Canonniers and Cane Knives: The Violence of Black Citizenship and the Donaldsonville Incident of 1870

Calhoun, John, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hill Edwards, Justene, History, University of Virginia

On election day in 1870, a coalition of Democrats and conservative Republicans in the city of Donaldsonville, Louisiana, unlawfully seized five ballot boxes and, through violent means, garrisoned the local courthouse. The next day, two Black lawmen led a force of over one thousand freedpeople in a militarized march on the city. This army of Black sugar workers successfully routed the white paramilitaries and recovered the ballot boxes. Yet, after their victory, the militia elected not to return the waylaid ballots to the election supervisor as they had been instructed. Instead, the militiamen dispersed and left their own votes unattended in the courthouse. To understand why this force of freedpeople prioritized their martial display over the safe delivery of their ballots, one must consider how black Louisianans conceptualized citizenship in the postemancipation era.

Scholarship on the Donaldsonville Incident of 1870 is sparse and has generally cast the event as an example of political factionalism in Reconstruction Louisiana as opposed to a conflict driven, at its core, by opposed ideologies of citizenship. Throughout the antebellum period in Ascension Parish, a white militia known as the Donaldsonville Canonniers used military pageantry to reify a citizen-soldier ideal predicated on the right of white men to deploy violence against enslaved people. This paper argues that by militarizing and wielding violence themselves in their 1870 march, the Black militiamen of Ascension sought to broadcast their own masculinity and citizenship, thereby contesting the idea of the quintessentially white citizen-soldier.

MA (Master of Arts)
citizenship, African American, Reconstruction, violence, Black, Louisiana
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