Recently, my family and I took a vacation that we called our “Civil Pursuits Trip”. We visited Civil War and Civil Rights sites in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. It was quite an education even though I had heard about and/or studied many of the historical events before. All I could think about was what it was like for my ancestors during those time periods. Could my paternal ancestor George Wheaton (or his parents) have been transported on one of the slave ships depicted in the museums? Under what circumstances did he and his brother move from Virginia to Louisiana, and which, if any, of Claiborne Parish’s citizens had owned them?
In addition to these wonderments, I realized that our race-based conflicts today are not new. They always have been more complex than what we typically discuss in every day conversations. For example, in the past when I’ve thought about the Civil War, I focused on it as a fight about slavery and who were the good actors and who were the bad ones. Rarely have I considered the economic motivations for such a war, the toll of human carnage, and the deep divisions that occurred within families and communities as a result of divergent loyalties. The Civil War was about something much deeper than just black and white and who was allied with the Confederacy or loyal to the Union. At its core, it was about the ugliness of human nature playing itself out in skin color and politics.
In broadly examining America’s cultural landscapes after the Civil War ended, it is evident that this traumatic event had a great impact on society. The economies of the Confederate states were devastated; not only was much of the land ravaged by the Union’s scorched earth strategies, but the fuel for their economic might was burned up with the emancipation of their slaves. Moreover, in order to participate fully in the political process, southern Whites were expected to take an “ironclad” oath affirming their rejection of the Confederacy, denying any prior involvement in the Confederate cause, and pledging current support of the Union. Many Confederate veterans harbored feelings of resentment and anger about this, but they concealed them in front of voting registrars who ignored obvious signs of registrants’ true sentiments and reinstated them anyway (Dyer, 1977).
Black southerners, though elated with their new status as freedmen, had to figure out how to co-exist peaceably with former masters and neighbors and simultaneously learn to be independently responsible for their own affairs and to take advantage of the benefits afforded to them by the government. Many freedmen bought land, pursued educational training, and sought to vote and hold office in their local and federal governments. Clashes were bound to occur!
During the Reconstruction era that some historians say spanned from about 1863 to 1877, Blacks used their newly won right to vote and to engage as leaders in the political arena. Republicans had secured control of Congress in 1866 and began a “Radical Reconstruction” in which programs like the Freedmen’s Bureau (formerly known as Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) were implemented and civilian governments in the South were placed under the authority of the federal government. Republican sympathizers (both black freedmen and white, southern “scalawags” and “carpetbagging” Northerners), flooded the southern states with their radical policies to form biracial (but not necessarily bipartisan) governments, raise taxes, and initiate public improvement projects.
In response, vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan developed in order to halt these efforts; group members often attacked and intimidated supporters of the Reconstruction efforts, no matter what their race was. In fact, the first sitting member of the U.S. Congress to be assassinated, White Representative James M. Hinds (R-Ar), was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan right before the 1868 presidential elections because of his support for Ulysses S. Grant and voting rights for former slaves.
In Louisiana, the Knights of the White Camelia organization was more prominent than the Ku Klux Klan and was more effective in its political manipulations (Dauphine, 1989). The Knights of the White Camelia warned both white and black Republicans to desist from participating in their political activities; refusals usually resulted in floggings, harassment, and murder. Approximately 1,000 murders occurred from November 1867-1868 in Louisiana, with as many as 784 of them occurring in the three months preceding the Presidential elections. Given Vandal’s (1994) research on the approximate 3,999 homicides occurring in Louisiana during the period of 1865-1884, those murders were likely committed by Whites against Blacks. Vandal found that at least 61% of total murders reported in Louisiana involved black victims, and of those, 71% were perpetrated by whites (in 13% of the cases, the race of the perpetrator was unknown).
According to Dauphine (1989), U.S. Congressional and Louisiana Legislature investigational committees determined that these acts of violence occurred mostly as a result of political motivations rather than responses to criminal offenses. For example, Louisiana’s Republicans won the gubernatorial race and a Republican-backed constitution was ratified; however, only seven months later, the Republican presidential candidate, Ulysses S. Grant, lost his race unexpectedly and decidedly. The only way it made sense that Grant was outpolled so effectively in 2/3 of Louisiana parishes when “nearly all Negro voters were Republicans and…they outnumbered white voters by about two to one over the entire state” was to consider fraudulent activity and intimidation (Dauphine, 1989, p. 176).
Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, where some of my ancestors lived, was not immune to this sort of violence. In 1868, Republican William R. Meadows was elected to be one of the Parish’s delegates to Louisiana’s Constitutional Convention; he was one of 49 Black delegates elected across the state. A review of a few reports that I have uncovered shed light on what happened to Meadows prior to the Convention. Notice the different tones of the following selections.
The Ouachita Telegraph reported:
A rumor has reached us of the death of W.R. Meadows, the negro candidate to represent Claiborne parish at the recent election. He was shot a few evenings ago, by some unknown party, one ball taking effect in the head and one in the side. Meadows was formerly a soldier in the Yankee army, and made himself quite obnoxious to our citizens while clothed with a “little brief authority.” He was afterwards elected to represent Claiborne parish in the Black and Tan Convention. Minden Sentiment. (“W.R. Meadows Murdered,” p. 2)
The Claiborne Advocate (Peppers, 2008) reportedly wrote the following:
The Jury of Inquest returned on Thursday evening last, from the cabin home of W.R. Meadors, F. M. C., where they found his lifeless body. Upon examination, they decided that he came to his death by violence. He was shot three times, and the shots took effect in three different places. One in the arm, another in the breast, and the other in the head. This sad outrage occurred on Wednesday evening, the 6th inst., about dark, while passing from his horse lot to his yard, by some one unknown. No clue as to the guilty party. Some strange man had been about his place for some time, and which rather inclines to the opinion that he was killed by some one who was not known in this parish. We are proud to know that no suspicion rests upon any of our own people.”
Finally, the New Orleans Republican published:
We are reliably informed that the Hon. W. R. Meadows, of Claiborne Parish was killed a few evenings since near his own door by disguised men who claimed to belong to the Ku Klux Klan. He left his house for the purpose of feeding his stock, was shot, and died immediately. Mr. M. had been a soldier in the United States Army, and represented his parish in the Constitutional Convention. He was an intelligent, quiet peaceable gentleman but had excited the enmity of the rebels of his neighborhood by being active in favor of the ratification of the constitution. (“More Murders,” p. 2)
Despite claims that the killers’ identities were unknown, Meadows’ wife, one of the only two eyewitnesses of the event, reported shortly after the incident occurred, that she knew exactly who committed the crime (Voogd, 2012). She told William Stokes, Assistant Sub-Assistant Bureau Commissioner in Claiborne Parish that a white man named Newton Glover previously had threatened to kill her husband and that he and John Taylor looked to have been the two white men dressed in black who murdered her husband.
It doesn’t appear that anyone was prosecuted for the crime, and murders like these were commonplace in that time period. According to Pfeifer (2009), “collective violence” and lynching, in particular, became increasingly popular throughout the 1870’s, and was used as a method of social control even once the Reconstruction Era was “complete”. By 1890, Jim Crow laws had been enacted by predominately white state legislatures which ultimately disenfranchised many Blacks and allowed violence and terrorism to flourish with impunity. It is in this context that my ancestor, George Wheaton, lived as a young and middle-aged man. In my next post, I will present my research findings about his life to demonstrate how legal documents can confirm and/or disconfirm your own family’s oral traditions.
Dauphine, J.G. (1989). The Knights of the White Camelia and the Election of 1868:Louisiana’s White Terrorists; A Benighting Legacy. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, 30(2), 173-190. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4232730
Dyer, S.P. (1977). The Iron Clad Oath. Historic Claiborne ’77. Claiborne Parish Historical Association. Retrieved from http://files.usgwarchives.net/la/claiborne/history/parish/hc77.txt.
W.R. Meadows Murdered. (1868, May 20). The Ouachita Telegraph, Page 2 Column 1.
More Murders. (1868, May 14). New Orleans Republican, Page 2 Column 3. Retrieved from https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016555/1868-05-14/ed-1/seq-2/
Peppers, L. (2008, September 17). Obit: W. R. Meadows, Claiborne Parish LA. United States Gen Web Archives. http://files.usgwarchives.net/la/state/newspapers/afriamer/meadows.txt
Pfeifer, M. (2009). The Origins of Postbellum Lynching: Collective Violence in Reconstruction Louisiana. Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, 50(2), 189-201. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478643
Vandal, G. (1994). Black Violence in Post-Civil War Louisiana. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 25(1), 45-64. doi:10.2307/206111
Voogd, J. (2012, March 12). Research Briefing No. 6: Who Killed William Meadows, 1868?. Historical Amnesia, Without Remedy, Becomes Cultural Slippage: Recovering lost stories of triumph over injustice . https://janvoogd.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/research-briefing-no-6-who-killed-william-meadows-1868/