Reconstruction hard on Unionists

By Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent

As war loomed in America in 1860, Louisianans overwhelmingly advocated secession from the Union. This support crossed all economic boundaries, including slaveholder and dirt poor farmer alike. The minority loyal to the Union either fled to the North or kept to themselves, trying to avoid any trouble with rebel neighbors who were once friends and associates.

After the war, Republicans, with control of the federal bureaucracy, took charge of local and state government in Louisiana and most of the South, even though the majority of the populace was Democrat. Once the sole purview of the white Democrats, control of local politics was largely in the hands of those holding newfound power gained through the Union victory.

Communities were in turmoil with the change in political fortunes, the collapse of the economy, and the heartbreak of loss from the war.

Still, political control by the federally supported Republicans did little to protect Union loyalists from revenge by those dissatisfied with the war's outcome. The threats and harassment Unionists faced were not unlike those experienced by Tories loyal to King George in Revolutionary times.

Demoralized men returning from the battlefield and groups like the White League composed mostly of those veterans used violence against Republican officeholders, running some out of town and killing others, and assassinated other Union loyalists, especially if they were currently involved in political affairs.

Interestingly, the assaults on Union men in north Louisiana does not appear to have started until several years after the war ended. Quite a number of assassinations occurred in 1868.

Whether some of these may be attributed to common outlawry cannot be determined since a culprit was rarely identified, much less brought to justice.

In July 1868, a Franklin Parish man, Barzilla F. Small, was murdered as he traveled from Winnsboro to the Ouachita River. The newspapers noted he "was highly esteemed by the good and respectable portion" of Franklin Parish citizens, inferring that as an "uncompromising Union man" who supported Republicans, there were elements of the populace who despised him. His murder was never solved.

On March 30, 1873, W. B. McDonald was murdered as he undressed for bed in a hotel in Vernon in Jackson Parish. McDonald was a longtime resident of the area and after the war served as a Democrat on the police jury and in the legislature. Newspaper accounts of the murder noted he "by degrees veered around to the Republican party, and in the last campaign was a warm supporter of the [Ulysses] Grant and [Governor William] Kellogg ticket." McDonald was a close friend to north Louisiana's foremost "scalawag," Allen Greene, and aided Greene in establishing the new parish of Lincoln. The creation of another parish completely controlled by the Radical Republicans didn't earn McDonald any friends among the locals. His family believed his political stances got him killed. One acquaintance of McDonald's attributed his assassination directly to his close friendship with Greene.

Once Greene pushed the creation of Lincoln Parish through the Legislature in 1873 and became its virtual king, his life was threatened many times. Greene's removal of all parish records and offices from the Vienna courthouse to his plantation several miles to the northwest incensed the population. Greene and his family were virtual prisoners as it was too dangerous to leave their home. Each time it appeared the lid would blow off the situation, someone backed down and a lethal clash never occurred.

On September 8, 1873, District Judge Thomas H. Crawford and District Attorney Arthur H. Harris left Columbia for a week of court in Winnsboro. Along the route, an ambush riddled their bodies with gunfire. As a Unionist who opposed Louisiana's secession, Crawford's alliance with the Republicans meant losing friends and gaining many enemies. He had fled to New York during the war. Attempts had been made on his life after his return to Louisiana. Many drew the conclusion that his office was gained through subterfuge with the help of the Republican\_controlled election returning board as the vote count had been decidedly against him. Harris, it was supposed, was killed simply because he was in company with Crawford, and no witnesses could be left alive.

Numerous freed blacks were killed during these years. Assassinations of former slaves who attempted to vote Republican or run for office were common after the war. Typically these killings were condemned by news editors and prominent citizens but their disapproval often fell on deaf ears. In May 1868, W. R. Meadows, a black Claiborne Parish candidate for state representative was murdered in his yard one evening. No one was ever charged in the crime. In November, a riot broke out in Ouachita Parish when black men attempted to vote Republican at a polling place. It is unclear who started the shooting but several gunfights broke out in the neighborhood and two freedmen and their horses were killed. Ouachita Sheriff John Wisner made several arrests but no one was ever prosecuted. One of the few north Louisiana lawmen to arrest local whites for political crimes, Wisner was shot and killed two years later when he attempted to stop a lynch mob from removing prisoners from his Monroe jail.

Union men who acquired public offices or other rewards under Republican control after the war were quickly ousted once Reconstruction ended and the Democrats regained political control of the state in 1877. It would be over one hundred years before Republicans gained a foothold again in Louisiana.

The violence in North Louisiana did not end with Lee's surrender at Appomattox nor General Edmund Kirby Smith's capitulation of the western Confederacy two months later. In many ways, it was just beginning.

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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