September 1864: A new beginning for States

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Michael Hahn (Louisiana State Museum)
When the war turned in the Union's favor in 1863, Abraham Lincoln began contemplating how best to bring the seceded states back into the Union. Since his armies controlled New Orleans and about one-third of the states' population, he chose Louisiana to serve as his laboratory.

Known as the Ten Percent Plan, Lincoln's reconstruction policy declared that a Southern state could rejoin the Union whenever 10 percent of its 1860 voters took the oath of allegiance and established a loyal government that abolished slavery. Lincoln ordered Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks to implement the Ten Percent Plan in Louisiana, and Banks held a gubernatorial election on February 22, 1864. To ensure the voter turnout met the 10 percent requirement, Banks ordered his soldiers to vote even though they were not citizens of the state. The turnout was sufficient, and Michael Hahn (1830-1886) was elected governor.

Hahn, a German immigrant, had bitterly opposed secession and began working with the Yankees after they captured New Orleans. Elected to Congress in 1862, he became one of Lincoln's close friends, and the president depended on Hahn to learn more about Louisiana politics.

Hahn, however, was little more than a figurehead. The new governor only represented a small minority of the people who lived in that part of Louisiana controlled by the Union army. Hahn had no legislature to enact laws and in reality could do nothing without the army's approval.

The next step for Hahn and Banks was to draw up a new state constitution to fulfill Lincoln's emancipation requirement. On March 28, 1864, Banks held elections for delegates, but the turnout was small. One observer claimed, "There were more Rebel deserters in the city of New Orleans, who had not taken the oath of allegiance, than the entire vote cast."

Banks also registered loyal voters in the areas he briefly occupied during the 1864 Red River Campaign, but his defeat at Mansfield led him to be replaced by Gen. Edward R. S. Canby as the army's commander. Despite the demotion, Lincoln ordered Banks to remain in Louisiana and continue the political work he had started.

By the time Banks returned to New Orleans from his ill-fated campaign, the constitutional convention had already started. Banks was proud of his accomplishment, but one Republican dismissed the proceedings as a "grand Convention of Imbeciles." The ninety delegates raised eyebrows when they voted to pay themselves $10 per diem and spent $120.78 a day ($1, 802.69 today) on liquor, cigars, and other personal items.\par }{\plain Thousands of African Americans were serving in the Union army by that time, and they hoped that the new constitution would extend to them voting rights. The delegates, however, thought otherwise. Using former slaves to defeat the rebellion was one thing, but granting them equality and the vote was something else. One observer wrote, "Prejudice against the colored people is exhibited continually - prejudice bitter and vulgar. . . .[T]he whole policy respecting the colored people is ungenerous and unjust."

Governor Hahn strongly supported black rights and did manage to win some important victories in the convention. The Constitution of 1864 officially abolished slavery in Louisiana (but in reality it only affected those slaves in Union-controlled territory), established free public education for black and white children, and authorized the legislature to extend voting rights to African American men in the future.

On September 5, 1864, Unionist voters went to the polls to vote on the new constitution. President Lincoln, who encouraged ratification, declared it was "excellent" and "better for the poor black than [the constitution] we have in Illinois." When the Constitution of 1864 was ratified by a vote of 4,484 to 789, a giddy Banks boasted that it was "one of the best ever penned. . . .No better constitution has ever been presented to any people on the face of the earth, and there never will be till the end of time."

On that same September day, the Unionist voters also elected two new senators and five congressmen to send to Washington. It appeared Louisiana had satisfied Lincoln's Ten Percent Plan and would become the first Southern state to be reconstructed. Radical Republicans, however, were not convinced those Louisianians who took the oath of allegiance were truly loyal. They did not trust the new state government and were angry with Lincoln because they did not agree with his lenient Reconstruction plan. As a result, the Radicals refused to let the Louisianians take their seats in Congress, and the state remained in limbo for four more years.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.