(“Then Again” is Mark Bushnell’s column about Vermont history.)
Marshall Harvey Twitchell walked into a hornet’s nest in the fall of 1865. The young Vermonter traveled to Louisiana at the end of the Civil War to take on the nearly suicidal job as the chief federal authority in a region that had no interest in federal authority, or in black equality, which Twitchell was there to promote. Red River Parish was located in the last part of the Confederacy to surrender. It was also one of the most violent places in America.
Twitchell seemed well suited for the dangerous assignment. He had volunteered for the Union Army and fought in some of the war’s bloodiest battles, at Antietam, Fredericksburg and the Wilderness. He had been wounded numerous times and bore a long scar on his face, the result of being shot by a Minié ball. And he was accustomed to working alongside free blacks, having led black soldiers in combat.
Twitchell learned he would be on his own. “I was without telegraphy, railway or water connections,” he later recalled. “If I had known beforehand what my position was to be, I should have remained with my regiment.”
With the war lost and slavery outlawed, white Southerners struggled with the new social order in which African-Americans had, at least in theory, gained legal rights approaching their own. Some whites tried to intimidate them through violence and intimidation. In 1865, the year the war ended, more than 2,000 blacks, many of them leaders in their communities, were murdered in Louisiana alone.
It was Twitchell’s job to resist this wave of violence and ensure the rights of African-Americans. The region’s formerly wealthy planters resented him for it.
By early 1866, Twitchell had another problem. He and a local girl, Adele Coleman, have fallen in love. The Coleman family was hardly thrilled with the idea of having a Yankee join their ranks. Some of Adele’s relatives wanted Twitchell dead. But in the end, the family consented to their union.
The marriage proved convenient for both families. Within six months, the couple bought a 420-acre plantation. Twitchell at the age of 26 had saved enough money to purchase the farm for a price that was out of reach of cash-strapped Southerners.
Around this time, Southerners came up with a name for Northerners who they saw as prospering from their misery: “carpetbaggers.” To them, Twitchell was a prime example.
In addition to money, Twitchell had power. When the federal government required Southern states to form constitutional conventions to ratify the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing the rights of blacks, Twitchell was made a delegate. More than half his fellow delegates were African-Americans. Twitchell also helped write the new Louisiana constitution. White Southerners seethed with resentment as they watched Northerners and recently freed blacks making important decisions about their state.
The plantation prospered thanks to Twitchell’s business savvy and the Colemans’ knowledge of cotton farming. By 1870, he purchased a second farm. Things were going so well, that his brother, Homer, his sisters, their husbands and his mother decide to leave Vermont for Red River Parish.
Twitchell won election to the state Senate as a member of the Republican Party, which was fighting to reconstruct the South, not just pacify it as Democrats wanted. He also continued his work for the Freedmen’s Bureau, building churches, courthouses and schools. He used his power to appoint his newly arrived relatives to top government positions.
Local whites viewed Twitchell as an invader and a tyrant. In 1874, while Twitchell was away at the Republican convention in New Orleans, a group of whites, calling themselves the White League, set out to cause an incident they could exploit to rid themselves of carpetbaggers. They attacked African-Americans in the area. When a white man was injured in one of the attacks, the White League claimed that the Twitchells were supporting a black revolt. They rounded up Homer and three of his brothers-in-law and forced them to sign documents promising to resign their positions and leave Louisiana. After signing the papers, Homer, his brothers-in-law and two other Republicans were led by armed guards toward Texas with all their possessions.
Once out of town, the men heard the sound of approaching horses. Turning, they saw a mass of 30 to 40 men riding toward them. The riders yelled to the guards to step aside, or they would face the same fate as awaited the prisoners. One of the prisoners shouted, “Mount and ride for your lives!” Homer and two others were shot down quickly. The three others were soon tracked down and killed. The six were hastily buried on the spot.
Headlines blared news of the massacre. “Terrorism in the South,” declared one. The killings managed to horrify a nation inured to violence. An armed mob had murdered a half dozen government officials.
Twitchell returned to Coushatta, the county seat of Red River Parish, with federal troops, but couldn’t gather enough evidence to try anyone for the murders.
The next time he visited Coushatta would be his last. In May 1876, Twitchell traveled by ferry to Coushatta with his last surviving brother-in-law to attend to some business. As they reached the town, they noticed a man in a long oilskin coat, hat and small green goggles standing on the dock. The man pulled a rifle from under his coat and fired at Twitchell, who was scrambling to jump from the small rowboat. Twitchell was struck in the leg. The gunman’s next shot killed Twitchell’s brother-in-law.
Twitchell hid behind the boat by grabbing a gunwale with one hand. The gunman put two bullets in his arm. Twitchell threw his other arm over the gunwale, and was shot twice in that arm, too. He whispered to the ferryman, who must have been cowering in the boat by that point, “tell him I’m dead” and then Twitchell let the current float his body downriver.
Miraculously, Twitchell survived. He was fished ashore downstream by local residents and taken to a nearby house, where his shattered arms were amputated. His hopes, and those of others, were shattered, too. As he would write later: “I turned my face to the window, watching the sun as it disappeared behind the trees, reviewing my past life and trying to imagine what would be my future in the world.”
(Twitchell would find his future far from the Louisiana. Recovered from his wounds, and fitted with artificial arms, he became U.S. counsel to Canada two years later. He lived another 30 years and is buried in his hometown of Townshend, Vermont.)
African-Americans in the South didn’t have the luxury of being able to escape their troubles. Back in Red River Parish in 1876, when word of the shooting spread, a delegation of black ministers paid Twitchell a visit. They were devastated to find the leading federal official in the region lying near death. They may have realized in that moment that they were on their own.