Historic Structures

History Part 2 Magnolia Plantation, Natchitoches Louisiana

The slave and cotton economy that had been such an integral part of the plantation system became the focus of national attention during the Civil War. A federal naval blockade in 1862 left New Orleans under northern occupation for much of the war. Louisiana planters could not sell their cotton for much of the war, and stored it on their plantations. Cotton became a strategic weapon for north and south in the Red River Campaign of 1864, which brought the war to the doorsteps of the Cane River plantations.

The Louisiana capital had been moved north and west during the war to Alexandria and, finally, Shreveport as the Union army captured city after city. General Nathaniel Banks was given the task of capturing Shreveport and shutting off the route for Confederate excursions into the Southwest. Banks marched his army north from Alexandria along the Red River in the spring of 1864, accompanied by a flotilla of gunboats and supply ships. The Union and Confederate armies supplemented their rations with fresh meat taken from the farms and plantations along the way, in defiance of orders. The federal troops marched north through the Cane River region in late March, capturing Natchitoches on March 31, 1864.

As cotton speculators crowded Alexandria, rumors spread that Union officers profited from the cotton they were able to capture. Reporters covering the campaign began referring to it as "a mere cotton raid." Confederate troops traveled ahead of the advancing federal troops, burning cotton to keep it out of Union hands. Planters who did not help by rolling the cotton out into the fields often found their barns and gins burned as well. Union troops passing through the area remarked on the seemingly endless fires and blackened plantations in their path. One soldier passing through in late March noted that the fire at the LeComte plantation had burned for five days. At that point it would have been the burning bales of cotton, and perhaps the gin barn, but worse was yet to come.

The Rebels turned back Banks and his troops at the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill in the early days of April of 1864, initiating a hasty Union retreat. The navy tried to make its way back down the Red River as falling water levels threatened to trap the boats in the river. Meanwhile, Rebel sharpshooters and artillery rained bullets and shrapnel down on them. The Union infantry and artillery, miles from their supplies, retraced their path through Natchitoches and Cane River in a series of forced marches through heat, dust, and Rebel harassment.

Union stragglers, composed largely of undisciplined soldiers from the Midwest (known as Westerners at the time) under the command of Brigadier General Andrew J. "Whitey" Smith, set fires in a spree of wanton destruction that shocked Union troops and correspondents from Northern newspapers who accompanied Smith's "guerillas." The retreating army spared Natchitoches, but set fires in Grande Ecore, Cloutierville, and Alexandria. The retreating troops, who found "everything ablaze as far as they could see," reportedly camped at Magnolia Plantation April 22-23, and skirmished with the Rebels from the 21st Texas for two days in the field behind the slave quarters. It was during that time that the federal troops reportedly set fire to the big house and shot the overseer, a Mr. Miller.

After the war, Congress held inquiries on the conduct of Federal troops during the Red River Campaign, but they shed little light on the events at Magnolia Plantation. In determining responsibility for the fires along Cane River, attention has focused on the actions of Smith's Westerners during the retreat of April 22-23, 1864, but speculation has ranged from Jayhawkers to former slaves. Jayhawker, in this context, refers to armed groups of Southern deserters or draft resisters, who supported neither the Union nor the Confederacy. They lived off the land, hunted by the Confederate army, occasionally acting as scouts and spies for the Union, "to avenge old wrongs." John Mead Gould, a Union soldier who marched in the retreat, recalled that the identity of the arsonists was never discovered, despite a reward of one thousand dollars. He understood that it was done by the former slaves, who were running away "by the thousands."

The Southern Claims Commission and the French and American Claims Commission settled claims made by American citizens or French nationals who lost property during the War. There were thirty-six claims filed with the Southern Claims Commission by residents of Natchitoches Parish. American citizens had to prove that they had been loyal to the Union in order to collect. The LeComte and the Hertzog families filed no such claims. The family had supported the Confederate cause and lost family members in the war. Matthew Hertzog's (1829-1903) brothers Fred and Henry served in the New Orleans Guards, and Fred was seriously wounded at the Battle of Shiloh. Henry Hertzog had organized a cavalry squadron, called the Augustin Guards, composed of free people of color from the Isle Brevelle. Another brother, Hypolite Hertzog, organized a militia, along with Adolphe Prudhomme and other white planters. The group, known as Monet's Guards, was made up of free people of color from the Isle Brevelle. A fourth Hertzog brother, Emile Toussaint Hertzog, joined the Natchitoches Rebels and was killed in action in 1862.

The years between the destruction of the Magnolia Plantation "big house" in 1864 and its resurrection in 1898 marked one of the most turbulent periods in Louisiana history. The Civil War had left much of the South impoverished and in ruins, and had overthrown the entire system of slave labor. Demands for a share of political power for the freedmen threatened the economic and political existence of the white planters. Parish government became the site where the new political reality most directly challenged traditional ways of life, and where white planters asserted their political and economic power. For thirty years the ruins of the big house at Magnolia sat as a reminder of the individual price paid in defense of a traditional way of life. Its recreation in the 1890s proved the resilience of that traditional way of life, the family's skill in managing the plantation through war and political Reconstruction, their ability to adapt to new social realities, and their commitment to remaining on the land. Rebuilding the big house at Magnolia Plantation also proved how little had changed since the Civil War, with a racial caste system firmly in place, and land and political power still largely in the hands of the white planters.

After the Civil War, many freed slaves remained on their former plantations, compelled by military orders, the need for work and security, and the uncertainty and threats of violence beyond. The Cane River plantations quickly converted to a system of sharecropping and day labor. The economic system and living arrangements reflected the social status based on race. The day laborers consisted primarily of landless blacks, who had little except their own labor to sell, and mostly lived in the Magnolia Plantation quarters. Sharecroppers tended to be of mixed race, had a social status intermediate between the blacks and the landed whites, and had some hope of owning land someday. They lived with their families in cabins along Cane River. Sharecroppers were required to own a cow and to raise vegetables in their own gardens. Those with their own mules earned a greater share of the crop than those without, and having a large family to work the share increased profitability. Poor whites found themselves competing for work with the blacks, but their white skin placed them in alliance with the wealthy planters

The Hertzogs opened the Magnolia Plantation store in the 1870s to provide clothing, groceries, and household goods to the sharecroppers. The store also served as the main office for the plantation business. Sharecroppers depended on credit through the plantation store for groceries, clothing, and domestic goods until the crops were sold and accounts settled in the fall. Anything that could not be purchased at the store was acquired in town. Magnolia received bills for medical care and marriage licenses, all of which were charged to the sharecroppers' accounts. The plantation required an extensive accounting system to keep track of each man's share and his debts in the store and in town. The store also became a gathering place to greet the neighbors and hear the latest news.

The LeComtes and Hertzogs, like most of their planter colleagues, supported the Democratic Party in the period after the Civil War. The Republican Party represented the newly freed Blacks and the Radicals who sought to give the former slaves a political role. To help the transition from slavery to citizenship, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in March of 1865. During its three-year existence the Freedman's Bureau provided immediate aid to the indigent, mediated labor contracts, advocated on behalf of the freedmen in civil matters, and created schools to educate the former slaves. Freedman's Bureau agents were often U. S. Army officers, and federal troops supported the often-unpopular efforts to make the former slaves into citizens. Because French remained the language used for daily communication, part of the Freedman's Bureau Schools' unspoken mandate included the Americanization of the remnants of Creole culture by teaching the children of the former slaves to speak, read, and write in English.

Opposition to educating blacks ran high in the rural parishes. An 1830 Louisiana law had prohibited teaching slaves to read and write. Freedmen's Bureau schools were supported by taxes on property and crops, and a tax on wages paid through contract labor. Many whites refused to engage labor if the contract included taxes to support schools for blacks. Louisiana had few public schools for white children before the Civil War, and the economic hardships after the War made it difficult for many whites to pay to educate their own children. Many Catholics opposed the secular education provided by the Freedman's Bureau Schools, and Catholic leaders created alternatives, including day schools for black girls. A black Methodist church also offered schooling to black youth.

Freedman's Bureau Schools operated in Natchitoches Parish for two and a-half months in 1865, providing instruction to ninety students. However, three consecutive years of bad cotton crops undermined the financial support of Freedman's Bureau Schools in Natchitoches Parish. Drought in 1865 was followed by spring floods and caterpillars in 1866. Natchitoches Parish was spared the flooding seen in southern Louisiana in 1867, but army worms ruined the cotton crop that year, and an outbreak of yellow fever added to the hardships.

While many white planters resisted efforts to educate the freed blacks, at least some members of the Hertzog family supported such schools. Matthew Hertzog's brother Hypolite Hertzog supported Freedman's Bureau Schools through labor contracts that included the school tax. He offered to house a teacher at his plantation and proposed to create a school in the plantation quarters for eighty blacks from three plantations. Freedman's Bureau agent E. H. Hosner held four meetings in Natchitoches Parish in October of 1868, including one at the Hertzog plantation, to gain support for new Freedman's Bureau Schools. By November there were ten schools in the parish, including three in Natchitoches, one each in Allen and Campti, and five plantation schools. Tensions had been high in the parish, with violence and threats against Freedman's schools in neighboring parishes.

In 1867 the U. S. Congress passed a series of Reconstruction Acts, with the first providing voter registration for all adult males who could take an oath professing their loyalty to the Union during the War. The Act essentially gave the vote to all male blacks and disqualified large numbers of whites. With the backing of a large number of newly enfranchised black voters, including those in Natchitoches Parish, the electors for the 1868 Louisiana constitutional convention enabled black suffrage, disenfranchised those whites who had been disloyal to the Union, provided equal access to public places and conveyances, and directed the creation of public schools open to all. Despite threats, beatings, and murder around Louisiana and in Natchitoches Parish leading up to the elections, Louisiana seated a Republican state government in 1868.

Opposition to Negro suffrage was high among white planters, especially in areas where large slave populations had created large communities of freed Blacks, such as Natchitoches and other cotton parishes. Although some of the Cane River planters could be classified as Bourbon reactionaries, embracing the no-compromise white supremacist point of view, many, like the Hertzogs, would more properly be classified as Patrician conservatives. That group supported the status quo, but tempered their ideologies with a strong sense of the moral responsibility or noblesse oblige that came with their social position

A taxpayer's revolt in Natchitoches Parish in 1874, led by an alliance of white supremacists and Democratic planters, charged the members of the Police Jury, including some Blacks, with corruption and incompetence. The group elected among its leaders A. LeComte and several other area planters. It appointed a Committee of Seventy, including M. Hertzog, to oversee the Police Jury and deliver the group's grievances to the Governor. The group forced the resignation of members of the Radical Republican police jury after an encounter on Front Street between hundreds of armed whites and blacks. The group successfully decreased Parish taxes, which they felt the Radicals were using to push them from their property. The uprising encouraged similar actions in surrounding parishes. Within weeks the reactionary White League led an uprising in New Orleans, killing several police and installing a Democratic governor. Federal troops soon arrived to reinstate the Republican governor. Federal troops were sent to Natchitoches Parish to oversee the elections of 1874. During that time they jailed several people, including J. R. Cosgrove, the reactionary editor of the Natchitoches newspaper People's Vindicator, the "official organ of the white citizens of Red River, Sabine, Winn, and Natchitoches Parish."

The taxpayer revolt of 1874 signaled the intentions of the planters to reassert their political power. With the return of white, Democratic rule to state and parish government during the 1870s, the hopes for an equal share of economic and political power faded among blacks. Plantations played a central role in rural Natchitoches parish politics during the 1870s and 1880s. Polling places and schools were typically located in churches and on plantations. As community leaders, plantation owners and their families sat on grand juries and held leadership positions in Democratic Party organizations, school boards, and on the Police Jury. By 1898 the conservatives in Louisiana had enough influence to call another state constitutional convention, which effectively disenfranchised nine in ten blacks and one in five whites.

The Magnolia Plantation big house was constructed in the 1890s in the context of that conservative political and social climate, and the extremes of social hierarchy. The Natchitoches personals columns reported on the activities of Natchitoches high society, including the ever popular Hertzogs, who visited friends in town and hosted guests from New Orleans, apparently while still living in the slave hospital. Elite social clubs, such as the men's "13 Club," hosted the planters and their families for holiday dinners. At the same time, a series of arsons destroyed cotton gins, barns, and seed oil presses around Natchitoches Parish. A series of homicides among the black population shocked the white community.

Magnolia Plantation had survived the upheaval of Reconstruction by becoming a large and diversified agricultural and mercantile enterprise including cotton, corn, livestock, lumber, and the plantation store. Magnolia Plantation and the plantation store were the center of economic and social life for the rural community. Magnolia employed local skilled and unskilled men and purchased goods and services from wholesale grocers, ice companies, and clothiers in nearby towns. By the 1890s, Matthew Hertzog (1829-1903) set about rebuilding the big house. He acquired lumber and other building materials through the plantation store from wholesale suppliers and charged the costs to a separate building account. The family selected the mantels, staircase, and gallery pieces from the catalogs of suppliers from New Orleans and Cincinnati. They purchased them through the mail, and had the materials delivered to the building site by wagon.

The big house was also constructed in the context of the past, both in its physical relationship to the previous house and in its owners' understanding of the meaning and value of the past. The Hertzogs rebuilt on the foundation of the previous house, for practical as well as symbolic reasons. The plan of the previous house established the location of rooms and openings. Faced with the same natural environment as the previous occupants, the builders looked back to traditional building elements. Shade and breeze, the keys to staying comfortable in the Louisiana summers, were achieved through elevation of the living quarters and strategic arrangement of doors and windows. Deep shaded galleries protected from sun and rain. The massive oak trees lining the building site provided shade and cooled breezes. Eaves collected rainwater from the wide, steep roof for storage in cisterns arrayed around the house. The large, yet simply designed home signaled the resilience and conservatism of the planter class on the eve of the twentieth century.