Banks Initiates Reconstruction in Louisiana

January 11, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Department of the Gulf from New Orleans, issued orders calling for the election of Louisiana state officials and delegates to a convention that would rewrite the Louisiana constitution.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The state officials were to comprise “the civil government of the State under the Constitution and laws of Louisiana, except so much of the said Constitution and laws as recognize, regulate, or relate to slavery, which, being inconsistent with the present condition of public affairs, and plainly inapplicable to any class of persons now existing within its limits, must be suspended.”

Banks had been prodded by President Abraham Lincoln to implement his “Ten Percent Plan” in Louisiana. Banks resolved that “the only speedy and certain method” to do this was to hold a special election for state officials under the current Louisiana constitution while declaring that the provisions in that document regarding slavery were “inoperative and void.”

Most Unionists opposed Banks’s plan because they wanted to amend the constitution to not only abolish slavery but to abolish other alleged injustices that favored planters over the masses. Banks responded by also calling for the election of delegates that would revise or replace the Louisiana constitution at a later date.

Those eligible to vote in the elections for state officials and delegates were white men who swore allegiance to the Union and adhered to the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the proclamation exempted many areas of Louisiana from abolishing slavery. Also, the election would be held when Federal occupation forces controlled only 17 of the state’s 48 parishes. Regardless, Banks had the 10 percent of 1860 voters he needed to call for the election, and it was set for February 22.

Some objected to the notion that only white men would be voting to revise Louisiana’s constitution. A petition was sent to Washington, signed by over 1,000 men, calling on the Federal government to grant the “free people of color” in New Orleans the right to vote. The signees included 27 veterans of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and the relatives of many men currently serving in the military. Radical Republicans in Congress applauded the delegates who delivered the petition, and Lincoln invited them to the White House.

But while the Radicals favored granting black men the right to vote, many opposed Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan.” Congressman Henry W. Davis of Maryland introduced a resolution stating, “There is no legal authority to hold any election in the State of Louisiana; … (and) any attempt to hold an election… is a usurpation of sovereign authority against the authority of the United States.” Politics played a part in Davis’s opposition, as Lincoln had not supported Davis’s bitter struggle against the Blairs’ political machine in Maryland.

Despite the opposition, Lincoln directed Banks to “proceed with all possible despatch” to install a Unionist state government in Louisiana. He reminded Banks that, as department commander, he was “at liberty to adopt any rule which shall admit to vote any unquestionably loyal free state men and none others. And yet I do wish they would all take the oath.”

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 16850; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 359; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10346-58, 10391; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 388-89, 393; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 454, 459; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 707; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

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