James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. An Absolute Massacre: The New Orleans Race Riot of July 30, 1866. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. xvi + 163 pp. $28.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-2588-5.
Reviewed by Kevin D. Roberts (Department of History, University of Texas at Austin)
Published on H-South (November, 2001)
Reconstruction in Microcosm: The 1866 New Orleans Race Riot
Reconstruction in Microcosm: The 1866 New Orleans Race Riot
Local events that magnify the broader themes of Reconstruction are frequently obscured by the national political events of the era. Though scholars' attention to legislation and congressional intrigue as a means of grappling with the tumultuous Reconstruction period is understandable, James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., in his study An Absolute Massacre, demonstrates the importance of considering how local events affect historians' grand narrative of the era. By describing the origins, events, and results of the New Orleans race riot of July 30, 1866, Hollandsworth illuminates the inextricable linkages between national political events and the riot, all the while employing a crafty narrative to build up to the page-turning crescendo of July 30. In short, this study should remind historians of the explanatory power that local events offer to well-covered topics and periods, for the author shows that this particular event was as much a product of national factors as it was of issues unique to Louisiana and New Orleans.
Hollandsworth's study is a much-needed narrative of an event that has received surprisingly little attention by other scholars. The author begins by situating the riot within the state and national political contexts of the period. As he shows, the movement by unionists in Louisiana to form and then to have Congress recognize the Free State of Louisiana was centered in New Orleans, which fell into Union hands in 1862. Though Benjamin "Beast" Butler engendered severe hatred for the Union in New Orleans, Hollandsworth argues that timely interventions by President Abraham Lincoln ensured the creation of the Free State of Louisiana in 1864.
This already complicated political intrigue became the political kindling for violence as a vocal faction of pro-Union free blacks and many transplanted whites opposed congressional recognition of the Free State of Louisiana on the grounds that its constitution did not guarantee universal male suffrage. The lobbying of Radical Republicans by this faction's leader, Thomas Durant, led to the passage of the Wade-Davis Bill, which would have required that a majority of white voters, rather than Lincoln's policy of ten percent of voters, swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution in order for a state to be readmitted to the Union. Lincoln's subsequent pocket veto of the bill ensured that Louisiana's fledgling unionist government would proceed in its affairs without the support of Durant's faction, which redoubled its efforts to press for universal male suffrage.
The insertion of race into the issue of readmission to the Union exacerbated already tenuous alliances between pro-Union whites and their perceived political inferiors. That fissure stunted the momentum of the pro-Union efforts, especially when it resulted in the disruption of alliances among leading Louisiana politicians such as Michael Hahn, the governor of the Free State of Louisiana, and Thomas Durant. The assassination of Lincoln, whom Hollandsworth describes as "the best friend the Free State of Louisiana had in Washington" (p. 31), was the crucial turning point in these tensions, for President Andrew Johnson's desire that Reconstruction be a local affair simply strengthened the position of unionists in Louisiana who opposed more liberal suffrage laws. Thus, in the absence of a presidential commitment to Reconstruction from the top down, Hollandsworth argues convincingly that the balance of power shifted to anti-black, anti-suffrage whites, many of whom used black leaders' activism on the issue of universal male suffrage as a justification for an event that would single-handedly avenge the Confederacy's defeat and damage the increasing political power of African Americans and their "carpetbagger" allies.
With the national political context set, Hollandsworth shifts the focus of his study to those factors that led to the riot itself. At the heart of this momentum is the convention of July 1866, where supporters of universal male suffrage planned to meet in order to ratify a new state constitution that guaranteed those rights. Creating angst among many whites by simply planning to gather, the language of the resolution to be considered by the convention inflamed the situation further: "Resolved, That, until the doctrine of political equality of all citizens, irrespective of color, is recognized in this State by the establishment therein of universal suffrage, there will and can be no permanent peace" (p. 50). Clearly, as Hollandsworth shows with reports from New Orleans newspapers, neither whites nor the pro-suffrage faction was flinching.
The tinderbox that had been effectively yet tenuously protected was blown open when delegates to the convention finally arrived at the Mechanics Institute, the temporary seat of power in the state (the capital would be moved back to Baton Rouge in 1879). Using almost exclusively the House Report No. 16: Report of the Select Committee on New Orleans Riots (1867) as his foundation for reconstructing the day's events, Hollandsworth traces with blow-by-blow precision the details of the riot, which, although apparently planned by whites in New Orleans well in advance, proceeded helter-skelter once the police-led, white mob stormed the mostly unarmed twenty-seven delegates to the convention in the afternoon of July 30.
Though one could concentrate on several aspects of the actual riot itself, the point that resonates profoundly from Hollandsworth's depiction of the riot is the randomness of the violence. By sunset on July 30, dozens of black citizens who had no affiliation with the convention lay dead, victims of racial violence that was only sporadically halted by the New Orleans police. Although the final tally is, as Hollandsworth indicates, impossible to know with certainty, approximately fifty people were killed and well over one hundred wounded, with all but a few of those casualties being either African Americans or people associated with the convention.
Though Hollandsworth fashions a gripping narrative and compelling analysis of national and local politics, An Absolute Massacre, in its sparse coverage of New Orleans society and race relations, raises more questions that it answers. Save for a brief chapter that uses black periodicals to flesh out the lives and thoughts of African Americans in the city, the most obvious weakness of the book is this omission. To what extent did ongoing relations between blacks and whites affect the turmoil of July 30? Were black organizations and communities in the city in public support of the convention? In addition to the riot accelerating the demise of Andrew Johnson and his moderate, locally centered Reconstruction, how did it affect black-white relations in New Orleans immediately following the riot? Addressing such questions would not only strengthen Hollandsworth's political narrative; so doing would also employ the riot as an explanatory tool for both political events and society in Reconstruction-era New Orleans. It is not Hollandsworth's project to compose a social history, but a more thorough analysis of the black community in New Orleans would have made his political narrative even more compelling.
Nonetheless, Hollandsworth easily accomplishes what appears to be his ultimate goal: the composition of the first book-length study dedicated to the origins and events of the July 30 race riot in New Orleans. Though his focus on the political background to the riot might prompt other scholars to search for social and cultural explanations, James G. Hollandsworth ensures that An Absolute Massacre will be the much-needed foundation for pursuing such inquiries.
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Kevin D. Roberts. Review of Hollandsworth, James G., Jr., An Absolute Massacre: The New Orleans Race Riot of July 30, 1866.
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