Louisiana’s decision to join the Confederacy was fraught with internal political division
by Gary D. Joiner
Louisiana seceded from the United States on January 26, 1861, and, for a brief period of two months, was an independent republic. It then joined with its southern sisters to create the Confederate States of America. This fledgling nation lost its first and only war and returned, conquered, to the United States in 1865. Louisiana and the other Southern states were eventually “reconstructed” and regained their prior status among their peers. It seems so simple, and yet, it was complex and often traumatic. Most Louisianians are taught these facts, but the process is generally ignored. How did Louisiana secede? Was there debate? Was secession fever overwhelming? In typical Louisiana fashion, the story behind the history was filled with political intrigue, obscure players, a tainted balloting process, and the results that were anything but well known.
During the 1850s Louisiana ran against the grain of the intensifying crisis over slavery fueled by cotton economy. Of all the Southern states, Louisiana had the most to lose by leaving the United States. Geography and economic interests closely tied it to the upper Midwest, New York, and New England. New Orleans was the largest city in the South, its population diverse in ethnicity and political views. A huge influx of immigrants, particularly Irish and Germans, made the Crescent City more like New York than any other Southern metropolis. Situated near the mouth of the Mississippi River, the city provided the warehouses and port facilities for almost all of the goods and raw materials created in the interior of the country. Most of the goods moved through New Orleans went to New York, and the largest portion of the cotton crop went to Boston.
Although cotton was certainly “king” with its economic muscle, large areas of the state were not capable of growing the white gold. The hill parishes of north central Louisiana and the sugar cane growing areas along the lower river were not major areas of cotton production. The deep delta parishes, except Orleans, held huge numbers of agricultural slaves, but cries for secession were tempered by federal protection in the form of sugar tariffs. The debate over secession was most heated in the cotton-growing regions across the South. As the decade passed, cries for states’ rights rang from the pulpits across the state every Sunday, but the most vitriolic calls for secession came from the rich cotton-growing parishes in the Red River Valley and along the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge.
Clearly, there was no consensus about what the state should do. As the national debate over slavery degraded into a shouting match between abolitionists and “fire-eaters,” South Carolina took the lead in threatening secession. Louisianians listened to the debates and, primarily based on local economic activities, coalesced into four major camps of political thought. The first group were the Unionists. They wanted to remain in the United States no matter the circumstances. As the decade ended, the Unionists became a decidedly silent small minority. The New Orleans Daily Picayune best identified the remaining three groups on January 1, 1861, just a week before the secession convention convened. The first of the three large segments of politically active citizens were the radical Secessionists, known across the South as “fire-eaters.” Their cause was carried in the media by a rival paper, the New Orleans Daily Delta, a major competitor to the Picayune. The second large segment were the Cooperationists, described by the Daily Picayune as those who were inclined toward secession, but were only willing to leave the Union if Southern rights could not be addressed and if the other Southern states agreed. They were willing to create an independent nation from the State of Louisiana and would consider affiliating with a loose grouping of like-minded states. The third segment were the Conditional Unionists, smaller than either of the other secession-minded groups. They were similar to the Cooperationists but believed that secession should be executed in accordance with all of the other slaveholding states. In other words, they did not want to create an independent nation but wished to immediately join a new nation. The Cooperationists and the Conditional Unionists were natural allies. They both favored earnest negotiations before a severance from the United States. Together, these latter groups were larger than the Secessionists. They were not as well organized and the media was generally on the side of the Secessionists, as were the ministers in the cotton-producing areas.
Events outside the state held sway over internal politics as the level of rhetoric on both ends of the political spectrum increased and major national political parties either split over the slavery issue or self-destructed. The Democrat Party reformed itself into Northern and Southern wings, the Whigs collapsed and two new political parties were created from the ashes and from other groups with similar goals. The new parties were the Republicans, who were associated with the abolitionists, and the Constitutional Union Party, which advocated compromise and the continuance of slavery. When Abraham Lincoln won the Republican Party nomination, South Carolina vowed to leave the Union. The political race for the presidency in 1860 was vitriolic and portrayed the fractured nature of the American political landscape.
In addition to Lincoln’s candidacy, John Bell led the Constitutional Union party, John C. Breckinridge was the current Vice President of the United States and the Southern Democrat nominee, and Stephen A. Douglas headed the Northern Democrat ticket.
The state ballots were not uniform. None of the states that eventually formed the Confederacy allowed Abraham Lincoln on the ballot, with the sole exception of Virginia. Texas combined the votes for the Constitutional Union Party with those of the Northern Democrats. The four so-called “border” slave states — Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri — each allowed Lincoln on the ballot, but he did not perform well in any of them. South Carolina refused to even hold the election, telegraphing its intention to withdraw from the Union if Lincoln won. As Election Day approached, the three factions in Louisiana flirting with secession vigorously jockeyed for position. If Breckinridge won with a mandate, secession was almost assured. When the final vote tallies in Louisiana were released, Abraham Lincoln posted no votes since he was not on the ballot. Stephen Douglas garnered 7,625 votes or 15.1 percent of total votes cast, John Breckinridge posted 22,681 votes or 44.9 percent of total votes cast, and John Bell received 20,204 votes or 40 percent of total votes cast. It appeared that compromise and negotiation, and perhaps cooler heads, might prevail. They did, but not for long.
Thomas Overton Moore, Louisiana’s popular governor had been a voice of reason and compromise, even stating prior to the election that he would not recommend secession. Shortly after Lincoln’s election, Moore flipped his position at the urging of his mentor, John Slidell. He aligned with the Secessionists and began a different tactic that eventually ended in a referendum to be held shortly after the New Year. The South was abuzz with the promises of independence from the fire-eaters, and no one really believed there would be a protracted war over Southern secession. Those that spoke of it, both the North and South, believed it would be a short affair. No one foresaw the horrors to come. The pro-secession press throughout the South was the most vociferous. Sermons from the pulpits in the region preached states rights and the Biblical authority of slavery. Even so, the combined strengths of the Cooperationists and the Conditional Unionists should have defeated the Radical Secessionists. On November 19, 1860, Moore called for a special session of the legislature to consider the state’s options. When the legislature convened at the capitol in Baton Rouge on December 10, Moore told the assembly that he believed that it would be impossible for Louisiana to remain under the government of a “Black Republican President.” The legislature was in no mood for appeasement at that point and wanted, at the very least, a formal vote to be held. Moore gave them the chance.
The governor and the legislature then cooperated in a rapid series of procedural elements that set the stage for a secession convention. Moore requested authorization to call a special election for one purpose, to select delegates for a statewide convention. This convention would decide Louisiana’s future, either as a state in the Union or as an independent entity. The legislature was caught up in the fervor to do something, and the charismatic Moore seized the opportunity. He got everything he either requested or demanded, although some of them were flawed. The election for delegates was set for January 7, 1861. To keep things as simple as possible, the delegates were to be chosen from currently existing House of Representative and Senate district lines, thus the total number of delegates would be equal to both houses of the legislature. A candidate could run within a house or senate district seat as a delegate, thus a voter in any parish could vote for as many as two individuals. No preference was given to status of the larger senatorial districts. Delegates were simply that, delegates with no authority beyond the issue: to remain in the Union or leave.
On the surface it sounds simple, but the system required two separate tallies, one for house districts and another for senatorial districts. If properly conducted, each registrar of voters and clerk of court would track all votes cast, and each vote would be properly allocated to the correct district. Today, with the aid of computers and in the bright light of media scrutiny, this is usually a rapid and reliable process. In 1861, with the fate of the state in the hands of these officials, things were neither that simple nor that rapid. Moore called for the convention to convene on January 23.
From the time Moore signed the bill into law on December 12, to the convention date there was less than a month for potential candidates to campaign. The political parties and political clubs typically selected candidates at rallies in each parish. Voters in all districts had at least two tickets from which to chose, and in some, as many as four. The basic choices were either to elect a delegate who would vote for immediate secession or negotiating states rights before deciding to secede.
The pro-radical press, led by the Baton Rouge Daily Advocate and the New Orleans Daily Delta, increased their coverage of events from across the South, especially after South Carolina withdrew from the United States on December 20. They created an aura of suspicion toward anyone wanting to negotiate with the federal government after that date. New Orleans was not a hotbed of secession. Although Breckinridge, the pro-secession presidential candidate, carried Louisiana with a minority vote, he ran a distant third in the Crescent City. The sheer size of the electorate in New Orleans meant that those delegates would comprise almost 20 percent of the total. Electioneering, which always been considered something of a major sport in the state, reached new heights as the three segments attempted to rally their supporters and sway the opinions of the undecided voters.
The voter turnout was very large on election day, and, as anticipated, the urban areas reported first and the rural areas required much more time. The following day, both the Daily Delta and the Daily Picayune reported an overwhelming victory for the radical Secessionists in Orleans Parish, posting 20 of 25 seats for the radicals. The Picayune conceded defeat on the part of the cooperationists on January 10. The Baton Rouge Daily Advocate predicted that the radicals would hold a solid 40-seat majority in the convention, assuring secession. The convention met at the capitol on January 23, and Pliny D. Hardy, the Secretary of State, transferred the official returns, the list of all successfully elected members of the convention, and the original copies of returns from each parish. These returns were the certified copies from the sheriffs. The returns were then held by Thomas Wheat, secretary of the convention, in his office. Three days after it convened, the convention voted for secession, and Governor Moore accepted the results. Moore was then officially proclaimed the chief executive of the Independent State of Louisiana.
That might have been the end of it. The history books would lead readers to believe it was. There was, however, a problem that the radicals wanted to hide. The rural returns for the January 7 election had not been published and rumors, beginning in New Orleans, said that the popular vote had actually gone against secession by several hundred votes. The Picayune sought to print the final vote totals but was not allowed to access them. The losing factions clamored for a legal tally to be released by the governor through February and mid-March. The Secessionists block voted to withhold any publication. The Secessionists knew that something must be done and quickly.
The Daily Delta published the tallies on March 27, 1861. The paper claimed that the figures were complete and were provided by the secretary of the convention. In a 19th century cover-up the list was flawed because it did not provide the list of candidates or the vote totals. On March 29, the Picayune charged the convention with coercion by radicals from the northern parishes and called for the official returns to be given up for publication.
The Picayune was forceful in the language of its request, but the timbre of the editorial was lessened by events in the East. South Carolina’s demand that the United States evacuate Fort Sumter and turn it over to that state steadily garnered the headlines. One of Louisiana’s favorite sons, P.G.T. Beauregard, commanded the South Carolina forces demanding the fort’s surrender. During the next two weeks the crisis deepened, and the bombardment of the fort on April 12 wiped all other news from the headlines across the South. The need for an accounting from the convention in Louisiana was at an end.
If nothing more than a historical curiosity, the question remains: “What really happened?” The specter of the flawed election was raised again during Reconstruction by the Republicans who then held power. Oddly enough, the military powers that could have answered the question had removed the proof. When Shreveport, the Confederate capital of Louisiana, surrendered in June 1865, formal hostilities were over. Soon afterward, U.S. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Department of the Gulf in New Orleans, sent a huge amount of Confederate records to the War Department in Washington. Among the items were the returns from the election and the convention. The War Department eventually sent the items to the National Archives, where they remained until 1961. At that time, with the centennial of the Civil War beginning, the National Archives returned the mass of items to the State of Louisiana where they were placed in the State Archives and Records Commission in Baton Rouge. They remain there today. An examination of the tallies reveals some interesting information.
It is difficult to determine exactly what occurred, but some fascinating facts come to light. It appears that the radicals did win the election, but by a very close margin, not the runaway mandate they reported. The senatorial districts are easier to determine than the house districts, and the tallies per parish do not add up exactly to the totals stated. By senatorial district, 17 parishes voted for cooperation and another three parishes were separated by fewer than less than 30 votes. The Cooperationists easily won Ascension, Assumption, Caldwell, Catahoula, Claiborne, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Jefferson, Lafourche, the right bank of Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, Terrebonne, West Baton Rouge, and Winn parishes. They carried the senatorial district of Morehouse and Ouachita by 11 votes and lost St. Mary Parish by 25 votes. It appears that there was heavy vote manipulation in Jackson and Union parishes, and some clerical error/vote manipulation in Avoyelles, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Pointe Coupee, and West Baton Rouge parishes. The radicals won the east bank of Orleans by 364 votes of 8,290 cast but failed on the west bank. The radical secessionists carried the day with slightly more than 52 percent of the vote, not the sweeping mandate they anticipated.
With war clouds looming and national events occurring at a rapid pace during the secession process, such a close election would have been a major embarrassment to the short-lived Republic of Louisiana, followed by the new Confederate State of Louisiana. Unity, at least in minds of the radical secessionists, triumphed over good accounting practices. All of this should have been a single, straightforward process. And yet, in typical Louisiana tradition, it became convoluted, contorted and as complex as the characters and concepts represented. The Southern press hailed Louisiana’s joining the new cadre of seceding states. Governor Moore created the nascent republic’s government by simply laminating new titles onto the former state system. Among his first tasks was the seizure of federal property, including the Custom House, the U.S. Mint, and the forts below New Orleans. He vastly increased military spending to prepare for a possible invasion and began raising troops to defend the new regime. Louisiana joined the Confederacy as a sovereign state two months after declaring independence. Throughout the United States and Confederacy, citizens believed that if there was to be a war, it would end after one grand battle, probably near Washington. Louisiana’s citizens had another thought: If the Yankees tried to come up the Mississippi and take New Orleans, they would meet the same fate as the British in 1815. The grand battle was fought at Manassas, Virginia, and was a Southern victory. It proved nothing.
In April 1862, the Yankees pushed up the Mississippi, and, after fierce artillery and naval duels at the forts below New Orleans, took the Crescent City without firing a shot. Many historians agree with the late Charles Dufour who wrote that the fall of New Orleans was “the night the war was lost.” The war would continue for three more years. The old order was destroyed, never to rise again in its prior form. The antebellum world of the wealthy planters and the old order they personified was destroyed forever. Vestiges would arise later during the period known as Bourbonism. The wealthy aristocrats ruled again but without the economic benefits of slavery.
Gary D. Joiner, Ph.D., is chief operating officer of Precision Cartographics in Shreveport, and director of The Red River Regional Studies Center at LSU-Shreveport. He is the author of Through the Howling Wilderness: The Red River Campaign and Union Defeat in the West.