My religious training and impression of right before entering the army were of incalculable benefit to me. Was it not for that I would have yielded to temptation long ago. I thank God that it is not worse for me.
Thomas Montgomery to his mother, January 16, 1866
Writing on February 9, Montgomery told his brother James that it was a virtue to seek knowledge, which was why he applauded James for wanting to become a teacher. As for himself, he, too, had plans that did not include returning to laboring on the farm. “I had a very good start but my six years on the farm did not forward me much intellectually. I will never regret acquiring useful knowledge wherever obtained, and if I get out safe, neither will I regret having entered the service of my country.” But now that the war was over, he saw his opportunity in a military career, provided he could retain his present rank. He was by now living in the encampment with Lieutenant Hutchens, his “genial friend . . . and brother Mason.” During this period of normalcy, the captain frequented the local Masonic lodge. “I attend the Masonic Lodge here regular and found so good hearty friends even among what we would call ‘Secesh.’ They have a fine lodge here. I will never be sorry for being a Mason.”
Montgomery was a Freemason. As he indicated in his letter, during the Civil War, Freemasons fought on both sides. Soldiers in the lowest ranks to the highest, including Union generals George B. McClellan, Winfield Scott Hancock, and Winfield Scott, and Confederate generals Lewis Addison Armistead, P. G. T. Beauregard, and George E. Pickett served both as combatants and proud members of the fraternal order. Masons formed military lodges within their regiments. Some 94 Union and 150 Confederate military lodges are known to have existed. Near the end of the war it was estimated that 11 percent of the soldiers in both armies were Freemasons. Military lodges allowed the men to share a lodge at home to continue their traditions, and also to induct unknown numbers of comrades in arms.
Just as the brotherhood appeared to transcend politics after the cessation of hostilities, as reflected in Montgomery’s letter, it occasionally appeared in the least expected moments on the battlefield. Masons on each side obtained special treatment while injured or dying in combat (being given water, emergency care, or respectable burial), while imprisoned (being given provisions or even allowed to escape), while in danger of being captured or killed, or while being robbed by enemy soldiers. Masonic burials were attended by soldiers on both sides hours after active fighting. Masons attempted to save the homes of fellow Masons from ransacking, and in one instance Union soldiers moved a rebel Mason’s body off the field at Gettysburg while under Rebel fire in order to provide a decent burial.
Nothing in Montgomery’s letters conveying his Masonic ties—“even,” as he wrote, “among what we would call ‘Secesh’ ”—amounted to fraternizing with the enemy. Technically, by February 1866, they were no longer enemies. But while there were no longer clashes between the great armies of the blue and gray, aggressions of Southern whites against Southern blacks escalated beyond the conventional rules of engagement as ex-secessionists eroded the meaning of the Thirteenth Amendment through terror. Unlike with those Union officers who protected freedmen or officials of the Freedman’s Bureau and thus remained the enemy to ex-rebels, Montgomery’s war, for all intents and purposes, had ended. If he could not transfer in rank to the regular army, he was ready to get on with his life, to go home. For opposite reasons, the ex-rebels wanted the same thing.
In the time and place where they were, Montgomery’s troops could see what was happening around them. Some may have known when he attended lodge meetings with former Confederates. The troops had reason to be wary of their future, for once out of service, their lives would be subjected, not to the protection of martial law, but to the oppressiveness of the Black Codes, which had been enacted in every former slave state. Abraham Lincoln was gone and soon all of the Union troops would be too. “As President Johnson is not in love with colored troops,” Montgomery wrote, “I think that we will get out of this soon.” No doubt, many looked forward to mustering out of the service. But others surely realized that once out of uniform, it would be open season.
As a War Democrat from Tennessee who believed in slavery and states’ rights, but stayed with the Union because he opposed secession, Johnson had seen early in the war the military benefit of black troops. Yet he was not a friend of black men, in or out of uniform. Johnson had played an important role in the enactment of the Black Codes, encouraging the Southern states to pass such laws that he felt, remarkably, would deal with the civil protections of blacks. He understood that without some kind of safeguard, as he felt Black Codes could provide, Southern blacks would be vulnerable to the restoration of slave codes. He had made this clear in his communications to his provisional governors and also in his December 1865 Annual Message. But the codes that were adopted by state conventions and legislatures exceeded what Johnson had sought or imagined. Frequently Black Codes authorized police officials to force black men to work on plantations.
Nonetheless Johnson did not intervene to insist that the laws be revoked or altered to eliminate their reprehensible provisions. Whereas most of the Codes throughout the South provided for basic rights—the right to acquire and sell property, sue and be sued, and marry, on the whole more liberal than in St. Landry Parish—most also severely restricted the rights of black laborers and excessively limited movement by blacks about the towns and countryside. “The postwar legislation of the Johnson government was unequivocally discriminatory and designed to keep blacks in subordinate economic and social relationship with whites.”
Montgomery showed his lack of understanding of Andrew Johnson, presuming that because he had been Lincoln’s vice president, Johnson supported Lincoln’s ideas and policies concerning the black man. “We [Unionists] think down here that Pres. Johnson turned his back on his friends and those who . . . [put] him in office.” His policies only consoled the South, “who has in him a friend who is aiding them all he can, contrary of the expressed views of the majority of the whole people.” Montgomery wrote, “Despite what is said, the entire South has still a concealed hatred of the North and are only kept in their proper place by the presence of Government troops.” Proof of this assessment: “A plot was discovered here a few days [ago] to blow up the arsenal’s magazines [in Baton Rouge]. Such a plot could only be [conceived] by the Devil himself for it would be the destruction of the whole town.”
The state of race relations in 1866 foretold of bad things to come in Old Dixie. But it was for Montgomery to remain an officer and a gentleman in the United States Colored Infantry, and not a politician. He wrote to his mother, “Last Saturday I attended a concert or exhibition of the Lincoln School (colored). Three young ladies teach there, have a piano, and discoursed some splendid music. The darky children spoke, sang and declaimed in a credible manner. The band of our regiment attended and gave them some music. The colored people here are attempting to organize a church. They intend to raise $2500 to put up a church under the management of the [Methodist Episcopal] Church (white).” About this same time, at the other end of the Mississippi, in St. Paul, Minnesota, a small band of black men and women approached a prominent white church to help them start their own house of worship.
In June, a racial incident involved some of Montgomery’s troops and white men in a Baton Rouge saloon. His first sergeant and five black soldiers went into the saloon and asked for beer but were refused it. A white man present who was drinking saw fit to insult and strike Montgomery’s orderly and demanded “in an insulting manner” that they leave. Some of the party left but three remained and were attacked by the more numerous whites. Fleeing, because they “had no means of defense,” they “used brickbats from the street.” A mob of white men formed and “fired twenty or thirty shots wounding my orderly in the leg only slightly while one of their number was also shot in the leg by one of his friends.” One of Montgomery’s corporals attempted to “prevent someone from firing at the Sergeant and was struck several times over the head with a revolver.” When order returned, the colonel “destroyed the liquor of one of the saloons but done nothing further”:
The affair is not over yet and unless the authorities use some means of punishing the perpetrators of such outrages, the men will execute the law themselves, and I won’t blame them one bit. I would like to see a few of those lawless villains meet their just deserts. If they see fit to reenact the Memphis riot we are prepared to give them a warm reception and could give them the worse, I rather think.
Montgomery was referring to a violent racial incident that occurred in Memphis one month earlier. On May 1, 1866, a black man and a white man, each driving horse-drawn carriages, collided on a street in Memphis. When the police arrested the black driver, a group of recently discharged black veterans intervened and a white crowd began to assemble. In short order, three days of racial violence ensued, with white mobs, mostly composed of Irish policemen and firemen, attacking blacks on streets and invading a black shantytown in South Memphis that housed the families of black soldiers stationed in nearby Fort Pickering. Before the rioting subsided at least forty-eight people (all but two were black) lay dead, five black women had been raped, and hundreds of black dwellings, churches, and schools were pillaged or destroyed by fire.
The first year of reconstruction was a time of lawlessness, and black troops occasionally found themselves in a new role—that of seeking reprisal against white plantation owners who savagely beat black people for resisting their demands to return to work on their estates. Although Freedman’s Bureau agents tried to investigate as many reports of wrongdoing as they could, black soldiers sometimes took matters into their own hands. Near Columbia, Louisiana, “where the cruel punishment of all colored people [was] indulged in to the ‘heart’s content’ of white residents,” men of the Fifty-First USCT threatened the life of a former slaveholder who had “shot and killed one of his negroes.” The man’s former slaves reportedly told the soldiers about the incident and urged them to act. White residents used the incident as a pretext to argue for the closing of the Union garrison in their midst, especially one made up of black soldiers.
As early as 1864 Union troops could not always identify enemy combatants. It was difficult for them to distinguish properly enrolled but poorly dressed Confederate soldiers from guerrillas, or guerrillas from common bandits. Neither was it entirely certain whether armed Southerners were pro-Confederate or anti-Yankee. “Whatever the root of its animus,” William Dobak notes, “home-grown opposition, not the main Confederate armies, was the day-to-day worry of Union soldiers in occupied Louisiana during the last year of the war.” By late 1865, however, Union occupation authorities were more inclined to blame disbanded Confederate soldiers—whom Montgomery called “rebels”—for the unrest that roiled the South. The commanding officer of the Seventy-Fifth USCT, for one, noted “large numbers of armed men of the late rebel army roaming about” near Washington, Louisiana. Fifty miles to the east, a captain of the Sixty-Fifth USCT serving as provost marshal at Port Hudson drew charges up for the military trial of a Confederate veteran who had been robbing and killing freedmen nearby. In August a lieutenant of the Fourth United States Colored Cavalry told the commanding officer at Morganza, Louisiana, about a secret society of Confederate veterans in a nearby parish “organized . . . to drive out or kill all persons whom they termed Yankees.” Montgomery gave an account for another incident. “The citizens took a colored teacher from the town [of Jackson] who was teaching at a school there and ducked him in a creek, pounded him almost to death, and ordered him to never return. They would do the same here if he dared [to return].”
As commanding officers in the South looked around them in the summer of 1866, what they saw was not encouraging. A lieutenant colonel of the Eightieth USCT reported “very little change” around Alexandria, in central Louisiana. “Union men whether of northern or southern birth are living in extreme jeopardy of their lives.” Ten of the mob who abused the colored teacher at Jackson were arrested one night and sent to New Orleans for trial. While coming in, their guard or escort was fired upon by “bushwackers.” “The Rebel spirit is becoming more rampant.” Complaints of abuse to Negroes were a daily occurrence. Many were murdered, others beaten, and some sent away without their wages. Montgomery wrote, “I fear when the coming crop of cotton is secured, many of the poor people will suffer from a breach of contract and they look in vain to the civil authorities for succor. Troops ought to be scattered all over. Stationed in every county and parish of the South until they learn to do justice to the blacks.”
The issue of contracts between black laborers and plantation owners in Louisiana arose from a policy initiated in 1862 by General Benjamin Butler, who wanted a process that transitioned slaves into paid laborers. To do this, the policy authorized the army to keep slaves from running away from plantations and required them to continue working on the plantations of loyal landowners. The blacks were to receive wages on a fixed schedule as well as food, medical care, and provisions for the aged and infirmed. Corporal punishment was prohibited, but under the system blacks could be disciplined for refusing to work.
Beginning in 1863, under the administration of General Nathaniel Banks, the system, likely drafted to appease plantation owners, imposed stricter consequences on blacks caught leaving their plantations without permission of their employers. In all, the provost marshal, charged with enforcing the policy, balanced his role between opposing ends—being an agent for emancipation and a slave catcher. Nonetheless, at the root of the system was an effort to establish a better quality of life for the African American on Louisiana plantations; and the success of the policy rested fundamentally with the army’s ability to enforce the arrangement. But by late 1866, a year after demobilization had begun, a markedly reduced military presence in Louisiana weakened the army’s ability to force employers to comply with the terms of the contact. White violence against black people characterized Louisiana during the late summer of 1866, and it would only get worse.
Montgomery’s concern for African Americans revealed a relative lack of acuity about the moment for he knew that his regiment, soon to be mustered out, was one of the last units to be in Louisiana. To James he wrote, “I have good reason to believe that we will be mustered out of service before 2 months. Some applications for furlough have returned disapproved from Department Headquarters saying as reason that this Regiment will probably soon be mustered out.” Though replacement troops were expected to arrive, that force would likely have minimal impact on curbing racial violence. One week after his last letter he reported that he received his army pay on time. “I have now over $1000 here with me, nearly all bonds.” William Estell was not so fortunate. “I went over to the hospital last evening and saw William Estell. He had chills and fever and a sore back and is confined to the hospital. He did not get his pay but said he thought he could be down to camp in a few days and get his money and send some to Lizzie. He hopes she won’t think bad of him as he had been sick a long time. He sends best love.”
On July 28, Minnesota governor William R. Marshall, commander of Montgomery’s former unit during the Dakota War, sent a letter to the secretary of war recommending Montgomery for a commission in the regular army. “He is an officer of good capacity, well-instructed in military knowledge, and of excellent moral character.”
Two days later, in the Crescent City of New Orleans, at the opposite end of the Mississippi River, African Americans, after attending an assembly of Republicans, were gunned down in the streets by a white mob that included police officers. Fifty African Americans and a number of white supporters were killed and nearly two hundred people were wounded. “The rebels were the aggressors of course and commenced the outrages. Policemen and city officials shot down negroes indiscriminately. . . . The negroes were marching to the Institute in procession with music and flags. Shooting commenced without provocation and the convention was broken up but the worst feature was that President Johnson seems to sustain the City authorities in their proceedings.” The military was called out to place the city under martial law. The soldiers were camped out on the squares in tents. Batteries were parked. Sentinels patrolled the streets. “The citizens don’t like it.”
The tragedy was months in the making. Over the veto of Republican governor James Madison Wells, early in 1866, the state legislature—the same body that had enacted the state’s Black Codes—mandated new municipal elections, which, in New Orleans, returned to power the ex-Confederate mayor of New Orleans. In response, Wells endorsed a radical plan to revoke the constitutional convention of 1864 that had limited suffrage rights to white men. A new convention would be convened in late July 1866 at which black suffrage would be established. The governor’s revocation would also result in denying rebels their vote and establishing a new state government, inflaming conservatives with the belief that Louisiana was to be “Africanized” to the detriment of white men.
For weeks, Wells’s opponents feared the prospect of a “revolutionized” Louisiana, and, as Foner writes, “it appears that certain of the city police, made up largely of Confederate veterans, conspired to disperse the gathering by force.” On the appointed day, July 30, only twenty-five delegates in fact assembled, soon joined by about two hundred black supporters, mostly former soldiers. Fighting broke out and the police descended on the area, and the scene degenerated into what General Philip Sheridan later called “an absolute massacre,” with blacks assaulted indiscriminately and delegates who attempted to escape being shot down despite hoisting white flags of surrender. The son of former vice president Hannibal Hamlin, a veteran of the Civil War, wrote that “the wholesale slaughter [in New Orleans] and the little regard paid to human life I witnessed here” surpassed anything he had seen on the battlefield.
The handful of black regiments that remained on duty in rural Louisiana tried to maintain order. “Much abuse of the freedmen are being perpetrated,” reported a colonel of the Eightieth USCT to department headquarters in Shreveport that September, “and the parties go free from punishment . . . as we are powerless to reach them with infantry troops. . . . Civil authorities will not protect the negro when calling for justice against a white man. The people are as strongly united here against . . . the U.S. Government as . . . [at] any time during the rebellion.” Despite the ineffective performance of infantry, the colonel added, “Take away the troops and northern men must leave or foreswear every principle of true loyalty and manhood to the prejudices of the masses.”
Similarly, officers of the Sixty-Fifth USCT, Montgomery’s unit, reported failures throughout the summer to arrest mounted lawbreakers around Lake Providence, on the Mississippi River. Officers of the regular infantry, which had necessarily taken on an increasing share of occupation duty as black regiments mustered out throughout the year, complained of similar unsatisfactory results. Simply put: they had won the war, but, as it would be said of future wars, they were losing the peace.
While federal troops struggled to control what seemed to be a rising tide of disorder during 1866, Congress and President Johnson became increasingly estranged. Many Northerners blamed him for the lack of preparation and protection for the constitutional convention in Louisiana. The local army commander had cabled Washington during the days leading up to the event about the danger of violence, but nothing came of it. Secretary of War Stanton failed to forward the warning to the president, and Johnson informed the lieutenant governor the convention could be dispersed. The fact that nearly all the casualties were black and convention delegates, and the police, far from maintaining order, had participated in the assault, led many Northerners to agree with General Joseph Holt that Johnson’s leniency had unleashed “the barbarism in the rebellion in its renaissance.”
In August and September 1866, Johnson undermined his own political support on a speaking tour of Northern states. Meant to establish a coalition of voters who would support Johnson in the upcoming midterm congressional election, the tour instead destroyed his reputation when reports of his undisciplined, vitriolic speeches and ill-advised confrontations with hecklers swept the nation. Through the rancor he called for reconciliation between the North and South, affirmed the loyalty of Southern whites, and argued that suffrage rights should be restricted to whites only. He never mentioned the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead of increasing support, the midterm elections led to a veto-proof Republican majority in Congress. The Radicals were not only able to pass civil rights legislation but also wrested control of reconstruction from the president and took the reins themselves by carving up the old Confederacy into five military districts. This only inflamed those set against the rights of African Americans. For them, a new and ominous chapter of reconstruction was about to begin.