The Committee of 51 and Reformers, No. 2

In 1872, after all the fighting over the New Orleans carcass, the white Democrats were becoming agitated. Some had allied with the Custom House faction, in order to get rid of Gov. Warmoth. Dozens gathered in Lafayette Square, off Canal Street. The meeting included many carpet-baggers and black Republicans, as well. It devolved into a meeting of the anti-Warmoth faction.

The State Militia

The Custom House leaders approached senior white officers in the state militia. Packard (the Custom House faction leader) and his supporters suggested the militia attack the Metropolitans guarding the state house, so as to provoke a crack-down by Federal troops. Eugene Waggaman, the commander, rightly asked Packard how he could be sure the Federal troops would not arrive and arrest the militia under the recently passed Ku Klux Klan law? Packard simply looked at him with his hands in his pockets. Waggaman, a former officer in the Washington Artillery during the war, was suspicious of the Custom House gang. Too, it simply struck him as dis-honorable to attack a force, simply as a ruse. The militia turned down the Custom House gang.

Eventually, Gov. Warmoth won. The legislators at Packard’s saloon eventually found their way back to the state house. The state house was securely guarded by the Metropolitans and the state militia.

Meanwhile, the white Democrats were more and more upset about this breakdown of government and order. They were anxious to restore New Orleans to something like normalcy. Many of them sought a middle ground, somewhere between the reactionary white radicals and the Warmoth carpet-baggers.

A group of merchants, including many members of the new Boston Club, formed the Committee of Fifty-One. They held a mass meeting on the steps of City Hall four days after the close of Mardi Gras. Thousands attended. The Committee included 162 Vice-Presidents. The Committee included the head of Leeds Foundry, Charles Leeds, prominent lawyers and doctors. It included well-known Creole African-Americans. New Orleans was unique in the South in that it had a long tradition of freed blacks who were well-educated and well-travelled. These Creole Blacks similarly sought a more stable government. The Committee also included many working class whites. The Committee included Frederick Ogden Nash, who in just a few years will lead the whites at the Battle of Liberty Place. Edward D. White, the future Supreme Court justice also joined the group.

The Reform Party

The Committee adopted resolutions supporting a return to work. The resolutions tossed aside any “Lost cause” sentimentality. They called for the creation of a new party, the “Reform” party. They called for a convention to select candidates, regardless of color and previous political association. They adopted a platform lamenting that the lack of “political sympathy” between the black and white races of Louisiana had rendered her a “victim to the most frightful spoliation and robbery.” The party platform attacked the Warmoth regime. But, they did not address the issues of sharing transportation between the races or discuss the many white and black men then supporting the Warmoth regime. That was still an issue too sensitive.

Lt-Gov. Pinchback’s newspaper, the Louisianian, criticized the Reform party as hypocritical. They would seek black support, but would not share a carriage or trolley car with a black man. Still, this was the first movement toward something like equality. Similar movements occurred across the South, as whites tired of Federal occupation.

Justin A. Nystrom, New Orleans: After the Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press 2010), p. 118-120

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