New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom by Justin A. Nystrom (review)
Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
Volume 111, Number 4, Autumn 2013
Aaron Astor, Associate professor of History
Maryville College, Maryville, Tennessee
Nystrom, Justin A., New Orleans after the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
The narrative arc between the birth of Radical Reconstruction and its final death in Jim Crow is bookended by two events in the city of New Orleans. The infamous “Riot of 1866” showcased for the nation the unwillingness of defeated Confederates to concede any political power to the black masses of the South emerging from slavery. The massacre of black Republicans at the Mechanics’ Institute would play a key role in undermining Johnsonian Reconstruction in the congressional elections of that year. Thirty years later, a mixed-race New Orleanian named Homer Plessy would challenge the Louisiana Separate Car Act, only to have the United States Supreme Court enshrine the “separate but equal” doctrine for the nation at large. But between these tragic moments of racial oppression and humiliation was a remarkably complex, multifaceted, and highly contingent struggle between myriad ethnoracial, class, regional, and partisan forces that complicated any teleological understanding of the rise and fall of Reconstruction.
Justin A. Nystrom’s lucid and colorful account of New Orleans after the Civil War explores this remarkable and ongoing battle for power and dignity among the various forces converging on the streets and in the local and state legislative halls. Nystrom’s portrait of nineteenth-century New Orleans reveals the webs of kinship that seamlessly crossed the color line and lent the city caste system a distinctive three-class character—whites, black slaves, and mixed-race Afro-Creoles. The delicate balance of New Orleans society, further complicated by sizable white ethnic immigrant populations pouring into the city in the 1850s, would explode as early as April 1862 when the Union navy captured the city with hardly a fight.
Nystrom’s study follows the interconnected lives of southern white elites like Ezekiel John Ellis and Frederick Nash Ogden, Afro-Creoles like Charles St. Albin Sauvinet and Louise Drouet, white Creoles like Arthur Toledano and Aristee Louis Tissot, white and black “carpetbaggers” like Algernon Sydney Badger, Henry Clay Warmoth, and Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, and ex-slaves like Peter Joseph. The intersection of these colorfully named characters produced an entropic political culture with self-serving factions vying for power in the city, the state, and the region. Nystrom expends considerable effort detailing epic street clashes like the “Battle of Liberty Place” in 1874, when a new Democratic White League movement briefly wrested control of the city from its Republican Customs House–based leadership. Added to the paramilitary violence were competing Mardi Gras floats with explicitly political messages that inscribed new and competing racial discourses that undermined the legitimacy of the mixed-race political order. Nystrom’s analysis reveals a tumultuous era of intraparty factionalism that simultaneously complicated revisionist accounts of postwar Republicanism, while also showcasing the difficulty that “Redeemer” factions faced in shaping a white supremacist order long after 1877.
This is an important book for understanding postwar urban politics in the largest city in the South. It is deeply researched, splendidly written, and well contextualized within the larger historiography of Reconstruction. There are some limitations to the personality and kin-based methodology, however. The two infamous bookending moments—the 1866 riot and the Plessy case—ironically receive only cursory treatment in this book. Nystrom’s central characters were mostly bystanders to these events, which meant that they appeared only in the narrative shadows despite their national significance. Another problem, of course, is the exceptionalism of New Orleans itself. For several obvious reasons, New Orleans was (and is) simply atypical as a southern locale. As such, a study of the city is going to have limited implications for understanding the national drama of Reconstruction. Still, Nystrom manages to extrapolate from the complex and contingent history of New Orleans to make the convincing case that the racial politics of the post–Civil War South was much more unpredictable and contested than even post–Foner historians have appreciated…