Cover image for Redemption : the last battle of the Civil War
Redemption : the last battle of the Civil War
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
Physical Description:
xi, 257 p. ; 24 cm.
Adelbert and Blanche -- Vicksburg troubles -- The Peace Conference -- Revolution -- The Mississippi plan.
Personal Subject:
A century after Appomattox, the civil rights movement won full citizenship for black Americans in the South. It should not have been necessary: by 1870 those rights were set in the Constitution. This is the story of the terrorist campaign that took them away. Nicholas Lemann opens his extraordinary new book with a riveting account of the horrific events of Easter 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana, where a white militia of Confederate veterans-turned-vigilantes attacked the black community there and massacred hundreds of people in a gruesome killing spree. This was the start of an insurgency that changed the course of American history: for the next few years white Southern Democrats waged a campaign of political terrorism aiming to overturn the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and challenge President Grant ssupport for the emergent structures of black political power. The remorseless strategy of well-financed “White Line” organizations was to create chaos and keep blacks from voting out of fear for their lives and livelihoods. Redemption is the first book to describe in uncompromising detail this organized racial violence, which reached its apogee in Mississippi in 1875--Publisher.


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Book 975.00496 LEM 1 1

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Easter Sunday 1873, Colfax, Louisiana: A white militia of Confederate veterans-turned-vigilantes ousts the elected town government and, in a gruesome killing spree, attacks the black community there, massacring dozens of people. This horrifying episode began an insurgency that changed the course of American history. White Southern Democrats were emboldened to further action, and for several years they waged a campaign of political terrorism aiming to overturn the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and challenge President Grant's support for the emergent structures of black political power. Redemption-which is based on a wealth of military records, congressional investigations, memoirs, press reports, and the invaluable personal and public papers of Adelbert Ames, the young war hero from Maine who was Mississippi's governor at the time-is the first book to describe in uncompromising detail this organized racial violence, which reached its apogee in Mississippi in 1875. We are still living with the consequences. Book jacket.

Author Notes

Nicholas Lemann, a native of New Orleans, developed an interest in journalism during his teenage years. This eagerness to write was coupled with a keen interest in United States history and literature. He pooled his curiosities, earning a degree in American literature and history from Harvard University in 1976.

Journalism became Lemann's main occupation, as he built his writing career through working for the Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and the Washington Post. In 1983, he joined the Atlantic Monthly staff. His love for American history peaked with the publication of his commentary on the African-American migration to Chicago in search of jobs and a better life.

Lemann's book, The Promised Land, captured the 1991 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in journalism. His articles span many interests, from book reviews and political topics to travel stories about the Catskill Mountains and other natural wonders. He contributes many articles, not only to the Atlantic Monthly but to several other magazines as well.

Nicholas Lemann, his wife Dominique Browning, and their two sons live in New York City.

(Bowker Author Biography) Nicholas Lemann was born in New Orleans in 1954. He has been a journalist for more than twenty years. His last book was the prizewinning The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. He lives in Pelham, New York.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Historians agree that Reconstruction was a conflict in which the good guys lost. Lemann (The Promised Land) hammers the point home with a grim account of post-Civil War Mississippi. His central figure is Adelbert Ames, a Union general and war hero who fought to preserve the Union, despised abolitionists and considered African-Americans an inferior race. Appointed provisional governor of postwar Mississippi, he was horrified at the violence that whites, a minority, used against blacks trying to vote. As military commander, he provided enough security to ensure a Republican victory in 1869 state elections (blacks voted Republican until the 1930s), became an advocate of civil rights and was elected senator in 1870 and governor in 1873. He worked hard to protect the freedmen but failed, and Lemann's description of the terror campaign against Mississippi blacks makes depressing reading. The book's title refers to the popular version of Reconstruction in which valiant Southern whites "redeemed" their states from corrupt carpetbaggers and ignorant freedmen. Agreeing with recent scholars who consider this another Civil War myth, Lemann delivers an engrossing but painful account of a disgraceful episode in American history. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Lemann follows up where W. E. B. DuBois left off in his essay on Reconstruction with the famous line that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." Author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America 0 (1991), Lemann examines the aftermath of the Civil War and the struggle to incorporate former slaves into politics and society in\b \b0 Mississippi. Drawing on military records, memoirs, press reports, and congressional investigations, Lemann details the political machinations of whites, through vigilantism and chicanery, to deprive the freedmen of their rights as citizens under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. He focuses on the life of Adelbert Ames, the war hero who was named Mississippi's governor and found himself pleading with President Grant to send federal troops to uphold the law. When Grant wavered, white supremacists retook the state, "redeeming" it from Reconstruction efforts and setting the groundwork for generations of white control and racial violence with consequences that reverberate in present race relations. --Vanessa Bush Copyright 2006 Booklist

Kirkus Review

The Civil War ended not with Lee's surrender in 1865, but ten years later, with the triumph of white supremacy throughout the unrepentant South. After an opening chapter on anti-black violence in Colfax, La., in 1871, Lemann (The Big Test, 1999) turns to Adelbert Ames (1835-1933), a West Point graduate who fought in 16 Civil War battles and who rose to the rank of brigadier general, won a Medal of Honor, then commanded federal troops overseeing Reconstruction in the South. Under his supervision, Mississippi enacted a constitution granting former slaves the vote, and elected a largely Republican legislature that, in 1870, sent Ames to the U.S. Senate. In Washington, he met and married Blanche Butler, daughter of a union general widely viewed as a possible successor to U.S. Grant as president. But with Ames's 1873 election as governor of Mississippi, the tide began to turn. Eager to recapture power, white Mississippians began a campaign of ruthless intimidation. Republican rallies were broken up by Democratic gunmen who blamed the violence on blacks. In Vicksburg, armed whites ousted the Republican sheriff and murdered anyone who dared resist their rule. Ames asked for federal troops to restore order. But the president, more concerned with courting Northern businessmen, vacillated. Finally, the opposing parties agreed to end the violence--too late to save the Republicans. The 1876 election saw Mississippi blacks staying away from the polls in droves; those who attempted to vote were driven away at gunpoint. In the end, Ames resigned his governorship to avoid impeachment, and Reconstruction came to an end. Southern blacks would not receive full citizenship for nearly another century. A sobering account of the true end of Reconstruction, long suppressed in favor of the self-serving fairy tale peddled by the victors. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Focusing on the 1873-75 race war that ex-Confederate vigilante White Leaguers waged in Louisiana and Mississippi, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lemann (dean, Sch. of Journalism, Columbia Univ.; The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America) illustrates the Civil War's meaning as a black-and-white lived experience in the postwar South. Collapsing history into crystalline moments filled not simply with facts but with historic truths, Lemann details the white supremacists' solution to the obvious postwar problem of establishing a place for ex-slaves. With unrestrained antiblack, political violence, Lemann explains, Southern whites rejected the postwar U.S. theory of freedom and sought to "redeem" their vision of America as a land of white supremacy. Using public and private papers, especially those of war hero and carpetbag Mississippi governor Adelbert Ames and his wife, Blanche Butler, Lemann personalizes the gruesome racial politics from which U.S. apartheid and its legacies emerged with the nation's acquiescence. Historians and general readers will find his work scandalously engrossing. Highly recommended for collections on Southern history, U.S. race relations, and the Civil War era.-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Prologue Colfax, Louisiana Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873 The Negroes had been in control of the village for three weeks now, and it was plain that something terrible was going to happen. Their leaders had left for New Orleans on Wednesday to try to get help--meaning, they hoped, a detachment of police or, even better, federal troops, who would come to protect the people in the village. The white militia was encamped out in the countryside a few miles away, and every day it was being reinforced with volunteers, mostly Confederate veterans who had heard the whites' call for help, who had taken their shotguns and six-shooters and muskets and Springfield rifles from the Civil War down from the wall and saddled up their horses, and who had come to Colfax to fight for white supremacy. The Negroes, some of them at least, had guns, too, Enfield rifles shipped up from New Orleans in boxes and an assortment of lesser firearms, but by now there were many more people than guns to go around--hundreds of people, including women and children, who had come to Colfax because they feared the whites' bursting in on their homes and killing them. The Negro headquarters was the county courthouse, a two-story converted stable from a sugarcane plantation. At a short distance from it they had dug rudimentary breastworks, manned by sentries, to stave off the inevitable attack. All around, the Negroes from the countryside were camped out. Deeply lodged in the consciousness of the South was the ever-present possibility of a race war in which, in each side's version, it would be mercilessly slaughtered by the other. If the anticipated deaths themselves were not horrible enough, unspeakable atrocities would make them more so. Now the inevitable was about to happen, and the cause was something that registered, in that time and place, as being literally a matter of life and death: politics. The Civil War was not yet ten years in the past. The Deep South was still in a raw condition not far removed from war. The two political parties and the two races were still violently opposed to each other. The great national questions the war had raised had by no means been settled. They were going to be settled now, with profound and lasting consequences for the whole United States, in places like rural Louisiana, by hard men with intensely local concerns, through the means of an armed struggle that, for all the potency of the load of racial fantasy it carried, was really about who could vote and hold government office. Colfax, Louisiana, was not really a town--it was more a settlement, containing just five or six structures, and new even to that status. It was not insignificant, though. It sat in the exact center of the state on the banks of the Red River, a sugarcane or cotton planter's dream waterway because it was navigable in the countryside of central Louisiana, where roads were poor and railroads nonexistent, and because its floods had deposited a thick, rich layer of alluvial soil along its banks. The land around Colfax was lushly green and flat, and there was money in it. Local legend had it that Simon Legree, the plantation overseer in Uncle Tom's Cabin who, in the public mind, symbolized the cruelty of American slavery, was based on a man named Robert McAlpin, who ran a plantation near Colfax called Hidden Hill, which Harriet Beecher Stowe had visited while preparing her book. The area around Colfax was lightly settled, with nearly impenetrable swamps and uncleared woods and labyrinthine bayous; within easy memory, it had been wild country where desperate, lawless people could live free from social control, and even now it was common to hear about sightings of wild animals and to see families of settlers in covered wagons passing by on their way to Texas. Politically, Colfax was part of an experiment, a new Louisiana that would resemble the abolitionists' prewar dream of how the South should be after its defeat in the Civil War. In 1868 a racially integrated (black-and-tan) Republican state legislature had created a new parish along the north bank of the Red River, drawing its boundaries so as to ensure that its local government would be Republican thanks to a Negro population majority. The parish was named Grant after the Republican president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, and its seat was named Colfax after the Republican vice president, Schuyler Colfax. To most local whites, these were unpleasantly resonant names: only a decade earlier, federal troops under General Grant's ultimate command--he was not far away, in Mississippi--had, as one white man from Colfax later remembered it, "ravaged" the Red River country using techniques taught them by the same "experts in extermination" that Grant's leading subordinate, General William Tecumseh Sherman, later used in his notoriously destructive march through Georgia. "If it were in my power, I would, as soon as possible, change the name of Grant Parish to Lee and the site of her dispensatory of justice to Davis," another white resident asserted, referring to the Confederacy's commanding general and its president. On Easter Sunday 1873, Louisiana was in a state of low-grade warfare. In 1872, while President Grant was being reelected in a landslide, Louisiana had had a close and corrupt election. Both sides claimed victory, and now the state had two governors and two state legislatures, one Democratic and one Republican. A month after Election Day, federal troops dispatched by President Grant arrived in New Orleans, took control of the statehouse, expelled the Democratic government, and installed the Republicans. Grant Parish, appropriately enough given the condition of the state, had two political leaders, one from each party, each claiming control over the local police function--the Republican a black Union veteran, born a slave, named William Ward, the Democrat a white Confederate veteran named Christopher Columbus Nash. "In his face he bears the indications of all the worst qualities of his race and none of the better," a white organization later wrote about Ward; and, to judge by the one surviving photograph of Nash, he was a pretty rough character, too, with a full untrimmed black beard and close-set piercing eyes. Both men had had long, harsh experiences during the Civil War--extensive combat, injury, and imprisonment. They had come, separately of course, to the raw Red River country after the war because they saw opportunity there--specifically political opportunity. One evening in 1871 Columbus Nash, then deputy sheriff of Grant Parish, led a mob of fifty armed white men to a house outside Colfax where two black Republican officeholders were living. The white men set the house on fire and shot the Negroes when they emerged; one of them survived by playing dead until the whites had left and then escaping. Legally, this incident fell under the category of law enforcement rather than crime, and Nash continued to serve as sheriff. William Ward was said to have killed a white man, or maybe two, that same year, though unlike the incident involving Nash, it was more a popular legend than a proven fact. In the version of the story most often told by the white people in Colfax, Ward had taken his victim out on the river in a skiff, hacked him to pieces with a hatchet, and dumped his remains overboard. When the Republicans got the upper hand in New Orleans at the outset of 1873, thanks to the help of the U.S. Army, both Nash and Ward made it known that they wanted to be put in political authority in Grant Parish. The Republican governor, William Pitt Kellogg, vacillated, which was the worst thing he could do for the cause of stability in Grant Parish, and then appointed Ward's Republican forces. A meeting was held at the governor's office in New Orleans in March, with Ward, one of his lieutenants, and two Democrats allied with Columbus Nash. In the presence of the governor, the two sides started arguing, and one of the Democrats warned that if Nash was not made sheriff, there would be bloodshed. Ward returned to Colfax, called together his Republican political allies, and, unable to effect a peaceful transition of power because the Democrats wouldn't permit it, broke into the courthouse at night and took over the machinery of parish government, such as it was. To the whites that was intolerable. They could not accept Negro rule in Colfax, with the freed-slave, plantation-hand majority having legal authority over their former masters. In fact, from the whites' perspective, the situation hadn't been tolerable for quite some time--probably since antislavery sentiment had become an important force in national politics, years before the Civil War began. Just after the war, white Louisianans had been able to establish firm political control over the state; then, from 1868 to 1872, Louisiana had been ruled by a biracial, moderate, and corrupt Republican regime, and so had Grant Parish. Whether that kind of government could have lasted is impossible to say, because it didn't last, but even before a blacker, more radical version of the Republican Party took power, whites in Grant Parish felt they were living in an upside-down nightmare world. In a deep-rural, almost frontier culture, where most communication was by word of mouth, where they were greatly outnumbered, and where racial issues carried the heaviest possible economic, political, and psychological load, rumor and myth were rife, and they mattered just about as much as reality--mattered enough, anyway, to determine what people thought and did. A woman named Kate K. Grant, whose family owned a plantation just across the Red River from Colfax, wrote a never-published novel called "From Blue to Gray; or, The Battle of Colfax." The subtitle is "A Woman's Tribute of Admiration to the Heroes of Grant and Her Sister Parishes Who Fought So Valiantly Side by Side with Sheriff C. C. Nash." Nash himself, along with a few dozen of his comrades in arms, signed an accompanying endorsement of the work, evidently meant to be sent to publishers, that said, "In our opinion she has written a book which in point of literary finish and breadth of research would do justice to the most accomplished and famed litterateur of the land." That attests not to the merit of the novel, which is at best a routine Victorian potboiler, but to its standing as a true representation of the whites' preferred version of events in Grant Parish. Negroes, in the view of "From Blue to Gray," are a simple people who thrive under conditions of forced labor, and who under other conditions deteriorate into idleness or, worse, violent rage at whites. Political activity--never the Negroes' own idea or preference, but instead something planted in their malleable minds by scheming, self-interested whites--is the prime force pushing them away from work and into mischief. In the first years after emancipation in 1863 and the ratification in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave Negroes the right to vote, this was not a terrible problem in Grant Parish, according to Kate Grant: "When the political fever has spent its force, when the simple Negro has been saturated with the pomp and excitement of mass meetings, barbecues, and the rest of the ridiculous hullaballoo, he will go back to his calm and he will work better if possible than before because of having learned the true nature of the men who pick him up and drop him at will. Old habits of industry will reassert themselves." But then Republicanism took a more ominous turn: "[S]trange white men appeared in the Quarters upon whose countenances the brand of Villainy was stamped. These tools of Radicalism sought the companionship of the black: ate with them; drank with them; lived with them on terms of perfect equality, embraced them also in the fulness of their new born affection. In a word they completely wormed themselves into the confidence of their unsuspecting dupes--the rascals gloried in their deception." After the 1872 election, when these Radicals took over the local Republican Party, "the negroes quit work; formed right societies to protest against the violence done their color on the other side, and with sullen looks and mutterings, showed the poison had done its work." Just as political activity led inevitably to lassitude, so lassitude led inevitably to crime. In white accounts, the Negroes, beginning with the election, rampaged through Grant Parish, stealing, threatening whites at gunpoint, and despoiling plantations. After they took over the courthouse in late March, such incidents became epidemic, it was said. All of them took place--or not--far outside the realm of a formal law-enforcement system, so it is impossible to determine their veracity; they were supremely important as stories that white people told each other, more than as data. The most widely repeated story was one of nightmare quite literally: A leading white citizen, whose custom it was to nap on a cot after his heavy plantation lunch, one postprandial afternoon during the political ascendancy of the Radical Republicans dreamed that a Negro mob came to his place, burned it to the ground, and killed his family. He woke up, told his wife about the dream--and just at that moment a "good Negro" arrived at the front door and reported that the mob was on its way. The man and his family escaped, just in time, to safety across the river, but in the pillage that followed (in the other side's version, it was merely a break-in by robbers when the family was out), the Negroes came upon a coffin containing the embalmed body of a long-dead daughter of the family. As the incident was breathlessly reported by the "good Negro" in "From Blue to Gray," "Dey picked dat pore little body outer hits coffin and flung hit out der winder, en sendin' der box after hit." Another horrified white report said, "They laid their destructive hands on the casket and threw it out of the house and left it there to the gaze of a howling mob, and at the mercy of the beasts or dogs that might come that way." This kind of profound symbolic violation of decency, rumors of which have accompanied violent ethnic conflict forever, was a short step from the most fundamental violation, the sexual kind. The whites of Grant Parish, like whites just about everywhere in the South where there was a large and now politically empowered black population, believed that the Negroes were poised to take that short step. The most breathlessly dramatic moment in "From Blue to Gray"--and that is saying a lot--is this: "Subsequently, a plot was discovered by Adolphe Layssard [a local planter]. He overheard a conversation that took place one night on his plantation and was able fortunately to give warning of the premeditated diabolism. The white men were to be trapped and the women and children thus left without protection were to be captured by the dastardly wretches who proposed (to use their own words) raising a new race of people. That this attempt would have been made, there is not a shadow of doubt. But for Mr. Layssard's warning, God knows if I would have had the courage to write the horrible fate of my sisters in Grant. I shudder even at the thought that such was designed for them. The shock of such fiendish plots unnerved Mr. Layssard--the fear of their fulfillment haunted him. To day he is the inmate of an Insane Asylum, driven there by the foul wretches whose atrocities led to the Battle of Colfax. His mental death, together with the blood of the slain, lies at their door." It is facile, perhaps, but irresistible to note that this unimaginable horror, the "new race of people," already existed copiously in Louisiana, which had a large, well-established mulatto population. Just across the river from Colfax, where Kate Grant lived, was a community of rich mulatto plantation owners. But these mixed-race Louisiana people had been born of black women and white fathers; the nightmare was the reverse, of a new race born of white mothers and black fathers. Perceiving how maximally high the stakes had become, far higher than most people would think a dispute over control of the offices of parish government entailed, the whites resolved to do what was required of them. A distance up the Red River from Colfax, in northwestern Louisiana, lived a remarkable former slave and Army veteran named Henry Adams who managed to pull off the almost unimaginably difficult feat of organizing a committee of five hundred Negroes to travel through the former Confederacy and, as he put it a few years later, "look into affairs and see the true condition of our race." During the years immediately following the Civil War, the committee's investigators went to every state in the South and compiled a record, which is deadpan in tone to the point of being stenographic and all the more powerful for that, of violence done to Negroes--a "statement of specific cases of outrage," every one of which went unpunished. For the ten years after the end of the Civil War, just in the upper Red River parishes of Louisiana, Adams's list contains the names of 683 victims. A typical section goes this way: 220th. Sam Maybury, whipped near to death by Lord Hill and Henry Smith, white men. He afterward died from the effects of the beating. This was in Mansfield, in December, 1865. Several other white men helped to beat him. 221st. A young colored man was killed on John McMillen's place by a colored man, in 1873. 222nd. Henry West, badly whipped by Butler Williams, in or near Mansfield, November 2nd, 1874, and since near beat him to death. 223rd. An old man (colored) was killed by Hersel ----, a white man, about cotton, while on their way to Shreveport, in the road, 1866. 224th. George, a colored man, killed on John McMillen's place by white man, 1873. 225th. Nancy Brooks, badly whipped by Davis, a white man, on Hammond Scott's place, in 1873. In 1875 General Philip Sheridan, the great Union cavalryman of the Civil War, was sent to Louisiana by President Grant to try to restore order; he made a careful investigation and reported that since the end of the war 2,141 Negroes had been killed by whites in Louisiana and 2,115 wounded--all these crimes, again, going unpunished. Henry Adams and his committee, concluding that the freed slaves could not safely live among their former masters, formed a "colonization council" and wrote to President Grant asking to be given land where they could settle and live in peace by themselves. The anti-Negro violence was an expression of racial hatred intertwined with, and intensified by, political conflict. Adams later testified before a U.S. Senate committee: "Now, in a great many parts of that country there our people most as well be slaves as to be free; because, in the first place, I will state this: that in some times, in times of politics, if they have any idea that the Republicans will carry a parish or ward, or something of that kind, why, they would do anything on God's earth. There aint nothing too mean for them to do to prevent it; nothing I can make mention of is too mean for them to do. If I am working on his place, and he has been laughing and talking with me, and I do everything he tells me to, yet in time of election he will crush me down, and even kill me, or do anything to me to carry his point. If he can't carry his point without killing me, he will kill me; but if he can carry his point without killing me, he will do that." Excerpted from Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann. Copyright (c) 2006 by Nicholas Lemann. Published in September 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

A Note to the Readerp. ix
Prologuep. 3
1 Adelbert and Blanchep. 31
2 Vicksburg Troublesp. 63
3 The Peace Conferencep. 100
4 Revolutionp. 135
5 The Mississippi Planp. 170
Notesp. 211
A Note on Sourcesp. 237
Acknowledgmentsp. 243
Indexp. 245