Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Crescent City Radicals: Black Working People and the Civil War Era in New Orleans

  • Author(s): Illingworth, James
  • Advisor(s): Levine, Bruce
  • Frank, Dana
  • et al.


Crescent City Radicals: Black Working People and the Civil War Era in New Orleans

James W. Illingworth

This study examines the rise and fall of an alliance between black working people and the Republican Party in Civil War-era New Orleans. Between 1862, when Union troops invaded and occupied New Orleans, and 1877, when Reconstruction came to an end, the making and unmaking of this alliance had a crucial impact on the history of the Crescent City. In particular, the fate of this coalition was tied to the outcome of three of the central contests of the Civil War era: the military conflict between the Union and the Confederacy, the fight against slavery, and the struggle to determine on what basis Louisiana would return to the Union. This study shows how cooperation between African American working people and the Union army in occupied New Orleans contributed to the success of federal strategy in the lower Mississippi Valley, and how this collaboration led to the collapse of slavery in the city and its hinterland. Turning to the period after the Civil War, this study demonstrates how the freedpeople became the rank and file of a social movement that defeated the conservative policies of Presidential Reconstruction and elevated a Radical state government to control of Louisiana. Finally, this study reveals how growing social conflict between African American working people and the elite leadership of the Republican Party weakened the coalition's hold on politics in New Orleans and allowed a resurgence of white terrorism, spelling doom for Reconstruction in the city.

This study focuses on the impact of black popular political consciousness on the rise and fall of this coalition. It begins by examining African American politics in antebellum New Orleans, and shows how black working people, free and unfree, were able to construct an embryonic civil society, despite the efforts of the white elite. Turning to the Civil War years, this study demonstrates that the arrival of Union troops in New Orleans created a degree of political freedom without precedent in the city's history, and allowed a much fuller development of black popular consciousness. As African American women and men gained in confidence, they helped to drive forward both the federal war effort and the struggle against slavery, forcing the Republican Party to adopt more radical goals and strategies. This dynamic persisted during Reconstruction, when a confident and combative social movement among black urban working people came to form the activist and electoral base for the Radical Republican state government of Louisiana. As Reconstruction progressed, however, the militancy of African Americans workers became unpalatable to elite Republicans, who increasingly sided with employers during the labor strife of the 1870s. Developments in the political consciousness of black working people therefore played a role in the retreat from Reconstruction.

By focusing on New Orleans, this study reveals the particular experiences of the urban South in the Civil War era. It shows how the city provided a particularly conducive environment for the development of black political consciousness in this period. Before the Civil War, the needs of the urban-commercial economy forced slavery to adapt in several ways, introducing innovations such as slave hiring. These developments gave black working people much greater autonomy than was possible in the southern countryside, and permitted the emergence of a stronger and more politically sophisticated African American community. This tendency would continue to exert an influence on the trajectory of social contestation during the years of Civil War and Reconstruction. Black working people from New Orleans became an important connection between the Republican-led national government and the rural African American population, and thus played an especially important role in coalition-building efforts. Following emancipation, urban working people exerted a particularly powerful influence over the politics of Reconstruction thanks to their collective experience of work as wage laborers.

Main Content
Current View