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1872 Election

This is the year for statewide elections in Louisiana, and so far, this promises to be a somewhat less exciting one of those contests. In contrast, the election at the center of today’s Echo is probably the most tumultuous of all the turbulent gubernatorial elections in the history of our state. Today we will look at the Governor’s election of 1872 and particularly at two events in Minden during that campaign. 

In the election of 1868 Louisiana government was greatly transformed. This was the first election after Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and after passage of the new Louisiana Constitution, which included all the provisions of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution. In the governor’s race held in late Spring, most former Confederates were still unable to vote and the newly enfranchised freed slaves and newly imported northerners who had formed the Republican Party in Louisiana triumphed. Carpetbagger Henry Clay Warmoth was elected Governor of Louisiana with Oscar J. Dunn becoming Lieutenant Governor and the first black elected statewide official in Louisiana history.

Once the new administration took office, a major upheaval began. The former Confederates were stunned by loss of power and fought back, both at the ballot box and through organizations such as the Knights of the White Camellia. Louisiana, as the rest of the old Confederacy, turned in to a battleground. A condition that continued until the dubious bargain struck after the Presidential election of 1876 that ended Reconstruction in March 1877.

As politics heated up and the Democratic Party again became active, a split occurred in the Republican Party. Officials such as Dunn realized that Warmoth was little different than the Democrats and was merely using the newly freed slaves to gain power. Backed by a group called the Custom House Ring he made it clear Warmoth’s faction in the Louisiana GOP would be challenged in 1872. Perhaps he would have made a run himself, but unfortunately, Dunn died before he could run. Warmoth, left without a political base surprisingly turned to the Democrats and announced he would back a Fusion ticket of Warmoth Republicans and Democrats. This action led to his eventual impeachment and suspension from office in December 1872, 35 days before the end of his term. At that point P. B. S. Pinchback, former President of the Louisiana Senate, who had become Lieutenant Governor upon Dunn’s death, assumed the office of Governor for those 35 days, thus becoming the only black governor in Louisiana history.

That set the stage for the Louisiana Governor’s Election of 1872. The Custom House Ring faction of the Republican Party backed another carpetbagger, William Pitt Kellogg (as I tell my Louisiana history students, for some odd reason there are only two governors of Louisiana that seem to always be referenced by three names – and those are our two carpetbagger governors, Warmoth and Kellogg). Warmoth and his supporters backed the Democratic candidate, John McEnery. The campaign was a circus and the aftermath was even more confusing. Both sides claimed victory, and both candidates and their slates went to New Orleans to take office. From January 1873 until September 1873, both men claimed they were the legitimate governor and two legislatures functioned. This ended when President U. S. Grant sent in troops to force McEnery to give up his claim. Even after McEnery left, most of the Louisiana parishes where the Democrats had control simply ignored the Kellogg government. So, as you can see, this period of Louisiana history was conflicted, confusing and some might say calamitous.

Before the recent past, we had no local Minden newspapers that covered those years that had been preserved, so we haven’t known much about what took place in Minden during those years. However, with the somewhat recent advent of online digitized files of historic newspapers I have come across two different incidents from that 1872 campaign that occurred in Minden that I believe are worth mentioning. These events were reported in the local Minden newspapers of the time and the stories were repented in New Orleans newspapers.

The first was an attempted assassination of a well-known, much disliked figure from the Minden area. Jasper Blackburn had come to our area in the 1840s from Arkansas as a newspaper publisher. He founded the original Minden Herald and became Mayor of Minden for a single term. However, his strongly pro-Union politics made him unwelcome in Minden and he relocated to Homer. There his reception was little different than it had been in Minden. He became the most prominent scalawag in Northwest Louisiana, eventually serving as a Republican in the United States House of Representatives from the district that included Minden. He was no stranger to political violence as shortly after the end of the Civil War, his newspaper office in Homer had been destroyed. In the campaign of 1872, he was a strong supporter of the Kellogg ticket. Clearly, Blackburn (as usual) was holding a political position contrary to those of most of his neighbors. He in fact was an unsuccessful candidate for State Senate in that very campaign. (Blackburn won election to neither of the two legislatures that eventually claimed office.)

The Weekly Louisianian of September 28, 1872 included the following note: “The most recent information of the condition of Hon. W. Jasper Blackburn, who was shot some days ago after speaking with the Kellogg party at Minden, La., is that he is not yet out of danger. We hope our able contemporary will even survive this last attack on his life, because he dared to utter the honest sentiments of his heart.”

A little more detail was provided in the New Orleans Republican, an organ of the Republican Party. It seems Blackburn was shot in the neck after the conclusion of the rally. The assailant was one Thomas Boone. The circumstances of the crime seem unclear, as is what sort of punishment Boone received, if any. The later account indicated that Boone and Blackburn were friends and had been seen sharing a drink earlier in the day. It is also key to mention that Boone was reportedly intoxicated when he fired the shot. Blackburn survived, and won election as a Louisiana State Senator in new elections called in 1874 and served until 1878. After leaving office he moved back to Arkansas where he lived out his life as a newspaper editor as the end of Reconstruction and the reaction ended his political career with the Redeemer Democrats fully in charge. He died in Little Rock in 1899, age 79.

The other story is not quite so dramatic, but details a rally for the McEnery ticket, referred to as the Fusion ticket because of Warmoth’s backing of McEnery, held in Minden on Tuesday, October 8, 1872. John McEnery was ill and unable to appear, but in his stead, Governor Warmoth headed the program. I’ll include two different accounts of that event. The first report was published by a reporter from the New Orleans Times who was covering the McEnery-Warmoth tour in the October 9 edition of the Times. He reported:

“A large and enthusiastic mass meeting was held at Minden yesterday. The Fusion candidates and speakers were met two miles from town by 600 mounted men – whites and blacks – and escorted them to the place; they were preceded by a band of music in a chariot drawn by six horses. Three thousand persons attended the meeting, one third of whom were colored. Salutes were fired in honor of the canvassers at Benton, Belleview and Minden. Ladies in large numbers attended the meetings in each place. At Minden Judge J. D. Watkins presided.”

Later, the Times of October 19, reprinted this account from the Minden Democrat of October 12:

“Last Tuesday will long be remembered by the people of Minden and Webster Parish, and classed as a notable event in their history. Early in the morning the crowd began to gather, and before ten o’clock there were more than a thousand people on the streets, but soon the men began to disappear in the direction of the bridge on Dorcheat, where they were according to program, to form a procession and escort Governor Warmoth and Gen. Sheridan to town, the other speakers having arrived the evening previous. When the Governor drove up, he was saluted by cheers from the crowd and music by the Minden Silver Band. The procession numbering five hundred men on horseback, then formed in line, (which came on naturally to most of the men – they had been rebel soldiers) and headed by the band escorted the distinguished gentlemen to Minden, where the multitude were anxiously awaiting their arrival. Cheer after cheer went up as they passed up the street to the hotel, where the Governor and Gen. Sheridan got out to refresh and prepare for the speaking which would commence soon.

“In the centre of the parallelogram a stand was erected for the speakers to address the audience from, benches were prepared for the ladies and quite a large number were present. The Hon. J. D. Watkins was chosen President of the meeting and introduced the speakers, the first being the Hon. H. N. Ogden, candidate for Attorney General, who entertained the audience for about an hour and a half in an eloquent and forcible speech. His remarks to the men present were calculated to make telling impressions. He closed with an eloquent appeal to the ladies to use their influence to bring every voter to the polls, and thereby aid in the redemption of the state. He was frequently and loudly cheered throughout the speech. Mr. Ogden was followed by Colonel D. B. Penn, candidate for Lieutenant Governor, whose speech was well received by his hearers. Colonel Penn, thought not a fluent and eloquent speaker, is a man of the executive abilities, and will make and excellent officer.

“His excellency, H. C. Warmoth, Governor of Louisiana was next introduced by Judge Watkins, who said that he, Gov. Warmoth, had never been defeated for any office that he had run for, in any suits in which the interest of the State were at stake, not in a railroad rate race to save Louisiana from the clutches of the Customhouse party. The Governor was greeted with a cheer, when he made his appearance. WE will not attempt to repeat any part of his speech, suffice it to say the he was repeatedly cheered. His words carried conviction with them to the minds of all within his hearing, both white and blacks. He closed amid cheers and hurrahs for Warmoth.

“The great speech of the day was that of Gen. George A. Sheridan, candidate for Congress, State at Large. We are not fitted with language sufficiently expressive to convey anything like a correct idea of his eloquence, we listened to the beautiful flights of his imagination, his metaphors, his wit and humor as they fell in clarion notes from his lips, and could only wonder and ask ourselves whether or not the far famed S. S. Prentiss excelled him. (Note – Prentiss was a well-known orator and politician from Vicksburg, Mississippi) His audience were completely charmed and when he closed amid rousing cheers and hurrahs, they appeared loth to leave. We heard one old gentleman say that he would have stayed all night had Sheridan kept on talking and we guess there were a good many more who felt the same way. The meeting was a success in every particular.”

While it was probably not the first such occasion, this is the first written account I have ever seen of an integrated public audience of free people in Minden.  There were a very few free blacks in Minden before the abolition of slavery, but the last one listed in the Census had left Minden in 1860. I also found it interesting that the speakers made a point of addressing the ladies in the audience, even though it would be nearly a half-century before women would gain the right to vote. Finally, it does seem that politics do “make strange bedfellows.” If you noticed the rather muted praise for Gov. Warmoth’s remarks, remember that little more than a year before this event, before the split in the Republican Party, Warmoth was considered the personification of evil by most of his listeners that day, and might well have suffered the fate of Jasper Blackburn, a bullet rather than a cheer from the crowd.

So, there’s a small glimpse at Minden’s part in one of the most controversial and heated elections in Louisiana history. I do have a piece of advice to all the candidates in this year’s races. Even if, like Gen. Sheridan, your beautiful flights of imagination, metaphors, wit and humor fall in clarion notes from your lips, I would not advise you making a speech of an hour and a half, like Mr. Ogden. I don’t think you’ll make a good impression or achieve the desired result with your listeners.

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald