The Civil War did not end in the Deep South in 1865. The proslavery, pro-Confederate legacies powerfully persisted, shaping the telling of our history and knowledge about people, places, and events: our perception of reality.
This is precisely why many Americans have never heard of one of the most important episodes of mass murder in US history: the racist, bloody Colfax Massacre of April 13, 1873 — exactly one hundred fifty years ago today — when white supremacists slaughtered over one hundred fifty black men in the northwest corner of Louisiana.
Located in the heart of the Red River Valley, Colfax was a highly prosperous area in the global cotton economy prior to the Civil War. But flush times for planters ended abruptly after secession. New Orleans fell to the US Army early, in April 1862. After Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed those enslaved in Confederate-occupied territory in 1863, the US Army conducted a ten-day raid up the Red River to Alexandria, where the Confederate governor of Louisiana, Thomas Moore, owned a large plantation.
During the Civil War, the US Army enlisted nearly two hundred thousand armed black men — an astonishing 10 percent of all troops who served. Composed of formerly enslaved men, refugees, and free blacks, these soldiers were tasked with maintaining order, ensuring peace, and protecting polling places.
But when former enslavers began complaining about the black occupation troops, President Andrew Johnson quickly removed them. By the fall of 1867, the number of soldiers in Louisiana had dwindled to only twenty thousand men. The US government decided to redirect its military might toward western colonization, resulting in the murderous removal of indigenous people.
In the Red River Valley, too few troops meant chaos and contention, as there was no longer a functioning home guard, military patrol, or military commission. The US government had abandoned the region, as well the people in it, leaving political, judicial, and police power up for grabs.
The character of wealth changed, as access to goods and supplies became paramount. Within this shifting landscape, a new group of merchants emerged, competing through violent, insurrectionary means. The Red River Valley transformed into a highway of militarized desperados and warring factions, with no clearly established governmental authority. Murder, gun violence, and terror became the order of the day.
Louisiana’s new constitution, enacted in 1868, created an enclave of Republican power along the Red River, an area that was majority-black and deeply divided. Grant Parish was carved out of Rapides and Winn Parishes and named triumphantly for President Ulysses S. Grant. The parish seat, Colfax, took the surname of his vice president, Schuyler Colfax, Jr.
Yet with so few troops to counterbalance the power of former enslavers and their kin, laws enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments — providing citizenship and the right to vote to all men — were applied timidly and to little effect. Federal election supervisors in rural areas had no police power and were reduced to poll watchers.
That same year, to help keep peace, the Louisiana state legislature established a five-thousand-man militia, half white and half black. The white troops were mainly Confederate veterans; the black troops, Union veterans. During bitter struggles over control of the state government, the militia fragmented along racial lines, with one sector becoming the military arm of a terrorist organization called the White League after 1873. The boundary line between these white supremacists and black Republicans was Bayou Darrow, located seven miles north of Colfax.
Violence quickly enveloped the region. The brutality was primarily carried out by the Knights of the White Camelia, a white supremacist organization akin to the better-known Ku Klux Klan.
During the wave of terror unleashed before the 1868 election, the political assassination rates among both black and white Louisianans had been staggering. As an 1875 congressional report later revealed, there were 1,081 politically motivated murders, 137 shootings, and 507 other verified outrages in the state alone.
Still, as brutal as the 1868 election had been in Louisiana, the 1872 election and its aftermath were even deadlier. Not only was the gubernatorial election disputed, but several of the local elections were, too. Like four years earlier, the real political strife seemed to center in the Red River Valley, with Grant Parish the eye of the storm. In tiny Colfax, the county seat, the local elections were hotly contested. A group of armed black Republicans began occupying the county courthouse, claiming political victory.
Then everything exploded on Easter Sunday, 1873.
The power struggle in Colfax had first turned deadly earlier in April, when a band of white supremacists murdered a black man in his front yard. Union veteran William Ward, who served as a black state representative, local Radical leader, and militia captain, ordered his company to muster immediately.
Historian LeeAnna Keith estimates that about three hundred black militiamen, along with their families, flocked to Colfax’s town center, occupying the courthouse (which, in the war-torn rural South, was a “repurposed” plantation stable). Ward, who had grown up enslaved as a carpenter in Virginia, began drilling the men openly in the town’s streets, organizing watches to keep families safe. Armed with guns, they quickly dug entrenchments, erected breastworks, and “posted sentries” around their commandeered area.
Judge William Phillips, a white “scalawag” from Alabama who earned a reputation by openly fathering a child with a black woman and by rallying black voters through promises of land, horses, and tools as part of reparations for slavery, joined forces with the black guards. Under the joint leadership of the white Phillips and the black Ward, local African Americans coalesced around what historian Joel Sipress has deemed “a new type of militant Black politics.”
White supremacists in the Red River Valley used these events to incite as much racial fear as possible. Over the next few days, three hundred white men poured into Colfax from Grant and surrounding parishes, forming an all-white paramilitary counterforce. Under the leadership of C. C. Nash, a former captain of the Confederate Army, they ordered the black militia and their families to leave Colfax under threat of violence. With more manpower and weaponry than the Republicans (they even had a small cannon, a relic from the war), white Democrats began the battle just after noon on Easter.
After hours of skirmishing, the former Confederates found a gap in the levee on the riverbank and positioned their single cannon there. While the weapon fired continuously upon the black freedom fighters, a former plantation overseer led a group of thirty whites in a direct attack against the black militia. One group of black Republicans instantly surrendered and was taken prisoner. Although Nash promised to free the men in the morning, a younger band of white terrorists executed them in cold blood, under the cowardly cover of the night.
Roughly sixty Republicans flooded the courthouse, exchanging fire with the white militia, who finally compelled a black captive to set fire to the courthouse roof. Some of the black Radicals perished in the fire. The men who tried to surrender, numbering between fifty and seventy, were ultimately shot to death. As a steamer pulled into Colfax the night of the massacre, one of the terrorists climbed on board, “armed to the teeth,” offering to give the passengers a tour of “dead n—–s . . . for there were a hundred or so scattered over the village and the adjacent fields.”
Only three white Democrats perished during the attack, but the number of African Americans murdered is much more difficult to ascertain. Most of the witnesses were slaughtered. Evidence was lost because bodies were buried in the trenches in front of the courthouse in mass graves or dumped into the Red River.
What we do know is that nearly all the dead were brutally slain after they had surrendered and that almost fifty human beings were callously murdered after being held as political prisoners for hours. We know that not one scintilla of evidence was presented that any of the black men who defended the Colfax courthouse ever committed a single crime. They were simply freedom fighters, assassinated during their quest for independence and political power.
Colfax remains the single largest massacre in Louisiana history. It also spurred one of the worst legal decisions in Supreme Court history, United States v. Cruikshank (1875), which gave control of constitutional amendments and civil rights laws back to the white Confederates that had seceded from the Union. The ruling effectively ended Radical Reconstruction by prohibiting the use of the Enforcement Act of 1870 to prosecute white supremacist terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan. Cruikshank nearly erased the myriad black political gains won after emancipation, re-empowering local white oligarchs — former enslavers.
White supremacy has long been an effective tool for US elites to maintain their place at the top of society. Stoking racism and hatred, they have prevented lasting interracial working-class coalitions and managed to keep most black Americans at the bottom of society.
Reactionary forces have likewise been successful at whitewashing history, including that of the Colfax Massacre. Contrary to the historical marker that served as the only headstone for the murdered — erected over half a century later — Colfax was never a riot. As the worst instance of white supremacist violence during Reconstruction, Colfax brutally thwarted black citizens’ hopes for autonomy and self-governance.
One hundred fifty years later, we recognize Colfax for what it really was: a racist massacre and a violent political message to potential black voters throughout the South. And we honor the heroic dead, vowing to continue their fight for democracy.