Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Opelousas Massacre, Part 1: Massacre v. Riot

The anniversary of the 1868 Opelousas Massacre is September 28, though technically, the killings associated with this event took place over days.

Some accounts refer to the Opelousas Massacre as the "St. Landry Riot" or "Opelousas Riot." 

What is a "massacre"? 

Wikipedia authors present a thoughtful roundup of definitions, a couple of which I've excerpted below. The emphases in bold are mine:
Robert Melson's ....  "... the intentional killing by political actors of a significant number of relatively defenseless people... the motives for massacre need not be rational in order for the killings to be intentional... Mass killings can be carried out for various reasons, including a response to false rumors... political massacre... should be distinguished from criminal or pathological mass killings... as political bodies we of course include the state and its agencies, but also nonstate actors..."[5]

Mark Levine ... the murder of more than one individual, "although it is not possible to set unalterable rules about when multiple murders become massacres. Equally important is that massacres are not carried out by individuals, but by groups... the use of superior, even overwhelming force..." and he excludes "legal, or even some quasi-legal, mass executions."[6]
When I look at a list of events referred to as massacres, I can see that the number of people killed is not the most salient factor. We call some events a massacre when fewer than five people are killed, and we call some events a massacre when the deaths are in the hundreds or thousands. 


The reason I bring this up is because the accounts of people killed in the Opelousas Massacre vary from fewer than 10 to more than 300. I'm going to address these numbers later, but for now, I'm just making a note that the number of people killed, by itself, does not transform a "massacre" into a "riot."

This is important because calling an event a "riot" carries entirely different connotations than a "massacre."

What is a "riot"? 

The term riot implies reckless, violent, chaotic lawlessness. Indeed, here is a roundup of what constitutes a riot:

A disturbance of the peace by several persons, assembled and acting with a common intent in executing a lawful or unlawful enterprise in a violent and turbulent manner. ....

... There is never any justification for a riot. The only defense that can be claimed is that an element of the offense is absent. Participation is an essential element. Establishing that an individual's presence at the scene of a riot was accidental can remove any presumption of guilt. ....

 ... Private persons can, on their own authority, lawfully try to suppress a riot, and courts have ruled that they can arm themselves for such a purpose if they comply with appropriate statutory provisions concerning the possession of firearms or other weapons. Execution of this objective will be supported and justified by law. Generally every citizen capable of bearing arms must help to suppress a riot if called upon to do so by an authorized peace officer.

Massacre versus Riot

"Putting down a riot" is entirely different from participating in a massacre. The one has a protective legal cloak; the other is a travesty.  To call a massacre a riot is to trivialize and justify the actions perpetrated by one group against another.

Although in one account below, both sides use the word "riot" to describe the other, one only need look at the complete obliteration of the freedmen's campaign for voters' rights to see the ferocity of the assault against them. In my view, there's no question this was a massacre.

An account of the Opelousas Massacre by Judge Gilbert Dupre

On December 15, 1925, Judge Gilbert Dupre wrote a piece for the [Opelousas] Daily World. An excerpt related to the "riot" in Opelousas:

"... I am an antebellum product. I saw my father and [brother] take their shotgun and assist in putting down a riot in 1868. The men of St. Landry had returned from the tear-stained hills of Virginia. ... They accepted defeat [in the Civil War], but they never understood that to mean that their slaves should rule over them. The first attempt, which was the only one in St. Landry, resulted in the carpetbagger [Emerson Bentley] being horsewhipped from out the parish, the ringleaders among the Negroes promptly arrested and executed. This riot established firmly that, though our soul had been overrun, the spirit of our people was invincible. This occurrence in St. Landry had a far-reaching effect. It taught the people of the North and of the civilized world that the Negro might be emancipated but rule over the whites of the South he never would.  ... The result was obvious. The whites had but recently whipped the blacks into subjection, and [the blacks] had marched to the polls and cast their ballots for Seymour and Blair, rather than Grant and his running mate. ... "
 
Two accounts of the Opelousas Massacre, as published in the Sacramento Daily Union

But first: To clear up possible confusion by modern-day readers: During Reconstruction following the Civil War, the Republican Party encouraged the right to vote by African-Americans, while the Democratic Party opposed the African-American right to vote - unless they voted for the Democratic candidates. 

In 1868, the white population in St. Landry Parish (Opelousas) wanted Horatio Seymour to win the presidential election. The Democratic Party's tagline at that time was: "This is a white man's country, Let a white man rule".


"The St. Landry Riot" is an article published by Sacramento Daily Union on October 28, 1868, digitized for posterity by the California Digital Newspaper Collection. It includes the accounts of two individuals, one from each side. Note how both sides in this instance use the word riot to refer to the other side. I added hyperlinks for additional information on some references:

Truthful Account by an Eye-Witness. A trustworthy correspondent of the New Orleans Republican, who was in Opelousas, Louisiana, writes the following truthful account of the recent rebel riot :

Last Monday morning three members of the Opelousas " Seymour Knights " went to the colored school, on the outer edge of the town, and severely whipped Emerson Bentley, the teacher, who is also the English editor of the St. Landry Progress. 

The attack was made because of an article published by him giving an account of a Republican meeting in Washington, in which he said that some rebel spirit was exhibited by the Democratic organizations who met the procession at Washington, thoroughly armed and equipped. The account was true in every particular, which can be proved by over 500 persons who were at the meeting at Washington. 

Bentley was an active leader of the Republican party in the parish, and as the news of his being whipped spread over Opelousas, the freedmen began assembling, armed. But Bentley and many others told them to go back to their homes, and not to start any riot, which advice having been followed, apprehensions of a difficulty subsided. Bentley made affidavits against the three "persons who assaulted him, and warrants were granted for their arrest, the time set for the trial being three o'clock in the afternoon. 

At about 11 o'clock a. M. the rebels had assembled in strong force, armed with new guns, revolvers, etc., and, taking advantage of the return of the Republicans to their homes, they took possession of the town, and sent patrols to disarm the freedmen and capture the leaders of their party, who were obliged to conceal themselves or take refuge in flight, if they were lucky enough to get out of town. 

At about 11 or. 12 o'clock A. M. the same day a body of armed men went to the office* of The Progress to see Gustavo and Cornelius Donato, who were at the office, and told them that the town belonged to them (the rebels) and that if the radicals wanted to get possession of it they could do so only by riding over the bodies of the "peace-loving," " much-abused," " down-trodden " white people of the parish. 

They had captured a courier on the road to Washington, who had told that G. Donato had sent him to Washington to tell Sam Johnson to bring the Washington club, armed, to Opelousas ; but when this courier was brought face to face with Donato, he said that somebody had told him that Donato wanted him to go to Washington. At this juncture a courier informed the crowd at the Progress office that there was fighting at Hilaire Paillet's place, a short distance out of town, whereupon the crowd mounted their homes and rushed to the scene of action. 

The fight, as far as I was able to learn, resulted in the death of one white man and two or three colored and three or four wounded on both sides. The number of freedmen was about fifteen, headed by one Adolphe Donato, and they threw down their arms only when strong reinforcements of whites arrived. Adolphe Donato made his escape. On Monday night armed bands of men were sent over town to seek for the concealed Republican leaders. The Progress office was searched without success. 

One band went to the residence of Francois D'Avy, the acknowledged leader of the Republican party, and forced an entrance to lii- room where he was asleep. He was shot at while lying on the bed, but the assassins missed their aim. He fell to the floor feigning death, and the armed crowd started to leave. D'Avy leaped out of the window and ran through the garden. ' He was shot at again while running, and the ball grazed the side of his head near the ear, without inflicting serious damage.

D'Avy escaped, as did all the rest of the leaders of our party except Durand, French editor of the Progress, who has been in Opelousas twelve or fifteen years, but is a citizen of France, never having been naturalized. He was taken from his house on Monday night by armed men into the woods and was not seen afterward. 

All day Tuesday and the succeeding night the roads were strictly guarded, and persons were arrested and searched before they were permitted to enter the town. On Tuesday night the Progress office was again entered and the material was entirely destroyed. The type was thrown into the streets and the press broken. Two young men who were employed in the Progress office were advised by the rebels to leave, which they did on Wednesday morning by the boat. 

Violet, who is agent for the Freedmen's Bureau in St. Landry, fraternizes with and assists the rebels in their unlawful depredations. He was with the crowd that went to the Progress office to see the Messrs. Donato. The men who assaulted Bentley rode around town armed, and no attempt was made to arrest them. Their names are Mayo, Dixon and Williams. All is quiet now, but a strict watch is kept by the rebels to prevent an uprising.

Democratic Recital of lbe Dulcbery.

To complete the picture, we reproduce the Democratic version from the Bulletin of October sth, showing that the massacre of colored men in the outskirts of the town was horrible:

We learn the following particulars of the riot in Opelousas from Dr. Taylor, of that place, who was present at the time and an eye-witness at the terrible scene. 

Its origin is traced to an article published in a radical paper called the Progress, recently established there to disseminate Republican principles, to promote peace and good order in that part of the State, and to do the printing under the famous bill of the Legislature. 

The editor, Bentley, had misrepresented the official conduct of the Deputy Sheriff, an ex-Federal officer, and was called upon to publish a correct statement the following week. Instead, however, of making the desired retraction, the editor of the Progress only added insult to injury by publishing a still grosser libel than the first. Whereupon he was waited on by the injured party, who proceeded to administer a severe castigation in the way of a wholesome application of the cowhide to the tune of lashes. 

This performance took place in the presence of fifty of the negroes who were attending the school over which Bentley presided as dominie. The cowhiding of their preceptor naturally aroused their sympathies, and they set up such a howling as to cause the assembly of a gang of negroes about the schoolhouse, who proposed to commence the work immediately of cleaning out the people of Opelousaa. The time had come for work, and it was proposed to '* pitch in." 

Couriers were then dispatched to the plantations with orders to bring in all the negroes well armed. In a short time the whole town was almost entirely surrounded by these enraged negroes. A company of twenty-five white men then rode out to meet them, and to persuade them to disband. Before reaching the place where the negroes had congregated the whites were fired upon by a band of negroes who were ambushed. Five horses were killed, and the riders of four badly wounded. 

The whites then made an attack upon the assaulting party and killed every one of them, The whites, after being re-enforced, then rode into the crowd of negroes, who had assembled just beyond where the first attack was made. Upon their approach the negroes fired one volley and then fled. 

The whites then pursued them, and only desisted after killing all that they found with weapons in their hands. The next day the various plantations were visited, and the negroes were made to understand that unless they surrendered their arms they should be taken out and shot. This threat had the desired effect, and negroes from far and near brought in their arms, several hundred in number, ' and handed them over to the whites. 

During the disturbance the office of the Progress was gutted and the types were scattered to the winds. The editor was not to be found, and has not since been heard of. It is estimated that over 100 negroes were killed and about 50 wounded. The whites had four wounded, but none killed.


"The negroes were made to understand .." ... chilling words.


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