Colfax Massacre

InjusticesThree days later, on March 28, 1873, white Democratic leaders began plotting to retake the courthouse by force. When word of these plans reached the Republicans, armed black men started mustering at the courthouse to defend it against the white aggressors.

Led by Christopher Columbus Nash, an ex-Confederate army lieutenant who was also the Democratic candidate for Grant Parish sheriff, Democratic forces marched on Colfax on April 13. Though the approximately 150 black men defending the courthouse slightly outnumbered Nash’s men, the Republican forces were massively outgunned. About half of Nash’s men were Confederate veterans, including four officers. Each of them was well armed, many of them with multiple guns, and they had even brought a small cannon to Colfax on a two-horse wagon.

Meanwhile, as many as half of the black men protecting the courthouse had no guns whatsoever, and those with guns had only enough powder and ammunition to allow each man to fire about two rounds. The closest thing the freedmen had to artillery were three makeshift guns rigged from old steam pipes. When they attempted to fire one of these would-be cannons, the entire gun exploded.

The result was a rout. White forces outflanked the freedmen, positioning their cannon behind the black army’s trench line. Not long after the cannon started spewing buckshot at the exposed men around the courthouse, black combatants began to flee — only to be hunted down and captured or killed by white men on horseback. Though dozens of freedmen continued to fight from within the courthouse, Nash ordered the courthouse to be set ablaze. When the black Republicans laid down their arms and fled the burning building, many of them waving white flags of surrender, Nash’s men opened fire.

Nor did the killing stop there. Nash eventually ordered his men to cease fire, and the remaining freedmen were taken prisoner. Two hours before midnight, however, Nash left the prisoners under the control of a group of men led by Bill Cruikshank, a white supremacist cotton planter. Not long thereafter, Cruikshank ordered the captured freedmen to march away from the courthouse under armed guard. The column did not get far before Cruikshank’s men drew their pistols and began executing their prisoners. A black man named Levi Nelson, who later served as a star witness against Cruikshank at his criminal trial, survived this death march only because Cruikshank tried to make sport out of murder by lining up Nelson and another man close enough together that they could both be shot with a single bullet, rather than spending two shots to ensure that both men would die.

—Ian Millhiser

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