Politics spawned battles for public opinions

by Wesley Harris
ournal Correspondent


James Etherington Trimble

The Civil War and the turbulent Reconstruction era that followed fueled repercussions for decades. Opposing loyalties and petty jealousies often grew into violence as Louisiana struggled to from the darkest period in the state's history.

Nothing characterizes these long-lasting disputes more than the war of words between Louisiana newspaper editors espousing opposing political views. The alleged bias that today's news media is accused of pales in comparison to the fiery language hurled back and forth from the pages of newspapers from Shreveport to New Orleans about anything political.

The newspapers of Civil War times and many years after did not hide their political affiliations. Their names often belied where they stood: the New Orleans Republican, the St.

Landry Democrat, the Alexandria Caucasian. The Ouachita Telegraph, published in Monroe, was pro-Democrat while the Rapides Gazette supported Republican positions. The editorial content was no more impartial than the news media of today.

During and after the Civil War, these newspaper wars extended beyond the pages of the publications to include personal insults in public, threats of bodily harm, and even acts of violence against editors. It is no wonder some Louisiana parishes saw scores of newspapers come and go. The inability to maintain an editorial position while also sustaining subscriptions led to the demise of many publishing endeavors.

Catahoula Parish
As America moved closer to internal war, Louisiana newspapers churned out opinions on whether the Union should be dissolved. Serving as editor of The Independent, Catahoula Parish's only newspaper, was James G. Taliaferro, one of Louisiana's staunchest Unionists. When he acquired the paper from the previous publisher, its masthead carried the motto "neutral in politics." Taliaferro changed it to a quote from Cicero: "I defended the republic in my youth; I shall not stop as an old man." While Taliaferro said his newspaper would favor no particular party, it would be political and he would vigorously defend the Constitution and the Union.

Taliaferro had served as a Catahoula Parish judge, practiced law, and maintained varied business interests around Harrisonburg. His editorials revealed a strong pro-Union position but with enough Southern sympathies to ensure his local popularity. When a vote was held to elect a Catahoula Parish delegate to Louisiana's Secession Convention, he beat another man who intended to vote for leaving the Union.

But at the convention, Taliaferro was the sole delegate to speak out in complete opposition to an ordinance of succession. The fervor for succession was overwhelming and the few who voted against the measure were ridiculed and reviled.

Taliaferro never revealed what pressures were brought to bear on him, but soon after the convention he announced the end of The Independent. His barn had been burned and political opponents were gearing up to start a pro-Confederacy newspaper in Catahoula. Other Unionist newspapers in Louisiana either sold out, closed, or changed their editorial positions. Secessionist burned some pro-Union newspaper offices in the South.

Union Parish
After the war, the military occupation of Louisiana supporting Republican control continued the newspaper battles. The attempt to rid the state of the Republicans and the troops in the 1872 elections caused more division. The Democrat ticket headed by gubernatorial candidate John McEnery fought to return Louisiana to self-rule and rid the state of the occupying troops. But with the federal government in control, Republican William Pitt was installed as governor in what many considered the ultimate act of election fraud.

In 1859, a Pennsylvanian named James Etherington Trimble moved to Union Parish to head the Farmerville Female College. Later he completed his legal studies and was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1866. Despite living in a pro-secessionist parish, Trimble remained a Unionis throughout the war. In the first Presidential election after the war, Trimble cast the sole Republican vote in Union Parish for General Ulysses S. Grant. Although isolated politically, in the early 1870s, many citizens respected Trimble for holding to his convictions and standing up to his political adversaries.

Trimble was elected Judge of the Eleventh Judicial District in 1872. His popularity would rise dramatically in 1874 when he jailed a Seventh Cavalry lieutenant of the occupying U.S. Army for contempt of court as the soldier attempted to round up prominent Democrat leaders.

The 1872 elections had divided the parish politically into groups. One faction was led by Democrat Thomas C. Lewis, another Farmerville lawyer, who had defeated a Trimble associate for parish judge. Joining Lewis were several other Farmerville lawyers, including James A.

Ramsey. Lewis operated a newspaper called the Union Record, in which he vocally espoused his opposition to Trimble and his allies, the Republicans, and the national government, even while serving as parish judge.

This angered many Union Parish residents who politically disagreed with Lewis, resulting in support for Judge Trimble and his faction. The feud became personal, with Trimble and Lewis developing an extreme loathing of one other. While the quarrel led both men to carry pistols, each swearing to shoot the other, no record exists of any violence while Trimble and Lewis held their judicial positions. Both left office in 1876 and returned to private law practice.

Lacking a forum for his political viewpoints, in 1878 Trimble founded his own newspaper, the Farmerville Gazette. Trimble's editorials antagonized the situation with Lewis. Receiving threats to his life and in fear of his family's safety, Lewis ceased operation of the Union Record in late 1879 and moved south to St. Landry Parish.

With Lewis's departure, his political allies needed a new voice. Lewis's friend Oliver C. Dawkins started the North Louisiana Appeal in 1881 to compete with Trimble's Gazette.

Dawkins continued publication until 1884 when he abandoned the endeavor. Lewis, believing the danger to his life had passed, returned to Farmerville and purchased the printing press of the now-defunct North Louisiana Appeal. Lewis founded a new paper to compete with Trimble's Gazette, distributing the first issue of his Home Advocate in February 1885.

Trimble's hostility for the political opposition extended to Lewis associate and Farmerville lawyer James A. Ramsey. The animosity may have stemmed from Reconstruction era issues, but more personal motives also existed. For a time, Ramsey's children boarded at Trimble's house in Farmerville while attending school. Trimble filed a lawsuit against Ramsey for failure to pay their board, and in court Ramsey presented a receipt for payment, humiliating Trimble.

Building upon these earlier clashes, on November 8, 1887, Ramsey gave a speech at a political rally held in Farmerville. He criticized Trimble vehemently for his editorials in the Gazette against former Governor Francis T. Nicholls who was expected to be nominated for another term. Apparently Ramsey had presented Trimble with proof that his public denunciations of Nicholls were baseless, but Trimble refused to publish a retraction. In response to Ramsey's speech, Trimble assailed Ramsey's moral character in his next editorial.

Incensed at Trimble's attack on his friend, in the November 18 issue of his Home Advocate, Lewis published a notice signed by him and many of Farmerville's citizens applauding Ramsey's "high moral rectitude and integrity." Lewis's statement also announced Ramsey's conscientious scruples prevented him from "...appealing to the dueling code to wash out the affront put upon him by Editor Trimble..." Trimble drank heavily on December 19. In several public outbursts during the day, he declared his intention to shoot Ramsey if he showed up in Farmerville. To avoid an accusation of cowardice, Ramsey ignored Trimble's threat. He had no intention of hiding in his home.

At about 5:15 p.m., Ramsey and Trimble came face to face in front of Stein's store in Farmerville. Hot words flew back and forth, drawing a large crowd of men. The two drew their revolvers. Onlookers dove for cover. Gunfire reverberated off the buildings and both fell dead. A stray bullet tore through a bystander's coat and shirt, narrowly missing his body.

A coroner's investigation determined Ramsey died from a bullet fired by Trimble. Ramsey's gun had not been fired. According to tradition passed down in the Ramsey family, Ramsey's nephew George McFarland was in the crowd of men gathered at Stein's store. After Trimble pulled his revolver and shot Ramsey, McFarland shot Trimble.

Lewis's paper only survived a few more years after the gunfight, whereas Trimble's Gazette remains Farmerville's weekly newspaper.

Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, and Greetings from Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana, both available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at campruston@gmail.com

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