64 Parishes


The post-Civil War period is known as the Reconstruction era, when the former Confederacy was brought back into the Union.

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Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Poster with text from the state constitution depicting Black leaders in Louisiana during Reconstruction, 1868.

The term “Reconstruction” refers to the post-Civil War period in US history. During Reconstruction the US government issued federal policies designed to bring rebel states back into the Union and determine the status of former Confederate leaders and formerly enslaved people in the South. The politics of Reconstruction profoundly affected life in Louisiana and played a large role in forming national opinion and federal laws affecting the defeated South after the Civil War.

Federal authorities considered Louisiana to be of great economic and political value. It was home to New Orleans, the South’s largest and most prosperous city, where the port of New Orleans connected the vast Mississippi River Valley to the rest of the world. Louisiana’s countryside also featured some of the richest and most productive soil in the nation.

Louisiana held the promise of being a prime spot for the growth of Republicanism in the South. Louisiana’s electorate had supported the Whig Party before the war. The state was home to sugar plantation owners, who, like northern manufacturers, favored protectionist policies, and it was also home to a large and well-educated free Black population. For these reasons the Republicans fought for control over the state. Defeated white southerners, on the other hand, were unwilling to give up control over a society they had once ruled. Such conditions guaranteed that the struggle for control of Louisiana would be particularly intense. Indeed, it is no wonder that Reconstruction lasted longer in Louisiana than it did anywhere else, spanning the fifteen years between the spring of 1862 and the early months of 1877.

What vision did President Abraham Lincoln set forth for Louisiana after the Civil War?

Although only the southern portion of Louisiana, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge, fell under the sway of the federal government during the Civil War, events in occupied Louisiana had a significant effect on wartime politics in the South and the nation. President Lincoln believed there was a lot of support for southern unionism. Lincoln wanted the speedy return of states that had seceded to the Union. As a consequence, he established his Ten Percent Plan, under which a Confederate state might rejoin the Union once 10 percent of its free white men had sworn their loyalty to the United States. Occupied Louisiana became the first proving ground when Lincoln ordered General Benjamin Butler to hold elections in New Orleans during the fall of 1862. The elections were held to fill the two seats in the US House of Representatives whose districts lay within the occupied territory.

Lincoln’s plan served as the basis for all wartime elections in Louisiana. This included elections for governor and the state legislature. These wartime elections resulted in the inauguration of Michael Hahn as governor in March 1864 and the re-establishment of the state legislature in New Orleans. Later that year delegates from Union-occupied Louisiana drafted a new state constitution, which led to the first meaningful debate over many of the key issues that would later dominate the Reconstruction era, including Black suffrage and public education.

The resulting document, however, caused discontent among the state’s radical leadership because it fell short of extending the vote to free Black men. Tragically a clause that allowed the convention to reconvene to make amendments set in motion a series of events that would lead to postwar violence.

How did Andrew Johnson’s presidency and the rise of the Radical Republicans affect Louisiana? 

The war years led to an awakened political awareness in Louisiana. The state was home to a large, educated, and prosperous free Black population and the country’s first Black-run daily newspaper, the bilingual Tribune, founded by Afro-Creole physician Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez. Louisiana also supplied the largest number of soldiers to the US Colored Troops.

The election of former white planter James Madison Wells as governor in March 1865, combined with the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination, dramatically altered the path of Reconstruction in Louisiana. Though he had been a unionist and a supporter of the Radical Republicans, Wells saw President Andrew Johnson’s pardon of and amnesty for former Confederates as an opportunity to build a new political coalition between returning Confederates and conservative southern unionists such as himself.

The statewide elections that Governor Wells ordered held in November 1865 resulted in the election of an almost entirely Democratic legislature that was devoted to putting laws into place, such as the Black Codes, which would support white supremacy and the return of Black people to agricultural labor. By early 1866 Radical Republicans and other advocates of universal suffrage faced grave danger and violence, which culminated in the Mechanics Institute Massacre of 1866.

The massacre came about when those who had created the state constitution of 1864 invoked the clause that allowed them to meet and make changes to the state’s governing document. Louisiana Radicals believed that the federal government would uphold their legal authority to assemble and back their bid to introduce universal male suffrage as an issue at this convention. They didn’t realize that the police and volunteer firefighters of New Orleans would show up at the meeting and murder more than thirty of their number. Along with a violent outbreak in Memphis earlier in the year, the violence in New Orleans helped rally northern support behind Radical political candidates, which helped empower the Radicals in the fall 1866 congressional elections.

In March 1867, over President Johnson’s veto, the new US Congress passed the first of four federal Reconstruction Acts and paved the way for the end of the governments in Louisiana and nine other southern states then being run by former Confederates. In addition to effectively disfranchising all those who had been in support of secession, these acts placed Louisiana into a military district with Texas and established guidelines for the creation of a new state government that included ratification of the recently passed Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. By eliminating the state government that had formed under Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction plan, the Radical ascendancy created an enormous political vacuum in Louisiana and ushered in an era when men with competing visions of the future battled for control of the state.

At the direction of General Philip Henry Sheridan, the military commander of the district, Louisianans set about crafting a new state constitution in the winter of 1867–1868. The document that emerged was quite revolutionary and provided for equal citizenship, voting rights for Black men, equal public accommodations, and public education. Balloting for new state officeholders and the constitution’s ratification by the people took place in April, resulting in the election of Republicans Henry Clay Warmoth, an Army veteran and early advocate of universal suffrage, as governor, and Oscar J. Dunn, an African American businessman and New Orleans councilman, as lieutenant governor.

What characterized Warmoth’s time as governor of Louisiana?

Although he was only twenty-six years old when he took office, Warmoth had proven himself a skillful politician who understood the temperament of Louisianans in 1868. A witness to the Mechanics Institute Massacre of 1866, one of Warmoth’s first acts was to create the Metropolitan Police. While the Metropolitans were initially conceived as a force capable of maintaining order in the state capital of New Orleans, their policing powers extended to surrounding parishes. Their duties also included protecting Warmoth’s government. This heavily armed force played an important role in the dramatic events that took place over the next nine years.

For the most part, disaffected white people had stayed out of the state electioneering in early 1868 and instead eyed the upcoming presidential elections in the fall. Believing that a national Democratic victory would snuff out Radical Reconstruction, militarized political clubs mobilized across Louisiana in the summer of 1868 with the objective of delivering the state for the Democratic ticket of Horatio Seymour and Frank Blair. In rural parishes such activity led to the formation of the Knights of the White Camellia (KWC), a group many have likened to the Ku Klux Klan. In actuality the KWC was far more like its urban counterparts in New Orleans, such as the Seymour Knights and Crescent City Democratic Club—political clubs organized along military lines to intimidate Republican voters, often violently. The KWC and similar organizations helped deliver Louisiana’s vote to Seymour and Blair, though President Ulysses S. Grant’s overwhelming national victory nullified their ambition to overthrow Radical rule. Moreover, the paramilitary violence during the election, both in Louisiana and elsewhere, inspired the newly elected Congress to pass the first of the Enforcement Acts, which were designed to empower the federal government to use the military to combat political insurgency in the South.

For decades historians of Reconstruction have portrayed the politics of 1868–1877 as a struggle between Republicans and conservative Democrats. In reality widespread factionalism reigned in the Pelican State, creating a broad and changing political spectrum that divided Louisiana’s Republicans and Democrats alike and undermined efforts at both social and economic progress.

Factionalism among Louisiana Republicans flowed from the fact that the party attracted men who often wanted different things. On the one hand, the national Republican party’s promotion of universal suffrage and civil rights legislation appealed to the majority of freedmen as well as some white Louisianans. On the other hand, other white southerners believed that Republicanism offered the best vehicle for restoring their class to a position of prosperity and political relevance.

Louisiana’s Republicans fell into three basic groups. The first and the most powerful was the Custom House Ring, which enjoyed the support of the national Republican Party led by President Grant. In an era before income taxes, when trade duties supplied most of the nation’s income, few civil service appointments reflected greater political favor or more potential for graft than that of the customs collector. Grant named his brother-in-law James B. Casey as customs collector at the port of New Orleans. Casey, along with US Marshal Stephen B. Packard, led the Custom House faction and controlled lucrative federal patronage in the state. The second group united around the charismatic leadership of Governor Warmoth, whose control over state-level patronage and the Metropolitan Police made him a formidable obstacle to the Custom House Ring’s dominance. Yet both the Warmoth and Custom House factions recognized that neither was powerful enough to maintain control over the party without the support of the state’s third bloc of Republicans, the newly enfranchised Black voters. The need to respond to the aspirations of its Black constituency often forced the Republican Party to pursue a more egalitarian course than it might have otherwise done. This impulse was both the party’s greatest strength and largest liability.

Those who battled against federal Reconstruction efforts, who called themselves the Redeemers—were also deeply divided. While they were overwhelmingly white and native to either Louisiana or other southern states, their number included many northerners who had come to Louisiana after the Civil War to seek prosperity in southern agriculture and industry. The social and economic stability promised by the restoration of white rule appealed to these individuals because their plans for financial success depended on the availability of a large and obedient labor force. Yet disagreements over the acceptability of various political and social changes divided the Redeemers. At the most backward-looking end of the spectrum stood Louisiana’s Bourbon Democrats, who rejected most forms of Black civil rights and political agency. By the start of 1869, however, many white southerners had come to reject the Bourbon strategy as impractical. These individuals, who considered themselves conservative Democrats, or Reformers, disassociated with the national Democratic Party name and advocated a limited acceptance of Reconstruction measures, including a recognition of the permanence of Black political participation. Yet like most white Americans of the era, the conservatives rejected Black social equality. The Reformers’ stronghold was in New Orleans whereas the Bourbon Democrats dominated Louisiana’s countryside, though neither could make an exclusive claim on either region.

Historians have long characterized Warmoth’s governorship as one embodying many of the evils of Reconstruction. Critics writing at the turn of the twentieth century accused Warmoth of committing enormous fraud against the people of Louisiana, selling fake railroad bonds, extending corrupt patronage, and chartering the notorious Louisiana Lottery, among other wrongs. There is no doubt that he was a willing and active participant in the corruption of the Gilded Age and that he retreated considerably from the egalitarian views he had once espoused when he began seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 1867. Warmoth believed that by courting the conservative Democrats into a centrist Republican party he might be able to build an enduring political legacy. In this pursuit he was remarkably successful, and by 1870 demoralization in Democratic ranks had reached an all-time high. In the end Warmoth was toppled not by the Bourbons but by jealous Republican rivals in the Custom House Ring.

Warmoth’s friendliness to former Confederates and his slow progress on civil rights enabled the Custom House faction, led by Packard, to bring Warmoth’s African American lieutenant governor, Oscar J. Dunn, into their fold. Because of his deserved reputation for integrity, Dunn was among the most popular political figures among Black Louisianans during Reconstruction, and he had great influence over the sizable Black vote. By the summer of 1871, the Custom House faction had also co-opted the support of other Republican legislators who had once belonged to the Warmoth camp, including unsavory figures like Speaker of the House George W. Carter, a former Confederate officer who owed his post to Warmoth. With Carter’s help Packard plotted to impeach Warmoth and place Dunn, who he believed would act as a reliable puppet, in the governor’s office. The Custom House faction also enlisted the help of disgruntled Bourbon Democrats who hated Warmoth because of his success in dividing white southerners politically.

Packard’s scheme collapsed, however, when Dunn died unexpectedly before an impeachment vote could take place. What happened next shows the tendency of the Republican party in Louisiana to undermine its credibility by engaging in self-destructive behavior. Believing that President Grant would back whatever they did, the Custom House Ring persisted in its efforts to impeach Warmoth. When they failed, Speaker Carter and the legislators loyal to the Custom House abandoned the state house and set up a rival legislature in the Gem Saloon in New Orleans’s French Quarter. To ensure a quorum at this irregular gathering, Packard, in his capacity as US Marshal, dispatched deputies to bodily transport legislators to the saloon while other deputies arrested Warmoth and key members of the Metropolitan Police. This plan backfired, however, when one of the deputies killed an uncooperative legislator. Seizing the opportunity Warmoth quickly bonded out of jail and dispatched the Metropolitan Police to the Gem Saloon to arrest Carter and the unruly Custom House ringleaders. Warmoth then convened an emergency session of the legislature where Pinkney Benton Stewart (P. B. S.) Pinchback, a fair-weather Black ally of Warmoth and rival of Oscar J. Dunn, became lieutenant governor.

Although Warmoth survived this attack by the Custom House group, he would never again retain full control over Louisiana’s Republican party. Ultimately Warmoth came to endorse a campaign made up of Bourbon Democrats, conservative Reformers, and liberal Republicans. No longer in control of the Metropolitan Police, the lame-duck Warmoth was finally removed from office, making Pinchback the only man of color to serve as governor of a southern state during Reconstruction. His term lasted thirty-five days.

Why was the election of 1872 a turning point in Louisiana’s Reconstruction?

The gubernatorial election of 1872 proved a turning point in Louisiana’s Reconstruction. The Redeemers, along with the Bourbon and conservative democrats, made an uneasy alliance under the Fusionism banner, nominating the Bourbon John McEnery of Ouachita Parish for governor and a Liberal Republican from New Orleans by the name of Davidson Bratfute Penn for lieutenant governor. Meanwhile, the Custom House faction nominated William Pitt Kellogg for governor. Kellogg, who was from Illinois, had come to Louisiana as a customs collector in 1865 and had been selected by the state legislature in 1868 for the US Senate. His running mate was Caesar C. Antoine, an Afro-Creole businessman and politician from New Orleans.

Fraud and controversy marked the election at all levels. Both sides engaged in measures to lower the vote count of the opposition while raising their own tally. As governor, Warmoth had signed legislation that gave the governor enormous control over counting the votes. Ultimately a Republican-controlled court decided how votes would be counted, leading to Kellogg’s elevation.

Believing that the federal courts or the US Congress might overturn Kellogg’s victory, the Fusionists set up a rival legislature in New Orleans. Competing inaugurations soon led to competing appointments for statewide offices, which in turn led to violent confrontations across the state. The first clash came in March when McEnery called upon a citizens’ militia to overthrow the state Republican government in New Orleans. The Metropolitan Police quickly subdued the uprising and subsequently broke up the Fusionist legislature, arresting several of its members, including future governor Murphy J. Foster.

Several weeks later in Grant Parish, however, an uglier scene unfolded when a struggle between rival claimants to the office of parish judge blew up into the Colfax Massacre, the bloodiest single outbreak of violence during Reconstruction.

In what other ways was Reconstruction a time of change in Louisiana?

With the destruction of slavery in Louisiana came the transition to free labor and a reconsideration of the relationship between Black and white Louisianans. In the early years of Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau assisted this process to varying degrees. In the state’s cotton-growing parishes, this transition ultimately meant a changeover to sharecropping and improved independence for freedmen. Although working on shares was difficult, the number of Black farmers who were able to save enough money to purchase land grew significantly during Reconstruction. In Louisiana’s sugar-growing regions, plantation owners made a less smooth transition to a wage economy, as sugar cultivation didn’t lend itself to small-scale production. Recognizing their bargaining power, sugar cane workers made several attempts to organize for better wages. Ultimately the larger sugar plantation owners crushed cane worker unrest in the Thibodeaux Massacre of 1887. Like Black politics, Black labor made many important gains during Reconstruction only to see them slowly disappear by the turn of the century.

Events in Louisiana during Reconstruction also contributed significantly to the legal foundations of the civil rights movement. The legal question of equal accommodations in places of public resort and transportation began during the war and continued throughout the era. Article 13 of the 1868 state constitution barred discrimination in places such as theaters and taverns, and Black Louisianans successfully sued in court for damages, establishing important legal precedents.

How did Reconstruction end in Louisiana? What were the consequences for African Americans?

With federal Reconstruction policy growing less popular around the nation, a weakening economy, and the widespread belief in Kellogg’s illegitimacy, conservative and Bourbon Democrats concluded by 1874 that a violent overthrow of Republicanism in Louisiana might be tolerated. Devoted to this end, the first White League formed in Opelousas in April of that year. The ultimate goal of the White League was to overthrow Kellogg’s rule.

Resistance to the White League in northern and central Louisiana was weak at best, but in the Republican stronghold of New Orleans, the Metropolitan Police stood as a significant obstacle to complete revolution. Under the leadership of former Confederate Colonel Frederick Nash Ogden, and working with conservative Democratic political leadership, the White League began in the spring and summer of 1874 to train a militia that could overthrow the state government. The inevitable fight took place on September 14, 1874, in an event that its victors would call the Battle of Liberty Place. Following a large rally on Canal Street, the White League assembled in a line of battle in what is today the Central Business District and headed toward Canal Street and a waiting group of Metropolitan Police.

The brief battle that ensued left more than thirty men dead and resulted in a complete defeat of the Metropolitan Police. The White League pronounced McEnery and Penn its chief executives, and the city remained in their hands for three days. The White League only relinquished control when federal troops threatened to use force to restore Kellogg. Yet no White Leaguers were prosecuted for their actions, and the organization remained a powerful threat to Republican survival. More important, they largely destroyed the Metropolitans as a fighting force. Only federal bayonets now kept Kellogg in power, and his opponents knew it. Reflective of the growing unpopularity of federal Reconstruction policy in the nation was the Democratic Party’s sweeping to power in the US House of Representatives in the 1874 elections, where it moved to further reduce funding for the army’s occupation of the South.

By the time the 1876 gubernatorial elections arrived, Louisiana was one of only three southern states where the Reconstruction-era Republican governments remained. The contest pitted Packard against Confederate war hero Francis Tillou Nicholls. Once again, widespread ballot fraud prevented an accurate count of votes.

In the presidential contest that year, Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes needed the electoral votes from the three “unredeemed” southern states to win. After Hayes met with delegates who represented the Democratic/Conservative forces in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina at the Wormley Hotel in Washington, DC, the basic outlines of the Compromise of 1877 took shape. In it, Nicholls supporters guaranteed that Louisiana’s electors would support Hayes’s presidential ambitions in return for a promise that the federal government wouldn’t support the gubernatorial aspirations of Packard and would withdraw troops from the state. The bargain, which was quite controversial at the time, effectively brought an end to federal Reconstruction efforts in the South. Once again, the actions of Louisianans had a direct impact on the outcome of key national questions.

Although many consider the Compromise of 1877 as an end to Reconstruction, several of the era’s key questions remained unanswered. Abandoned by many of their white Republican allies, Black Louisianans would continue to fight bravely for their political and social rights, but they faced many losses, culminating in the US Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruling and the passage of a new, much more restrictive Louisiana constitution in 1898. Meanwhile, the White League coalition split into warring factions almost immediately following the Compromise of 1877, creating a period of political turmoil that would pit conservative Reformers against the Bourbons for the rest of the century. The political corruption continued. By the end of the century, the champions of white supremacy could claim victory. Jim Crow had become the law of the land, and most Black Louisianans had been removed from the voting rolls.