The US Reconstruction Anniversary Timeline – May 10-17, 1865

Here is a look at what was happening during the transition from war to peace, 150 years ago this week. We’ll also do a quick look at reconstruction in some of the major Southern cities. This week’s city, based on sources 18 and 19, is…

New Orleans

An 1857 illustration of New Orleans (Library of Congress)

An 1857 illustration of New Orleans (Library of Congress)

New Orleans, the third largest international port in the US and an economic powerhouse before the war, surrendered to US forces on April 29, 1862, about two months after Nashville, Tennessee.

Nashville’s importance for Union military forces was its role as a transportation and communications hub. New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, was of vital importance to the US for access to Texas and Arkansas, as well as control of the “Father of Waters.”

According to Justin Nystrom in source 19:

… to most Americans of the Civil War generation, New Orleans was the South’s greatest city….they saw a metropolis that dwarfed Charleston and Mobile, and unlike Richmond, stood unscathed by the physical destruction of war. It was also one of the nation’s greatest ports…Outside the city limits stood the most fertile and potentially profitable agricultural basin in the nation. And perhaps most importantly, not only did the city have an enormous head start over other Southern cities in the process of reconstruction, with its large population of educated people of color and Louisiana’s historical support of a protectionist tariff; the state held out the greatest promise for Republican success in the South. Americans correctly identified New Orleans and, by extension, Louisiana, as a bellwether for both the Republican Party’s aspirations in the postbellum South and the ultimate success or failure of its Reconstruction policies. These factors destined the city to become the main stage upon which the nation would act out its most defining moments of race and politics in the nineteenth century.

Jarring with this is James Hogue’s statement in source 18 that:

Ever since Reconstruction, Louisiana’s reputation for a kind of amused cynicism toward extravagant political corruption has remained without peer, even three decades after the return of a functioning two-party system.

A provisional Federal court met at the Presbytere in 1865, but this society had undergone too much too quickly to remain completely civil.  (Image source)

A provisional Federal court met at the Presbytere in 1865, but this society had undergone too much too quickly to remain completely civil. (Image source)

As I write these words, my country has just had its first major league baseball game played in an empty stadium because of race riots despite the presence of a two-term black president in the White House.

The racial and political situation today is crazy, and there is also something really crazy about 19th century New Orleans and Louisiana during Reconstruction, as I have read about it in sources 18 and 19. Today’s situation is rooted in Reconstruction, although there have been many influential developments over the years. Postwar Louisiana was very influential in the overall development of Reconstruction, though (thankfully) we don’t have the sort of violence and hatred everyone in Louisiana had to deal with after the Civil War ended.

The two books I am using as sources look at Louisiana’s Reconstruction from different viewpoints.

Nystrom emphasizes insecurity. He points out that in 15 months the citizens of New Orleans went from being on top of the world (1861) to bankruptcy and military occupation (1862). The local economy did start to pick up in 1864, but that was because of the Union army, not from anything related to productive markets.

In addition, he says, they felt abandoned by the Confederate government and army. Besides the experience of military rule for three years, emancipation changed the city’s social and economic setting, as well as its racial dynamics. Civilian rule during the war was unstable. Nystrom feels that everybody was just trying to find something to hold onto until the world got back to normal.

Hogue focuses on revolution and counterrevolution. Reconstruction was the revolution. Counterrevolution came from politics but was aided by armed force and terrorism.

Armed forces, he says, generally came in one of three different types:

  • Vigilantism, i.e., groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
    I can't find the original citation for this photo but reportedly it was taken in Colorado in 1928.

    I can’t find the original citation for this photo but reportedly it was taken in Colorado in 1928.

    Typical terrorist acts were usually perpetrated by small groups at night, in disguise, or both. This was the earliest form of action taken, and it was often led, particularly at first, by Confederate vets. These vigilantes had a wide and sometimes indiscriminate range of targets, including schools, churches, local Republican officials, and freedmen and their families. It wasn’t as politically effective as we sometimes imagine it, in part because it was indiscriminate. It was harmful enough to provoke countermeasures in 1868, including Republican-sponsored state militias and army intervention, as well as intervention by the new US Department of Justice. Vigilantes damaged the Republican Party in the South and terrorized black people into leaving either politics or the region altogether.

  • Paramilitarism. This intermediate form of white supremacist violence appeared first in Louisiana in 1873 and it continued intermittently even after Reconstruction was over. It was more effective because it had a clearer political focus. Paramilitary groups included White Leagues, Red Shirts, or rifle companies.


    Their actions required planning and mobilized hundreds of men to strike carefully chosen targets (most often local officials, black militia companies or Republican political rallies). The ultimate goal was disruption of local elections. Unlike the vigilantes, these groups weren’t covert. Their leaders were well-known local leaders, and were often addressed by the military rank they had held during the war. Hogue says that paramilitary groups invariably acted as the armed wing of the Conservative/Democratic Party and were often one and the same. Their targets might just give up, or if there was resistance, there might be attacks and even massacres. The end result was one-party rule in Louisiana parishes that lasted for decades or longer.

  • The most sophisticated groups, formed with collusion of political and economic elites, were de facto white supremacist militia claiming de jure status. These were successfully set up only in Louisiana and Arkansas, although it was also considered in Mississippi in 1875 and in South Carolina in 1877. Their aim was nothing less than a coup d’etat at the state capital.

    Seriously, coup d'etat stuff.  Here, in 1874, the White League takes on the New Orleans police.  (Source)

    Seriously, coup d’etat stuff. Here, in 1874, the White League takes on the New Orleans police. (Source)

    Per Hogue, “It was the number and growing sophistication of its coup attempts that eventually distinguished Louisiana’s counterrevolution against Reconstruction.”

Many people could not see the potential for trouble and instead looked at Louisiana as an excellent place to try reconstruction because of New Orleans. The city had fallen early in the war; there was little destruction and the potential for good economic growth; and it was the only state that had a sizable colored “middle class” between slaves and free whites. Called the gens de couleur libre, these free people of mixed race were most often found in French-speaking parishes of southern Louisiana and in New Orleans. They had wealth and education, as well as a vibrant Creole culture.

In December 1863 President Lincoln had proclaimed that a seceded state could be admitted to the Union after at least 10% of its citizens (per the 1860 census) had taken a loyalty oath and sworn to abide by the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1864 Louisiana established New Orleans as its new capital and developed a new state constitution under this “Ten Percent” reconstruction plan.

While the new constitution didn’t guarantee black suffrage, it did hold out that prospect for the future. However, because there was no black suffrage, and probably also because Congress felt that it should be in charge of Reconstruction, not the president, Louisiana’s delegation was not seated and the state’s electoral votes in the 1864 election were voided. After Lincoln’s assassination, the struggle between the legislative and executive branches to control Reconstruction continued.

In the aftermath of the war, the leading US generals weren’t following this political brawl. In terms of Louisiana and New Orleans, we need to focus on the activities of Generals Grant and Sheridan. Grant was concentrating on getting all Confederate forces west of the Mississippi to surrender. He also was concerned about French forces in Mexico, where many prominent Confederates were going in exile. Finally, he had a million-man army to demobilize and turn into a peacetime professional force.

Grant sent General Philip Sheridan to New Orleans in June, with 50,000 troops, to hunt down former Confederate general E. Kirby Smith. Sheridan spent most of his time in Texas, rather than in his New Orleans headquarters, pursuing Kirby and other area forces and trying unsuccessfully to expand the Civil War into Mexico. However, in 1867, when Sheridan enforced the Military Reconstruction Acts in Louisiana and Texas, which Congress had passed to return Confederate states to the Union, President Johnson fired him over Grant’s personal protest. This decision by a Commander in Chief to fire a Union war hero, combined with Johnson’s pardoning former Confederates, helped persuade Grant to run for president himself, according to Hogue.

Yes, we’re still going to look at Louisiana post-war politics. I just had to explain why Sheridan was in New Orleans on January 10, 1875, per Hogue, writing a long and horrifying letter to Grant. In it, he reported that more than 3,500 people had died in Louisiana political violence over the last ten years. Thousands more had been shot, whipped, raped, or assaulted. Most of this violence had been directed at freedmen and their families, but white Union vets and native white Louisianans had also been targeted. In 1868 alone, close to 1,880 people had been killed or wounded to stop blacks from using their votes to swing Louisiana’s electoral votes to Grant and the Republicans. Sheridan told Grant that of the more than 1,200 political murders since 1868, he could not find a single one that had been successfully prosecuted.

That’s truly horrible. Here is a unintentionally hilarious Currier & Ives drawing of Lincoln, Sherman, Sheridan, and Grant to cheer you up.
Lincoln and generals

Believe it or not, I’m just touching the surface of what Hogue describes in Reconstruction Louisiana. There were street fights. There was even a parliamentary coup d’etat attempted in the legislature that led to brawling and the intervention of federal troops with rifles and fixed bayonets on the House floor there.

It’s amazingly intense. Most of the US hasn’t had that degree of conflict. However, as we see today in Baltimore, the ill will and propensity for violence are still with us, although direct causes are very different. I’m not saying that a direct link can be made between Reconstruction Louisiana and race riots in 2015. Rather, when viewed against today’s craziness, it can be seen that both Nystrom and Hogue are describing different facets of the same complex jewel that is America.

As near as I can tell from just reading these two sources, here’s how postbellum political conflict in Louisiana started out.

James Madison Wells (source)

James Madison Wells (source)

At the time of Lincoln’s assassination, recognition of Louisiana’s government, as mentioned above, was unsettled, but the winners of the 1864 election were eventually accepted, with James Madison Wells as governor. Wells hadn’t been a strong supporter of secession, but he didn’t like the idea of black suffrage, nor did he want to see land redistributed according to northern radical Republican plans.

Wells took steps to appease returning Confederate veterans and put a friend of his, Hugh Kennedy, into the New Orleans mayor’s seat. US General Nathanial Banks, military commander for the district, didn’t like this at all. He fired Kennedy and replaced him with a radical Republican from Banks’s home state of Massachusetts.

Governor Wells went to Washington and had a long with President Johnson late in May 1865. Hogue reports that no one today knows what the two men talked about, but he says that based on the future actions of the men it would appear that both men agreed that Reconstruction should essentially involve a return to pre-war conditions without the formality of slavery. Black people would be immobilized on plantations in Louisiana through vagrancy laws and other measures, and land titles would be restored to former Confederates who had been given amnesty. Wells also got Johnson to conscript black labor to work on the levees, which had been neglected during the war.

The US War Department recalled General Banks and Grant replaced him with General Canby, who apparently didn’t clash with Wells. Governor Wells again made Hugh Kennedy mayor of New Orleans, and with President Johnson’s approval, got Thomas Conway of the local Freedmen’s Bureau fired. Conway was in favor of black suffrage and wouldn’t let New Orleans police arrest blacks for “vagrancy” and then assign them to planters in labor contracts. Johnson replaced Conway with Joseph Fullerton, who told former Confederate general Richard Taylor that he was reversing all of Conway’s decisions and ordering bureau agents not to attend black political meetings.

Meanwhile, New Orleans’ black population was soaring (it would go up almost 110% between 1860 and 1870). Louisiana had sent more black soldiers and officers into the Union army than any other state. Many of these men were politicized there, and they got into politics once they demobilized and went back home.

Oscar Dunn was a free man of color and was very active in local and state politics.  (Source)

Oscar Dunn was a free man of color and was very active in local and state politics. (Source)

Louisiana was the only state that also had a sizable “middle class” called the gens de couleur libre. These free people of mixed race were most often found in French-speaking parishes of southern Louisiana and in New Orleans. They had wealth and education, as well as a vibrant Creole culture. They had fought under Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, despite this being illegal under federal militia laws. When the Civil War happened, the gens formed regiments and fought first for the Confederacy and then for the Union after New Orleans fell. They were also politically active in the postbellum era.

Some white Northerners had also stayed behind, mostly in New Orleans, after war’s end. These Republicans realized that they weren’t going to have any kind of political effect in the system Governor Wells was building. Per Hogue, “Thus, perhaps more quickly than in any other state of the former Confederacy, the nascent white Republican leadership in Louisiana turned to the prospect of black suffrage to secure their political future.”

In mid-1865, Governor Wells announced registration for November elections that would take place under the state constitution of 1864. These were basically rigged so that only whites could vote and only votes that would bring back the antebellum power structure would count.

The black activists and their white Republican partners took a different approach, turning to Congressional Republicans just as Wells had turned to the White House. Their position was that seceded states had committed “state suicide” and therefore should be considered territories that would have to go through all the steps of being admitted to the Union again, including a constitutional convention. This appealed to Congress because it gave that body control over Reconstruction.

Instead of fielding a candidate in Wells’s “Rebel” elections, the Republicans helped set up a competing “territorial” election – the first southern election in which blacks were encouraged and authorized to vote and probably the first in the US in which blacks were the majority.

Both elections garnered about the same number of votes. The results of the “territorial” election were never officially recognized. However, Congress allowed its elected representative to have a seat on the House floor as a snub to the “Rebel” representative, who had to stay up in the balcony.

That gesture satisfied Congress, but in the mean streets of New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana there was anger, humiliation, and frustration. By the end of 1865, serious trouble was already brewing in New Orleans, and it would erupt into deadly violence in 1866.

May 10

Flight of the Confederate government: Jefferson Davis is arrested near Irwinville, Georgia. (4, 17) In the confusion, Davis dons his wife’s overcoat, and the media turns this into a story where he was caught escaping in women’s clothing. (12)

Military events: President Johnson declares armed resistance to be virtually over. (4, 6) He also orders the arrest of all Confederate raiding ships like the CSS Shenandoah, (15) and raises the blockade east of the Mississippi River. (10) But just before that, “The CSS Imogene becomes the last known ship to successfully run the naval blockade.” (4, including quote)

May 11

Military events: Arkansas operations: “Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson surrendered the rest of his Trans-Mississippi Confederates at Chalk Bluff, Arkansas under the same terms granted to Robert E. Lee. Smaller Confederate units continued surrendering, with other men simply heading home.” Also, “General Edmund Kirby Smith reported that his Confederate Trans-Mississippi of some 50,000 men had “dissolved all military organization and returned to their homes.'” (10, including quotes)

Texas operations: “Confederate forces cleared Federals from Palmito Ranch, a supply post in Texas. Federal Colonel Theodore H. Barrett had broken a ceasefire agreement by sending cavalry to attack Confederate outposts.” (10, including quote)

Flight of the Confederate government: “Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens is arrested at Liberty Hall, his estate in Crawfordville, Georgia by members of the 4th Iowa Cavalry.” (4, including quote)

May 12

Battles: Texas operations: Palmito Ranch begins.

Military events: “General William Tatum Wofford surrenders the last organized group of Confederate soldiers east of the Mississippi at Kingston, Georgia.” (17, including quote)

Emancipation: President Johnson appoints General O. O. Howard head of the Freedmen’s Bureau. (4)

May 13

Battles: Texas operations: Palmito Ranch, the last major battle of the Civil War, ends.

Military events: “Edmund Kirby Smith met with the governors of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri, and a representative from Texas, at Marshall, Texas. Some threatened to arrest Smith if he refused to continue the war, and they agreed on terms under which he would continue.” (10, including quote)

Other: Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson Davis are taken under guard to Army headquarters in Macon, Georgia. (10)

May 15

Other: The Davis’s are taken to Augusta, Georgia. (10)

May 16

Other: The Davis’s arrive in Savannah and sail for Fort Monroe. (13)

May 17

Military events: General Grant puts General Philip Sheridan in charge of “all Federals west of the Mississippi River and south of the Arkansas River. Sheridan’s appointment caused resentment among southerners because of his destruction of the Shenandoah Valley.” (6; 10, including quote)




(1) The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

(2) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).

(3) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor (1868).

(4) Blue and Gray Timeline.

(5) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.

(6) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).

(7) CWSAC Battle Summaries

(8) Timeline 1865. State of Tennessee

(9) Up From Slavery. Booker T. Washington

(10) The Legacy of the Civil War: April 1865.

(11) The American Civil War Photo Gallery.

(12) Capture of Jefferson Davis.

(13) The Papers of Jefferson Davis, timeline. Rice University.

(14) Reconstruction Timeline. Mount Holyoke College.

(15) The American Presidency Project – Presidential Documents.

(16) Andrew Johnson Timeline. National Park Service.

(17) Georgia History Timeline/Chronology 1865.

(18) Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction. James K. Hogue. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge. 2006.

(19) New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom. Justin A. Nystrom. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore. 2010

Categories: Reconstruction

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