Reconstruction era violence kills Grant Assessor

By Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent

Gustave "Gus" Radetzki was "a man of fine athletic physique, and his courage and boldness were conspicuous." These qualities served Radetzi well as a Union soldier in the Civil War. But the Polish immigrant found his physical strength and personal character insufficient to survive the troubles of working in the dark heart of Reconstruction Louisiana.

Radetzki immigrated to the United States in 1862. He enlisted as a private in the 3rd Massachusetts Cavalry which participated in the occupation of New Orleans under General Benjamin "The Beast" Butler. In December, he transferred as a lieutenant to the 2nd Texas Cavalry in Brownsville, one of the Union units raised in the South. In 1864, he attained the rank of captain in the 1st Texas Cavalry. He distinguished himself as a brave and competent soldier and leader.

Radetzki married Mary Faust, a native New Orleanian, who urged him to leave the army and move to Texas. After an unsuccessful storekeeping venture back in Brownsville, Radetzki rejoined the army and received a commission as a lieutenant. After some years of military life, Radetzki resigned and moved the family to New Orleans in 1872.

The 1873 elections stand among the most controversial in Louisiana's history. Both Republican William Pitt Kellogg and Democrat John McEnery claimed victory. State politics roiled in turmoil for months, as both candidates held inauguration celebrations, certified their local candidates, and amassed political power. Outgoing Governor Henry Warmoth controlled the State Returning Board, the institution certifying election results.

With the election challenged, Warmoth's board named McEnery the winner. A rival board claimed Kellogg to be the victor.

Political tensions erupted into violence in Grant Parish. After the Republicans slipped into the parish courthouse to take offices pledged to them by Governor Kellogg, the Democrats responded with an attack in April 1873 known as the Colfax Massacre that left anywhere from 75 to 200 dead. Amid the violence, the Republicans urged President Ulysses S. Grant to send troops to support Kellogg and his party finally prevailed with the backing of the military.

Kellogg appointed Radetzki tax collector of Grant Parish and the new officeholder moved his family to the parish seat of Colfax. Although an outsider and a Republican in a parish where most landowners were white Democrats, Radetzki got along well with the local populace. One newspaper noted "this difficult office he administered with energy and courage, both of which elements were very necessary."

Radetzki found Grant Parish to be a hotbed of violence and political turmoil, some of which affected him personally.

During a heavy rain on the night of April 7, 1874, a man named Henry Tyler came up on Radetzki's porch, asking for a place to helter out of the storm. What Radetzki did not know was Tyler was accompanied by other men who were hidden in the yard. They intended to rob Radetzki and kill him if necessary to obtain money to pay their passage to New Orleans.

Radetzki agreed, went outside, and hospitably led the man's horse to a stable for some corn. He walked by the other men concealed in the darkness but they did not attack, apparently waiting for Tyler to commit the crime.

Tyler asked for permission to build a fire. The tax collector told him where to find an axe and wood. Radetzki sat by the fire a few minutes smoking his pipe and then went back to bed.

Tyler awakened Radetzki several times, asking if he stayed there alone, and intended to stay there all year, and similar questions. As daybreak approached, Tyler went out to confer with his accomplices while Radetzki dozed. The trio consulted and decided Tyler should kill Radetzki with his own axe while the others hid in the back room to rush in to his assistance, if needed. Tyler returned to the house and after finding Radetzki asleep, swung the axe and struck the blow. The axe glanced off Radetzki's skull, awakening him but failing to inflict serious damage. When Tyler brought down the weapon a second time, Radetzki caught it in his hands. The two men fought until Tyler broke free and fled, his partners in crime leading the way. Radetzki dressed and went to a nearby army camp "bleeding like a stuck hog" to have his wound bandaged.

The men were arrested but with little agaist the ones Radetzki did not see, Tyler's accomplices were released on bond to appear before the District Court. A news account reported "Tyler wears his jewelry [handcuffs] with becoming dignity and easy grace, and puts in his appearance at your Parish Hotel [courthouse] this week."

In November, two former Grant officeholders, Republicans William Ward and William B. Phillips returned to the parish to run in the upcoming election. Both had stirred turmoil among local Democrats before fleeing to New Orleans when their lives were threatened.

After serving as one of the first African Americans to fight for the Union and later as a Buffalo Soldier, Ward became one of the most interesting and controversial figures to reside in Grant Parish. As a captain in the state militia, he hunted accused white troublemakers.

His arrests of suspected murderers in the killing of Grant Parish's first sheriff, Delos White, and spiriting them away to New Orleans, infuriated local Democrats.

Ward ran for the state legislature against a more conservative Republican supported by Radetzki. On Election Day, November 3, 1874, when it appeared Ward had lost, he flew into a rage and targeted Radetzki. Ward and his friends "crowded Radetzki" according to a news report but the tax collector managed to escape. When Radetzki returned to defend his honor man-to-man, Ward and his supporters had slipped away.

A few days later, Ward held out an olive branch of peace to Radetzki. After remarking men of the same party should be friends and not enemies, that bygones should be bygones, Ward begged the loan of sixty dollars. Radetzki agreed with him all but the sixty dollars.

On Election Day November 7, Radetzki walkedup on an argument between Ward and a man named Morse or Moss. Moss, who had steamed up the Red River from New Orleans with Ward and Phillips, had a commission from Gov. Kellogg for a parish position. Without warning, Ward pulled out his pistol and fired at Moss who threw up his arm in defense. The ball wounded Moss in the arm and lodged under his shoulder. Ward fired again and missed.

Moss tried to pull his own pistol but his right hand was useless. With his left, he drew and fired at Ward three times, striking him in the arm, chest, and leg. Ward fled. Moss turned his pistol over to Radetzki who probably dove for cover when the shooting started.

Both Ward and Moss survived their wounds.

That night, Radetzki's house was set aire, possibly in retaliation of his support for Ward's opponent or because of an unsubstantiated rumor Radetzki had voted the Democrat ticket unlikely as a loyal Republican, albeit more conservative than Radicals like Ward and Phillips. Radetzki woke up to find his home on fire and the family barely escaped the flames. Ambushers fired on the family as they fled but no one was hurt. Radetzki lost everything and sent his wife and children to safety in New Orleans.

Ward returned to New Orleans as well and was seated as a state representative winner or not. After appearing drunk and waving a pistol in the Legislature, he was expelled and run out of the state for a time.

Eight months after the fire, Radetzki faced threats from yet another fellow Republican officeholder. On July 14, 1875, an altercation occurred in Colfax between Radetzki and former Grant sheriff John B. McCoy. McCoy had been removed from his office days before by a newly appointed parish judge. McCoy announced his intention to kill Radetzki who apparently did not take the threat too seriously.

A short time later, Radetzki walked out on the front porch. McCoy, who had been waiting nearby with a shotgun, quickly walked up within ten feet of Radetzki. The former sheriff cocked the weapon and pointed it at Radetzki's chest.

Radetzki spoke calmly. "McCoy, I am sure you would not kill me so."

The appeal went unheeded as McCoy fired, striking the tax collector in the right chest with a load of buckshot. Radetzki fell into a sitting position against the house and exclaimed, "My God, the man has killed me!" He lingered for about twenty minutes before\par }{\plain expiring.

A deputy sheriff, quite possibly one of McCoy's former subordinates, and a posse of citizens soon arrested the assailant, placed him in irons, and carried him to Alexandria.

Colfax no longer had a jail after the courthouse was burned in the Colfax Massacre.

A coroner's jury held an inquest upon the body and returned a finding of death at the hands of McCoy. Newspapers reported McCoy's enmity rose from Radetzki's efforts to collect taxes from him.

Radetzki was mourned in Grant Parish, receiving rare praise for a northern Republican carpetbagger. A member of a Masonic lodge in New Orleans, Radetzki was buried near Colfax by local Masons. One newspaper reported on local feelings toward Radetzki: "He was a kind man to his family, and was respected for his courage and manhood. He had no connection with the more notable events [such as the massacre] in the history of Grant Parish. In addition to his wife he leaves a mother-in-law and four children who were dependent upon him. Their situation is truly pitiable a bereaved wife, with four children, utterly destitute of means."

Radetzki's death was not the first murder attributed to McCoy but Republican political control of the parish stymied efforts to prosecute him. Despite his arrest for the murder of Radetzki, McCoy was released and even became sheriff again that fall. He remained free for several years before being convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He died in the state penitentiary in 1890.

It appears Radetzki's family eventually moved to Houston, Texas where the children became prominent in business and society.

Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston and proud graduate Louisiana Tech. Among his books are FISH OUT OF WATER: Nazi Submariners as POWs in North Louisiana during World War II and GREETINGS FROM RUSTON: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at campruston@gmail.com

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