The Colfax Massacre, or Colfax Riot, as the events are termed on the 1950 state historic marker, occurred on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana, the seat of Grant Parish, during confrontation between opposing political forces of the Republicans and Democrats.
In the wake of the contested 1872 election for governor of Louisiana and local offices, a group of white Democrats, armed with rifles and a small cannon, overpowered Republican freedmen and state militia (also black) trying to control the Grant Parish courthouse in Colfax; white Republican officeholders were not attacked. Most of the freedmen were killed after they surrendered; nearly 50 were killed later that night after being held as prisoners for several hours. Estimates of the number of dead have varied, ranging from 62 to 153; three whites died but the number of black victims was difficult to determine because bodies had been thrown into the river or removed for burial. There were rumors of mass graves at the site.
The historian Eric Foner described the massacre as the worst instance of racial violence during Reconstruction. In Louisiana, it had the highest fatalities of any of the numerous violent events following the disputed gubernatorial contest in 1872 between Republicans and Democrats. Foner wrote, “…every election [in Louisiana] between 1868 and 1876 was marked by rampant violence and pervasive fraud.” Although the Fusionist-dominated state “returning board,” which ruled on vote validity, initially declared John McEnery and his Democratic slate the winners, the board eventually split, with a faction declaring Republican William P. Kellogg the victor. A Republican federal judge in New Orleans ruled that the Republican-majority legislature be seated.
Federal prosecution and conviction of a few perpetrators at Colfax under the Enforcement Acts was appealed to the Supreme Court. In a key case, the court ruled in United States v. Cruikshank (1876) that protections of the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to the actions of individuals, but only to the actions of state governments. After this ruling, the federal government could no longer use the Enforcement Act of 1870 to prosecute actions by paramilitary groups such as the White League, which had chapters forming across Louisiana beginning in 1874. Intimidation and black voter suppression by such paramilitary groups were instrumental to the Democratic Party regaining political control in the state legislature by the late 1870s.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, historians have paid renewed attention to the events at Colfax and the resulting Supreme Court case, and their meaning in American history.
State and national background
In 1864, after the Union Army occupied Louisiana, only a few blacks were allowed to vote in the state, based on Union military service, payment of taxes and “intellectual fitness.” There was a large population of free people of color, especially in New Orleans, who were property owners and had participated in the state militia before the American Civil War.
In March 1865, Unionist planter James Madison Wells became governor. He initially opposed Negro suffrage. As the ex-Confederate-dominated legislature passed Black Codes that restricted rights of freedmen, Wells began to lean toward allowing blacks to vote and temporarily disfranchising ex-Confederates. To accomplish this, he scheduled a convention for July 30, 1866.
It was postponed because of the New Orleans Massacre that day, in which armed whites attacked blacks who had a parade in support of the convention. The attack resulted in 38 dead, 34 black and four white; and more than 40 wounded, most of them black. When President Andrew Johnson blamed the massacre on Republican agitation, a popular national backlash against Johnson’s policies led to national voters electing a majority Republican Congress in 1866. It passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over Andrew Johnson’s veto, and ended the Black Codes, which had limited the rights of freedmen and other blacks, including their choices on work and living locations. On July 16, 1866, Congress extended the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau, also over Johnson’s veto. On March 2, 1867, they passed the Reconstruction Act, over Johnson’s veto, which required that blacks be given the franchise and that reconstructed Southern states ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before admission to the Union.
By April 1868, a biracial coalition in Louisiana had elected a Republican-majority state legislature but violence increased before the fall election. Opposition among white Democrats to suffrage for blacks resulted in 1,081 political murders from April to November 1868. Almost all of the victims were black, and some of the whites who were killed were Republicans. Insurgents also attacked men physically or burned their homes to discourage them from voting. President Johnson prevented the Republican governor of Louisiana from using either the state militia or U.S. forces to suppress the insurgent groups, such as the Knights of the White Camelia.
Background in Grant Parish
The election in the Red River area of Winn and Rapides parishes also was marked by violence. The area was a combination of large plantations and subsistence farmers; before the war African Americans had worked as slaves on the plantations. William Smith Calhoun, a major planter, owned a 14,000-acre (57 km2) plantation in the area. A former slaveholder, he lived with a mixed-race woman as his common-law wife. He had come to support black political equality.
On election day in November 1868, he led a group of freedmen to vote. The ballot box was originally at a store owned by John Hooe, who threatened to whip blacks who tried to vote. Calhoun arranged for the ballot box to be switched to a plantation store owned by a Republican. The Republicans got 318 votes, and the Democrats received 49. A group of whites threw the ballot box into the Red River, and Democrats arrested Calhoun for alleged election fraud. With the ballot box thrown out, Democrat Michael Ryan claimed a landslide victory.
After election commissioner Hal Frazier, a black Republican, was shot by whites, Calhoun drafted a bill to create a new parish out of part of Winn Parish and part of Rapides parishes, which passed the Republican legislature. As a major planter, Calhoun thought he would have more political influence in the new parish, which had a black majority. Other new parishes were created by the Republican state legislature to try to develop Republican political support.
Enforcement against the Klan
After Ulysses S. Grant became President in 1868, he lobbied hard for the Fifteenth Amendment (ratified February 3, 1870), which guaranteed that blacks, most of whom were newly freed slaves, would have full citizenship and suffrage. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other insurgent groups continued violent attacks and killed scores of blacks in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and elsewhere to discourage their voting in the 1870 elections. On May 31, 1870, Congress passed an Enforcement Act based on the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. They followed this with the Ku Klux Klan Act, enacted April 20, 1871. Grant used this authority to suspend writ of habeas corpus and use the army to suppress Klan violence.
Louisiana and Grant Parish
Governor Henry Clay Warmoth struggled to maintain political balance in Louisiana. Among his appointments, he installed William Ward, a black Union veteran, as commanding officer of Company A, 6th Infantry Regiment, Louisiana State Militia, a new unit to be based in Grant Parish to help control the violence there and in other Red River parishes. Ward, born a slave in 1840 in Charleston, South Carolina, had learned to read and write as a valet to a master in Richmond, Virginia. In 1864 he escaped and went to Fortress Monroe, where he joined the Union Army and served until after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender. About 1870 he came to Grant Parish, where he had a friend. He quickly became active among local blacks in the Republican Party. After his appointment to the militia, Ward recruited other freedmen for his forces, several of whom had been veterans.
The Louisiana election of 1872
In Louisiana, Republican governor Henry Clay Warmoth defected to the Liberal Republicans (a group that opposed Reconstruction) in 1872. Warmoth previously supported a constitutional amendment that allowed former Confederates to vote again. A “Fusionist” coalition of Liberal Republicans and Democrats nominated ex-Confederate battalion commander John McEnery to succeed him as governor. In return, Democrats were to send Warmoth to Washington as a U.S. Senator. Opposing McEnery was Republican William Pitt Kellogg, one of Louisiana’s U.S. Senators. Voting on November 4, 1872 resulted in dual governments, as a Fusionist-dominated returning board declared McEnery the winner while a faction of the board proclaimed Kellogg the winner. Both administrations held inaugural ceremonies and certified their lists of local candidates.
It took some time for a Republican federal judge in New Orleans to order that Kellogg and the Republican-majority legislature were to be seated, and for Grant to authorize U.S. army troops to protect Kellogg’s government. McEnery’s faction tried to seize the state arsenal at Jackson Square, but Kellogg had the state militia seize dozens of leaders of McEnery’s faction and control New Orleans. Unrest was so marked that McEnery organized his own paramilitary group. In March 1873 his forces, 5,000 strong, defeated the city/state militia of about 3500 in New Orleans and took control of the state house, armory and police stations, where the state government was then located, in what was known as the Battle of Jackson Square. His forces held those buildings for three days before retreating before the arrival of Federal troops. Warmoth was subsequently impeached by the state legislature in a bribery scandal stemming from his actions in the 1872 election.
Warmoth appointed Democrats as parish registrars who ensured the voter rolls included as many whites and as few freedmen as possible. A number of registrars changed the registration site without notifying blacks. They also required blacks to prove they were over 21, while knowing that former slaves did not have birth certificates. In Grant Parish one plantation owner threatened to expel black Republican voters from homes they rented on his land. Fusionists also tampered with ballot boxes on election day. One was found with a hole in it, apparently used for stuffing the ballot box. As a result, Grant Parish Fusionists claimed a landslide victory, even though blacks outnumbered whites by 776 to 630.
Warmoth issued commissions to Fusionist Democrats Alphonse Cazabat and Christopher Columbus Nash, elected parish judge and sheriff, respectively. Like many white men in the South, Nash was a Confederate veteran (as an officer, he had been held for a year and a half as a prisoner of war at Johnson’s Island in Ohio). Cazabat and Nash took their oaths of office in the Colfax courthouse on January 2, 1873. They dispatched the documents to Governor McEnery in New Orleans.
William Pitt Kellogg issued commissions to the Republican slate for Grant Parish on January 17 and 18. By then Nash and Cazabat controlled the small, primitive courthouse. Republican Robert C. Register insisted that he, not Alphonse Cazabat, was the parish judge, and that Republican Daniel Wesley Shaw, not Nash, was to be the sheriff. On the night of March 25, the Republicans seized the empty courthouse and took their oaths of office. They sent their oaths to the Kellogg administration in New Orleans.
Grant Parish was one of a number of new parishes created by the Republican government in an effort to build local support in the state. Both the land and its people were originally tied to the Calhoun family, whose plantation had covered more than the borders of the new parish. The freedmen had been slaves on the plantation. The parish also took in less-developed hill country. The total population had a narrow majority of 2400 freedmen, who mostly voted Republican, and 2200 whites, mostly Democrats. Statewide political tensions were reflected in the rumors going around each community, often about fears of attacks or outrages, which added to local tensions.
Colfax courthouse conflict
Fearful that the Democrats might try to take over the local parish government, blacks started to create trenches around the courthouse and drilled to keep alert. The Republican officeholders stayed there overnight. They held the town for three weeks.
On March 28, Nash, Cazabat, Hadnot and other white Fusionists called for armed whites to retake the courthouse on April 1. Whites were recruited from nearby Winn and surrounding parishes to join their effort. The Republicans Shaw, Register and Flowers and others began to collect a posse of armed blacks to defend the courthouse.
Black Republicans Lewis Meekins and state militia captain William Ward, a black Union veteran, raided the homes of the opposition leaders: Judge William R. Rutland, Bill Cruikshank and Jim Hadnot. Gunfire erupted between whites and blacks on April 2 and again on April 5, but the shotguns were too inaccurate to do any harm. The two sides arranged for peace negotiations. Peace ended when a white man shot and killed a black man named Jesse McKinney, described as a bystander. Another armed conflict on April 6 ended with whites’ fleeing from armed blacks. With all the unrest in the community, black women and children joined the men at the courthouse for protection.
William Ward, the commanding officer of Company A, 6th Infantry Regiment, Louisiana State Militia, headquartered in Grant Parish, had been elected state representative from the parish on the Republican ticket. He wrote to Governor Kellogg seeking U.S. troops for reinforcement and gave the letter to William Smith Calhoun for delivery. Calhoun took the steamboat LaBelle down the Red River but was captured by Paul Hooe, Hadnot and Cruikshank. They ordered Calhoun to tell blacks to leave the courthouse.
The black defenders refused to leave although threatened by parties of armed whites commanded by Nash. To recruit men during the rising political tensions, Nash had contributed to lurid rumors that blacks were preparing to kill all the white men and take the white women as their own. On April 8 the anti-Republican Daily Picayune newspaper of New Orleans distorted events by the following headline:
“THE RIOT IN GRANT PARISH. FEARFUL ATROCITIES BY THE NEGROES. NO RESPECT SHOWN TO THE DEAD.”
Such news attracted more whites from the region to Grant Parish to join Nash; all were experienced Confederate veterans. They acquired a four-pound cannon that could fire iron slugs. As the Klansman Dave Paul said, “Boys, this is a struggle for white supremacy.”
Suffering from tuberculosis and rheumatism, on April 11 the militia captain Ward took a steamboat downriver to New Orleans to seek armed help directly from Kellogg. He was not there for the following events.
Cazabat had directed Nash as sheriff to put down what he called a riot. Nash gathered an armed white paramilitary group and veteran officers from Rapides, Winn and Catahoula parishes. He did not move his forces toward the courthouse until noon on Easter Sunday, April 13. Nash led more than 300 armed white men, most on horseback and armed with rifles. Nash reportedly ordered the defenders of the courthouse to leave. When that failed, Nash gave women and children camped outside the courthouse thirty minutes to clear out. After they left, the shooting began. The fighting continued for several hours with few casualties. When Nash’s paramilitary maneuvered the cannon behind the building, some of the defenders panicked and left the courthouse.
About 60 defenders ran into nearby woods and jumped into the river. Nash sent men on horseback after the fleeing black Republicans, and his paramilitary group killed most of them on the spot. Soon Nash’s forces directed a black captive to set the courthouse roof on fire. The defenders displayed white flags for surrender: one made from a shirt, the other from a page of a book. The shooting stopped.
Nash’s group approached and called for those surrendering to throw down their weapons and come outside. What happened next is in dispute. According to the reports of some whites, James Hadnot was shot and wounded by someone from the courthouse. “In the Negro version, the men in the courthouse were stacking their guns when the white men approached, and Hadnot was shot from behind by an overexcited member of his own force.” Hadnot died later, after being taken downstream by a passing steamboat.
In the aftermath of Hadnot’s shooting, the white paramilitary group reacted with mass killing of the black men. As more than 40 times as many blacks died as did whites, historians describe the event as a massacre. The white paramilitary group killed unarmed men trying to hide in the courthouse. They rode down and killed those attempting to flee. They dumped some bodies in the Red River. About 50 blacks survived the afternoon and were taken prisoner. Later that night they were summarily killed by their captors, who had been drinking. Only one black from the group, Levi Nelson, survived. He was shot by Cruikshank but managed to crawl away unnoticed. He later served as one of the Federal government’s chief witnesses against those who were indicted for the attacks.
Kellogg sent state militia colonels Theodore DeKlyne and William Wright to Colfax with warrants to arrest 50 white men and to install a new, compromise slate of parish officers. DeKlyne and Wright found the smoking ruins of the courthouse at Colfax, and many bodies of men who had been shot in the back of the head or the neck. They described that one body was charred, another man’s head was beaten beyond recognition, and another had a slashed throat. Surviving blacks told DeKlyne and Wright that blacks dug a trench around the courthouse to protect it from what they saw as an attempt by white Democrats to steal an election. They were attacked by whites armed with rifles, revolvers and a small cannon. When blacks refused to leave, the courthouse was burned, and the black defenders were shot down. While the whites accused blacks of violating a flag of truce and rioting, black Republicans said that none of this was true. They accused whites of marching captured prisoners away in pairs and shooting them in the back of the head.
On April 14 some of Governor Kellogg’s new police force arrived from New Orleans. Several days later, two companies of Federal troops arrived. They searched for white paramilitary members, but many had already fled to Texas or the hills. The officers filed a military report in which they identified by name three whites and 105 blacks who had died, plus noted they had recovered 15-20 unidentified blacks from the river. They also noted the savage nature of many of the killings, suggesting an out-of-control situation.
The exact number of dead was never established.: two U.S. Marshals, who visited the site on April 15 and buried dead, reported 62 fatalities; a military report to Congress in 1875 identified 81 black men by name who had been killed, and also estimated that between 15 and 20 bodies had been thrown into the Red River, and another 18 were secretly buried, for a grand total of “at least 105”; a state historical marker from 1950 noted fatalities as three whites and 150 blacks.
The historian Eric Foner, a specialist in the Civil War and Reconstruction, wrote about the event:
The bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era, the Colfax massacre taught many lessons, including the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority. Among blacks in Louisiana, the incident was long remembered as proof that in any large confrontation, they stood at a fatal disadvantage.
“The organization against them is too strong. …” Louisiana black teacher and Reconstruction legislator John G. Lewis later remarked. “They attempted [armed self-defense] in Colfax. The result was that on Easter Sunday of 1873, when the sun went down that night, it went down on the corpses of two hundred and eighty negroes.”
James Roswell Beckwith, the US Attorney based in New Orleans, sent an urgent telegram about the massacre to the U.S. Attorney General. The massacre in Colfax gained headlines of national newspapers from Boston to Chicago. Various government forces spent weeks trying to round up members of the white paramilitaries, and a total of 97 men were indicted. In the end, Beckwith charged nine men and brought them to trial for violations of the Enforcement Act of 1870. It had been designed to provide federal protection for civil rights of freedmen under the 14th Amendment against actions by terrorist groups such as the Klan.
The men were charged with one murder, and charges related to conspiracy against the rights of freedmen. There were two succeeding trials in 1874. William Burnham Woods presided over the first trial and was sympathetic to the prosecution. Had the men been convicted, they would not been able to appeal their decision to any appellate court according to the laws of the time. However, Beckworth was unable to secure a conviction—one man was acquitted while a mistrial was declared in the cases of the other eight. In the next trial, three men were found guilty of sixteen charges. However, the presiding, Joseph Bradley of the United States Supreme Court (riding circuit), dismissed the convictions, ruling that the charges violated the state actor doctrine, failed to prove a racial rationale for the massacre, or were void for vagueness. Sua sponte, he ordered that the men be released on bail, and they promptly disappeared.
When the federal government appealed the case, it was heard by the US Supreme Court as United States v. Cruikshank (1875). The Supreme Court ruled that the Enforcement Act of 1870 (which was based on the Bill of Rights and 14th Amendment) applied only to actions committed by the state, and that it did not apply to actions committed by individuals or private conspiracies (See, Morrison Remick Waite). The Federal government could not prosecute cases such as the Colfax killings. The court said plaintiffs who believed their rights were abridged had to seek protection from the state. Louisiana did not prosecute any of the perpetrators of the Colfax massacre; most southern states would not prosecute white men for attacks against freedmen.
The publicity about the Colfax Massacre and subsequent Supreme Court ruling encouraged the growth of white paramilitary organizations. In May 1874, Nash formed the first chapter of the White League from his paramilitary group, and chapters soon were formed in other areas of Louisiana, as well as the southern parts of nearby states. Unlike the former KKK, they operated openly and often curried publicity. One historian described them as “the military arm of the Democratic Party.” Other paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts also arose, especially in South Carolina and Mississippi, which also had black majorities of population.
Paramilitary groups used violence and murder to terrorize leaders among the freedmen and white Republicans, as well as to repress voting among freedmen during the 1870s. Black American citizens had little recourse. In August 1874, for instance, the White League threw out Republican officeholders in Coushatta, Red River Parish, assassinating the six whites before they left the state, and killing five to 15 freedmen who were witnesses. Four of the white men killed were related to the state representative from the area. Such violence served to intimidate voters and officeholders; it was one of the methods white Democrats used to gain control of the state legislature in the 1876 elections and ultimately to dismantle Reconstruction in Louisiana.
In 1950, Louisiana erected a state highway marker noting the event of 1873 as “the Colfax Riot,” as the event was traditionally called in the white community. The marker states, “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot, in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
The site has been changed, as the old courthouse was torn down. Some of the area was paved, a new courthouse was built. For decades, the event was hidden in local history. Without archeological work to establish where some of the victims were buried, people have had difficulty defining a site to gain approval for a memorial. But, the scale of the massacre and the political conflict it represented are of state and national significance as part of Reconstruction and United States racial history.
The Colfax massacre is among the events of Reconstruction and late 19th century history which have received new national attention, much as the 1923 massacre in Rosewood, Florida did near the end of the 20th century. In 2007 and 2008 two new books were published on the topic: Leeanna Keith’s The Colfax Massacre:, and Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction. Lane especially addressed the political and legal implications of the Supreme Court case, which arose out of prosecution of several men of the white paramilitary groups. In addition, a film documentary is in preparation.
In 2007 the Red River Heritage Association, Inc. was formed, a group that intends to establish a museum in Colfax as a center for collecting materials and interpreting the history of Reconstruction in Louisiana and especially the Red River area.
In 2008, on the 135th anniversary of the Colfax massacre, an interracial group commemorated the event. They laid flowers where some victims had fallen and held a forum to discuss the history.