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“The Surrender Complete”

April 24, 2008, 10:28 pm

So read a New York Times (pdf) headline of April 25, 1877. The article explained that on this day, April 24, 1877, at noon, “United States troops were removed from the State-house of Louisiana.” Thus ended the era of Reconstruction.

And thus began an era of unfettered white supremacy in Louisiana. The Grant administration had stationed federal troops in New Orleans (Baton Rouge would not become the permanent state capital for two more years) to insure that Louisiana’s Republican governor, Stephen Packard, would not be usurped by Francis Nicholls, a Democratic Redeemer, planter aristocrat, and former Confederate general.

Packard and Nicholls had squared off in the previous year’s gubernatorial election. Nicholls had received more votes. But the state’s Returning Board had overturned the outcome, basing its decision on a law that allowed it to invalidate votes in the event of intimidation or fraud. Which, given Louisiana’s recent history, wasn’t a hard case to make. As recently as 1872, two separate governments had claimed power in the state. Republican Governor William Kellogg had only seized control after federal troops had arrived to maintain order. Terrorist organizations, including the White League, had then formed, poised to intimidate freedpeople and suppress Republican votes. In the spring of 1873, for example, more than 100 African-Americans had been killed in the notorious Colfax Massacre, followed by countless other episodes in which black people had been beaten or killed by the de facto military arm of the state’s Democratic Party, including during the run-up to the 1876 election.

Following the Returning Board’s decision to overturn the popular vote, Democrats and Republicans, as they had in 1872, began organizing state governments. Early in the new year, two legislatures, one Democratic and the other Republican, selected, respectively, Nicholls and Packard as the state’s governors. From that point on, as the Compromise of 1877 played out behind closed doors in Washington, federal troops in New Orleans held the White League in check, guaranteeing Governor Packard control of the state house. Until, on this day in 1877, those troops withdrew. The Times reported that the White League “celebrat[ed] the victory by cannon firing and bell ringing.” Packard retired the next day, ceding control to Nicholls. Two years later, Governor Nicholls chaired the state convention that promulgated the Louisiana Constitution of 1879, disfranchising freedmen and some poor whites by embedding literacy and education tests in the law. The Redeemers had carried the day.

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