- Historic Sites
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
He raced back to his hotel, packed a few necessities, and left his trunk in the hall, plainly visible so that if Warmoth came looking for him, he would assume he was still in town. By midnight of Saturday he was on a train bound for New Orleans. Unfortunately he encountered a six-hour delay in changing trains at Pittsburgh, and again was held up six hours at Cincinnati. By Sunday night he was still far, far from home. And by then his fellow gambler Warmoth had spotted the bluff and was playing high cards of his own.
Warmoth recorded that he was unsuspecting when Pinchback failed to show up for dinner. New York was, in its own way, a place with pleasant distractions for a visiting Southerner, and Warmoth assumed that his still youthful lieutenant governor had found a more interesting table companion. But on Sunday morning he ran into another black Louisianian, a friend of Pinchback’s, who said that he had not seen Pinchback at all the preceding evening. Light suddenly flashed on Warmoth, and within a few moments he had called on a major resource. The Louisiana chairman of the Liberal Republican campaign was also the manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, the iron highroad of the Mississippi Valley. Warmoth’s message to him was a simple and clear command —Pinchback must be stopped, and he, Warmoth, must catch up with him.
Sunday night sped by while the unsuspecting Pinchback ignored peculiar lengthy halts as his train wound its way southward. In the small hours of Monday or Tuesday morning (the record is not quite clear), he was sound asleep when the car squealed to a halt in the little town of Canton, Mississippi. A man came aboard and shook Pinchback awake. There was, he said, a telegram for the lieutenant governor in the station, which he must come and sign for personally. Sleepily Pinchback pulled on some clothing and followed the dancing circle of the man’s lantern into the depot. He was scarcely inside when he heard the door slam behind him and a key turn in the lock. Simultaneously came the awful, unmistakable hissing and coughing of the locomotive starting up. Reacting quickly, Pinchback spun around, found a window, jerked it open, and tumbled out onto the platform. But it was too late; the train was already vanishing.
Pinchback knew what he would see when the next train pulled in hours later. Warmoth was grinning at him from the rear platform—a fourof-a-kind grin, richly enjoyed at the expense of a man who thought that his full house had taken the pot. “Hello, old fellow,” Warmoth chirped. “What are you doing here?” “I am on my way home,” said Pinchback. “Governor Pinchback,” boomed Warmoth in what must have been a moment of rare elation that year, “step right into my car and I will take you home.”
The last laugh was Pinchback’s—temporarily. The election resulted in chaos. Two sets of returns were filed in almost every district. Those reported by Warmoth’s officials added up to a victory for the DemocraticLiberal Republican candidate, Samuel D. McEnery. But the Kellogg forces insisted that these figures were false, and throughout December pro-Kellogg state legislators presented themselves in New Orleans, then the capital, with duly attested certificates of election. Among the “victors,” according to the Kellogg group, was Pinchback—elected as congressman-at-large.
As outgoing governor, Warmoth could throw the state’s official recognition to the McEnery forces. But the members of the lame-duck legislature —mostly composed by now of men who had come to hate Warmoth—realized this, too, and moved to prevent it by voting articles of impeachment against him—58 to 6. The case would never be tried, for Warmoth had only a little over a month left in office, and everyone knew it. But under the law the mere filing of the articles suspended Warmoth officially, and Pinckney B. S. Pinchback became governor of Louisiana. Other than seeing to it that legislators “elected” on the Kellogg ticket were sworn in, he did little. His annual message mildly recommended an investigation into the actual size of the public debt and the performance of state-chartered corporations and an improvement in the law providing for state printing.
A situation both comic and ominous now developed. Two legislatures convened; each claimed to be legitimate, and each swore in a different governor. The Kellogg legislature then elected Pinchback United States senator. They had possession of the State House and the official machinery, but they had to be protected by federal troops against threats that the bitter McEnery supporters would try to throw them out by force. In May, Grant formally recognized the Kellogg regime, which was not unexpected. As it turned out, it was also not enough to help Pinchback. Grant or no Grant, the legal standing of the lawmakers who had voted for him for senator was in doubt. Therefore when he presented himself to the Congress of the United States on March 4, 1873, he was in for an argument.
Pinchback presented his credentials both to the House and to the Senate, though it was clearly to the latter body that he aspired. He would have been only the second Negro senator. (The other, Hiram R. Revels, was from Mississippi—and in 1875 he was joined by Blanche K. Bruce, likewise a Negro. Thereafter no American black was chosen to the Senate until Edward Brooke, of Massachusetts, was elected in 1960.) He craved the honor intensely, and Warmoth asserted in his memoirs that Pinchback had bragged of spending ten thousand dollars to get the seat. Since Pinchback might well have done so—and since Warmoth might well have repeated an unfounded lie—there is no way to judge.