Home Life-Free Pratt: Soldier, publisher, editor, legislator, legend

Pratt: Soldier, publisher, editor, legislator, legend

Editor’s Note: Today’s Echo of Our Past Will be Continued in Tomorrow’s Edition of the Minden Press-Herald.

Today’s Echo of Our Past will take a look at the brief meteoric career of Clarence Byron Pratt, soldier, publisher, editor and legislator of Minden. Clarence Pratt was born on October 25, 1842, at the now vanished community of Overton, south of Minden, then the parish seat of Claiborne Parish. Pratt was the son of two transplanted “Yankees” – Luther Easton Pratt and Dorliska Rathbun Pratt. Luther Pratt had been born in Hebron, New Hampshire on December 13, 1815. His family later moved to Vermont before they settled in Massachusetts where Luther received a quality fundamental education. He felt the urge to move west, so in 1835, he came south and settled in the village of Overton, along Bayou Dorcheat.  While clerking in a store there, he met a school teacher, Dorliska Rathbun, a native of Camden, New York who had come south in 1835 with her mother, Philomena Alden Rathbun, a widow with nine children. Philomena made the move because three of her brothers were living in the area around Overton and the newly founded community of Minden. Luther and Dorliska would have eight children, including Clarence, the subject of this article, Daniel Webster, who would serve two terms as Webster Parish Sheriff and Alice who married merchant William Alexander Sugg. 

After Yellow Fever devastated and eventually destroyed Overton, Pratt, by now a store owner moved his business to Minden and then, after it became the parish seat, to Homer. By 1855, Luther had moved his family back to Minden, where they were living when he died on May 5, 1856. Leaving Dorliska with the eight children, the oldest, Edward was eighteen when his father died. Despite their northern roots, the Pratt children were strong supporters of the Confederacy. When war broke out in 1861, both Edward, by then 23 and his 19-year old brother, Clarence, enlisted in the Minden Blues, which became Company G of the 8th Louisiana Infantry of the Confederate Army, under the command of John Langdon Lewis (remember that name for later in this article). Edward died, likely of the measles, while in camp with the Blues after the First Battle of Bull Run in September 1861. Clarence was wounded at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Furloughed home, he then enlisted in the 1st Louisiana Cavalry. While fighting with this unit he was captured in the battles along the Rappahannock River on November 11, 1863. Pratt was sent to the Camp Morton, Indiana, where he remained a Federal prisoner until his parole on October 10, 1865. Pratt was held for so long after the end of the war because he refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. Once he took that oath he was released.

Clarence Pratt returned to Minden as a young man of 23, ready to resume his work as a printer he had begun before the war. He also had developed a taste for politics and set out on a career in the public sector. Pratt and an associate established a local newspaper called the Public Sentiment, intended to express the opinions and ideas of the Confederate veterans, and fight the forces of Reconstruction. In the watershed year of 1868, which saw a new Louisiana Constitution including the rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, and the election of a Carpetbagger government, Clarence Pratt somehow was elected to the Louisiana Legislature from Minden and Claiborne Parish, at the age of 26 as a diehard supporter of the “Lost Cause.”

Pratt hit the Louisiana Legislature with a splash, quickly becoming a favorite of pro-Confederate newspapers and never “keeping his place.” In fact, reading the newspaper accounts of those sessions, his actions remind me very much of the current impact of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, boldly stepping forward with aggressive ideas and proposals, that were not favored by the majority of legislators. It seemed that in almost every session, Pratt was the first member of the legislature to speak during the meeting. During the session of July 4, Pratt opened the debate by suggesting it was unpatriotic to be meeting on the nation’s birthday, that the legislature should honor that day by adjourning. His motion was immediately “shot down” by a Republican legislator who suggested that: “it was refreshing to see the devotion to liberty which characterized the motives of the gentleman from Claiborne Parish, but his only regret was that the gentleman had not shown that devotion in the hour of danger which the loyal people had evinced”, a barbed commentary on Pratt’s service in the Confederate Army fighting against the United States. The motion was summarily dismissed, and the session continued. Still, Pratt was a tireless fighter for the cause of the former Confederates, a losing proposition in a legislature dominated by the newly formed Republican Party.  Despite his apparent distaste for the “other side,” certain actions Pratt took were surprising and seemed to indicate an innate sense of fairness. For example, in July, vandals destroyed the printing press and the newspaper office of the Homer Iliad, operated by former Mindenite and newly elected “scalawag” Republican Congressman Jasper Blackburn. To enable his bitter political enemy to continue publishing, Pratt sold his newspaper, the Public Sentiment, and printing press to Blackburn, to allow him to continue to publish the Iliad (sadly for Blackburn, his newly acquired press would again be destroyed by a mob a few months later.)

No resident of Claiborne Parish seemed to be more at odds with Pratt than his old commander, John Langdon Lewis. Lewis was born in Georgia in 1807, he had studied law and been admitted to the bar. After his marriage to Martha Smith, he became very active politically in Muscogee County and particularly the city of Columbus, Georgia. Lewis served as an Alderman and as Mayor of Columbus as a very young man, and by 1841, had become Solicitor General of Muscogee County, an office that corresponds to the District Attorney in our area. In 1842, during a very high-profile bank robbery case, Lewis was alleged to have received a portion of the money taken in the robbery in exchange for taking part in a scheme to allow the accused robbers to escape. Rather than stay and face charges, John L. Lewis moved west. He fought in the Mexican War and soon after came to Minden, hoping to leave his career in Georgia in the past. Lewis never practiced law here in Minden, and, in what may have been a plan to protect his assets from any outstanding claims, made all property purchases in his wife’s name. During the 1850s, although he didn’t seek office, he became one of the leading figures in the Democratic Party in our area and in the state. He served as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 1856 and 1860 and was an active opponent of secession. He was one of the Claiborne Parish delegates to the Louisiana Secession convention of January 1861. Because of his views on the issues, he was named to the select committee that wrote the Louisiana Declaration of Secession, as it was felt that he would serve as a moderating influence on the language in that document. Once the state approved the secession declaration, Lewis lined up with his state. He was the original commander of the Minden Blues and commanded the unit in the First Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1861. That fall he was a candidate for the Confederate Congress from our district and lost a disputed election to Henry Marshall of DeSoto Parish. Lewis had already gone to Richmond to take his seat in Congress when a recount declared Marshall the winner. Lewis reluctantly gave up the fight for a seat he thought he had won, and rather than return to the Blues, came home to Minden. 

Back in Minden, Lewis served several terms as Mayor of Minden during the war. He entertained the leading Confederate officers, including French General Polignac in his home, and was commissioned a Colonel and placed in charge or recruiting the home guards for all of Northwest Louisiana. Soon after the end of the war, Lewis had a sudden change in political affiliation. He joined the Republican Party and openly worked against his former friends and allies, who were fighting the forces of Reconstruction. With his previous political prominence, he became an important figure as Military Reconstruction came to old Claiborne Parish. In 1868, he was appointed Judge of Claiborne Parish. That stature put he and Pratt as perhaps the leading figures of the two bitter sides in Reconstruction Claiborne Parish.

On July 24, 1868, Pratt rose in the legislature to object to a report from a legislative committee investigating the most recent elections in Louisiana (the one that had placed Pratt in office.) The results in each parish were examined and Pratt took extreme offense to the report on Claiborne Parish, saying the charges levied against the results in the parish were “utterly false and without the least shadow of a foundation in fact.” Particularly galling for him was the idea that the assertions of election irregularities rested almost entirely on a letter sent to the aforementioned Congressman Blackburn, a letter written by Judge John Langdon Lewis. Pratt called the letter a monument to falsehood coming from “the fanatical brain of John L. Lewis, a man who was once held in high estimation by his fellow citizens, both white and black, but who in the hour of their extremity deserted his race, turned traitor to life-long predilections and cherished traditions, proved recreant to his own blood and displayed instincts as vile and unnatural as those of Saturn, whom fable tells me devoured his own children for he has heaped contumely upon his native home.” Pratt did not stop with his verbal attack, he would later produce evidence to the legislature revealing Lewis’ heretofore unknown government service in Georgia. The terms of the Reconstruction Act of 1867 forbade anyone who had held office prior to the Civil War and then fought for the Confederacy from holding office. 

To Be Continued…

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