“The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields,” The History Press
Days before the tumultuous presidential election of 1868, St. Bernard Parish descended into chaos. As African American men gained the right to vote, white Democrats of the parish feared losing their majority. Armed groups mobilized to suppress these recently emancipated voters in the hopes of regaining a way of life turned upside down by the Civil War and Reconstruction. Freedpeople were dragged from their homes and murdered in cold blood. Many fled to the cane fields to hide from their attackers. The reported number of those killed varies from 35 to 135. The tragedy was hidden, but implications reverberated throughout the South and lingered for generations.
Where to Buy
Local bookstores throughout Southeast Louisiana should have a copy!
“As a professor of political science who regularly researches and teaches courses on the intricacies and legacies of violence, racism, and inequality in the history of the United States, I thought that this book hit that wonderful sweet spot in historical writing. It is thoroughly researched without drowning you in unnecessary detail. It has a narrative style that is refreshingly readable and engaging. It brings to light an important and tragic local event that has been all but forgotten. It draws out lessons that inspire us to reflect on past injustices and how they connect to the present without being heavy handed.” – Justin Mueller, PhD
“Dier’s “The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields” presents a new microhistory of a little-known region, St. Bernard Parish, located just a few minutes from one of the most popular cities in the United States, New Orleans. Having lived in New Orleans for several years now and visiting friends in St. Bernard Parish, primarily Arabi and Chalmette, I had a basic knowledge of the area, but knew there was much to learn. “Cane Fields” provides much-needed context of the area, beginning with the settlement of the parish, the impact of both French and Spanish colonial rule, and the role of the Islenos population, a group of settlers from the Canary Islands. Dier early and often explains the uniqueness of St. Bernard Parish, which is primarily due to its early diversity. And while these details might not be well known, many fans of U.S. History unknowingly learned about St. Bernard Parish in studying the War of 1812, when the Battle of New Orleans took place in Chalmette, a town in the parish. After detailing the role of New Orleans and the surrounding area in the Civil War, Dier takes the reader into the era of Reconstruction and to the massacre itself. While the title of the book focuses on the massacre, the book itself focuses on long and short term causes of the massacre and the lingering racial and economic tensions in the parish following the event.
Throughout the book, Dier provides a variety of sources, a total of 237 notes in just a 123 page book. And while he provides analysis, details, and suggestions for why events occurred and how it impacted the parish, Dier isn’t afraid to let the reader decide when there isn’t a clear answer. There are a few instances he fully admits that there is no answer or definitive reason for something happening, which highlights his desire to focus on facts and sources alone. “Cane Fields” also provides numerous quotes and sources from the event itself, showing the conflicting narratives of Democratic and Republican leaning newspapers. Five pages are dedicated to the conflicting national and regional reports of Pablo San Feliu’s death, which ultimately set off the massacre. While he is thorough in his inclusion of sources, at times, the lengthy inserts can detract from the compelling nature of the narrative. The story of the massacre itself is riveting – describing how and why freepeople were killed not only in St. Bernard Parish, but in other towns throughout Louisiana. Most compelling and new to me, was the role of the 1868 Presidential Election, which Ulysses Grant won in an electoral landslide. But before the election, groups roamed St. Bernard Parish, threatening newly freedmen if they voted for or even supported the Republican candidate. In the long run, the threat and intimidation had no outcome on the election, but a detrimental effect on the parish. Dier clearly has a passion for the history of his hometown, as shown through his interviews with the St. Bernard Parish historian and photo collection used throughout the book. “Cane Fields” is a must-read for those interested in the history of Louisiana in general or the south during Reconstruction. My knowledge of the area definitely helped my understanding as I read as well, so take a look at a map of the area and a timeline of New Orleans history in general before setting out to help you along the way.” – Curtis Brown
“As a person native to St. Bernard Parish, reading “The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre” brought to my awareness how much I didn’t know about the parish of my birth. As an amateur student of history, I simply love learning about the events of history, especially those that managed to elude my studies. Reading about many of the names and places in the book triggered in me faint memories from my distant past. This impeccably researched and very well-written book served the very useful purpose of filling in the many gaps in the historical knowledge of my first home. Mr. Dier performed this task with great knowledge and a contagious enthusiasm for his subject matter. His great knowledge was exhibited when detailing the historical context for the massacre. His contagious enthusiasm was at work when narrating the events of the massacre itself. When knowledge and enthusiasm are combined with skillful prose, it makes for a book that is difficult to put down. Because of the necessity of running errands, I had to reluctantly put down the book thus preventing me from finishing the book in one sitting. Upon returning to the book, I was defiant to resist any further interruptions and finished the work in two sittings.
To be a great work of history, a book cannot simply narrate events in a mundane and harmless way; it must dare to teach us moral lessons as well. Mr. Dier does not hammer us over the head with moral lessons, but any reasonable and self-aware person cannot help but draw such lessons from the gripping narrative. The description of the events surrounding the “blood in the cane fields” illustrates the harmful effects of explicit nationalism, tribalism, and racism. In our day and age, such negative attributes are more implicit and may lie dormant beneath the surface. But it only takes the right–or more correctly, wrong–type of leader to fan the embers of hatred into an inferno of explicit and rabid nationalism, tribalism, and racism. “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past” (George Santayana).
Mr. Dier has shone a bright light through the window of the past allowing us to see accurately and clearly what we may not want to see. But after seeing and assimilating these events, it is up to us to draw lessons from them. I highly recommend this wonderful book.” – George Hemelt
“Blood in the Cane Fields was an eye opening read for me. So much has been written about the Civil War but what is so lacking is what happened after during Reconstruction, especially in areas like St. Bernard Parish and across Louisiana. The struggle and violence bred from the fight for control between the Democrats and Republicans was eye opening for me. Amid fears that if the black vote was not suppressed through violence, torture, terrorism, and other awful means, the Democrats of that day effectively shut the Republicans out from winning any future elections. To see that General Grant received one solitary vote from St. Bernard Parish as he was running for President shows the effort and work to suppress the vote through terrible means.
This is a great read and I would encourage every history class to read this book. I learned so much about Juan San Malo, Islenos, Maroons, Africans, and other groups that have been marginalized by history that had a tremendous impact on the culture of Louisiana and the United States. This is a story about history that is quickly fading, being forgotten, and if it wasn’t for the work of Dier and others to record this period, this era will be lost.” – John M. Francis