Freedmen, Firearms, Citizenship and the Right to Assembly

A few years ago, while researching the Freedmen’s Bureau Records, I came across a fascinating report of an incident in Laurel Hill, Louisiana located in West Feliciana Parish.  Many of my ancestors were enslaved there and many descendants remained in the parish until the 1950’s.

On July 27, 1867, local white citizens were alarmed over a certain “assembly of the Negroes” in the community. This event which took place every morning, appeared to include some kind of “militarized” exercise causing the local white citizens great fear that they may be in danger.

Below are screen shots of the initial report. Additionally, I followed up with a transcription of the report for ease of read. I labeled illegible letters and words with “(?).”

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“Office Assistant Sub-Assistant Commissioners
Bureau RF & AL Bayou Sara, Louisiana  July 27 1867


L.O. Parker 
1 St US Infantry AAA General 


Sir,


In connection with the within  document I have the honor to state that several days ago a number of citizens living near Laurel Hill called upon me and made a verbal statement that the Negroes in the neighborhood were in the habit of assembling at Laurel Hill every week with fire arms and drilling. I told them that I could not act well unless they would come to me in a more tangible form: that If they would come to me in a more tangible form, and submit their complaint in full to me in writing I could forward the same to Headquarters Bureau RF and AL. A few days ago after that they returned and brought me the accompanying papers, which I now beg leave to submit to your kind and considerations.  I would further state for your information that I have since made inquiries in relation to this matter and find that they doubtless did and still do meet with guns, pistols and other arms, that they threw out their pickets and arrested all Negroes who refused to attend and would not let any white person passed their lines: but so far there has been no disturbance or collision and whether the alarm be well funded or not I cannot presume to say. The excitement however continues and the people claim they are in great danger and implore protection.


I am very respectfully 
Your Off Servant
A FINCH
Assistant Sub Assistant Commissioner 

Bureau RF & AL”

On Aug 10, 1867, Finch followed up on his investigation with a final report shown below. Again, I’ve provided a subsequent transcription. Please forgive any misspelled words or missing punctuation marks. I was at the mercy of an agent with sloppy handwriting. The locations of the punctuation marks could not be assumed so I left them out.

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Office Assistant Sub-Assistant Commissioner
Bureau RF & AL Bayou Sara
August 10th 1867


Brat Maj Gen JH M???
Assistant Commissioner Bureau BF & AL


Sir,


In compliance with your order of August 3rd I have the honor to report as follows under the direction of parties that the freedmen say they do not know they assembled at Laurel Hill for the purpose of organizing a political club and many of them marched there in the order of militarizing companies after arriving on the ground went through with a drill until this leader for Gen(eral) as some of them called him arrived this person proceeded to mount guard and posted an armed guard around the place of meeting this guard stopped all white men from passing inside their lines and sending armed men out on the road and stopping all freedmen from passing also forcing them inside their lines to remain during business of the meeting whether they desired so to do or not they also sent an armed guard to a store close by and arrested all the freedmen in and around this place and marched them under guard inside these lines upon being asked by what authority they done this they replied by higher authority ??? every in this parish at the same time bringing their guns to [(?) illegible, two words] the persons making this inquiry upon the leader waving his handkerchief they recovered arms this signal as I learn from the freedmen was arranged that if the handkerchief was dropped they were to fire if waved they were to recover arms after completing the business of the day the Gen(eral) road off under an armed escort of 16 mounted armed men this man had a Blue Ribbon on his shoulder as a badge of rank I proceeded on the 28th inst in the vicinity of this place and called the freedmen together on the plantations and from there I learn these facts I have therefore succeeded in doing away with this state of affairs now they meet and invite all to attend their meetings the course pursued by myself I find does not meet with the approbation of some of the politics (?) some of them say and have said that I should not hold the position of agent of this (?) unless I identify myself with the radical Republican party I understand my duty to be this to let politics alone but to give to the freedmen when called for good sound advice and counsel   this I have tried to do to the best of my (?)ble ability I have so far done away with these armed meetings that I do not know of one club in this parish that (?) armed at this time but invite all to attend their meetings and perfect harmony is the result the freedmen are more contented and are pursuing this work with greater energy I must say that this proceeding was the result of bad council given to the treatment by some parties rather carelessly as with a bad design which I am not prepared to say at this time I have every reason to think at this time that there will be no further trouble


Very respectfully yours 
A. finch
Assistant Sub-Assistant Commissioner 
Bureau RF & AL

In a time period where the Klu Klux Klan was on the rise due to President Andrew Johnson’s refusal to guarantee civil rights protections for African Americans during Reconstruction, it is clear, these “radical Republicans” intervened in local affairs to assist them. It is my presumption that they educated them on their constitutional rights–starting with the First and Second Amendments (the Right to Assembly and the Right to Bear Arms, respectively). I could feel the tension of the times reading these reports and I clearly understood that, in some respects, this period was worse than slavery. African Americans were under siege and being lynched, raped, shot, beaten and abused at alarming rates–to be reminded that freedom is not free; to be reminded “who they were” so they would not have the courage to exercise their rights as newly freed people, such as, the right to vote.

These people had to protect themselves at all cost.

Unfortunately, during this time, there was a concerted effort to disarm African Americans. In David H. Schenk’s article, “Freedmen with Firearms: White Terrorism and Black Disarmament During Reconstruction,” he eloquently explains it this way:

Radical Republicans attempted to intercede with new laws based on 2nd amendment protections, but Northern indifference to the plight of former slaves made this politically futile. Unconstitutional firearm restrictions in the reconstruction south ensured that the subjugation of Freedmen would continue indefinitely. Without political agency, or the means of an organized community militia to generate such power, the realization of freedom and the rights of citizenship for African Americans remained unobtainable for nearly 100 years.


Sources:
“Records of the field offices for the State of Louisiana, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1863-1872,” Digital Image, FamilySearch.org, (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9G2-X8RX?wc=STRT-VZ4%3A1458449602%2C1444363005&cc=2333781: accessed 24 Jul 2020); Citing National Archives and Records Administration Microfilm Publication M1905, Roll 64, Target 9, Volume 2 (228)

David H. Schenk, “Freedmen with Firearms: White Terrorism and Black Disarmament During Reconstruction,” The Gettysburg College Journal of the Civil War Era, Volume 4, Article 4: (April 2014), 7-44; (https://cupola.gettysburg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1027&context=gcjcwe: accessed 24 Jul 2020)

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