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Chapter 7: banditti

The camp is pitched, the sword is king!

If President Grant will leave Sheridan as free to act in Louisiana, as he left him free to act in the Blue Ridge valleys and the Peigan hunting-grounds, my dashing neighbour sees his way to square accounts with such opponents as Wiltz and Ogden, McEnery and Penn. “I know these people well,” he says, “having lived with them in other times, when they were wilder than they are to-day. I have no doubt about my course. The White League must be trodden down. They are a bad lot: mere banditti, bent on mischief. In New Orleans you see the best of them. The men are pleasant fellows; even the White Leaguers here are decent; but in the country districts-Bossier and St. Bernard, Natchitoches and Red River-they are hell.” [66]

At ten o'clock in the evening Sheridan wires these words to Belknap, Secretary of War:

New Orleans: Jan. 4, 1875.
It is with deep regret that I have to announce to you the existence in this State of a spirit of defiance to all lawful authority, and an insecurity of life which is hardly realized by the General Government or the country at large. The lives of citizens have become so jeopardized, that, unless something is done to give protection to the people, all security usually afforded by law will be over-ridden. Defiance to the laws and the murder of individuals seem to be looked upon by the community here from a standpoint which gives impunity to all who choose to indulge in either, and the civil government appears powerless to punish or even arrest. I have to-night assumed control over the Department of the Gulf.

This Department of the Gulf, comprising three great States-Louisiana, Missisippi, and Arkansas, with all the forts and stations in the Gulf of Mexico, except the forts in Mobile Bay — are swept by one stroke of the pen from McDowell's Division of the South. [67]

Next morning brings Sheridan an assurance from the Adjutant-General, Townsend, that his conduct is “ approved:” to which assurance he replies by sending up his scheme for dealing with the Southern States; a document likely to be famous in the story of American Liberty. No Spanish viceroy in Sicily, no Muscovite governor of Poland, ever asked imperial masters for such license as Sheridan asks of President Grant. His scheme for governing the South rests on a proposal to have the chief citizens of these rich and prosperous States denounced by Government as outlaws and banditti, and delivered over to his subalterns for punishment!

This startling telegram to Belknap runs:

New Orleans: Jan. 5, 1875.
I think that the terrorism now existing in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas could be entirely removed, and confidence and fair-dealing established, by the arrest and trial of the ringleaders of the armed White Leagues. If Congress would pass a bill declaring them banditti they could be tried by a military commission. The ringleaders of this banditti, who murdered men here on the 14th of September last, and also more recently [68] at Vicksburg, in Mississippi, should, in justice to law and order, and the peace and prosperity of this Southern part of the country, be punished. It is possible that if the President would issue a proclamation declaring them banditti, no further action need be taken, except that which would devolve upon me.

If the President will only declare them banditti! Yes; in that case you can stand aside and leave the rest to me!

Is this, men ask, the language of an American soldier, living in the nineteenth century, writing of his fellow-citizens? The tone is that of a Castilian general in Oran, of a Turkish pasha in Belgrade.

The adjutants and secretaries near the President seem delighted by such vigour, and in forwarding the news to public departments they begin to use scant courtesy and suspicious terms. A copy of Townsend's first letter to Sheridan, now twelve days old, is sent to General McDowell, from which this eminent soldier learns that his command in the Gulf has been swept away! In telling General Sherman that [69] Sheridan has taken the command in New Orleans, Townsend describes this officer as having “annexed” the Gulf, and adds by way of clincher, “the measure is deemed necessary, and is approved.” General Sherman answers dryly:

St. Louis: Jan. 6, 1875.
Your telegram of the fifth instant, stating that General Sheridan has annexed Department of Gulf to his command, has been received.

Meanwhile the President is called to study a remonstrance and appeal from Speaker Wiltz, who first telegraphs to him a brief account of the invasion:

I have the honour to inform you that the House of Representatives of this State was organized to day by the election of myself as Speaker, fifty-eight members, two more than a quorum, voting, with a full House present. More than two hours after the organization, I was informed by the officer in command of the United States troops in this city that he had been requested by Governor Kellogg to remove certain members of the House from the State House, and that, under his orders, he was obliged to comply with the request. I protested [70] against any interference of the United States with the organization or proceedings of the House; but notwithstanding this protest, the officer in command marched a company of soldiers upon the floor of the House, and by force removed thirteen members, who had been legally and constitutionally seated as such, and who, at time of such forcible removal, were participating in the proceedings of the House. In addition to this the military declared their purpose to further interfere with force in the business and organization of this assembly, upon which some fifty-two members and the Speaker withdrew, declining to participate any longer in the business of the House under the dictation of the military.

Such being the facts, Louis A. Wiltz, as Speaker, respectfully appeals to the President to be informed “ by what authority and under what law the United States army interrupted and broke up a sessions of the House of Representatives of the State of Louisiana?” Should it appear, Wiltz goes on to say, that this invasion has been made without law and authority, he urgently requests that the Federal troops may be ordered to restore the House to its [71] old position, and he demands, no less urgently, that the Federal officers shall be instructed by the War Department that it is no part of their duty to interfere with the internal workings of a general assembly.

What is President Grant to say?

Caesar — as General Grant is now called, not only in the South, but in the North and West-is not so confident as Belknap and his adjutants that things are all going well in New Orleans. America has many voices, and her voices reach him in the secret places of his Cabinet. They strike him like the roar of coming storms.

Accounts of what was done in Royal Street on Sunday night and Monday morning fill the daily prints of every town from Galveston to Portland, from Savannah to San Francisco. Most of these accounts are printed with satirical and indignant leaders. Many of the writers treat the incident as a pastime. Is it not Carnival — a time for quips and cranks? This Negro orgy in the State House is a joke; that drinking-bar, those hot suppers, that midnight caucus, and those morning cocktails, are conceits of comic writers. But the press, in [72] general, take the thing in serious mood, and to their credit the ablest Republican journals are the sternest critics of De Trobriand's acts. Are we in France? they ask. Is Grant a Bonaparte? Are Emory and De Trobriand the hireling soldiers of a bastard empire? Are we already governed by a Caesar, and is the White House an American Tuileries?

Each word pronounced of late by President Grant is scanned, and in their present temper people are disposed to find Caesarism lurking under phrases which at any other time would seem no worse than awkward forms of speech. Grant is seldom happy in his words. Knowing his weakness, he is silent in strange company; but the ruler of a great country cannot choose but speak and write; and with all his great qualities he is often unfortunate in his use of tongue and pen. His recent Message to Congress on the Centennial Exposition is a case in point. In this State paper he gives a new reading to that famous passage in the Declaration of Independence which describes the primary rights of man as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” By way of better reading, President Grant describes [73] Americans as a people engaged in “ the pursuit of fame, fortune, and honours;” not of honour, but of “ honours.” It is nothing, probably, but a clumsy phrase; yet critics roused to anger cry out against it, as the very accent of a Caesar. Fame, fortune, and honours! Are these things the ideals to be held before American youth? Snakes hide in grass-Caesars may lurk in an unguarded phrase.

A whisper of the President's doubts and fears arrives at Headquarters, in the St. Charles Hotel. The adjutants want a little more “vigour;” and Sheridan, who never stops to weigh his words telegraphs to his friend the Secretary of War:

New Orleans: Jan. 5, 1875.
Please say to the President that he need give himself no uneasiness about the condition of affairs here. I will preserve the peace, which it is not hard to do, with the naval and military forces in and about the city; and if Congress will declare the White Leagues and other similar organizations, White or Black, banditti, I will relieve it from the necessity of any special legislation for the preservation of peace and equality of rights in the States of [74] Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas; and the Executive from much of the trouble heretofore had in this section of the country.

Ave Caesar! With the fleet and army now at New Orleans, no White citizen dares to stir!

The White Leaguers to be denounced by Caesar as bandits are the White people-planters, advocates, physicians, bankers, clergymen, owners of the land, the buildings, and the produce-masters of all the liberal and domestic arts. A majority are of English origin. What Sheridan asks is nothing less than that the English race in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas shall be put beyond the pale of law, and handed over to the military power. Give him free range, and the Executive shall have no further trouble in these parts. Here is no Carnival prince, as people say, in sport. Men recollect the Peigan business. Since Sheridan paid his visit to their hunting-grounds, the Executive has never been troubled by reports from Peigan camps.

The evening papers print the text of Sheridan's telegram. Banditti! Banditti! Still banditti? Yet [75] a change of tone is evident in this despatch. Yesterday the word was applied to White leaguers only; now it is applied to similar organizations, whether White or Black. Sheridan has learned, not merely that a Black League exists, but that a Black leaguer may be brother in offence to a White leaguer. No longer of opinion that a proclamation by President Grant is sufficient, Sheridan now asks the ministers to get an Act of Congress passed, giving him authority to hang such men as General Ogden and Captain Angel, Governor McEnery and Lieutenant-governor Penn.

Banditti! How the word appears to leap on every lip and blister every tongue! Banditti? We banditti? We, the proudest gentlemen and noblest gentlewomen in America, branded as outlaws by a subaltern of General Grant!

“ You see a female bandit,” sneers a young and lively girl, on whose father we make an afternoon call. “A dozen bandits,” laughs a famous soldier, introducing me to an evening circle at the Boston Club. These citizens fret and fume, not only against the phrase, but what the phrase implies. [76] A bandit is an outlaw, and an outlaw subject to the military arm.

A fire-spirit seems to have breathed all day on street and quay. At midnight, Sheridan telegraphs to Belknap, using a secret cipher for his message:

New Orleans: Jan. 5, 1875.
There is some excitement in the rotunda of the St. Charles Hotel to-night on the publication by the newspapers of my despatch to you calling the secret armed organization banditti. Give yourself no uneasiness. I see my way clear enough, if you will only have confidence.

Belknap has confidence; so have the adjutants. Caesar is not so sure. Caesar is never half so sure of things as his lieutenants. Will the army support a purely military policy? American soldiers are American citizens. Though brave and loyal, they are free men, caring little for glory, and much for liberty. On whom besides Sheridan can tile President rely? Sherman stands aloof. McDowell is offended, not only by the loss of his Department on the Gulf, but by the secret orders under which [77] his province has been seized. Yet Belknap, more Caesarian than Caesar, wires to New Orleans:

War Department: Jan. 6, 1875.
Your telegrams all received. The President and all of us have full confidence, and thoroughly appreciate your course.

All of us? Who are these “all of us” The telegram is dated “ War Department.” “All of us” may only mean the adjutants and secretaries; but as Belknap is a Cabinet minister, “all of us” may mean the whole Executive. In this sense it is read by General Sheridan's staff. If they are right this telegram is the most serious document issued since the war. If Hamilton Fish and Benjamin H. Bristow have endorsed the military action in this city, we may look for storms.

At noon a second telegram comes, in explanation of the first, which seems to prove that Fish and Bristow are as much committed to Caesarism as either Williams or Belknap ; yet Sheridan, after reading and re-reading the document, feels uncertain of the sense, and puzzled as to what he is empowered to do. The message runs: [78]

War Department: Jan. 6, 1875.

“You seem to fear that we have been misled by biassed or partial statements of your acts. Be assured that the President and Cabinet confide in your wisdom, and rest in the belief that all acts of yours have been and will be judicious. This I intended to say in my brief telegram.”

How is Sheridan to take these words? The Cabinet is now associated with the President, but there is no more talk of approval. They confide in his wisdom! Yesterday their cry was for energy. Energy gave them confidence. Now they rest in the belief that his acts have been and will be judicious! Was Philip Sheridan sent to New Orleans in mid-winter, to be judicious? Is the word a hint? No order now to be quick and stern --to lay on and spare not! Where is the reply to his request that ministers will get a short bill pushed through Congress branding the White citizens as outlaws, and turning them over to his subalterns? Not a word. Taking then this second message as a call to order, he answers at night:

New Orleans: Jan. 6, 1875.
The city is very quiet to-day. Some of the [79] banditti made idle threats last night that they would assassinate me. . . . I am not afraid.

Ten minutes after this message is posted in New Orleans, every lip is rippling into merriment and mockery. “Afraid! Who's afraid? I'm not afraid. Are you afraid? Why, Sheridan's not afraid! Ha, ha! Even Phil. Sheridan's not afraid!”

Caesarism has strong points; but the temper to put up with scorn and sarcasm is not one of those strong points.

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