New Orleans the City Reconstructed

The years between 1865 and 1877 were the blackest in the history of New Orleans. It was a period of violence, lawlessness, political agitation, and corruption. Politics, as the order of the day, colored and shaped every activity. Returning Confederate soldiers found Unionists in charge of all civic affairs. Negroes, bewildered by their new liberties and constituting a threatening problem to the whites, crowded the city under the protection of the Freedmen's Bureau. Northern fortune-hunters -- derisively called 'Carpetbaggers' -- were coming into the city daily and were fast taking possession of commercial as well as political vantage points. The Southerners, however, earnestly went to work to repair their shattered fortunes and regain their former place in the community. This they did successfully, in spite of poverty and dispossession. The Unionists fearing a return of the Southerners to power, and the Carpetbaggers fearing that they might be ousted, took action which resulted in the 'massacre' of July 30, 1866, at the Mechanics' Institute, in which four white men and forty-four Negroes were killed and over one hundred and sixty others wounded. The Reconstruction Acts and the Fifteenth Amendment soon followed, and New Orleans became a city occupied by Federal troops under the ruthless control of General Phil Sheridan.

City and State affairs were closely allied during the Reconstruction Period. During the War the City Hall had been the State Capitol, which was next moved to the Mechanics' Institute on Dryades Street, and then to the old St. Louis Hotel, in 1872. The Democrats managed to retain control of the city government, although the State became Republican with the election of Governor Warmoth in 1868. This control was soon taken from them by a new city charter establishing an administrative form of government and providing for the appointment by the Governor of all officials.

The city was slow in recovering its, former commercial advantages. Successive crop failures, as well as the increased advantage held by the Northern railroads, kept down the volume of commerce. River trade revived slowly but never again became what it was in ante-bellum days. Only one railroad -- the Jackson Road, afterwards the Illinois Central -connected the city with the outside world. The extravagance of the city and State governments caused the bonded debt of the city to pile up rapidly. Tax collections were increasingly bad because of business conditions. Real-estate values declined steadily, and empty stores were to be seen in every block. Work and money were scarce, and floods of local paper money complicated the situation. White people were compelled to adjust themselves to the strange experience of living under Negro officials and Negro police, and were also required to associate with them on an equal footing in restaurants, railroad cars, and schools. It cannot be said that the white population adjusted itself very gracefully to these conditions; it practically abandoned the public schools to the Negroes, education receiving a setback that required years to remedy.

The political situation went steadily from bad to worse. The Republicans began fighting among themselves because Governor Warmoth proved too moderate to please their aims. Fights, often resulting in fatalities, occurred at every election. Administrations were installed and ousted at the City Hall by military edict regardless of election results, while crowds milled about in Lafayette Square. Voting was an adventure surrounded with menacing dangers; getting the vote counted was quite as bad. Gambling houses and low dives ran wide open on the main streets, and to walk through the streets at night was to invite trouble. Dan Byerly, manager of the Bulletin, met ex-Governor Warmoth on Canal Street one day and attacked him with a cane. Warmoth clinched, and in the resulting fight stabbed Byerly to death. Violence and robbery were daily occurrences, and the city seemed doomed and hopeless.

The Crescent White League, an organization military in character, was formed in June, 1874, for the defense of white rights against Negro aggression. A call was issued for a gathering of citizens at the Clay Statue on Canal Street on the morning of September 14, 1874, where plans were made to take possession of the city and State governments, thus once and for all breaking the power of the Metropolitan Police. The crowd dispersed to reassemble in the afternoon with arms and equipment at their headquarters at Camp and Poydras Streets. General Longstreet stationed his Metropolitan Police at vantage points in Jackson Square and around the Custom House, the main body taking position under General Badger at the head of Canal Street. Governor Kellogg sought safety in the Custom House, where a company of United States soldiers was quartered.

The White League forces formed in Poydras Street, and a large body under General Behan advanced down the levee at four o'clock. General Badger saw them coming and opened artillery fire. Having no artillery of their own, the White Leaguers charged and in a few minutes cleared Canal Street of Metropolitan Police. The White Leaguers swept on around the Custom House and drove the police back to Jackson Square. Both sides remained armed during the night, and in the morning the police surrendered the State House, Arsenal, and Jackson Square. The White Leaguers suffered twenty-one killed and nineteen wounded; the Kellogg forces, eleven killed and sixty wounded. Liberty Monument, around which the street-cars turn at the foot of Canal Street, marks the site of the battle and commemorates the valor of those who fought in it.

Victory was short-lived, and although Lieutenant-Governor Penn was installed in the State House by jubilant citizens on the afternoon of the fifteenth, President Grant immediately sent reinforcements and demanded the reinstatement of Kellogg without delay. Governor McEnery promptly complied upon his return to the city on September 17. The full fruits of victory were not enjoyed by the White Leaguers until two years later, when on April 24, 1877, Governor Francis T. Nicholls was given possession of the State House (the act is said to have been the result of Louisiana's casting of the deciding electoral votes in Hayes's favor), and the carpetbag politicians were deprived of power and removed to other fields of action. The White League was then disbanded.

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