When ‘Taking Our Country Back’ Led to a Massacre

This story tells us about how the New Orleans Massacre came about. The story tells us, “On July 30, 1866, ‘taking our country back’ left our country bloodied and scarred in a now-forgotten event called the New Orleans Massacre.” In reading the story we learn, “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.”

Over 200 African-Americans marched to New Orleans’ Mechanics Institute. Thirty of their number were going to take part in the state’s constitutional convention. “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.”

Federals captured New Orleans early in the war, and Louisiana was an early target for Abraham Lincoln’s reconstruction plans. He promulgated the 10% plan with Louisiana in mind. The state’s Unionist governor, Michael Hahn, corresponded with Lincoln, who urged the governor to incorporate black suffrage into the new constitution.

“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.” After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson took over the presidency. “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.’ 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.”

Actions such as this eventually led to Congressional Reconstruction legislation, but along the way Congress overrode Johnson’s veto of the 1866 Civil Rights Bill. “In Louisiana, the overwhelmingly ex-Confederate legislature clashed with Republican Governor Wells [Hahn had resigned to take a seat in the US Senate], 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-Americans became more politically active and took part in trying to frame a new constitution. “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.”

This massacre was a key event convincing Congress to implement their Reconstruction Acts. It helped Republicans gain an overwhelming advantage in Congress and moved moderates to support the Radicals

And the monument to those white supremacists is one of the monuments today’s white supremacists want to keep on display in New Orleans.


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