You have plenty to do and yet you have enjoyments that I cannot possibly have. It will not do you to complain.
Thomas Montgomery, 1866
The letter he wrote on August 4 to his brother James was the last time Captain Montgomery mentioned racial tensions in Louisiana. He knew that his tour was coming to an end and the uncertainty of his future loomed ahead. Though his plan for the future was unsettled, he knew that he did not want to return to his family farm. He shared his thoughts with James:
You say I must come to relieve you on the farm at home. I fear that you will not see me back for some time at that work. A good salary in the army is very much easier. But I never enjoyed myself better than when I had plenty of hard work to do. And I could return to it again if obliged to. Much will depend with me on whether I stay in the army or leave it. If I get out of service safely I do not think I would go home to farm unless I meant to settle down for life. In fact, having spent four years without performing manual labor to any extent, I did not feel able or willing to go back to it if I can help it. It would go hard for me at first. But you are situated differently. You have been altogether used to farm life since you were able to and are not trained for any other pursuit or profession. You have plenty to do and yet you have enjoyments that I cannot possibly have. It will not do you to complain. You are infinitely better off than thousands of poor people and remember that you could not engage in anything else that would pay you half as well. Farming in Minnesota will pay better in the future than it has done in the past so I would strongly advise you to stick to the farm. If your work is too laborious, get help. I would not hurt myself working if I could help it. Accept my best wishes and believe me your affectionate brother. Thomas.
Meanwhile, cholera continued to ravage his men. “I lost one man with it last week. He was well at dark and was dead next morning. Three others have died with it but it is confined to a few cases as yet.” But he wasn’t worried, “being all the time constipated.” Besides, the weather was cooling. By the end of two weeks, he had lost several men and William Estell’s condition had not improved. “It is a good thing that Elizabeth is staying with you this winter. I am really glad of it.”
He soon learned that all, once again, was not good with Elizabeth. Her children, whom she could not have seen for three years, remained somewhere in Missouri, and her husband William appeared to be desperately ill. She clearly had reasons to want to return to the South, especially since the war had ended. Little of what he wrote conveyed the full dimension of racial violence in Louisiana, and the encroaching Minnesota winter meant that she would be sequestered on the farm, unable to see her family. But she had not yet been taught to record her thoughts. In any event, Montgomery, upon getting news of her renewed “restlessness,” was quite exasperated with Elizabeth’s temperament. On September 23 he wrote, “If Elizabeth gives any trouble you should settle with her and send her away. I should be sorry to hear of any trouble. I never want to return home to witness any more troubles. I don’t like them.” Elizabeth stayed on the farm. “I’m glad to hear that Lizzie is well. I hope she is still of great help to you.”
His unit finally received orders to return home. By the tenth of January, the regiment would move to St. Louis for discharge and final payment. In Baton Rouge, they would turn over all property except their arms and colors. He did not look forward to returning north. “The prospect of going North now is in no-ways encouraging. It will go hard with us to leave this delightful climate for a country of ice and snow. I shudder at the thought but I suppose we will soon get used to it. What I fear most is the danger of getting chills again. If I do, I will certainly return here.”
The country to which he was willing to return to escape the cold was changing for the worse. White terrorists continued to harass, beat, and murder African Americans and white Republicans throughout Louisiana with virtual impunity. Judge Thomas Crawford, who was later assassinated by white conservative vigilantes, acknowledged that no jury in his parish would convict a white man accused of assaulting a black man, and that legal authorities had taken no action in response to the many instances of the murder of freedmen in the parish. Similar dynamics occurred in Bienville Parish in August 1866, including, as attested by Captain N. B. Blanton, severe floggings administered by vigilantes known as “nighthaulkers.” In St. Landry Parish in 1867 and 1868, outlaws Benjamin and Cyriaque Guillory orchestrated several murders of freedmen with ties to planters whom they viewed as their social enemies.
On May 22, 1867, the Knights of the White Camellia, Louisiana’s Ku Klux Klan, which formed in 1865, organized to step up the campaign to turn the clock back. What they could not do against the Union army, they would strive to do against the freedmen and -women of the state. Their activities set the context for an even greater atrocity that occurred on September 28 and 29, 1868, in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, when over two hundred African Americans were murdered on the threshold of the presidential election. On the day of balloting, no Republicans—white and black alike—went to the polls.
Farther North in Missouri, where so many of the troops in the Sixty-Fifth Regiment were from, bands of “bushwacker” militias terrorized Republicans and blacks, committing “all sorts of horrible outrages” that included “shooting negroes for carrying the Missouri Republican.” The New York Times reported, “President Johnson declined to interfere in Missouri affairs on the ground that each State should be left free to preserve peace.” If Montgomery worried about his troopers who were about to reenter that world as civilians, he did not mention it in his letters.
But the “cold, frozen North” to which Montgomery was about to return had also undergone unsettling changes during his years in the South. The Dakota War of 1862 had resulted in the defeat of the Indians, their removal, and the occupation of their land by white settlers. White Minnesotans in the southwest region of the state remained traumatized. In the town of New Ulm the mocking of the German residents resulted tragically in vigilante justice and revenge. On Christmas Day, just days before Montgomery’s last letter dated December 30, two men were lynched, “causing great excitement in all that region [of the state], especially in Mankato, where the lynched men resided and were well-known.” Two white men, Alexander Campbell and George Liscomb, had come in around two in the afternoon from a trapping expedition and gone into Zeter and Howenstein’s, a New Ulm saloon, where they proceeded to get intoxicated. A witness noted, “The term ‘Indian’ [was] not a very favorable one with the citizens of this place.” As the two men drank they behaved provocatively “acting the part of Indians, dancing their scalp-dance, and cutting right and left with their knives.” Their actions incited the onlooking residents. John Spenner “saw a storm brewing” and “tried to persuade the men not to go any further in their dangerous proceedings,” but the men stabbed him, killing “the only man who had tried to shield them from harm.”
The sheriff arrested Campbell and Liscomb, and while on their way to jail handcuffed, they were attacked by a mob and beaten with stones and sticks of cordwood. “Campbell was stabbed three or four times by a drunken soldier on furlough from Company A, Tenth Regular Infantry, stationed at Fort Ridgley.” Then they were taken from the sheriff and hanged. The mob cut and hacked the men’s bodies “in a shocking manner.” Their bodies, left hanging until the next day, were frozen stiff.
Influential citizens in New Ulm had refused to allow the bodies to be returned for burial, inciting the “well-armed” friends of the lynched men to retrieve the bodies “at all hazards . . . or [they will] make a few more funerals in New Ulm. . . . Another collision is feared, as great exasperation exists on both sides.” It was later discovered that the bodies had been dropped through a hole in the ice and into the river. In Mankato and St. Paul “they were well- known and respected by all who knew them.” Both were members of Company H, Second Regiment Minnesota Infantry.
Four long years of war had scarred the humanity of the nation, not just in terms of relationships between the North and South, or between black men and white, but even among Minnesotans during the relative peace of the early postwar era, even among those who had fought on the right side of history. The tragedy at New Ulm reflected unresolved tensions exacerbated by the festering trauma of 1862. But it was also the rapid immigration of foreign-born homesteaders competing with native-born settlers for farmland—land that could and would destroy dreams, that imposed extreme hardship and demanded endurance. The horror at New Ulm occurred on the threshold of the galvanic shifts of a new and unforgiving economy setting farmers against business monopolies. It was only during the long, cold Minnesota winter that the tensions lay temporarily hidden just beneath the otherwise placid veneer of snow and ice, unless someone foolishly stomped through the surface in a rousing mockery of ghosts.
Although the tragedy at New Ulm was made newsworthy to a broad readership by the national newspaper of record, the New York Times, Montgomery never referred to the event in his final letters. After spending ten months at war with the Dakota and three years in war-torn Louisiana, he had found his path in life and “a proper lady born in London” to be his wife, and he would seek to live a life of honor, free of troubles. History credits him for asking about a black colony, but says nothing about how he chose not to pursue the project at the first apparent sign of “problems.” And regarding Elizabeth’s recent “bout with restlessness,” he never wanted to return home to witness any more troubles. “I don’t like them.” The troubles between the men of Mankato and New Ulm would seem to be no more an issue for him than the troubles engulfing African Americans in Louisiana, nor did he utter a word of concern about the men who served under his command.
In January 1867, Montgomery set sail northward on the steamer Julia on his last trip home. In his last letter as an army officer, he wrote:
After two weeks of preparation we were mustered out of the service of the U.S. as a regiment. Last Sabbath we had our last Dress Parade. This morning the camp we have been occupying for 14 months was demolished and before noon not a vestige remained of this old campground. Lumber, brick, and everything else was carried away by the citizens. The steamer Julia arrived about 1 pm and the regiment formed for the last time on our old parade ground and passing through the principal streets of the city, we embarked for St. Louis. Hundreds of the soldiers’ friends thronged the levee and remained until we left at 2 pm. The colors at the arsenal were run up and down, waving us a salute as we left.
He concluded his letter:
Another epoch in my life has become reached and I am now about to bid farewell to the South, the theatre of most of my military life, and start finally, perhaps, for the cold, frozen North. But although the latitude may give me a chilly reception, I shall hope to have a warm and hearty reception from those I love.
* * * * *
On May 1, 1867, with Brigadier General William Marshall’s endorsement, Montgomery was brevetted major for faithful and meritorious service during the war and his rank was dated as such for March 13, 1865. Throughout the summer, other than a visit or two to the family farm, civilian Montgomery made plans for a new business venture. By September, nine months after he mustered out of the army, Montgomery left the farm for good and settled in nearby St. Peter, where he married English-born Sarah A. Purnell. Soon afterward he formed a partnership with Captain T. K. Carter, whom he had known since the Dakota uprising, and engaged in law, real estate, and insurance, as well as a collection business. In the years to come, he would develop the Masonic lodge in Nicollet County.
Nothing more was recorded about Elizabeth Estell, her children, and her husband William, who never appeared on the muster rolls of the Sixty-Fifth Regiment after it was consolidated with the Sixty-Seventh in the fall of 1865; and nothing more was mentioned of the plan for a black colony. Much of the land Montgomery bought and sold was the land Tibbetts mentioned in 1865. In the winter of 1869, Thomas and Sarah delivered their first child, whom they named Edmund. They seemed to have had little interest in the events that had just transpired with the black folks in St. Paul, yet occasionally he would long afterward think fondly on his service in their behalf.