A Vermont carpetbagger barely survives north Louisiana resistance
In the years called Reconstruction after the Civil War, carpetbaggers and scalawags wrested political control of Louisiana long held by Democrats. Northerners who moved to the South to take advantage of the unstable social, financial, and political climate to make their fortunes were mockingly called carpetbaggers since they often arrived clutching soft-sided suitcases made of carpet. Allen Greene, senator from Lincoln Parish, exemplified the scalawag since he was a local who threw in with the Radical Republicans to achieve his personal political and financial aspirations. Scalawags were considered traitors to the South and just as bad, if not worse, than the carpetbaggers.
When white Southerners referred to carpetbaggers, men like Marshall Twitchell of Vermont came to mind.
Twitchell joined the Union army at the start of the war and fought in major battles in Virginia. Severely wounded at the battle of the Wilderness when a bullet entered his skull, army surgeons left him for dead. After a miraculous recovery, Twitchell served as an officer for a black regiment composed mostly of former slaves. Unlike other carpetbaggers who journeyed south after the war, often to exploit and loot the defeated Confederate states, Twitchell became an agent of the Freedmen's Bureau. Stationed at Sparta in Bienville Parish, his duties entailed assisting emancipated slaves in their transition to freedom.
Twitchell left the Freeman’s Bureau in mid-1866 and married Adele Coleman, the daughter of a prominent Bienville Parish planter. He acquired land on the east bank of Lake Bistineau and down the Red River to Coushatta, where he established a veritable Yankee colony of his Vermont relatives. Marrying into a leading local family and serving as manager of the combined Coleman-Twitchell properties, the New Englander established himself as a force to be reckoned with in business and political affairs.
Republican rule in Louisiana rested on the votes of recently freed slaves concentrated in the bottomlands of the Red River and Mississippi River. With the support of newlyenfranchised black voters, Twitchell was elected from DeSoto Parish as a Republican to the state senate in 1868.
In 1871, Twitchell and a DeSoto Parish ally sponsored bills to create Red River Parish from portions of DeSoto, Bienville, Caddo, Bossier, and Natchitoches parishes. The town of Coushatta, across the Red River from Twitchell’s Starlight Plantation, became the parish seat. By placing the newly created parish firmly in Radical Republican hands, Twitchell helped solidify control of Louisiana state government, much like Allen Greene would do in 1873 with the creation of Lincoln Parish.
Twitchell appointed blacks to local government and placed his three brothers-in-law in choice political posts. Initially, local white Democrats did not actively protest Twitchell’s actions. The creation of Red River Parish coincided with the first signs of economic recovery since the Civil War and the locals tolerated Republican political control.
Conditions changed by 1873, however, with a national financial panic and a local epidemic of yellow fever. The disputed 1872 gubernatorial election amplified political tensions in Louisiana, especially with no resolution for months. Both Democratic and Republican candidates certified their own slates of local officers, giving many parishes dual governments.
Established in May 1874 from white militias, the White League formed first in the Red River Valley and spread across Louisiana. The White League used violence against officeholders, running some out of town and killing others, and suppressed election turnout among black and white Republicans. The Twitchell family and Republican office holders feared for their lives.
Twitchell left Coushatta in midsummer 1874 for the state Republican convention in New Orleans. In his absence, the White League, led by Coushatta businessman Thomas Abney, seized control of the government in Natchitoches Parish and advanced to Red River. On Saturday, August 29, the gang rounded up Twitchell's brother Homer, brothers-in-law Clark Holland and Monroe Willis, Sheriff Frank Edgerton, and two others. After hours of ruthless interrogation and intimidation, the men resigned their posts and promised in writing to leave the state and never return in return for a promise of safe passage to Shreveport.
Abney chose an escort of about 25 men, and mid-morning on Sunday, August 30, 1874, prisoners and guards rode toward Shreveport. Minutes after the column crossed into the parish line, guards at the rear of the group spotted the approach of 40 or 50 heavily armed riders. The gang overtook the procession, crying out to the guards, “Clear the track,” or die with the prisoners. Red River Parish official Robert Dewees, Homer Twitchell, and Sheriff Edgerton died in the first hail of bullets. The lynch mob grabbed parish attorney William Howell, Willis, and Holland and executed them. The Coushatta escort did nothing to prevent the massacre of the six men.
In the meantime, south of Coushatta, a black leader named Levin Allen was seized, tortured, and murdered. Then, on Monday, the Coushatta White League conducted a mock trial of two of the black prisoners confined in Abney’s store, Louis Johnson and Paul Williams, accused of shooting a white man. Once the mob returned to Coushatta from the massacre, Johnson and Williams were lynched.
Although four black men perished in the Coushatta Massacre, the murder of the six white officeholders grabbed newspaper headlines across the nation. Killing African Americans in the South hardly gained notice but elimination of the officialdom of a community was unprecedented.
The massacre stunned Republicans throughout Louisiana. If the White League could eliminate all the officials of a parish with impunity (no one was ever be brought to justice), then Republican control consisted of a house of straw. The massacre occurred two weeks before 5,000 White Leaguers crushed Republican forces in the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans. Republican governance in the state never recovered from these savage assaults.
Undeterred, Twitchell returned to Coushatta despite threats his demise would be next. He refused to be intimidated and continued to defend the political and economic rights of blacks and poor whites. On May 2, 1876, Twitchell and his sole 0surviving brother-in-law, George King, were crossing the Red River by boat when a disguised gunman opened fire with a rifle. King died instantly; Twitchell survived six gunshots but both of his arms had to be amputated. He left Coushatta on a stretcher in the summer of 1876, never to return.
|Twitchell with two wooden arms after the ambush.|
The venture of the Twitchell family to Louisiana, despite some early financial and political success, ended in tragedy and heartache. Marshall Twitchell’s brother and three brothers-in-law were murdered. Twitchell himself was maimed by a would-be assassin’s bullets and his wife died of tuberculosis. His three sisters died from yellow fever. Once the Vermonter left Louisiana, he lost all his land holdings in Red River Parish.
In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Twitchell as consul to Kingston, Ontario, Canada where he served until his death in 1905. His life story was published as Carpetbagger from Vermont in 1989.
Was Twitchell a courageous man engaged in a righteous cause or an opportunistic entrepreneur who took advantage of his position and power to amass a fortune? Quite possibly, a bit of both.