1872 Louisiana Gubernatorial Election

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Photo Credit: F.C. Zacharie's review of the Constitutional Points in the Louisiana Case. New Orleans: Clark and Hofeline, 1874, p. 1. Located in John Minor Wisdom Collection, Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University, Folder 30, Document 599.


The gubernatorial election of 1872 was one of the most chaotic periods in Louisiana’s history. Two governments were established in Louisiana for a short period of time and this instigated a wave of racial violence throughout the state. John McEnery and William Pitt Kellogg, the two rival candidates for the position of Governor, didn’t give up their positions until President Ulysses S. Grant was forced to intervene and declare Kellogg the legal governor. Grant’s decision was hotly contested by Democrats in Louisiana and by a large majority of whites in the state.


In 1872, John McEnery and William Pitt Kellogg went head to head for the Louisiana Governor position. John McEnery, the Democratic Party’s candidate for governor, was born in Petersburg, Virginia on March 31, 1833. He and his family moved to Monroe, Louisiana in 1835. A few years later he attended the University of Louisiana, now Tulane University, and received a law degree. During the Civil War, McEnery served as a captain, and then later a major, for the Confederacy. William Pitt Kellogg, the Republican Party’s candidate for governor, was born in Orwell, Vermont. Later on he moved to Illinois and became a lawyer. During the Civil War, he fought for the Union Army in Illinois. While in Illinois, Kellogg joined the Republican Party and befriended Abraham Lincoln. After the Civil War, Lincoln appointed Kellogg as the federal collector of customs of New Orleans. [1] After the election, both candidates claimed victory. Both candidates held inaugural celebrations and the state was thrown into chaos. The sitting governor, Henry Clay Warmoth, a member of the Republican Party, supported the Democratic bid for power. Warmoth opposed the faction of the Republican Party that was loyal to President Ulysses S. Grant. The president, in turn, supported Kellogg. The election of 1872 highlights the turmoil and chaos of the Reconstruction period. Two different men were vying for power in one state. Louisiana, in effect, had two different competing governments at the same time. Both sides were so unwilling to compromise with each other that the national government had to get involved. This election provides but a glimpse at the post-war rebuilding of the South.

Election Outcome

The outcome of the 1872 election was very unclear. Both sides argued that they had won. The sitting governor, Warmoth, controlled the State Returning Board and announced that McEnery had won the election. [2] However, a faction of the Republican party, called the Custom House Gang, convened and declared Kellogg the winner of the election. Then, Warmoth assembled his new legislature for a special session in New Orleans at the Mechanics Institute. However, U.S. District Judge E.H. Durrell stated that this was an “unlawful assemblage.” [3] The House, then, impeached Warmoth and P.B.S. Pinchback, the lieutenant governor, immediately took office as governor. Pinchback was the first African American to ever serve as governor. His appointment caused an uproar throughout Louisiana. Meanwhile, on January 13, 1873, both John McEnery and William Pitt Kellogg took the oath of office and formed their own legislatures. Louisiana had two acting governors and two acting governments.


The ordeal was plagued by controversies. On March 5, 1873, McEnery sent a number of militia men to Kellogg’s headquarters in order to gain control of the state from Kellogg. The federal government was forced to send troops to quell the uprising. However, three men were killed and eight men were wounded. Following this, Kellogg’s administration attempted to remove McEnery’s legislature from their meeting place at Odd Fellows Hall. Louisiana became a breeding ground for riots and uprisings after the election. The situation became so bad and the two parties were in such a stalemate that Congress had to intervene. They began to investigate the election. They found that Judge Durell’s actions had been illegal and stated that McEnery should be recognized as the legal governor. However, failing that, they proclaimed that a new election should be called. With no means to install McEnery or call a new election, they left the decision up to President Grant. After hearing of the many riots throughout Louisiana, President Grant proclaimed Kellogg to be the legal governor of the state. This proved to be a very controversial decision. Both Northerners and Southerners in Congress reacted unfavorably to Grant’s decision. Republicans in Congress even privately argued that he had made the wrong decision. F.C. Zacharie wrote an article discussing the constitutionality of Grant’s decision. He argues against those that say that McEnery had an unfair advantage because of sitting governor Warmoth’s support. According to Zacharie, “That this allegaton is true cannot be denied, it may even be admitted that Warmoth’s influence was considered to be worth 30,000 votes, but the inference drawn from it, that the Fusion [Democratic] party made the combination in order to get the unfair use of Governor Warmoth’s position, and profit by his abuse of the power in his hands, is untrue and unjust to the Democratic Reform and Liberal Committees who effected the fusion.” [4] Zacharie goes on to write, “The [Democratic] fusion was for the purpose of preventing the immense power and control for evil, purposely placed by a Republican Legislature in the hands of a Republican Governor, with that specific object in view.” [5] However, some leaders claimed that “the Republicans had a natural majority in Louisiana because of the state’s black voting majority and that McEnery was nothing but a violent usurper attempting to overthrow a duly constituted government.” [6]

Colfax Massacre

In the small town of Colfax, Louisiana, the seat of Grant Parish, black Republicans took control of the Colfax courthouse. They supported Kellogg’s government and refused to leave the courthouse. On April 13, 1873, a white mob, supporters of McEnery’s government, attacked the courthouse and attempted to drive the black Republicans out. The white mob set the courthouse on fire and, afterwards, it was confirmed that over one hundred African Americans had perished in the massacre, along with three white men. [7] As was the norm in the post-war South, the members of the white mob were not persecuted for their crime by local authorities. However, federal prosecutors charged nine white men with conspiring to deprive Colfax’s black citizens of their civil rights. The case made it to the Supreme Court under the name United States v. Cruikshank. The Supreme Court, however, decided that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applied to states only and not individuals. In essence, the Supreme Court allowed white violence against blacks to happen unchecked. This massacre is but one that happened in the south at this time. It was instigated because of the bitter political battle between Kellogg and McEnery and because of the growing racial tensions in the state.

The Battle of Liberty Place

The Battle of Liberty Place, as it is sometimes referred to, took place on September 14, 1874 when the Crescent City White League, a group of white Democrats who supported McEnery’s government, attacked the Kellogg regime’s police force on Canal Street. Prior to this clash, the League had held a mass meeting at the Henry Clay statue, then at the intersection of Royal Street and Canal Street, and there they planned to overthrow Kellogg’s government. McEnery’s lieutenant governor, D.B. Penn, led the meeting and called “on all able-bodied men to drive the usurpers from power.” [8] They then sent a letter to Kellogg demanding for his immediate resignation, and when he refused, they armed themselves and prepared to reassemble later that day. Kellogg, sensing the coming conflict, sought refuge in the United States Customs House on Canal Street. The White League reassembled and set up barricades on Poydras Street where a group of 500 policemen fired on them. The battle only lasted fifteen minutes, but there were a great number of injuries and casualties. “Eleven police[men] were killed and sixty wounded; the White League counted sixteen killed and forty-five wounded.” [9] The next day Kellogg’s police force surrendered and the White League, in essence, declared McEnery the legal governor. However, President Grant heard of this riot and sent in federal troops to help drive off the rebels. McEnery, who was not present at the time of the riot, had returned to Louisiana and decided to surrender to Kellogg and his administration. McEnery did not want to fight the federal government to gain the position of governor. With McEnery’s surrender and his supporters dispersed, Kellogg was named the legal governor of Louisiana.


This period in Louisiana’s history was very chaotic and turbulent. The election of 1872 brought many problems of the post-war South to light. The election was a catalyst for a wave of violence throughout the state, both racial and political, and it highlighted the deep divide between not only Southern Democrats and Republicans, but also between the federal government and Southern state governments. The Supreme Court ruling after the Colfax Massacre effectively ended Reconstruction in the South by allowing white violence against blacks to go unchecked. This ushered in the implementation of Jim Crow and other laws that effectively legalized discrimination and segregation against African Americans.

Works Cited

  • Zuczek, Richard. Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction Era. Vol. 1, A-L. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006. pg. 363.
  • Cowan, Walter G., and Jack B. McGuire. Louisiana Governors: Rulers, Rascals, and Reformers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. pg. 11.
  • Cowan, Walter G., and Jack B. McGuire. Louisiana Governors: Rulers, Rascals, and Reformers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. pg. 11.
  • Zacharie, F.C. A Review of the Constitutional Point in the Louisiana Case, The Law and the Evidence. New Orleans: Clark & Hofeline, Book Printers, 1874, pp. 5-6.
  • Zacharie, F.C. A Review of the Constitutional Point in the Louisiana Case, The Law and the Evidence. New Orleans: Clark & Hofeline, Book Printers, 1874, pg. 6.
  • Rable, George. “Republican Albatross: The Louisiana Question, National Politics, and the Failure of Reconstruction,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Spring, 1982), pg. 112.
  • Lane, Charles. “The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction”, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 60 (Summer, 2008), pg. 92.
  • Cowan, Walter G., and Jack B. McGuire. Louisiana Governors: Rulers, Rascals, and Reformers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. pg. 115.
  • Cowan, Walter G., and Jack B. McGuire. Louisiana Governors: Rulers, Rascals, and Reformers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. pg. 116.

This page was last modified on 10 April 2014, at 10:09


United States Custom House

423 Canal St., New Orleans, Louisiana


Crescent City White League Mass Meeting

Intersection of Canal Street and Royal Street, New Orleans, LA