The "Run-Up" to the New Orleans Riot
Bill Long 9/10/07
Events of Mid June-July 30, 1866*
[*This essay is a result of several email exchanges with a reader who has studied this riot in quite some detail; I thought as I result that I needed to say much more on it than I did in this essay.]
The New Orleans riot/massacre of Monday, July 30, 1866, which left around 40 people dead and nearly 200 injured, most of whom were African-Americans, was one of the signal events convincing Northern Radical Republicans that their brand of reconstruction wasn't going as planned and, indeed, that the country was in imminent danger of slipping back into "pre-War conditions" (except for the fact of the abolition of slavery by the 13th Amendment). Thus, the riot in New Orleans (and an earlier one in Memphis) ended up helping the Radical Republicans win big in the Fall 1866 elections. The fact that it helped these Republicans in Nov. 1866 has led some scholars to hypothesize that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton deliberately did something (ignored a telegram---more below-- warning of possible violence in New Orleans) that aided the Republican cause in Nov. 1866. The thesis of this and the following essay is that such an allegation is unlikely and that a greater possibility was that Stanton didn't inform President Johnson about a request for aid from New Orleans commander Absalom Baird because it would have been fruitless for Stanton to have sought aid from Johnson.
I have said a lot in the previous paragraph that now needs to be unpacked little by little. Let's begin with the June 1866 buildup to the July 30 "convention" where the riot occurred.
Background to the New Orleans Riot
Louisiana had held a constitutional convention in 1864 because it was one of the states which fell under Lincoln's "10% plan" for eventual readmittance into the Union. This convention didn't approve "Negro Suffrage," but it gave authority to the legislature to do so, if it chose. The convention also passed a clause allowing it to be reconvened at the behest of the President of the convention.
The time for "reconvention" seemed to be in the Summer of 1866. By this time, however, Louisiana found itself politically to be solidly in support of President Andrew Johnson, whose conservative plan for Reconstruction was opposed and abhorred by the Radical Republicans in Congress. Some of the Radicals or radical-sympathizers who still were left in LA decided that "recalling" the convention was the best plan open to them, since this would amount to recalling the same delegates who pursued more liberal policies towards African-Americans in 1864. An informal planning gathering took place on Tuesday June 26. In the absence of the former President of the convention, the Radical Republican Governor Wells (apparently he "changed sides" rather often, but was "Radical" in June 1866), appointed Judge Rufus Howell to preside over the convention, which would meet at Mechanics Hall in New Orleans on Monday, July 30. The ostensible reason for meeting at that time was to revise the 1864 constitution and to ratify the newly-passed (in Congress) 14th Amendment. Thus, the date was set, and the "revived" convention from 1864 would try to reconstitute itself.
Washington Learns of Events in Louisiana
It didn't take long for word of these plans to get back to the Johnson Administration in Washington DC. In fact, even before the June 26 meeting, General Gordon Granger (of Juneteenth fame in Texas--he announced the Emancipation of slaves for the first time in that state to slaves on June 19, 1965) had writen a long memo to President Johnson in which he informed him of efforts to "re-convene the State Convention of 1864." Granger told Johnson that the purpose of this meeting would be for the radicals to take over all the functions of government in LA, to disenfranchise a significant number of citizens who had participated in the Civil War and to enfranchise African-Americans. Lest Johnson miss the seriousness of this plan, Granger went on to state:
"It is unnecessary for me to point out to the President what this scheme, if they attempt to put it in execution, must inevitably lead to. In my opinion it will inaugurate revolution and terminate in anarchy..." (quoted in Riddleberger, 1866, at 189).
Thus, even before things really "heated up" in New Orleans in July 1866 there was reason to believe not only that a riot was brewing but that it could have profound political effects for the rest of the country. New Orleans, therefore, was on Johnson's "front burner" by mid-June 1866.
Events of July 1866
As the day of the convention drew near, the various power players in New Orleans conversed with each other. Governor Wells, the supporter of the convention, was curiously absent. His Lieutenant Governor, Albert Voorhies, and the Mayor of New Orleans, John T. Monroe, opposed the gathering. The military commander of the United States in New Orleans was Absalom Baird, who was "pinch-hitting" for General Phil Sheridan, who was otherwise occupied in Texas. The major issue among these three power brokers was who bore what responsibility for crowd control on the 30th--and what method of control was going to be put into effect. Monroe wrote to Baird on July 25 (Wednesday) saying that it was his intention to disperse the convention as an "unlawful assembly."
Baird disagreed with this approach, and in a long missive of July 26 gave the so-called "Gamaliel response" (my coinage--after the Jewish elder Gamaliel's sage advice regarding the early Christian movement in Acts 5). Baird responded by saying that if the assembly had a right actually to assemble, that is if it was called in accordance with the provisions of the Convention of 1864, then it would be improper to disperse it, and he might have to end up arresting the arresting/dispersing officers. If, on the other hand, the convention was not meeting as a convention, it was nothing more than a "harmless" group of citizens which were to be afforded protection under the US Constitution to meet to seek redress of grievances.
But then things "heated up." On Friday July 27 there was a "pre convention" meeting, to sort of "stir up" the troops, at which a number of incendiary speeches were made. Perhaps the most provocative was by the "carpetbagger" Dr. A. P. Dostie. Dostie, a northern dentist, had come down to Louisiana a few years previously, been auditor under a prior military governor and generally was the most outspoken supporter of "Negro suffrage." There is no scholarly agreement today on what he actually said in the meeting of July 27. Supposed "excerpts" of his speech, published a few days after the riot (Dostie was one of the few Whites killed in the riot) by a conservative press made it sound as if he was inciting people to let the street run with blood.
In any case, after the pre-Convention rally broke up late Friday night, the powers that be met again on Saturday July 28. Here is where the interpretive issues become difficult.
The next essay confronts these issues.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long