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A TALE OF RECONSTRUCTION Of the turbulent career of Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, adventurer, operator, and first black governor of Louisiana. He reminds one powerfully, says the author, of the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
New Orleans, then occupied by the United States Army, was a mecca for the ambitious and unscrupulous. Vast amounts of money were at stake in the trade in captured “rebel” cotton, which required official permission. In addition the still-growing port city badly needed new levees, streetlights and railways, wharves, sewers, buildings, courthouses, asylums, and hospitals. The time was overripe for bargains and favors, golden hopes and fevers of expectation that caught up the old planting, shipping, and banking community, as well as the numerous newcomers who had followed the Yankee armies. There was a general feeling among the latter that New Orleans could become a major metropolis if northern hustle replaced the old lethargic ways—which, in translation, meant that a new crop of businessmen, lawyers, and politicians should crowd out the old. That was the revolution which was in the air in New Orleans in 1862, and it was to mature and run its course throughout Reconstruction, under changing regimes and labels.
Pinchback’s debut as a permanent Louisianian was inauspicious. Within a few days of his arrival he fell into a quarrel with his brother-in-law. Weapons were drawn; Pinchback wounded the other man, and was sent to the workhouse. He explained the affair later as a “personal rencontre.” The sentence was supposed to run for two years, but Pinchback was out in fewer than ninety days, on his petititon to enlist in the Union army. He must have had good contacts, for in a short time he raised a colored company, mustered in as Company A of the and Regiment, Louisiana Native Guards, with Pinchback as captain. The title was expressive of Union hopes that New Orleans’ nonwhite population would provide a kind of “African” fighting force like France’s Spahis. But Captain Pinchback rapidly proved that American-born blacks were not docile colonials. He spent a good deal of time protesting to Union authorities that they did not protect his troopers against such insults as segregation in public places. After about a year he resigned in disgust. Then he raised a cavalry unit and tried again, but once more quit after quarrelling with the authorities over racial policies. The war’s end found him in Washington, to discuss the raising of a black regiment from Ohio and Indiana—a project that peace made unnecessary.
Since Pinchback might have passed for a white man of Latin descent, these battles were episodes he might have avoided. Why he sought them is not easy to answer. Partly it was a matter of pride, the pride of a tawny lion recalling childhood hurts and insecurities that might not have befallen a white son of Major Pinchback. But Pinckney Pinchback must also have been aware that there was talk of enfranchising the Negro and that a black leader with a following would have a potentially bright future. In 1866 and 1867 he toured Alabama, speaking to “colored assemblies.”
One speech survives, neither moderate nor inflammatory and clearly shaped by nineteenth-century elocution lessons. He urged his black listeners to recognize the importance of wealth, “the great lever that moves the earth,” and to see that “virtue must be protected and encouraged.” He had no wish, he went on, to stir up hatred, but he warned that white “mad caps” must not “attempt to revive the scenes of the past” by restoring slavery. If such a step were taken, he said, “I cannot tell what may happen.” But if the whites treated the ex-slaves “justly and honorably, I am confident they will never have cause to regret the change in our condition.” As for the vote, Pinchback noted that some states were likely to give it to “the more intelligent of our people,” and “the party that first confers that right… will be the party entitled to our votes.”
Nothing in the scrawled manuscript surviving in Pinchback’s papers suggests the orator’s manner or whether he had those gifts of gesture, inflection, timing, and dynamics that sting the crowd to roar applause. But by April of 1867 Pinchback was influential enough to organize New Orleans’ Fourth Ward Republican Club and win election to the party’s state committee. Whatever his eloquence, his timing was good. In February of 1867 Congress had, by the Reconstruction Acts, overthrown the southern state governments recognized by Andrew Johnson with such lenience that one black historian, John Hope Franklin, has named 1865 and 1866 the period of “Reconstruction: Confederate Style.” Now it would be different—the South occupied by Federal troops, mandatory new constitutions and elections, blacks to be guaranteed the right to vote, and most ex-Confederate officials and military officers banned from the polls until Congress said otherwise.
Pinchback confidently rode this wave of political change. In the autumn of 1867 he was chosen as a delegate to the convention to rewrite the state constitution. On the floor he submitted Article 13 of the new charter, which specifically guaranteed the equality of civil rights of all men of any color whatsoever. When the first elections under the revised form of government were held in April of 1868, Pinchback easily won the seat in the state senate for the Second District, composed of three wards in New Orleans. In 1869 President Grant, doing his bit to build a Republican machine in Louisiana, appointed Pinchback to the post of registrar of the Land Office in New Orleans, obviously having been informed that the ex-steward was a colored man worth cultivating.