He said he ”was born for a traveler.” Frederick Law Olmsted
Until recently I thought of him as the architect who laid out New York’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds, and much of America’s urban landscape for future generations to enjoy. This summer I realized he also provided us with reporting on the antebellum South as he rode paddle wheels and horses up and down the territory along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers reporting for the New York Daily Times as the nation was pulling apart .
Like an “errant” modern day son unwilling to take up the first occupation he came across, Olmsted tested himself and his father’s patience before determining the talent he would pursue. In the meantime, he worked as a merchant seaman to China, an experimental farmer in New Hampshire, the proverbial wander through Europe, and as the Yankee roaming the Cotton Kingdom (the title of Olmsted’s volume combining his travel trilogy).
This reminder of Olmsted’s travels comes in a modern tale by an American storyteller, the late Tony Horwitz. Readers savor Spying on the South, which he termed “An Odyssey across the American Divide,” chasing Olmsted’s route, as the author suffered a fatal heart attack on the book’s tour.
In selecting the original author, The Times sought an unbiased reporter–one who would be fair on the issue of slavery– and believed that Olmsted was the one. Olmsted admitted he was not an abolitionist, but considered himself a Free Soiler like Lincoln in 1852, who sought to limit slavery’s extension rather than seek its immediate end.
In picking up Olmsted’s trail and reopening his works, Horwitz reveals a visionary who foresaw the coming Civil War. He saw it as the beginning of a long struggle that we realize today might not be over yet. Olmsted believed that postwar Reconstruction would continue to exact a toll equal to, if not worse than, what the nation had already suffered.
President Andrew Johnson, an 1860s Democrat who took over the White House after Lincoln’s death, vetoed Civil Rights legislation supported by Republicans– a bill that defined native-born Americans as citizens and provided equal protection under the law to emancipated blacks, including voting rights. This veto moved the House to vote to impeach Johnson. He barely escaped impeachment—by a single vote.
Providing suffrage (the vote) to the emancipated, the arrival of northern “carpetbaggers,” and the free labor economy, all infuriated the supremacists of the day, who instigated violence and supported the Ku Klux Klan. President U.S. Grant came to office in the middle of a violent response in the South, including murders of Republican officeholders, between 1867-69 and sent in federal troops in an attempt to quell the mayhem.
Easter Sunday 1873, a replay of the war occurred when a Rebel officer, who fought under Stonewall Jackson, and his minions got hold of a cannon they used to intimidate, then outright massacre blacks and their supporters. A Union veteran and his followers sided with blacks, joining around a firepit outside the Colfax, Louisiana, Courthouse. With greater firepower, a cannon and superior rifles, the Rebels won the day. So much for resurrection day—the closest count they could manage after some bodies were burned–between 100 and 150 blacks who formed up with the Union lost their lives.
Grant had seen more than enough bloodshed during the war, but called Colfax “a butchery” inflicted on “citizens” in an unlawful act to seize power by force of arms. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court further stripped blacks of their right to protection under the law. The highest court left enforcement up to the individual Southern states rather than the federal government. Grant protested that “no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous Crime (in Colfax).”
The story did not end then, but rose again 48 years later, as citizens gathered at a marble obelisk in the Colfax cemetery to once again remember what some saw as the glory days of the South.
ERECTED TO THE MEMORY OF THE HEROES,
(Three names are listed),
WHO FELL IN THE COLFAX RIOT
FIGHTING FOR WHITE SUPREMACY
APRIL 13, 1873 (p. 183 Spy)
After a proper ceremony at the marker, they proceeded to a pecan tree that “afforded protection and shelter” to white combatants—the 1873 Riot Tree, where twenty-five blacks were overtaken and killed, some by hanging. A plaque then tacked to the tree and a student choir sung “Dixie,” involving the next generation in the “tribute.” The Riot Tree fell to a lightening bolt sometime before 1951, but the obelisk remained for Horwitz’s visit and a Louisiana historical marker was placed by the rebuilt courthouse that read:
“On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain, This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
Throughout the South, but particularly in Louisiana’s parishes and Mississippi’s marshes, whites defeated by the war used other means to retain “authority”—with voter fraud, KKK terror, coups against the black leaders in Reconstructed counties. Long after Lincoln’s assassination The Panic of 1873 scared voters and aided Democrats, with assistance of voter fraud and intimidation, helped topple Republican candidates in the South and some in the North to aid Southern Democrats in a take over the House of Representatives in 1874.
While for years the community had a natural racial divide at the railroad tracks, like many places north and south, by 2006 Colfax had a black mayor, perhaps after the white population dropped as jobs moved away. An effort in the 2000s to correct the sign concerning the ‘riot” to better explain the execution of a black man mending his fence prior to the 1873 “Riot” failed, despite a full report in the Colfax investigation. Neighbors did not want to upset the community mending that had taken place over 125 years. The signs remain for visitors and youngsters in the community to piece together their own ideas about what took place—with no historical correction from either 1921 or 1951.
Until recently... Tony Horwitz, Spying on the South, (New York: Penguin Press, 2019, p. 4)
Cotton Kingdom (Ibid. Notes p. 419)
In selecting the original author.(Horowitz, p. 19)
Olmsted believed (Ibid, p. 175)
Easter Sunday 1873, Horwitz,p. 181-2)
Grant had seen enough (Ibid, 182)
On this site Ibid.
While for years (Horwitz, p. 184)