The Day Freedom Died

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Journalist Charles Lane’s book The Day Freedom Died focuses on the Colfax Massacre of 1873 and its consequences, providing an insightful window into Louisiana society during the turbulent age of Reconstruction. In telling the story, Lane begins with a perceptive analysis of the political and social conditions in the South following the Civil War. He presents a gripping description of the gruesome attack on the Colfax courthouse, resulting in the deaths of between sixty-two and eighty-one African Americans (or Freedmen)the single most deadly race-based episode during the period. He then examines the two federal trials in which three of the participants were found guilty of civil rights violations. Finally, he describes and analyzes the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Cruikshank v. United States (1876), which overturned the convictions and made it much more difficult for the federal government to protect the rights of the Southern Freedmen.

The Colfax Massacre occurred when Louisiana’s Reconstruction regime was still upheld by federal troops and supported by a coalition of Freedmen, carpetbaggers (Northerners in the South), and scalawags (local white Republicans). Lane emphasizes that the majority of white Southerners believed that continuing military occupation was unjust, and they were bitterly indignant at Republican policies aimed at imposing a degree of racial equality. Angry whites called for the establishment of so-called redeemer governments, which included two main goals: first, restoration of the local Democratic Party to power, and, second, establishment of public policies based on white supremacy. In the wake of the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist groups conducted a reign of terror and intimidation in numerous areas of the South. Lane points out, for instance, that Louisiana was the scene of more than a thousand political murders between April and November of 1868. Although the two Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 weakened the Ku Klux Klan to some extent, white racists continued to use violence to promote the cause of “redemption.”

White supremacists were extremely active in Louisiana’s Red River valley, including the small parish of Grant, which the Republican state government had organized in honor of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. The parish had a population of about 2,400 African Americans and 2,200 whites. Its capital was Colfax (named after Grant’s vice president, Schuyler Colfax), a hamlet located in the middle of a large estate owned by William Calhoun, a liberal defender of Freedmen’s rights and the Republican Party. Since the Civil War’s end, a considerable amount of violence, usually related to race, had occurred in the parish. When elections were held, almost all Freedmen voted for Republicans, while most whites supported the Democratic Party. In 1872 the Democrats joined with dissident Republicans to form an electoral coalition of so-called Fusionists. In the bitterly contested election of that year, registered voters in the parish consisted of 776 African Americans and 630 whites. After the votes were counted, the Fusionists claimed victory, which, according to Lane, was “almost certainly” based on the fabrication of returns and the intimidation of black voters. On January 18, 1873, Republican Governor William Kellogg accused the Fusionists of fraud and named the entire Republican slate as victors.

The Fusionists in Grant Parish, however, refused to accept the governor’s edict, and they continued to occupy the Colfax courthouse. In reaction, two white Republican leaders, Robert Register and Daniel Shaw, surreptitiously entered the courthouse during the night of March 25. The next day, the new Republican officials took control of the building. To maintain control, about three hundred men, women, and children, mostly Freedmen, stayed in and around the courthouse. Among whites in the parish, rumors spread that revolutionary blacks were preparing to exterminate all the white people.

The Fusionists were determined to retake the building, using whatever force might be necessary. Christopher Columbus Nash, a veteran Confederate officer who had been the Fusionist candidate for sheriff, was the group’s leader. Calling for help from white supremacists in neighboring parishes, Nash soon had a force of about 165 militiamen, of whom about half were former Confederate soldiers. All of the men were armed with good-quality firearms. They also possessed a small but usable cannon from the war. In contrast, only about half of the Freedmen had firearms, mostly old shotguns and hunting weapons of poor quality. Expecting that an invasion was imminent, the Freedmen dug a shallow,...

(The entire section is 1918 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 11 (February 1, 2008): 18.

Hill 15, no. 43 (April 18, 2008): 20.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 24 (December 15, 2007): 1280.

Library Journal 133, no. 5 (March 15, 2008): 79-80.

The New York Times Book Review, May 18, 2008, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 1 (January 17, 2008): 49.