"An arresting piece of popular history." ―Sean Wilentz, The New York Times Book Review
Nicholas Lemann opens this extraordinary book with a riveting account of the horrific events of Easter 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana, where a white militia of Confederate veterans-turned-vigilantes attacked the black community there and massacred hundreds of people in a gruesome killing spree. This began an insurgency that changed the course of American history: for the next few years white Southern Democrats waged a campaign of political terrorism aiming to overturn the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and challenge President Grant's support for the emergent structures of black political power. Redemption is the first book to describe in uncompromising detail this organized racial violence, which reached its apogee in Mississippi in 1875.
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Nicholas Lemann, dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia University, is author of The Big Test (FSG, 1999) and the prizewinning The Promised Land. He lives with his family in Pelham, New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873
The Negroes had been in control of the village for three weeks now, and it was plain that something terrible was going to happen. Their leaders had left for New Orleans on Wednesday to try to get help—meaning, they hoped, a detachment of police or, even better, federal troops, who would come to protect the people in the village. The white militia was encamped out in the countryside a few miles away, and every day it was being reinforced with volunteers, mostly Confederate veterans who had heard the whites’ call for help, who had taken their shotguns and six-shooters and muskets and Springfield rifles from the Civil War down from the wall and saddled up their horses, and who had come to Colfax to fight for white supremacy. The Negroes, some of them at least, had guns, too, Enfield rifles shipped up from New Orleans in boxes and an assortment of lesser firearms, but by now there were many more people than guns to go around—hundreds of people, including women and children, who had come to Colfax because they feared the whites’ bursting in on their homes and killing them. The Negro headquarters was the county courthouse, a two-story converted stable from a sugarcane plantation. At a short distance from it they had dug rudimentary breastworks, manned by sentries, to stave off the inevitable attack. All around, the Negroes from the countryside were camped out.
Deeply lodged in the consciousness of the South was the ever-present possibility of a race war in which, in each side’s version, it would be mercilessly slaughtered by the other. If the anticipated deaths themselves were not horrible enough, unspeakable atrocities would make them more so. Now the inevitable was about to happen, and the cause was something that registered, in that time and place, as being literally a matter of life and death: politics. The Civil War was not yet ten years in the past. The Deep South was still in a raw condition not far removed from war. The two political parties and the two races were still violently opposed to each other. The great national questions the war had raised had by no means been settled. They were going to be settled now, with profound and lasting consequences for the whole United States, in places like rural Louisiana, by hard men with intensely local concerns, through the means of an armed struggle that, for all the potency of the load of racial fantasy it carried, was really about who could vote and hold government office.
Colfax, Louisiana, was not really a town—it was more a settlement, containing just five or six structures, and new even to that status. It was not insignificant, though. It sat in the exact center of the state on the banks of the Red River, a sugarcane or cotton planter’s dream waterway because it was navigable in the countryside of central Louisiana, where roads were poor and railroads nonexistent, and because its floods had deposited a thick, rich layer of alluvial soil along its banks. The land around Colfax was lushly green and flat, and there was money in it. Local legend had it that Simon Legree, the plantation overseer in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who, in the public mind, symbolized the cruelty of American slavery, was based on a man named Robert McAlpin, who ran a plantation near Colfax called Hidden Hill, which Harriet Beecher Stowe had visited while preparing her book. The area around Colfax was lightly settled, with nearly impenetrable swamps and uncleared woods and labyrinthine bayous; within easy memory, it had been wild country where desperate, lawless people could live free from social control, and even now it was common to hear about sightings of wild animals and to see families of settlers in covered wagons passing by on their way to Texas.
Politically, Colfax was part of an experiment, a new Louisiana that would resemble the abolitionists’ prewar dream of how the South should be after its defeat in the Civil War. In 1868 a racially integrated (black-and-tan) Republican state legislature had created a new parish along the north bank of the Red River, drawing its boundaries so as to ensure that its local government would be Republican thanks to a Negro population majority. The parish was named Grant after the Republican president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, and its seat was named Colfax after the Republican vice president, Schuyler Colfax. To most local whites, these were unpleasantly resonant names: only a decade earlier, federal troops under General Grant’s ultimate command—he was not far away, in Mississippi—had, as one white man from Colfax later remembered it, “ravaged” the Red River country using techniques taught them by the same “experts in extermination” that Grant’s leading subordinate, General William Tecumseh Sherman, later used in his notoriously destructive march through Georgia. “If it were in my power, I would, as soon as possible, change the name of Grant Parish to Lee and the site of her dispensatory of justice to Davis,” another white resident asserted, referring to the Confederacy’s commanding general and its president.
On Easter Sunday 1873, Louisiana was in a state of low-grade warfare. In 1872, while President Grant was being reelected in a landslide, Louisiana had had a close and corrupt election. Both sides claimed victory, and now the state had two governors and two state legislatures, one Democratic and one Republican. A month after Election Day, federal troops dispatched by President Grant arrived in New Orleans, took control of the statehouse, expelled the Democratic government, and installed the Republicans. Grant Parish, appropriately enough given the condition of the state, had two political leaders, one from each party, each claiming control over the local police function—the Republican a black Union veteran, born a slave, named William Ward, the Democrat a white Confederate veteran named Christopher Columbus Nash. “In his face he bears the indications of all the worst qualities of his race and none of the better,” a white organization later wrote about Ward; and, to judge by the one surviving photograph of Nash, he was a pretty rough character, too, with a full untrimmed black beard and close-set piercing eyes. Both men had had long, harsh experiences during the Civil War—extensive combat, injury, and imprisonment. They had come, separately of course, to the raw Red River country after the war because they saw opportunity there—specifically political opportunity.
One evening in 1871 Columbus Nash, then deputy sheriff of Grant Parish, led a mob of fifty armed white men to a house outside Colfax where two black Republican officeholders were living. The white men set the house on fire and shot the Negroes when they emerged; one of them survived by playing dead until the whites had left and then escaping. Legally, this incident fell under the category of law enforcement rather than crime, and Nash continued to serve as sheriff. William Ward was said to have killed a white man, or maybe two, that same year, though unlike the incident involving Nash, it was more a popular legend than a proven fact. In the version of the story most often told by the white people in Colfax, Ward had taken his victim out on the river in a skiff, hacked him to pieces with a hatchet, and dumped his remains overboard.
When the Republicans got the upper hand in New Orleans at the outset of 1873, thanks to the help of the U.S. Army, both Nash and Ward made it known that they wanted to be put in political authority in Grant Parish. The Republican governor, William Pitt Kellogg, vacillated, which was the worst thing he could do for the cause of stability in Grant Parish, and then appointed Ward’s Republican forces. A meeting was held at the governor’s office in New Orleans in March, with Ward, one of his lieutenants, and two Democrats allied with Columbus Nash. In the presence of the governor, the two sides started arguing, and one of the Democrats warned that if Nash was not made sheriff, there would be bloodshed. Ward returned to Colfax, called together his Republican political allies, and, unable to effect a peaceful transition of power because the Democrats wouldn’t permit it, broke into the courthouse at night and took over the machinery of parish government, such as it was.
To the whites that was intolerable. They could not accept Negro rule in Colfax, with the freed-slave, plantation-hand majority having legal authority over their former masters. In fact, from the whites’ perspective, the situation hadn’t been tolerable for quite some time—probably since antislavery sentiment had become an important force in national politics, years before the Civil War began. Just after the war, white Louisianans had been able to establish firm political control over the state; then, from 1868 to 1872, Louisiana had been ruled by a biracial, moderate, and corrupt Republican regime, and so had Grant Parish. Whether that kind of government could have lasted is impossible to say, because it didn’t last, but even before a blacker, more radical version of the Republican Party took power, whites in Grant Parish felt they were living in an upside-down nightmare world. In a deep-rural, almost frontier culture, where most communication was by word of mouth, where they were greatly outnumbered, and where racial issues carried the heaviest possible economic, political, and psychological load, rumor and myth were rife, and they mattered...
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Buchbeschreibung New York Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2006. 0. 23,5x16 cm. XI, 257 S. Hardback in good condition. Jacket as well. Inside very clean. In 1875, an army of white terrorists in Mississippi led a campaign to "redeem" their state - to abolish, with violence and murder if need be, the newly won civil rights of freed slaves and blacks. The outcome of the Civil War hung in the balance. Hardback in good condition. Jacket as well. Artikel-Nr. 7935DB