On April 13, 1873, a group of African-American men, led by several veterans of the Union army, found themselves under siege in the town of Colfax, Louisiana. For weeks the men had been preparing for conflict, marching and drilling in the hot Louisiana sun. Their efforts were spurred on by increased racial violence that had been erupting sporadically throughout the state following the disputed 1872 elections. In mid-April, the conflict reached a boiling point in Colfax, when hundreds of men from the White League, a radical offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, stormed the town. At the end of the day, only three members of the White League had died, while hundreds of blacks were either shot or burned alive in the parish courthouse. This incident proved to Ulysses S. Grant how truly difficult it would be to make good on his presidential campaign slogan, “Let Us Have Peace.”
Hundreds of brown eyes stared over the ramparts, looking for the first sign of white aggression. They knew the fight was coming. The white man couldn’t stand the thought of black men – of “Republican” men – taking seat in the Baton Rouge seat of government, and the white men scurrying amongst the brush and cover were willing to kill virtually anyone who stood in their way.
Of course, no one dared say openly that the very word Baton Rouge – or, “Red Penis,” in French – virtually precluded any black man from taking a seat in the state legislature.
It really didn’t matter. In the November 1872 elections, Republicans R.C. Register (a Black man) and Daniel Shaw (a white man) had run for Parish sheriff and judge, respectively. The election results were inconclusive and both sides, the Republicans and the pro-White Democrats, claimed victory. During the last weeks of his term, then-Louisiana Governer Warmoth -- a Democrat -- unsurprisingly commissioned the all-white Democratic candidates for the Colfax offices.
In January, 1873, however, the new Republican Governor Kellog took office, and Nash County’s Republican candidates, Register and Shaw, joined office with him. Shortly thereafter, Register, Shaw, and William Ward (a leader of a local group of black carpetbaggers) led a group of African-Americans and climbed into an open window of the courthouse, over staunch Democratic resistance, and began their occupancy.
Southern white men responded immediately. Ostensibly fearing for the “virtue” of their women, the men began mobilizing and spreading rumors that local blacks had initiated a so-called “reign of terror.” The cowardly white men even went so far as to claim that black men were roaming the countryside intending to “exterminate” white folks, with the intent to kill all the white people they found.
The white men seized upon a recent event to justify their rumors. On April 1st, a group of blacks had previously sacked the home of attorney William Rutland (who was, in fact, one of the attorneys sent to talk with Governor Kellogg). Nobody was hurt in the attack, but the body of Rutland's dead daughter (who had recently drowned) was dumped out of her casket. This event only gave more support to local whites who wanted to prove that the black who were demonstrating for their government were dangerous.
In fact, the only ones in any real danger were the recently freed African-American men who had the “gall” to stand up to their former masters. During the first days of April, 1873, stories began to spread of the group of whites marching towards the Colfax courthouse, assaulting black men, women, and children as they went. As these stories spread, more and more African-American men and their families left their homes and converged on the courthouse for safety.
On April 5th, J.R. Payne, a white special deputy from a nearby Louisiana community, tried in his own feeble way to negotiate a peace with Ward and the other African-American men standing up for their rights. However, word had reached Ward that a black farmer was shot dead while innocently mending his fence. Ward decided that negotiations would be impossible. Knowing that the white men confronting him would accept nothing less than complete surrender, Ward returned to the courthouse and prepared for the inevitable confrontation. Ward, along with dozens of armed African-Americans, many of them veterans of the Civil War, barricaded the streets and waited.
They didn’t have to wait long. The confrontation started shortly after noon on April 13th, 1863, when Columbus Nash, the unsuccessful white candidate for sheriff -- backed by over 300 armed white men -- ordered those in the courthouse to leave. When Nash's peremptory order was rejected, his men gave the women and children camped outside of the courthouse thirty minutes to clear out. After the women and children left – the white men gave them at least that much -- the shooting began in earnest.
The fighting continued for several hours with few casualties, at first. Frustrated at his initial lack of success, Nash brought up the artillery -- literally -- in the form of a small field cannon left over from the war. Interestingly, Colfax’s white inhabitants managed to preserve that cannon, which stands outside the Colfax courthouse to this day.
Prompted by the incoming artillery fire, about sixty African-American defenders ran into the nearby woods and river, and were promptly killed by executioners sent by Nash. Later on, the white besiegers convinced an elderly black captive to sneak into the courthouse and set it on fire. Once the fire had caught hold of the courthouse, the African-American defenders displayed white flags: one made from a shirt, the other from a page of a book. The shooting stopped momentarily, but the white attackers quickly resumed the offensive, slaughtering many of the African-American defenders at the courthouse.
Many of the over 300 murdered African-American defenders were subsequently found to be unarmed. Some bodies were hidden or dumped into the Red River. About fifty African-American American defenders survived the afternoon's killing and were taken prisoner, only to be executed after-the-fact. Only one prisoner, Benjamin Brimm, survived the attack, being shot in the head but somehow living to later serve as one of the government's chief witnesses against those who were indicted for the massacre.
Police and federal troops arriving the next day from New Orleans estimated the death toll at 105, though an exact number will never be known. In the end, only nine men were arrested for the Colfax incident. None ever did time.