Book Review The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields by C. Dier

Pat Young

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The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields by C. Dier published by History Press (2017) 147 pages Harcover $23.99, Paperback $20.16, Kindle $6.04.
This thin book describes a little known massacre of African Americans by white Democrats in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. The killing of dozens of blacks took place just weeks before the election of Grant in 1868. The massacre followed a confrontation between black Republicans and white conservatives at a campaign rally.

The author is an 8th grade history teacher and he found out about the massacre while researching local history projects for his students. The book provides a good overview of its subject, but also of the limitations of studying the period. While the massacre led to investigations and reports, many of the documents generated in the wake of the killings have been lost to hurricanes and floods. And while St. Bernard Parish is the next parish down from New Orleans, it was an isolated backwater.
 

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Part 2:

The lead-up to the massacre, of which this is the 150th Anniversary, began in September, 1868. As the November election approached, competing Democratic and Republican campaign rallies led to shouting matches by armed partisans of the two sides. The head of the local Freedmen's Bureau responded by asking black Republicans to disarm. Meanwhile, white Democrats were bringing weapons into the conflict concealed in hay wagons.

In October word leaked out that the Democrats planned to assassinate a prominent Republican landowner named Thomas Ong, as well as former Union General Albert Lindley Lee and Mike Curtis, a police officer. The Seymour Infantus and the Seymour Innocents, Democratic paramilitary organizations from New Orleans, came to St. Bernard on October 25 to reinforce the gatherings of armed Democrats. The Democrats, many of who were Sicilian immigrants or descended from the inhabitants of the Canary Islands, had their flags consecrated at the local Catholic church.

As the Democrats processed after church, they came upon a freedman and insisted that he cheer for Horatio Seymour. When he refused, they killed him. The man who shot the African American, Valvey Veillon announced that he was "ready to kill twenty more d2mned n!ggers."
 
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The Democrats next came across an elderly freedman working in the fields. His throat was cut, though he survived the attack. Jane Ackus, a freedwoman, was the next victim. She was beaten and kicked. As they came upon other freedpeople, they ordered them to "hurrah for Seymour and Blair," or else face assault. When they encountered white police officer Mike Curtis they chanted "Death to the Police" and killed him. Curtis, a Union veteran, had been a favorite of the black community. When some blacks later tried to bury him, they too were shot, one fatally.

Roughly 150 black men assembled at Ong's house to protect him from assassination. Ong asked them to disperse, but they said that they were bound to defend him. Some of the men went to the home of Pablo San Feliu, a conservative, and after an altercation with him, killed him. Rumors spread in the white community that San Feliu's whole family had been burned to death by the blacks. The rumors were not true, but they impelled more whites to join in the killing. Newspapers repeated the rumors. The New Orleans Bee, for example, headlined the story as “White Families Massacred or Burned to Death in Their Houses.”
 

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Part 4:

Democratic newspapers created a panic in New Orleans by claiming that a caravan of up to 2,000 armed blacks were marching from St. Bernard's towards the city, burning and killing along the way. In fact, by the time the alarmist artiles appeared many freedpeople had fled to the swamps to evade the bands of mounted and armed white Democrats.

On October 26, the white bands grew larger and more violent. Groups of men went to the old slave quarters of plantations and looted them and assaulted or killed the blacks they found there. Where the first day of attacks targeted politcal opponents, the second day involved indiscriminate attacks on anyone who was black. Freedmen who were captured were taken to Florey's coffee shop. When Federal troops arrived in the parish, some of the captives were executed by the conservatives.

The presence of troops ended the ability of the Democrats to parade armed through the streets, but the killings continued into early November, up to election day.
 

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Part 5:

Dier does a good job of retelling the story of the massacre. He is hampered by the fact that many of the records of that terrible week were lost to Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters and that most of the surviving accounts come from highly partisan sources. The willing away of the memory of the killings by white conservatives also limited the sources he could consult. There are no markers of the sites associated with the violence and no oral histories.

In addition to describing the killings, Dier expends about a third of the books pages on the background of St. Bernard Parish. Much of this was enlightening. I had no idea that people of Spanish ancestry from the Canary Islands had been brought to Louisiana during the period of Spanish control of the territory as a counter to French and English power. These
the Isleños had been settled in St. Bernard for generation by the time of Reconstruction, but they still formed an almost invisible white underclass in the parish. While few of them had been active, beyond military service, in the Confederate cause, dozens of them were ready recruits for the Democratic paramilitary bands that ultimately succeeded in silencing black voices in the parish.

While a lot of the background is helpful, Dier spends too much time describing the Battle of New Orleans, which took place in the parish. The battle did have an impact on the politics of St. Bernard, but discussions of the tactics and stories from that battle of half-a-century prior to the massacre seem out of place.

The book concludes with an interesting discussion of racial violence after the massacre, some of which ties killings from years later to the events of October and November of 1868.
 
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"Democratic newspapers created a panic in New Orleans by claiming that a caravan of up to 2,000 armed blacks were marching from St. Bernard's towards the city, burning and killing along the way. "

I see what you did there! Thanks for bringing attention to this book though. As someone very interested in the civil war and reconstruction in Louisiana I will have to put this on my reading list.
 



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