The "Run-Up" to the July 30, 1866 Riots in New Orleans II
Bill Long 9/10/07
Saturday July 28, 1866
When Voorhies, Monroe and Baird consulted on the 28th, the local authorities had decided on a new method for crowd control. Perhaps angered by/afraid as a result of the rhetoric of the preceding evening, they decided that rather than disperse the conventioneers, they would arrest the delegates and have them indicted before the grand jury. I am not sure how precisely the "chain of command" would work here. It appears that the local police would now be supplemented by/supplanted by the parish sheriffs in so making the arrests. In any case, when Baird heard this new approach, he was thunderstruck. He thought that such an approach would certainly lead to widespread violence. Normally the approach of the federal troops in a situation like this would be to serve as "backup" to the local authorities, but the widely different philosophies now being expressed by Baird and Voorhies/Monroe made him uneasy enough to want to consult Washington, DC.
Indeed, everyone wanted Washington DC to weigh in on the issue now. So, Voorhies telegraphed President Johnson asking his advice on what (federal) military actions should be taken if local authorities attempted to arrest and prosecute the conventioneers. Johnson, to his credit, was at the ready and responded that same day. His response has been quoted by many scholars on this subject:
"The military will be expected to sustain, not obstruct or interfere with, the proceedings of the courts."
What this seems to mean is that the President was merely reiterating the traditional advice--that the federal troops are "back up" troops which are to let the "local folk" handle affairs within their authority.
We know that Baird also sent a telegram to Washington on the 28th, but I don't know if he waited for Johnson's response before sending his along. But it makes sense to think that it was after Johnson's response, because Johnson's brief answer was anything but satisfactory to Baird. In any case, he sent his telegram to Secretary of War Stanton. The relevant words are as follows:
"A convention has been called, with the sanction of Governor Wells, to meet here on Monday. The lieutenant governor and city authorities think it unlawful, and propose to break it up by arresting the delegates. I have given no orders on the subject, but have warned the parties that I should not countenance or permit such action without instructions to that effect from the President.." (quoted in Riddleberger, 1866, at 192).
We can see that he is plainly appealing to Stanton to give him instructions that would empower him to act. He gives the impression that he won't act unless he hears from the Secretary of War on the issue.
Some scholars have wondered why he, like Voorhies, didn't go "right to the top" with this request, too. If things were that severe, and disaster impended, didn't you need definitive guidance from the highest authority--i.e., the President? But those schoars are certainly correct who maintain that Baird wrote to Stanton because he, as a military man, was going through "chain of command." In fact, by going straight to Stanton he was already leap-frogging the chain of command by ignoring the Adjutant General.
Stanton and the Telegram from Baird
We know that Stanton neither showed Baird's telegram to the President nor responded to it himself. That is, Baird had no specific instructions going into the events of July 30. Thus, the "default" position in a case like this would be to fall back on the expected role of the federal troops--support the locals and only enter into a fray if requested to do so by the locals. But a lot of ink has been spilled on the issue of why Stanton didn't either pass Baird's telegram on to Johnson or not respond to it. There is a reputable tradition that argues that, as a result, Stanton should be held responsible for the carnage that ensued on July 30. He could have "stopped" it with a few strokes of the pen, this position argues, but he chose not to do so.
A variant of this position makes Stanton look even more diabolical. Citing Stanton's well-known problems with Johnson (Stanton was much more inclined toward the position of the Radical Republicans), some scholars have argued that Stanton deliberately avoided responding to Baird not only so that a riot might be provoked but that the Republicans would triumph, as a result, in the upcoming Fall elections. That is, he was politically astute enough to know that the North would become completely unglued if it looked as if the South was returning to its "old ways." In fact, the Moderate and Radical factions of the Republicans won such significant victories at the polls in Nov. 1866 (only TN, among Southern states, had been re-admitted by then), that they had a "veto-proof" majority in both Houses of Congress, thus allowing them to override Johnson's vetos and allow the most radical legislation of all--in 1867 (beyond the scope of this essay).
My view on this is that this theory is wrong, and that a much simpler explanation of Stanton's unwillingness to "get involved" is more likely. He didn't bring Baird's telegram to Johnson's attention before the riot of July 30 because he knew it would be futile to do so. Johnson was not in any mood to countenance interference by federal troops, especially if the troops were going to be "protecting" a possibly-illegal assembly that may pass resolutions on "Negro suffrage." Stanton was wise enough to know that Johnson simply wouldn't go along with what Baird really wanted--blanket permission to "intervene." Perhaps he also felt that there was enough ambiguity already in Johnson's July 28 response (presuming that Stanton had seen it), that Baird could liberally interpret that response to allow the possibility of intervention for federal troops. After all, Johnson's telegram simply said that the federal troops weren't to intervene in the "proceedings of the courts." It said nothing about intervening to stop riots. If Stanton had called upon Johnson to "clarify," the President almost certainly would have clarified to the disadvantage of Baird. Thus, by leaving the matter "in the air," Stanton may have felt that he was actually aiding Baird or doing the best that he could. He might also have thought that another Memphis was not in the works in New Orleans, and that things were being blown out of proportion. In any case, by leaving matters unanswered, Stanton was actually allowing Baird more latitutde than if he had forwarded the telegram to the President.
I almost feel as if I am like a Gospel writer and, at this point, I should say "and on the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment," because there was no "activity" on Sunday, July 29. But all hell would break loose on July 30. Accounts of that riot are easily accessible; the first "authoritative" one of it was authorized by the United States Congress. One of the great ironies was the Baird and his troops showed up about two-three hours after the riot because he was, apparently, misinformed about the time of the convention. Suffice it to say that the riots of July 30, 1866 will go down, along with late August 2005, as among the most important dates in New Orleans history.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long