Mistrust of justice led to lynching for stealing

By Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent

The end of the Civil War did not bring peace to Louisiana. Local and state governments, which had been controlled by white Democrats for decades, were held during Reconstruction mostly by the Radical faction of the Republican Party. To bolster local Republican loyalists, new parishes were created to provide them with positions of authority. The Democrats fought back literally and politically and President Ulysses Grant sent federal troops into Louisiana to quell violence against freedmen, the state government, and these local Republican fiefdoms.

First among the new parishes were Iberia and Richland. Plans for creating a parish like Iberia from St. Martin and St. Mary parishes had dated from the 1840s. Tangipahoa and Grant Parishes followed in 1869. In 1870, the fifth Reconstruction parish, Cameron, was created, followed by the sixth, seventh, and eighth parishes (Red River, Vernon, and Webster) in 1871.

The ninth parish to be formed under Radical Republican rule was Lincoln, named after the late president and formed in 1873. In 1877, Carroll Parish was divided into East and West Carroll parishes, the tenth and eleventh Reconstruction parishes.

Violent encounters revealed the animosity local citizens had against the officials installed in these new parishes. Grant and Red River Parishes suffered some of the worst clashes. The battle over control of the Grant Parish courthouse was one of the bloodiest single instances of racial violence during Reconstruction in the United States. Disputes over the 1872 election results had produced dual governments at all levels in Louisiana. Fearful local Democrats would seize power, former slaves under the command of black Civil War veterans and militia officers took over Colfax, the seat of Grant Parish. A massacre ensued, including the slaughter of about fifty African Americans who had laid down their arms and surrendered.

White League influence spread to northwest Louisiana in the summer of 1873. Its brutal actions targeted white officeholders as well as freedmen. One such episode was directed against the family of Vermont carpetbagger Marshall Harvey Twitchell. Twitchell and his family controlled virtually every public office in newly created Red River Parish. In 1874, the White League executed Twitchell's brother, two brothers-in-law, and three other white Republicans while Twitchell was in New Orleans. Twitchell returned to Coushatta with two companies of federal troops to restore Republican rule in the parish. Democratic leaders continued to control local politics, however. In 1876 they assassinated Twitchell's brother-in-law, and tried to kill Twitchell, who lost both arms in the ambush.

Allen Greene was declared a Jackson Parish state senator after the disputed 1872 election. Greene's first move as senator in collaboration with his son Charles, a state representative, was to secure passage of an act creating a new parish from portions of Bienville, Claiborne, Jackson, and Union to be named after President Abraham Lincoln. For the new parish, Governor William Pitt Kellogg appointed a slate of officers submitted by Greene. These included James B. Ray as sheriff, a Republican originally from Ouachita Parish; Greene's son William as tax collector; son Jackson as tax assessor; and son Charles as parish judge. Other friends and fellow Republicans were appointed to other posts. As a sop to the local opposition, lawman Spencer P. Colvin, a well-known and respected Vienna resident, was appointed clerk of court as the sole Democrat officeholder. The parish seat was established at Vienna.

Lincoln Parish saw its share of friction but without the bloodshed experienced in other north Louisiana parishes. Total control of the parish by the Radicals led to talk of mass revolt but elder citizens counseled restraint and suggested a petition asking Greene, his three sons, and several other officials to resign. An overwhelming majority of Lincoln Parish taxpayers white landowners signed it. While Sheriff Ray was pressured to go back to Ouachita Parish, the others remained in office with the governor and the federal government behind them.

The situation nearly exploded several times. The removal of all parish records and offices from Vienna to Greene's plantation several miles to the northwest incensed the population. Greene and his family were virtual prisoners as it was too dangerous to leave their home. The arrival of federal troops to arrest James G. Huey, whose home was taken in by the new parish meaning he could no longer serve as Jackson Parish Sheriff, S. P. Colvin, and other purported leaders of the opposition came very close to prompting a bloody conflict. Each time it appeared the lid would blow off, someone backed down and a lethal clash never occurred.

Lieutenant Benjamin Hubert Hodgson commanded a company of 7th Cavalry troopers working with U.S. Marshals in north Louisiana. In October 1874, Hodgson and his cavalryman accompanied Deputy U.S. Marshal Edgar Seleye as he arrested suspected members of the notorious White League for various offenses against black citizens and Republican officeholders.

After Seleye arrested Huey in Vienna, 11th District Judge James Trimble issued a writ of habeas corpus for the marshal and troopers to deliver the prisoners to his court and explain their detention. Hodgson spurned Trimble and continued toward Monroe to make more arrests. Along the way, Hodgson and the deputy marshal decided it prudent to cut the telegraph wires so the enraged citizens of Vienna did not alert Monroe of their approach.

The failure to heed the judge's order and the damage to the telegraph wires led the Lincoln Parish sheriff to arrest Hodgson and Seleye and return them to Vienna where they were jailed. Telegrams to their superiors brought a flurry of action. The wrong move could cause all-out war. More cavalry and infantry from Shreveport and New Orleans were ordered to Vienna in the belief the federal men might be in danger while lawyers were dispatched to represent them before the Vienna court. Just as important as protecting the men was the need to avoid treading on local judicial authority and risk an uprising among the citizens.

After some delicate negotiations, fines were paid for contempt of court and damage to property and the lieutenant and marshal were released. Trimble, a Republican himself and later an editor of the Farmerville Gazette, was deemed a hero by local Democrats for standing up to the federal government.

Tensions between Radicals and white supremacists climaxed after the disputed gubernatorial election in 1876. Both Republican Stephen B. Packard and Democrat Francis T. Nicholls claimed victory and established separate governments, just as the 1872 candidates had done. In January 1877, on the morning after Nicholls's inauguration, he sent 3,000 men to take the Cabildo, seat of the Louisiana Supreme Court and headquarters for the Metropolitan Police. Heavily outmanned, federal and Metropolitan forces offered no resistance. The Supreme Court justices gave up their courtroom, and Nicholls appointed a new judiciary.

Political happenings in Washington, however, decided which government would triumph. On the national level the two major parties disagreed over who had won the 1876 Presidential election, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden or Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. A compromise worked out in February 1877 gave disputed votes to Hayes and in exchange Hayes permitted southern Democrats to take over governments in the three remaining militarily occupied states Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

Once the federal government agreed to pull its troops out of Louisiana, the Nicholls\tab administration took over. Packard's Republican supporters maintained a shadow government until the end of April 1877. A mostly Democratic convention wrote a new constitution that voters ratified in 1879, returning Louisiana to "home rule," with Democrats controlling most of the state, parish, and municipal institutions.

In Lincoln Parish, the locals chipped away at Greene's power. When federal troops were withdrawn, the Radicals lost power and nearly every office in the state reverted to the Democrats. The 1876 election saw Allen Greene and his family lose control of the parish to the Democrats who had fought him since the parish's creation. Democrats maintained control of most north Louisiana parishes for over a century.

Wes Harris is a native of Ruston and graduate of Louisiana Tech. Among his books are GREETINGS FROM RUSTON: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Sisemore. Both are available through amazon.com. Harris can be reached at campruston@gmail.com

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