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Who Comes Next?

Henry Clay Warmoth, Whipping Boy of Reconstruction

Each week, historian Sean Michael Chick will highlight some of the country's unsung heroes or pivotal figures during the Civil War era who could serve as replacements following the takedown of New Orleans' Confederate monuments. This week, learn about Henry Clay Warmoth, Civil War officer, lawman, and Republican Governor of Louisiana. 


Few Louisiana governors have attracted as much debate and controversy as Henry Clay Warmoth, a regular fixture in the Who Comes Next? series. In 1860, the Illinois native became a Missouri lawyer and was seen as one of the best young attorneys in the state. Then the Civil War came.


Warmoth served in the Missouri militia before becoming a Lieutenant Colonel in the 32nd Missouri Infantry. He was present at the Union victory at Arkansas Post and was wounded in the Vicksburg Campaign, returning to Missouri to recover and was feted wherever he went. Young, handsome, charming, and a notorious flirt, he was also not one to shirk a fight. Warmoth criticized Ulysses Grant’s tactics at Vicksburg, and Grant, never one to forget a slight, had Warmoth stripped of his command. Warmoth made an impassioned personal plea to Abraham Lincoln, who reinstated him. Warmoth fought well at Chattanooga and was then transferred to New Orleans.


Upon his relocation, Warmoth instantly fell in love with Louisiana, and marveled that “It is perfectly lordly to live down here.” Warmoth entered Nathaniel Banks’ orbit and became a judge. He had a knack for making friends and connections, Democrats and Confederates alike. Warmoth allied himself with the freedmen and portrayed himself as a Radical Republican. With these credentials he became Governor in 1868.


Warmoth’s task was herculean: to balance competing Republican factions, which included those with progressive and conservative racial views, as well as between the men who wanted to create a new society and those who were just there to make money and accrue power. He also had to contend with Grant, who had become president the same year and worked to undermine Warmoth’s term. Soon, it was apparent that Warmoth’s ability to balance these factions was wanting.


Warmoth was elected with the support of Oscar J. Dunn and the radicals. Warmoth supported Louisiana’s progressive constitution, but he soon backpedalled. He vetoed a bill with stronger integration standards, drawing the ire of Dunn. Warmoth instead began to rely on P.B.S. Pinchback, the leader of the conservative black Republican faction. Although he made some sound fiscal reforms, Warmoth was corrupt — though likely no more than other men of his era. In an attempt to gain the support of some former Confederates, he loosened franchise restrictions on former Confederates and made James Longstreet a key ally. Warmoth’s strategy was not novel. In 1868, former slave Pierre Caliste Landry of the neighboring city of Donaldsonville became first black mayor in America. He won on a biracial platform of moderation.


By 1871 Warmoth’s hold on his party was collapsing, and violence broke out between Republican factions. Dunn died suddenly, which led to allegations that Warmoth poisoned him. As Grant backed Warmoth’s opponents, Warmoth supported the Liberal Republicans who tried to unseat Grant. In the end, Warmoth was impeached — but not tried — and his term as governor was finished by Pinchback.


Warmoth spent the years after 1872 as a railroad promoter and sugar cane planter in Plaquemines Parish. In 1874. he was attacked and killed his assailant with his pocket knife. After planting failed, Warmoth returned to politics with a vengeance in 1888. Warmoth ran for governor in 1888 as a Republican. At this time, blacks could still vote and they split between Warmoth and Francis T. Nicholls, who supported a more moderate racial policy. Warmoth’s coalition was made up of conservative Republicans (in particular Afro-Creoles) and Democrats who hated Nicholls over his racial policies and aversion to corruption. In a race with widespread fraud, Warmoth narrowly lost. Not until David Treen’s 1979 campaign did a Republican get as close to the governorship of Louisiana as Warmoth did in 1888.


Under Banjamin Harrison, Warmoth was made U.S. Collector of Customs in New Orleans until his removal on orders from Grover Cleveland. Warmoth wrote his memoir War, Politics and Reconstruction in 1930 and died the following year. He was buried in Metairie Cemetery in a modest grave, not far from the resting place of many Confederate soldiers.


Ironically, one of the few things historians of Reconstruction agree on is that Warmoth was the embodiment of a corrupt carpetbagger. For the Lost Cause, he was just another Yankee adventurer who duped blacks into voting for him while he made himself wealthy. On the other end, W.E.B. Du Bois called him an “unmoral buccaneer.” Neo-abolitionists like Eric Foner usually depicted him a stereotype of the corrupt politician, but an anomaly in his lackluster support for black rights. Warmoth was corrupt and duplicitous, but what these camps fail to understand is that Warmoth was first and foremost a realist. He knew the Republicans were not strong enough to stand without conservatives. Warmoth’s tragedy was his failure to balance factions. Despite his charisma he also rarely declined a fight over a personal slight. As a result, Louisiana’s Republican Party squabbled with itself until its de facto extinction in the 1890s.


Warmoth’s uneven support for black rights is condemned today, but many do not fully appreciate the era. The late 1800s was the heyday of colonial expansion in Africa, Herbert Spencer, the “Yellow Peril,” and Pan-nationalism. The efforts of Dunn, and even Warmoth, were likely doomed in the climate of scientific racism. This does not mean that Dunn and his ilk are unworthy of praise and commemoration. The romantics had a taste for the lonely and defeated moral stand, and even if the tactics of Dunn were flawed, one can appreciate his courage and convictions. Warmoth does not foster such feelings of devotion. Political realists who lack the sweeping rhetoric of Lincoln are rarely lionized. It is unlikely that Warmoth will ever get a monument or that he deserves one. Yet, it is unfair to make him the whipping boy for the reason Reconstruction failed in Louisiana. As Tacitus said centuries ago “victory is claimed by all, failure to one alone.”
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