Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The New Orleans Massacre of 1866


While it was also known as the New Orleans Race Riot, the New Orleans Massacre of 1866 took place on July 30th of that year. What became a massacre took place when white Democrats attacked Republicans outside the Mechanics Institute in New Orleans. The Democrats were made up of former Confederate soldiers, and members of the local police and fire department, as well as others. The Republicans were whites, but mostly "freedmen" -- that is freed black men and former slaves.

It started when the Republicans in Louisiana called for a state constitutional convention because they were angry over the Democrat controlled state legislature enacting Black Codes. Among other things, Black Codes enabled state officials to refuse black men the ability to vote.  through their .

Black Codes were laws passed by former Confederate states in 1865 and 1866. The intent of the Black Codes was to restrict the freedoms of blacks, while forcing newly "freedmen" to work in low wage labor jobs that were akin to "slave labor."

Black Codes were part the overall plan used by Democrats to suppress the freedmen. It was an effort to limit the new found freedom of emancipated slaves. On the overall, the Black Codes essentially replaced the Slave Codes that were used to control and limit the freedom of blacks in the South.

But please, don't think that Black Codes were limited to the South. Fact is, Black Codes were also enacted in states in the North during the Civil War. It's true. Since many states believed that the end of slavery in the South would send a flood of blacks into Northern states, states such as Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, and others enacted Black Codes to discourage black freedmen from settling in those states. 

So no, the Black Codes were not purely a product of Southern Democrats. Northern states, by way of Northern Democrats, were responsible for attempting to deny freed blacks the right to bear arms, to vote, to equal rights, to public educations, to gather in groups for worship, to learning to read and write, and to equal treatment under the law. 

Let's make no mistake about it, the mission of those laws were to preserve slavery. And there is no mistaking by what took place at the time, that the desire to curtail the freedoms of blacks was something that Democrats did with a viciousness. 

The Black Codes, which were simply an extension of earlier Slave Codes, was created with the purpose of controlling the free movement of freed blacks. As with the Slave Codes, the Black Codes were enacted to restrict the freedoms of freed blacks. Yes, it was an attempt to extent the laws which governed blacks during slavery. 

Democrats believed that one way of doing that was to strengthen the vagrancy laws which allowed local authorities to arrest freed black for minor infractions. Once arrested, the freedmen were assigned to involuntary labor. That period was the start of what was "convict lease system" -- which was just another type of slavery.

During the opening months of the Civil War, Union forced realized the strategic importance of New Orleans and immediately set about efforts to capture that port city from the Confederates. The capture of New Orleans took place on May 1st, 1862. For the next four years, the Union Army imposed martial law to keep control of the city.

On May 12, 1866, Federal forces turned over the city to civil authorities. John T. Monroe was its city mayor in 1862 and was reinstated as acting mayor in 1866. Monroe was a hardcore supporter of the Confederacy and was very open about his dislike for the whole idea of blacks being equal to whites. 

So given the situation with the Black Codes, and the refusal to allow civil rights to freed blacks, and the reinstatement of Monroe, the Republicans there organized a state constitutional convention in an effort to re-write the state's constitution so to guarantee blacks rights that up to then were only reserved for whites.  

Convention organizers elected Judge R. K. Howell as their convention chairman with the hopes of getting more people to show up. It was hoped that Howell's standing in the community would help enlist more people to participate in the convention. The site chosen for the reconvened Louisiana State Constitutional Convention was the Mechanics Institute right there in New Orleans.

Folks knew there was going to be trouble since Democrats considered the reconvened convention to be illegal. They claimed Republicans were using the freed blacks as pawns in an attempt to increase their political power in the state. Democrats were content that the state constitutional convention held in 1864 which had already given greater civil rights to blacks in Louisiana. 

The 1864 convention did not address the unresolved problem of not providing for voting rights for people of color, both mixed race and freedmen. For New Orleans, people of color who were mixed-race were already seen as free and an important asset to the city. That's the way it was there for over a hundred years. Many of the mixed race people of color, known as "Creole," were very educated and owned property. 

Creole refers more to the city people of New Orleans than anywhere else in Louisiana. Literally, the word means "mixed." Creoles are a blend of many different cultures and backgrounds. For the most part, they are the descendants of colonial Louisiana. Yes, those from Europe, as well as Africa and the Caribbean. What they couldn't do in Louisiana was vote -- and that's what the convention was attempting to rectify in 1866.

To try to stop the convention, among other things including threats of violence, Democrats used a few legal technicalities such as saying that the convention chairman Judge Howell was not authorized to be chairman. Neither threat of violence or legal maneuvering could stop the convention from talking place. Since none of their efforts bore fruit, the convention was called to order on July 30th, 1866. 

A few days earlier, a large group of freed blacks, mostly made of about 200 black Union Army veterans, met outside on the steps of the Mechanics Institute. They prayed aloud, and then speaker after speaker came forward. Many were slavery abolitionist, including a former governor of Louisiana, and all spoke about the importance of freedom, assimilation, suffrage and the right to vote in political elections. But mostly, the theme was that all people need to be fully vested as Americans if they are to be Americans. 

On July 30th, the convention had a rocky start. Inside, delegates who were prepared to start at noon had to wait until 1:30pm for things to begin. As the preliminaries went on inside, outside the going on was a different story. Speakers over the last few days came and went, and there was still a couple of hundred supporters present. All simply gathered on the steps to show their support of the democratic process. 

Someone, it's believed he may have been a black Union veteran, suggested holding a parade to show support for attaining equal rights. With that, it's said that about 150 freed blacks marched behind an American flag around the Mechanics Institute.

On the corner of Common and Dryades Streets, across from the Mechanics Institute, an armed group led by New Orleans Mayor John T. Monroe waited. Their mission was to disrupt the convention. As they saw it, the Republican Party was the party of the freed slave, the black man, and the convention was a threat to Democrat power in the state legislature. They saw it their duty to stop the threat of the increasing political and economic power of black men, but more so of Republicans in Louisiana. 

Monroe's group was composed of Democrats who opposed abolition, former Confederate troops, and members of the New Orleans Police Department. They carried pistols, rifles, shotguns, clubs, knives, and were known to have even used bricks in their attack. At the Mechanics Institute, the group attacked the marchers with a hatred that should be reserved for enemies of war. 

The marchers were beaten on the spot. Soon shots rang out as the marchers where shot in cold blood. Yes, some attempting to flee. The ones who fled were chased and beaten and killed. Some of the marchers made it inside the building. Yes, they made it inside the building thinking there would be safety in the building.

Then the unthinkable happened. Monroe's group surrounded the Institute and immediately opened fire on those in the building. Shooting into the windows at anyone they could see, the attackers then rushed into the building. Once inside, the Democrat attackers kept firing into the crowd of Republican delegates. They unleashed such a barrage of gunfire on those in there that they literally ran out of ammunition.

Out of ammunition, they were soon beaten back by the delegates. While the Republican delegates thought the worst was over, it wasn't. The Democrats ran out away from the building, but little did those inside know that they simply regrouped, rearmed, found more ammunition, and returned. This time they broke down the doors, only to again resume shooting the mostly unarmed Republican delegates inside.

It's said that when the shooting first started, some of the delegates actually attempted to surrender. Most of those who surrendered were blacks, and they were summarily shot and killed on the spot. Others fled in panic and the Democrats actually chased them down to kill them. That's the reason that the killings were spread over a several block area around the Institute. Victims were being chased down the streets. That's how innocent blacks were shot and killed even though they were not connected to the convention. Blacks were shot on the street, and they were pulled off of streetcars, and from hiding places to be beaten or killed. 

By the end of the massacre, it's said that the inside the Mechanics Institute looked like a bloody slaughterhouse. Thick blood made the floors slick. Since most all of the delegates were unarmed, it's said that it was indeed a massacre. 

To stop the ongoing carnage, the governor declared martial law and called for assistance from Federal troops who responded quickly. Many of the Monroe's Democrats, those former Confederate troops, and the city policemen, who took part in the killings were jailed. But frankly, I couldn't find any evidence of anyone ever being charged or punished for the deaths of those killed -- both black and white. 

Depending on what sources one uses when looking into this, the numbers of killed varies. When the Democrats finally ran out of ammunition, it is believed that at least 50 people lay dead in the building. Most were black Republicans, but some were white. 

Some sources say that there were anywhere from 150 to 200 casualties, either beaten with clubs and bricks and such. Some say 44 blacks and 12 whites were killed there as Republican delegates at the convention. Of course, there are sources that say altogether, counting everyone that was found dead in and out of the building and scattered around the several block area, then it's possible that more than 130 people were killed in that massacre. 

As a result of the New Orleans Massacre of 1866, anger and resentment against the Democratic Party over what took place was clear. So much so that in the 1866 nation election for the House of Representatives and Senate, because of what took place in New Orleans, Republicans won in a landslide and gained 77% of the seats in Congress.

Louisiana Republicans wanted to extend the suffrage, the right to vote, to freedmen and completely eliminate the Black Codes. In the end, they reconvened the convention and succeeded in achieving their goals -- but at a price.

The massacre was one of two such tragedies that changed the Reconstruction Era strategy in so far as placing trust in civil officials  who were known to be sympathetic to the Confederacy or were openly against abolishing slavery. In fact, by early 1867, the First Reconstruction Act was passed to provide for more federal troops to control what was taking place in the South -- especially with the rise of the Democratic Party's militant wing which included such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts.  

Because of the fear of such a massacre taking place again, Federal authorities established military districts and implemented strict policies in dealing with the civilian population in the South. One of the policies included placed heavy restrictions on former Confederate troops. Many of those former Confederates were temporarily disenfranchised and loss many of their liberties, including the right to bear arms, freedom of association, and freedom of movement. Ironically, those former Confederates were deprived of many of the liberties that were in fact being sought for freedmen. 

Taking away the freedoms and liberties of those former Confederates did not serve its purpose well at all. Instead of inspiring a sense of safety, curtailing their personal liberties created years of resentment against the Federal government. Frankly, the animosity felt by Southerners is very understandable since no one wants to be treated without the full measure of citizenship without just cause. As we all know, no one should lose their liberties because of the actions of a relatively small group such as in this case Monroe's Democrat attackers.

Remember, there were hundreds of thousands of peaceful law abiding former Confederate soldiers and sailors who lose many of their civil rights after the war. Most all were needlessly penalized by the Federal government because of the actions of a very small percentage of Southerners who wanted to carrying on the war in one way or another. And that leads me to my final point. 

What was the massacre all about? Well later, Mayor Monroe would claim his group was there to put down any unrest that may be a result of the convention and that the Republicans started the riot. Monroe never addressed the fact that his group opened fire on unarmed men outside the hall and then attempted to slaughter all of those in the hall.

Everyone there knew that his real reason for his group being there was to intimidate and prevent the black delegates from entering the building. Monroe's excuses for what happened there didn't hold water.

No one accepted the slaughter as being justified or some sort of fait accompli. It did not need to happen. No one accepted the excuse of it being a matter of fate. No one bought the line that such carnage was destined to take place and there was no option. Everyone knew it did not need to happen. No one other then the attackers themselves who accepted the lie that it was right to do what was done.

Fact is, it was about politics, political power, race, a deep seated hatred for Republicans and freedmen during the early days of Reconstruction. But most of all, I believe that the massacre was about the Civil War itself. Since most of the combatants on both sides were Confederate veterans and Union Army veterans, it's a safe bet to say that what took place on July 30th, 1866, in New Orleans, was simply a continuation of the Civil War. And sadly, it was a seen that would be played out again because the continuation of that war would not end for years to come. 

Tom Correa 


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