly black Republican. When men of color organized a posse to capture the gunman, the "Negro revolt" electrified whites, who killed and wounded several colored men. The Negroes firedback and killed two whites. Hundreds of armed whites poured into Bossier Parish, scouring the countryside for armed Negroes—which soon turned into an all-out "nigger hunt," complete with bloodhounds. The killing lasted through October and the death toll reached 168.

Later, a congressional investigation counted 1,081 political murders in Louisiana between April and November of 1868. The vast majority of the victims were Negroes. Some 135 people were shot and wounded; 507 were whipped, clubbed, threatened, or otherwise "outraged." The terror was so intense that the Republican Party stopped campaigning in the final week of the race and all but conceded the presidential vote to the Democrats.



BY 1868, J. R. BECKWITH, AS HE WAS KNOWN PROFESSIONALLY, WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED member of the bar with a deep voice and distinctive looks: high forehead, strong cleft chin, and bristling walrus mustache. He was still only in his midthirties and might easily have left Louisiana; New Orleans was bankrupt, its steamboat-based economy sagging under the competitive pressure of rail transportation. But he loved the city and the challenges of his work, which usually kept him up late. Though he disdained politics and the "tricksters" who used it "for themselves and their emoluments," something from Cazenovia still motivated him. His wife, Catherine, recognized it. In her novel, The Winthrops, she modeled the fictional lawyer Fred Houghton on her husband, depicting him as an "ardent champion for all the varieties of the oppressed, and [an] earnest rectifier of injustice."

That spirit appears to have prompted him to join Republican-led efforts to govern his adopted city and state. In 1870, Beckwith served as city attorney under Mayor Benjamin Franklin Flanders, a veteran Republican originally from New Hampshire. In late 1870, the U.S. attorney for Louisiana was found dead in his office, blood seeping from a gash in his throat. After some suspicions, the death was ruled a suicide. New Orleans Republican leaders urged President Grant to replace him with Beckwith. Probably the most important endorsement came from James F. Casey, customs collector for the port of New Orleans—and the husband of the first lady's sister. He wrote Grant that Beckwith was "a good lawyer, perfectly honest, conversant with the business of the office, [a] good Republican and worthy of the appointment." The president nominated Beckwith in December 1870, and by January 1871, Beckwith was at work on the second floor of the U.S. Custom House on the "French" side of Canal Street. He had made sure to remove the carpet soaked with his predecessor's blood.



AT 9:30 A.M. ON MONDAY, APRIL 14, 1873, THE STEAMBOAT CARRYING KELLOGG'S two emissaries reached Pineville, which lay on the eastern side of the Red River, directly opposite Alexandria. Theodore W. DeKlyne and William Wright crossed over to Alexandria and rode north to Colfax, but the many dangerous-looking armed white men unnerved them and they stopped at Cotile, about fifteen miles south of Colfax, rather than risk arriving at the battleground after dark. The next morning, the two officers and their party resumed their ride over the reddish brown earth. DeKlyne had served briefly as a federal official helping Negroes in the Red River Valley after the war; he knew the area and its people. He could tell that something was not right: The Negroes' corn and sugarcane fields along the river seemed neglected. Many cabins looked abandoned.

Still, after riding more than fourteen miles, the two colonels had seen nothing to confirm R. G. Hill's report, or the even bloodier rumors that they had heard since their arrival. Suddenly, about a third of a mile from the courthouse, DeKlyne and Wright spotted Negroes pulling something along the ground with a rope. Soon they could see that it was a board with a colored man sprawled on top, dirty and smeared with blood. Unconscious, he was bleeding from several gunshot wounds, but breathing. Two other black men lying nearby were not, however. After another two hundred yards, the officials came upon three more Negro bodies, shot in the head. From that point on, the grass was littered with dead.

DeKlyne and Wright were ex-Union officers, and they had seen combat and its aftermath. But many of these dead men had been shot in the backs of their heads or necks. Six men had been killed as they cowered under a porch. Another corpse was in a kneeling position, hands still clasped together, as if he had begged for his life. One lay dead with his throat slashed. Another, stripped to the waist, was charred. One man's head had been so badly beaten that no facial features were recognizable; next to him lay the broken stock of a double-barreled shotgun. All that remained of the courthouse were its singed brick walls, reeking of smoke. In the ruins, the officials found a human skeleton.

The most awful to gaze upon was Alexander Tillman, a politically active freedman whom DeKlyne knew from Republican Party meetings. His clothes were ripped off, and his body was punctured with deep stabs. His throat had a gash in it big enough to put a man's fist through, and his face was battered. Blood saturated the ground around him.

DeKlyne and Wright counted sixty bodies in all. Not one was white. Searching for weapons, all they turned up were nine burned-up riflespiled in the courthouse ash. Apparently, none of the freedmen had died armed. Amid the carnage, the Negro women of Colfax scoured the ground, searching for familiar swatches of clothing, perhaps, or pairs of shoes—anything that might help identify a loved one.

Terrified, gasping out their story between sobs, they and several colored men told the two officials what had happened. In broad outline, the Negroes' version matched the whites' tale. Negro men, defending what they considered the Republican Party's rightful victory for local offices in the 1872 election, had gathered in the courthouse. When they saw groups of armed whites patrolling the area, they dug a semicircular trench around the courthouse. A large group of white men, mounted and armed with rifles, revolvers, and a small cannon, had arrived in Colfax Easter Sunday, demanding that the colored men surrender, stack their arms, and leave. When the Negroes refused, the whites attacked, setting the courthouse ablaze and gunning the colored men down like dogs.

In crucial particulars, however, the colored people's version of the story was new. There had been no riot and pillage by the Negroes, they said, but rather a fearful rush of families into Colfax when they heard that armed whites were approaching. That flow turned into a flood about a week before the battle, when word got out that whites had killed a Negro farmer, Jesse McKinney, in cold blood. The whites had not bribed a colored man to torch the courthouse; they had kidnapped one and forced him to do it. The colored witnesses denied that anyone had fired under a flag of truce. And at night, after the Southwestern had left, the whites had marched their Negro prisoners away in pairs—and then shot each of them in the head.

DeKlyne and Wright quickly realized there was no use for Kellogg's papers. They were too late to prevent a slaughter and too few to investigate or punish it. All they could do was report back to New Orleans, which they reached on April 17. Their descriptions were crisp and understated, but their disgust filtered through. "We are informed," they wrote, "that since the fight, parties of armed men have been scouring the countryside, taking the mules and other property of the colored people."



BECKWITH'S INITIAL SKEPTICISM TURNED TO OUTRAGE AS HE READ THE OFFICERS' words. You know workmen by the chips they leave. If the death toll was correct, Colfax had been worse than the New Orleans Massacre. In fact, in the entire bloody epoch of Reconstruction, there might never have been a bloodier one-day incident of white terror than this frenzied killing on Easter Sunday.

Beckwith sent an urgent telegram to Attorney General George H. Williams. "The details are horrible," Beckwith wrote.


THE BLOODBATH IN COLFAX MADE HEADLINES FROM BOSTON TO CHICAGO. R. G. Hill thought that the incident would arouse Northern sympathy for the South. But this was not the case. "Jealousy of race and hatred of their former servants can alone explain the outbreak," the Cincinnati Gazette declared. "The passions that inspired that hellish agency of murder and persecution, the Ku Klux, are still alive," the Philadelphia Press warned. The New York Times likened the Louisiana incident to Fort Pillow, the notorious 1864 massacre in which General Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederate cavalry slaughtered hundreds of U.S. colored troops as they tried to flee or surrender. The Times demanded that President Grant act decisively to quell "that worst of human calamities, a war of races."

Attorney General Williams had previously considered the rumors of a massacre in Louisiana exaggerated. But after the report he scrambled to prove that this apparent resurgence of Klan-style terrorism would be stopped. He answered Beckwith swiftly, releasing his cable to the press: "You are instructed to make a thorough investigation of the affair in Grant Parish," Williams wrote, "and if you find that the laws of the United States have been violated, you will spare no pains or expense to cause the guilty parties to be arrested and punished." Brandishing the federal government's ultimate weapon, Williams also promised Beckwith U.S. Army troops if needed to help enforce the law. Untangling the truth about Colfax, and bringing the perpetrators to justice, was now the U.S. government's official duty—and James Beckwith's personal mission.

Copyright © 2008 by Charles Lane

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