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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of New Orleans

by
John Kendall

published by The Lewis Publishing Company,
Chicago and New York, 1922

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 14

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p213 Chapter XIII
The Know-Nothing Riot of 1858

The "American" "Know-Nothing" uprising in 1858 is one of the most singular events in the history of New Orleans; it occurred just before the municipal election of that year. Professedly, it was a movement to rid the city of the disreputable characters which had infested it for more than a year. In this it was largely successful. It must be confessed that there was need of some such drastic remedy as the "Americans" proposed. "That our city has been infested by a band of desperadoes who have shed innocent blood and spread terror and consternation among certain classes, is most true," said one of the local newspapers.1 As election day approached these miscreants became more active. On June 1st, for example, a man named Reynolds was admitted to the Charity Hospital suffering from two bullet wounds in the head, inflicted in a lonely neighborhood, to which he had been lured by a stranger. The next day an Irish steamboat man was attacked in his lodgings in Delord Street, near Magazine, dragged from his bed to the street, and there brutally butchered. On the 3d the Bee announced that "several persons had been stabbed or slung-shotted." Notices of a similar tenor may be found in the columns of the newspapers almost every day from months previously; and in fact, nearly a year before, the True Delta, in a sarcastic editorial, had apologized to the mayor for drawing his attention to the danger which ordinary, peaceable citizens ran whenever they ventured abroad, as a result of what was in many ways a reign of terror.

These outrages were, in the main, directed against persons of foreign birth. Whether this was accidental or premeditated is not clear. In the squalid slums of the city were collected large numbers of ignorant Irish and Germans; in that class crimes of the sort were to be expected, but how far local politics and race prejudices motived them, it is impossible to say. Some lingering anti-American sentiment drew the Creoles together. Both groups were re-enforced by these in the population who were outraged and indignant at the prevalence of crime, and felt that the time had come for action. In this way, about March, 1858, an organization was effected which afterwards was known as the Vigilance Committee. There is no doubt that this society was formed under the inspiration of the similar organization in San Francisco, which a few years before had done such effective work when a situation prevailed in that city like that in New Orleans. Although not less than 1,000 persons were interested in the organization, it appears to have been kept entirely secret, and not until it struck, on the night of June 2d, five days before the municipal election, does its existence appear to have been known.

The Vigilance Committee was interested in seeing that the elections passed off without any of the riotous scenes which had recently marked all such days in New Orleans. But it specifically disclaimed any political bias. Therefore the selection of candidates for the various municipal offices was made without interference from it. The American party's p214city nominating convention was held on May 25th. The friends of Mayor Waterman were anxious to see him renominated, but a letter was presented to the convention as soon as it organized, in which he stated his intention not to be a candidate for the nomination. The name of Gerard Smith was then put up for mayor, and without opposition accepted. The ticket was quickly rounded-off with the nomination of C. O. Fleschier, for street commissioner: A. G. Brice, J. L. Fabre, and Webster Long, for recorders; A. Dupre and P. S. Wiltz, for aldermen; and J. E. Holland, L. Lombard, and J. B. Leefe for assistant aldermen. Under the provisions of the city charter, the remaining city officials held over to a later date.

The attitude of the public with regard to the election was one of indifference. Three weeks before election day the Bee, commenting upon the subject, alluded to "the utter absence of interest."2 But there was sufficient dissatisfaction with the existing regime to cause a movement of protest to set in, as soon as the American ticket was announced. Rumors that an independent party was forming had been current earlier in the year.3 The opportunity was favorable, for not only were there dissentions in the administration itself, but the defeated candidates for the American nominations "harbored much ill feeling,"4 and could be counted on to fight their late associates. The sentiment crystallized in an address signed by nearly 700 prominent citizens, which appeared in the Bee on May 26th, and tendered to Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.P. G. T. Beauregard the nomination for mayor.

Beauregard's reply was dated June 5th. It was a cautious acceptance of the proffered honor. He made it very clear that he would, if elected, regard himself as in no wise hampered by promises or agreements, except the understanding that he would devote his best efforts to the public service. He had, he continued, his own opinions, which, "while not ultra," were decided. He was a "States Rights Democrat, of the progressive school," who, while attached to the Union, felt that his duty to his native state might, under certain circumstances, outweigh his allegiance to the nation. But national issues had no place in a city election. The most important matter before the people of New Orleans was, in his judgment, connected with the police. If elected, he would feel it his most important duty to "organize a strong and efficient police. [. . .] Unless a mayor be clothed with sufficient power and authority to place it on a footing which will insure unity of purpose, and impart to its operations a character which will command respect, it were vain to expect from him that he should carry out successfully the great object and measures which you have in view." He did not propose to destroy the force as at present constituted, but would "get rid of those who by their bad habits or dishonest character" would disgrace it if they remained members.5

A few days later the independent ticket was completed by the nomination of the following: Dr. D. J. Rogers, street commissioner; G. Y. Bright, Emile Wiltz, and Joseph Solomon, recorders; W. M. Mercer, Elijah Peale, L. E. Forstall, J. V. Gourdain, George Jonas, aldermen, and James White, Samuel Jamison, John Stroud, Jr., Jules Benit, p215F. Moreno, Jr., J. E. Massicot, John Newman, and Robert Huyghe, assistant aldermen.6

Beauregard was a formidable candidate. He had an excellent reputation as citizen and soldier. He was, and long remained, the type par excellence of the cultured, distinguished, efficient Creole. His letter took issue with the existing administration over the matter which it was least able to defend. How far these considerations determined the action of a crowd of rowdies who, on June 1st, seized the office of Registrar of Voters, it is impossible to say. The situation at least suggests that they were acting in the interest of the American party. They set to work to revise the lists of voters in a way such as to eliminate as many whigs and independents as possible. The democrats, for some reason, were taking no part in the campaign. They made no nomination, and it is not clear which party their vote went to. Some of the independent leaders applied to the courts for the proper legal remedies, but either were convinced that they could expect no co‑operation there, or realized that by the time law interposed to expel the interlopers from the register's office, their nefarious work would have been accomplished. It was at this juncture that the Vigilance Committee took action.


[image ALT: An engraving of the head and shoulders of a man wearing a plain high-collared uniform with four rows of cloth buttons. It is General Johnson Kelly Duncan.]

Gen. Johnson K. Duncan

It is to be regretted that, coming precisely at the moment when it did, the uprising should have worn the aspect of a revolution designed to put Beauregard in power. True, many of the persons suspected of complicity in the outbreak, were his supporters; but it is also true that when Recorder Stith subsequently visited the headquarters of the committee, he was assured that in its ranks were many of his partisans. At any rate, on the morning of June 3d, when New Orleans awoke, it was to find that a large part of the city had passed into the control of p216the Vigilance Committee; that the city government had virtually ceased to function; that civil war was threatened. Late the preceding night armed men under the command of Capt. J. K. Duncan, of the United States army,a marched to Jackson Square, occupied the court rooms in the Cabildo, and posted sentinels at all the approaches to that part of the city. They then seized the arsenal in the rear of the Cabildo and distributed among themselves the arms which they found therein. Several pieces of cannon, which were stored in this place, were hauled out and posted around the square. When Judge Hunt went down to the Criminal Court, he found it impossible to proceed with his docket on account of the presence of the Vigilance Committeemen in the building, and after an ineffectual effort to hold court, desisted and departed. Judge Howell, of the Sixth District Court, and Recorder Fabre, on finding their courtrooms filled with armed men, made no attempt to perform their usual functions.

In the columns of the Courier and of the True Delta that morning appeared notices intended to inform the people of the purpose of these strange proceedings, and to reassure them as to the intentions of those at the head of the Vigilance Committee. "Having resolved to free our city from the murderers who infest it, we have assumed its temporary government," read one of these documents; '[. . .] we have no political object in view, and we call on all good men and true to join in the work we have undertaken. [. . .] We shall inflict prompt and exemplary punishment upon well-known and notorious offenders and violators of the rights and privileges of citizens, and shall not lay down our arms till this is effected."

At the same time an address to the citizens of New Orleans was posted about the streets which explained the objects of the rising in more detail:

"After years of disorder, outrage, and unchecked assassination, the people, unable and unwilling either to bow down in unresisting submission to a set of ruffians, or to abandon the city in which their business, their social sympathies, and their affections cluster, have at length risen in their might — have quickly taken possession of the arsenal and buildings at Jackson Square, and have established here the headquarters of a Vigilance Committee; pledging each to the other to maintain the rights unviolable of every peaceful and law-abiding citizen, restore public order, abate crime, and expel or punish, as they may determine, such notorious robbers and assassins as the arm of law has, either from the infidelity of its public servants, or the inefficiency of the laws themselves, left unwhipped of justice.

"For the present the ordinary machinery of police justice is suspended — the mayor and the recorders, we understand, yielding up the power they confess to inability to exercise for the preservation of public peace, and the preservation of property; and the Vigilance Committee will therefore provisionally act in their stead, administering to each and every malefactor the punishment due to his crimes, without heat, prejudice, or political bias. All citizens who have sympathies with this movement, and who think that the time has come when New Orleans shall be preserved like all other well ordered and civilized communities, will report themselves without delay at the principal, where the character of the movement will be explained, and the determination of the people more fully made known. All has been done noiselessly thus far; all p217will continue noiselessly, dispassionately, and justly, but the ruffians who have dyed our streets in the gore of inoffending citizens, and spread terror among the peaceable, orderly, and well-disposed, must leave or perish. So the people have determined — Vox Populi, vox Dei."

It appears that the response to this call was small.7

The five days over which the Vigilance Committee's activities extended, were agitated ones. The authorities made futile, and on the whole absurd, efforts to argue Duncan into submission. The police seem to have proven absolutely incapable of handling the situation. The wildest ideas were ventilated. A special meeting of the council was convened at 10 A.M., June 3d, and lasted till late in the afternoon. It was proposed to arm the people and disperse the Vigilance Committee by force. This meant hard fighting. Duncan was an experienced officer, and with him were several men who had just returned from Nicaragua, where they had seen service under the filibuster, Walker, then on trial in the city on a charge of violating the neutrality laws. They had fortified their position with granite blocks torn up from the pavement in Chartres Street. Waterman seems to have perceived the impossibility of a successful attack. Moreover, he wished to avoid extreme measures. He refused to issue a proclamation along the lines advocated by the council. Thereupon the council passed a resolution demanding his resignation, in order that Recorder Summers, who, under the charter, was next in succession, might assume the mayoralty, with the understanding that he would immediately take steps to carry out the program suggested by the aldermen. Waterman refused to resign. Eventually it was agreed to invest the mayor with discretionary powers. Then the meeting adjourned.

Waterman paid a visit to the headquarters of the Vigilance Committee. He was accompanied by Benjamin S. Harrison, a gentleman prominent in the councils of the independents, who had been a candidate for the nomination before it was tendered to Beauregard. Apparently, he was expected now to influence the Vigilance Committee, under the idea that he and it belonged to the same political persuasion, and it would therefore be amenable to his blandishments. This notion proved erroneous. Duncan refused to retire unless the mayor would agree to swear in his forces, who now numbered nearly one thousand well-armed and well-equipped men, as a special police, to serve at least till after the election. This the mayor said he had no authority from the council to do.8 On Waterman's return to the city hall, an announcement to this effect received the uproarious approval of an immense throng collected in Lafayette Square.

It was now determined to call out the militia. Orders to that effect were issued to General Lewis, but not a man responded to the notifications which that official tardily and reluctantly sent out.9 In the meantime, as a concession to the crowd, which clamored to be led against the Vigilance Committee stronghold, the mayor signed a requisition on one of the largest local hardware stores, for weapons; and the mob streamed off in the direction of that establishment, which it speedily stripped of firearms. On their return to Lafayette Square, they found some pieces p218of artillery which had been removed from the quarters of one of the militia companies, and parked there. Waterman now issued warrants for the arrest of Duncan and his associates on charges of being in arms without lawful authority, and the chief of police served the papers at Jackson Square, but lacking the means to reenforce them, retired, feeling somewhat ridiculous. Next, placards were posted offering awards for Duncan's arrest or destruction; these bore no signature, and were probably issued without official approval. The city government, however, through whatever officials it could rely on, was rounding up suspects. A Doctor Lockwood and two others were taken into custody, examined at the city hall, and held in duress.10

The inefficiency of the city government was becoming glaringly apparent. A meeting of fifteen gentlemen, "of no special bias in political matters," was called at the St. Charles Hotel. They agreed on a plan for settling the differences between the hostile parties. Two committees were appointed, of seven each, one to treat with the Vigilance Committee, the other to confer with the mayor. They took up their duties with a good heart, but do not seem to have had any effect upon a situation which was hourly growing more critical. In the meantime all drinking places were ordered closed, and business hours generally, apprehensive of what might follow the fall of night, followed the good example.11

That afternoon posters attacking the mayor for treating with "traitors" began to appear on the walls of the city. Just who issued them was never known.12 It was beginning to be believed that Waterman's sympathies really lay with the Vigilance Committee. The crowd which swirled excitedly around the city hall all day long and far into the night, were losing faith in him. That night addresses made from the steps of the building denounced him for his efforts at compromise. The speakers were Colonel Henry, a veteran of Nicaragua; and Colonel Christy, an old gentleman who had earned his military title in the War of 1812. The latter followed up his address by publishing a handbill in which he offered to captain any force organized to attack the Vigilance Committee. This handbill, circulated the following morning, occasioned some excitement, but happily, there was no organized response to his offer. All that night a force of 100 men, under Justice Bradford, remained on duty at the city hall, to guard it against the anticipated attack of Duncan's men; though no such attack was ever attempted. Duncan's sentinels never came above Canal Street. That night they occupied the lower edge of that thoroughfare as far out as the river. On the upper side a similar line of men marked the boundary over which the city government still claimed to exercise jurisdiction. In between lay the "neutral ground"b — neutral that night, in an unexpectedly significant way.

At 11 o'clock the following morning the mayor and General Lewis went to the headquarters of the Vigilance Committee, at Jackson Square, with the intention of working out a compromise. No other course was open, if bloodshed was to be avoided. Here they were joined by Messrs. Fellows and Norton, representing the merchants' committee, at the St. Charles Hotel. The conference lasted till 1 o'clock. In effect, Waterman accepted Duncan's terms. It was agreed that the committee's forces p219should be sworn as a special police to do duty at least till after the election, and meanwhile to retain their military organization.13 With this news the mayor returned to the city hall.

The announcement of the agreement was very ill received by the mob, composed, as it appears to have been, in large majority of "American" partisans. In the face of a positive prohibition by the mayor, a large detachment took possession of two cannon, and, armed with muskets and side-arms, set off to attack what was beginning to be called "Fort Vigilance." On reaching Canal Street somebody fired on the column from the sidewalk, and one man was wounded in the cheek. This halted the advance. Recorder Adams, who happened to be on the spot, took advantage of the opportunity to counsel the men to abandon their mad attempt. About one-half of the party did desist. They returned to Lafayette Square. The remainder marched down Royal Street, but remarking that they were likely to receive a warm reception at the barricades visible in that thoroughfare, crossed over to Chartres; but there perceiving the same degree of preparedness on the part of the enemy, retreated to Canal. The sentinels on duty there thought them the advance guard of the Vigilance Committee moving up to attack the city hall, and were about to open fire. Fortunately, at this moment they were recognized, but a regrettable loss of life was averted by the narrowest of margins. At last the entire party reassembled in Lafayette Square, where Adams disarmed them and stored their weapons in the hall. At "Fort Vigilance," however, there were two casualties that day, due to the premature discharge of a cannon. One man was killed and one wounded.14

On the 5th the agitation against Mayor Waterman over the compromise which he had effected, and which left the Vigilance Committee untroubled in its entrenchments, came to a head. Fortunately, a heavy shower of rain dispersed the crowds at the city hall. Threats of violence were thus rendered ineffective, but Waterman thought it safest to throw himself into the arms of the Vigilance Committee, and that morning left the city hall privately, and took up his quarters at Jackson Square. There he was later visited by A. G. Brice and Judge A. G. Semmes, who endeavored to induce him to return to the hall, in order to swear in a special police which, in view of the disturbed condition of the city, and the collapse or disappearance of the regular force, and the general unwillingness of the council to resign the city completely to the Vigilance Committee, seemed necessary. These gentlemen urged him either to do this or to resign, and make way for the president of the Council, who, it was expected, would deal resolutely with the situation. Rather than accept the alternative, Waterman made out a paper in which he invested Recorder Stith with authority to swear in the special police in his place. Armed with this document, Brice and Semmes returned to the city hall. Stith began to swear in the new police.15 By nightfall he had 1,600 men in service. During the afternoon, however, Mayor Waterman was informed by his legal advisors that he could not delegate to another his powers as chief of police; that Stith's authorization was void. He accordingly sent to the True Delta a notice to that effect; but for some reason a copy was not served on Stith till the following day, and in the p220interim he declined to consider as valid the mayor's revocation of his commission.

The council met at 6 P.M. Waterman, it was understood, would appear and explain his recent actions. He was not present when the meeting convened. Instead, a message came from him asking what protection he could expect if he concluded to attend. Recorder Stith was empowered to go to Jackson Square, assure the mayor that his safety would be provided for, and escort him to the hall. Stith departed on his mission, but remained away several hours. The unruly demeanor of the crowd which by now had reassembled in Lafayette Square certainly gave ground for Waterman's apprehensions; it was necessary for Colonel Lumsden, one of the editors of the Picayune, to entertain the tumultuous gathering with an account of his visit to Fort Vigilance, in order to keep it from committing some indiscretion or other. Waterman, who agreed to accompany Stith, came as far as the St. Charles Hotel; but learning of the demeanor of the mob, refused to proceed any farther. Informed of this decision, the board of assistant aldermen now proceeded to prefer articles of impeachment against the absent mayor. The mayor, ran this document, "has deserted his post [. . .] and since June 2d has been in the hands of an unlawful and armed organization, and the lives and property of the citizens of New Orleans are jeopardized; [. . .] and said Waterman has by his acts attempted to legalize the existanceº of said unlawful organization, and is now and has been within the last thirty-six hours within the limits of said unlawful armed organization [. . .] and has failed, neglected, and refused to enforce the laws of the United States and the ordinances of this city, and disperse the said unlawful organization, and has been recreant to his duties," and therefore his impeachment was ordered.

The board of aldermen, which, under the charter, became the tribunal to try the impeachment proceedings, also adopted resolutions. Waterman, these declared, had "abandoned the seat of the municipal government without just cause, and cannot be found nor induced to attend to his duties, and [. . .] there is no longer a mayor of the City of New Orleans. [. . .] In the present state of excitement it is the duty of the common council to provide means for the protection of the inhabitants of the city [. . .] said city having been left for two days without a single officer to protect the lives of our citizens or their property."

The effect of the impeachment was to remove Waterman summarily from office. A resolution passed both boards of aldermen asking Summers to act as mayor. He immediately took charge of the mayor's office, with the understanding that he should be provided by the council with "all the sinews of war" if needed against the Vigilance Committee. He issued a proclamation at once denouncing the Vigilance Committee as a lawless band, and called on them to disperse or suffer the consequences. He also revoked the appointment of Duncan's men as special police. No other action was attempted, fortunately. Armed patrols continued to circulate through the First District, and pickets were maintained on Canal Street. The Vigilance Committee's operations appear to have been at all times limited to the Second District. Their forces never attempted to enter the First or Third districts.16

p221 This was Friday. That night occurred the most serious incident in the Vigilance Committee's history. This was the accidental firing upon one of its own patrols, the killing of four men and the wounding of nine others. The patrol was returning to camp through Orleans and St. Peter streets. It was mistaken for an attacking party from Lafayette Square, and before the error could be rectified a volley was poured into its ranks. The men killed were Thomas Mooney, Patrick Craddock, Lauranceº Monahan, and Thomas Eastport, the first three Irishmen, and the latter a German. Subsequently Coroner Osborne held an inquest upon their bodies and brought in a verdict of death due to a discharge of firearms by parties unknown. Five of the wounded were admitted to the Charity Hospital. No attempt seems ever to have been made by the authorities to investigate the affair further. Even the men in the hospital were not interrogated after the subsidence of the disturbances.

On Saturday morning the attorney general, Mr. Moise, visited Fort Vigilance and explained to Duncan that his men were acting illegally. Duncan seems to have accepted this intelligence with great calm. It was probably not precisely news to him. At one time or another most of the city officials had called on him with similar information. Various influential citizens put in an appearance on Sunday and argued with Duncan in favor of his laying down his arms. Except for an effort to reorganize the regular police, Summers seems to have made no move that day against the Vigilance Committee. He removed Col. Henry Forno from the post of chief of police and replaced him with Col. John A. Jacques. Jacques issued an order for the regular patrolmen to report for duty, which they seem to have done during the day. Barring an alarm due to the firing of three cannons in Fort Vigilance by some irresponsible young men — this was the signal set by the committee to summon all its supporters to its assistance — the night passed without alarm. Fortunately, the cannon shots failed to elicit any response. It must be admitted that there was never any general response to the committee's appeal. The attitude of the public generally was either one of indifference or active opposition. In view of this lukewarmness of the people, the failure of the movement was inevitable. It persisted, however, till the result of the election was announced; and it is quite possible that the quiet which marked the election day was, as the Picayune suggested, due to the fact that the committee retained its organization, and was in a position to act should there have ever been occasion for their interference. General Lewis notified Duncan that he would ask his aid only in case of extreme need; Summers swore in enough special policemen and appointed enough commissioners to keep order at the polls; and the result was one of the most orderly elections in the history of the city.17

The election took place on June 7. In view of the proceedingº events it is not astonishing that a relatively small vote was cast. The result was, on the whole, a complete vindication of the American party. Stith received 3,581 votes, and Beauregard 3,450. In the Fourth District, it is curious to note, the vote for mayor was a tie. Here the recent disturbances had scarcely so much as had an echo. Throughout all that troubled week, the courts had functioned there as usual; the police had continued to perform their duties; and the ordinary citizen went about his concerns with almost complete indifference to the tragedy which was in p222progress only a short distance away.18 The failure of Stith to carry his district under such circumstances is, to say the least, suggestive. For street commissioner Fleschier was elected over Rodgers by 3,650 to 3,326. Fleschier ran ahead of the entire American ticket. Summers, E. Wiltz, and Long were elected to the recorderships by majorities which varied from 200 in the case of the first-named, to 55 in the case of Wiltz. Wiltz was the only independent elected to a recordership. Forstall, independent, was elected to the Board of Aldermen from the Second District. White, Benit, Moreno, and Massicot, all independents, were elected to the Board of Assistant Aldermen. Huyghe was elected unanimously, his name being on both tickets. Otherwise, the American ticket was everywhere successful.

The result of the election was, at least on the face of the returns, conclusive. The majority of the voters were opposed to the Vigilance Committee. A card in one of that afternoon's papers announced that the committee had disbanded. "The object of the Vigilance Committee is today what it was when it was first formed, viz., to deliver the city from the notorious thugs and assassins who infest it, and are abhorred by all good citizens. The result of the late election has, therefore, not in any way changed the honest views entertained by the committee, and to prove that we have never had any political views in our organization, but only the security of all good citizens in their lives and property, we now put ourselves at the disposal of the mayor, and at his call will assemble under arms as a special police in order to put down the rule of murderers and thugs. Yielding to public opinion relative to our possessing the State Arsenal and the Sixth District Court — but doing this only — we now hereby abandon and give up our position, and we agree thus to answer a call from the mayor, our engagements as such lasting for at least three months, or longer, if found expedient." Thus ran this curious document, which was signed Duncan "for self and others."19

The Vigilantes actually abandoned the Arsenal at 4 A.M. on the morning of the 8th. Many had already quickly withdrawn to their homes, but about 200 were still on duty. These men left their arms scattered about the vicinity, where they were afterwards looted by negroes, boys, and the populace generally. The detachment marched under Duncan's leadership down to the United States barracks, where their commander was quartered. There he made them a speech, deprived them of their arms, and advised them to disperse to their homes. But they were fearful of violence at the hands of the people. The majority found means of crossing the river to the swamps below Algiers, where they hid for 24 hours, until driven out by hunger. On the afternoon of the 9th a detachment of 50, mostly foreigners, surrendered to the police in order to get food. A police lieutenant took them in charge, but upon being notified that authorities had issued no warrants for their arrest, the miserable party was turned loose and told to go home. Another policeman rounded up a party of twelve, and locked them in the Third Precinct Station, but they, too, were soon set at liberty.

The apprehension which these poor fellows entertained regarding the danger of going unprotected about the city seems to have been well-founded; for in the papers of the next few days are found several notices p223of men suspected of having been implicated in the recent disturbances set upon and badly beaten.20 In spite of indignant denials from the American organs, there can hardly be any question that these assaults were committed by persons affiliated with that party.

As for the leaders of the late revolt, 30 of them fled the city on a steamboat early on the 8th. Affidavits were sworn out against some of them, but nothing more was done.21 Among them were several persons of wealth and prominence, whom it was not deemed good policy to prosecute; and the whole matter was suffered gradually to be forgotten. It was estimated that the men, who supplied the cash for the movement, spent $30,000 for the five days' campaign, besides contributing their own services, which, as the Crescent pointed out sarcastically, must have been exceedingly arduous for persons so unaccustomed to anything but luxurious surroundings and dainty food.

Thousands, moved by curiosity, visited the abandoned camp on June 9, and were shocked at what met their gaze and offended the sense of smell. The pavement was bloodstained; the carpet of the Sixth District was saturated with the same dismal fluid; the jail, the courthouse and the small private apartments connected with the court were filled with filth. A large force of negroes were promptly set to work with brooms and scrubbing brushes to cleanse them for the opening of court. When Judge Howell returned to his courtroom, he found that the papers there had been scattered, and that part of the records in twelve suits had been destroyed. Some of the abandoned arms were collected during the day and returned to the arsenal. The street commissioner discovered 60 bales of cotton which had been built into the barricades. These were removed to the public pound. Subsequently, the clerk of the Sixth District Court, for some inexplicable reason, issued writs of attachment to hold these bales as satisfaction for damages to property, both public and private. They turned out to be privately owned, and had been commandeered by the Vigilantes without the consent of the owners.

There is much about this whole affair that invites comment. For example, it is difficult to understand how Duncan, an officer of the United States army, became involved in the uprising. The conduct of Mayor Waterman is hard to explain. It is known that there were factions in the American party, of which he had been a leader; and his refusal to be a candidate for renomination suggests that the breach between him and "his quandomº friends," was wide. How far was his attitude towards the Vigilance Committee dictated by sincere desire to avoid bloodshed, — how far by partiality for the independent cause? Nor is it not easy to determine, whether the frequently insisted on non-partisan character of the movement was mere camouflage, or not. The fact that the American party was almost unanimous in opposition indicates that by it the movement was regarded as, after all, an election manoeuver on behalf of Beauregard. The conduct of General Lewis offers another problem. Why did he hesitate to call out the militia, as we know he did actually hesitate? He is charged in one of the newspapers with being reluctant to commit himself to either side; vacillation under the circumstances, was equivalent to favoring the committee. Finally, there is the obscure point of justice meted out by the committee itself. At the close of the p224disturbance, the coroner held inquests upon eleven persons "slain within the entrenchments." The newspapers describe the deaths of six of these men; who were the other five, and how did they meet their end? The reticence of the public prints is among the most singular parts of the whole matter.

"We have passed through one of the most critical trials which the people of New Orleans have ever been called on to meet," observed the Picayune, in an editorial dismissing the entire incident. "On the eve of the election the city was filled with armed men. At night armed patrols hostile to each other perambulated the streets, and more than once came to look directly in the faces of each other, with arms at present, hands on triggers, and momentarily expecting word to fire. The overthrow or disintegration of the city government left us for days in the hands of men who were volunteers."22 Due probably to the inclination to ignore the episode, now that it was over, no effort was made to press the impeachment charges against Mayor Waterman. Summers continued to act as mayor until June 21, when the new administration came in. He was bitterly attacked by the Courier on more than one occasion. He had been a member of the council under Mayor Crossman. At that time he was considered a staunch whig. The Courier charged him with having been an advocate of the expulsion of all democrats from that chamber.23 Now, he was a good American — or Know-Nothing, as many called the party. By his political adversaries he seems to have been very cordially hated, and this hatred lasted for many years, down into Civil war days, when for a few moments Summers again occupied a conspicuous place on the political stage.


[image ALT: A photograph of a man wearing a dinner jacket, a cravat, and a tired and unhappy expression. It is Gerard Stith, Mayor of New Orleans.]

Mayor Gerard Stith

Stith was a native of Virginia. He was born in 1821, and was the son of Griffin Stith and was wife, Mary Dent Alexander. The family was p225connected with the Bollings, Meads, Fitzhughs, Randolphs, and others who had long been prominent in the affairs of that State. Young Stith was brought to New Orleans at a tender age. In this city he received his education. He became a printer, entered the employ of the Picayune, and rose to be foreman of the composing room in the offices of that influential publication. He was thus employed when nominated. To this employment he returned after his term as mayor was over, and there he continued down to the time of his death. Although nominally only foreman of the composing room, he really was for years the editor of the paper; having the entire confidence of his employers, and using his own discretion as to what should be printed in the paper, whenever these employers were absent. In this way, he overrode the policies of those who were nominally editors of the paper. He became head of the Printers' Association and thus was accounted a leader of organized labor in the city. He entered politics in 1857 when he was elected a member of the State Legislature. He was returned by a large majority, and made a good record in the House. In 1854 he was elected a member of the City Council, and in 1856 was chosen recorder of the First District, which office he was holding when named for mayor.

Stith's administration presents several features of importance. He had — what no executive had ever had previously — a definite policy with regard to public improvements. This policy was consistently and continually expounded in his messages to the City Council. For the first time in the history of the city the doctrine was laid down that the public authorities were responsible for the public health, and that they should see to the enforcement of proper sanitary measures. The need of such was brought home forcibly by the reappearance of yellow fever in a virulent form in the summer of 1858. As elements in a general plan for the sanitation of the city he advocated the extension of square granite block paving, improved street drainage through the reduction of the grades to one uniform standard, and the reclamation of the swamps between the city and the lake. In all of these projects he did not have at first the co‑operation of all of his associates, nor of the public at large. There was, for example, early in his administration, a controversy between the street commissioner and the Board of Health as to their respective jurisdictions, which had to be settled before anything could be done to improve the condition of the streets. While this dispute was pending, the streets were suffered to fall into a disgusting state of filth and disrepair.24 The mayor's persistance, with the co‑operation of the press, and the support of the council, led eventually to a complete change of public opinion, and as a result, by the end of his administration, improvements were registered in regard to the streets which were at that time unparalleled in the city, and possibly in every other American city of the time. Granite blocks covered nearly half of the most frequented streets, the cost of the paving of the intersections of the streets and of the improvements on Canal and Esplanade streets, alone, was estimated to have cost $900,000 — an enormous sum for those days.

Stith advocated the construction of a real protection levee around the city, but in this plan he failed to secure the support of the Council, and it was not carried out. He did, however, succeed in having the levees considerably extended. He introduced a method of flushing the p226gutters with water from the river, pumped for the purpose at a plant established on the levee in front of the city. This system was also utilized successfully as a source of water-supply during fires. The wharves were also extended, especially in the First District, where considerable new constructions were rendered necessary by the shallowing of the water by river deposits.25 In regard to education and to benevolence, the administration also achieved some definite results. A new normal school was opened in 1858.26 The Boy's House of Refuge, which had fallen into sad disrepair, was restored, and an effort was successfully made to make the institution self-sustaining by the introduction of various small manufacturing processes, the good effect of which was further seen in the moral betterment of the inmates. Moreover, they were thus taught valuable trades, which, on being released from the institution, enabled them to take a respectable place in society.27

With regard to the police, Stith made extensive and drastic changes and suggested others. In his inaugural message he pointed out the necessity of increasing the pay of the force, the duties of which, he said, were exceedingly onerous. He thought that there should be some law curtailing the mayor's appointing power so that the members of the department might not be entirely dependent upon the results of each municipal election. He seems, in fact, to have been feeling after a civil service, but the time had not come when this idea could emerge, and most of his suggestions on this subject were too vague to crystallize in definite legislation. Soon after he took office the Grand Jury made an investigation of the department, and condemned its general inefficiency and negligence, especially with reference to the Vigilance Committee uprising, and to the carnival of crime which had preceded that extraordinary episode. Stith's first official act was to appoint Thomas E. Adams to be chief of police. Adams proved to be a good officer. The "rogues' gallery," which now forms an important adjunct of every well-organized police department throughout the world, was established in New Orleans at this time. The fire and police alarm telegraph, which was another great advance, was also introduced during Stith's administration. Most important, however, was the purging of the force itself, over 400 men being dismissed or resigning during the time that Stith held office.28

Stith was a man of strong personality, and great independence of mind. His popularity unquestionably suffered from these traits, but they helped him to correct a multitude of abuses which had grown up in the administration, so that, in bidding him farewell, in an editorial published the day he left office, the Picayune was able to say that his period of service was "as the beginning of a new epoch in city affairs. No man has ever left public office with so broad a foundation for future popularity. No succeeding one can find occasion to do more for the public weal."

During this period the Native American party securely established itself in control of the city government. Its candidate was destined to become the next mayor of the city by a large majority. But civic politics were being relegated to a minor place in the public attention; the community was absorbed in the great issue of secession, which was now beginning to loom large on the horizon of the future. In the controversy p227on this subject which shook the city to its depths the leading spirits were John Slidell and Pierre Soulé. Space is lacking to deal adequately with the struggle between these two gifted men, and between their partisans, for control of the State on this vital question. Slidell was not a match for Soulé in brilliancy of wit, in eloquence, in charm of manner. He was, however, one of the most consummate political organizers that have ever flourished in Louisiana, and had behind him a competent State machine, which was destined to sweep Louisiana headlong into the secession movement. Soulé was a Frenchman by birth, the idol of the Creole element in New Orleans. Slidell was supposed to be high in favor with President Buchanan. He was a native of New York. These two facts were urged against him as separating him from the mass of Southerners, and coloring his views on slavery. Whatever his position was on this subject, Slidell was an ardent democrat. He strove to prevent a split in the party. When the Charleston Convention, however, made its momentous decision, he felt, along with Tombs, Davis, and other influential Southern leaders, that he must support Breckenridge. On the other hand, Soulé and his partisans declared for Douglas as the true exponent of democratic tradition. They criticized with the bitterness which then characterized all political discussion, the sectionalism of those who, as they conceived, were hurrying the country to a terrible catastrophe. We cannot follow the various phases of this great political struggle; it belongs properly to the history of the State of Louisiana, although the City of New Orleans was the scene upon which it was chiefly enacted. It may be questioned whether Louisiana as a whole favored secession; New Orleans came into the movement reluctantly, as though with a premonition that it meant for her disaster.


The Author's Notes:

1 Bee, June 4, 1858.

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2 Bee, May 15, 1858.

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3 Bee, May 27, 1858.

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4 Ibid.

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5 Bee, June 6, 1858.

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6 Picayune, June 4, 1858.

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7 Bee, June 3, 1858.

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8 Picayune, June 4, 1858.

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9 Bee, June 5, 1858.

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10 Bee, June 4, 1858.

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11 Ibid.

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12 Picayune, June 5, 1858.

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13 Bee, June 5, 1858.

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14 Ibid.

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15 Picayune, June 5, 1858.

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16 Picayune, June 6, 1858.

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17 Picayune, June 8, 1858.

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18 Picayune, June 6, 1858.

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19 Crescent, June 9, 1858.

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20 Crescent, June 10, 1858.

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21 Picayune, June 9, 1858.

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22 Picayune, June 8, 1858.

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23 Courier, March 10, 1858.

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24 Picayune, July 1, 1858.

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25 Picayune, July 17, 1858.

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26 Picayune, June 19, July 2, 3, 1858.

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27 Picayune, July 22, 1858.

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28 Picayune, July 3, 1858; March 4, 1860.


Thayer's Notes:

a Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Johnson Kelly Duncan, U. S. M. A., Class of 1849 (and in that biographical entry in Cullum's Register, it will be seen that he was not an active Army officer, having resigned three years before). For a second good biographical sketch, see also this page at the Clan Duncan Society.

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b "Neutral ground" is New Orleans speech for what most of the rest of the country now calls a median strip.


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Page updated: 9 Jul 10