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The middle of the week is good for an attack, for the surprise. It is March 4, 1873, in the city of New Orleans, a Tuesday night. About 9:00 p.m., a man called Polycarp Constant Lecorgne emerges from his house by the levee of the Mississippi River. He is a forty-one-year-old carpenter. Constant Lecorgne and his wife, Gabrielle Duchemin, live in a neighborhood called Bouligny. They have six children, and Gabrielle is pregnant with another. Gabrielle and the children remain in the house when Constant leaves for the night. He carries a gun, probably a revolver. The U.S. Army confiscated most of the long guns years ago.
The newspapers tell much of the story. The Catholic Messenger. The New Orleans Republican. The Times, the Picayune. Newspapers tell a crisp story, and court records say more.
At home, the family of Constant Lecorgne speaks French, their first language. French is a tongue of preference, as it is for about one-quarter of the city, black as well as white. French is the language of Creoles, English the language of most business and politics. The family’s house by the levee of the river is a rental. Constant and Gabrielle once lived in a house they owned, but ten years ago they lost it, along with all their money. They can no longer afford to buy. Constant is a ship carpenter who works on the barges and steamers, the passenger boats and freighters that ply the Mississippi. The house is close to his work, a stone’s throw from the water.
Constant has brothers and sisters, five of them. All have families, all live nearby. People named Lecorgne are scattered through Bouligny. The neighborhood of Bouligny lies three miles upstream on the Mississippi from the old center of New Orleans. It is a square mile of clapboard houses and workshops on the shoulder of the river, a place the Lecorgnes regard as theirs. Before they start to move away from Bouligny, which eventually occurs during the 1940s, the family lives in this part of New Orleans for one hundred years.
The Lecorgne who carries a gun leaves the rented house on Valmont Street and makes his way east some blocks through Bouligny. Constant meets others. A cousin by marriage named Ernest Livaudais, who is a musician, good on trumpet. He was the bugler in his company during the Civil War, which ended some years ago. Tonight, Livaudais does not carry a horn, but a gun. Constant and Ernest Livaudais continue downriver and join another man, Joseph Guillotte. The carpenter and the bugler defer to Guillotte. He is the leader of tonight’s action, a raid on Precinct 7, stationhouse of the Metropolitan Police.
Guillotte, Livaudais, and Lecorgne: these three are the French fingers of the gang. They speak French to one another, and to other Creoles. They speak English to the people they call les Américains, “the Americans.” Creoles are French-speaking natives of Louisiana, white or black. The English-speaking are les Américains, people who came to the city after the United States bought Louisiana, in the early 1800s. The Americans have grown to three-quarters of the population since then, and they dominate the Creoles. Constant and the others dislike being dominated, but it is their portion.
They rendezvous with more men, about thirty. Half of them Americans, half of them Creoles, all of them white.
The gang moves in the direction of Lawrence Square, an acre of green at the middle of Bouligny. At its edge is police precinct 7, a two-story garrison. Court papers say the men have “guns, muskets, pistols, swords, bayonets, and other warlike instruments.” Their muskets are single-load rifles they managed to hide when the U.S. Army, the goddamn Yankees, ordered every house in New Orleans to surrender its weapons, after the war. Lawrence Square looks handsome. A big church called St. Stephen overlooks the square, as do a town hall and food markets. The main street, Napoleon Avenue, runs past St. Stephen, and streetcars on railroad tracks rumble past every half hour.
Constant Lecorgne and his comrades come to Berlin Street, on the southeast corner of the square, and there they find their target.
Tonight, probably, the gang does not wear hoods. Chances are that no one wears a Ku-klux robe. Costumes like hoods and robes are good for the parishes, the rural parts outside New Orleans. The parishes are what people in Louisiana call their counties. It is there, in the black villages, that a man must take steps to disguise himself. To bring rough justice to the doors of les nègres, “the blacks,” a man needs camouflage. But tonight is not a night ride with clubs and ropes and whips. Tonight, a hood would get in the way. This is the first strike of an insurrection, and the costume of the Ku-klux, and the usual tools, do not fit the job.
Almost everybody in the gang is a soldier. A few years back, everyone fought in the other insurrection, the one to make up the Confederate States of America. The Confederate States was the slave nation that died on the birthing table during the Civil War. The white South calls the fight the “war between the states,” or the “lost cause.” It ended in 1865, eight years ago. The black South and the Northern states call it “the rebellion.” Eventually everyone will agree to call it the Civil War.
The men are veterans, they know tactics. Constant Lecorgne was a second lieutenant in the Eighteenth Louisiana Infantry during the war. Joseph Guillotte, leader of tonight’s assault, went with the Twenty-Second Infantry. Ernest Livaudais fought with the Thirtieth Louisiana Regiment, along with another man in the raid, Kendrick Chandler.
The newspapers call them “Ku-kluxers.” The men think of themselves as guerrillas or vigilantes—they are vigilant in bringing order to a disrupted world. Last year the same men went with the so-called Louisiana Legion. And before that, the gang belonged to a group called the Knights of the White Camellia. The guerrillas put on and take off names like their costumes.
In this raid, the gang calls itself the “McEnery Militia.” They are in the fight for a man named John McEnery, a politician. John McEnery ran for governor last fall, and whites say he should have won, had the other side not stolen the election. The McEnery Militia says it is taking back power from the coloreds and the carpetbaggers. They are taking it back from the U.S. Army. The army is the occupier, the carpetbaggers are the thieves, and les nègres are the lackeys of both. The McEnery Militia wants change. They want to return things to the way they were. If they take the target, the garrison, the rest will come.
Copyright © 2020 by Edward Ball