“Louisiana is a unique southern state” is a proposition that fails to raise an eyebrow. Whether one is thinking Cajuns, Creoles, New Orleans, Mardi Gras, jazz, or gumbo, one can quickly conjure an image of Louisiana that differs markedly from Mississippi, Alabama, or South Carolina. Yet, in January 1861, the Pelican State acted in a decidedly southern manner when it became the sixth state to secede from the Union.
Why did it do so? Certainly not because Louisiana was any less unique in 1860 than it is today. Some of the numbers in the 1860 census quickly bear this out. More than one out of ten people in Louisiana had been born outside the United States, whereas immigrants made up less than one out of forty people in every other Confederate state except Texas (where immigrants comprised one out of every fourteen people). Louisiana’s 99 Catholic churches nearly matched the total of the other 10 Confederate states which possessed 124—with 33 of those in Texas. With a population of 168,675, New Orleans dwarfed the rest of the South possessing more than four times as many people than the second largest Confederate city (Charleston, South Carolina). And, in 1859, Louisianans harvested more than twenty (and possibly twenty-five) times more sugar cane than the rest of the Confederacy combined.
So, why would this un-Southern state secede so quickly in 1861 (a little more than a month after fire-eating South Carolina and five weeks before Lincoln’s inauguration)? One answer is that Louisiana possessed many typically southern characteristics as well. Most important, like the rest of the Confederacy, Louisiana agriculture depended on slave labor. Just under half of all Louisianans were enslaved; ranking it third within the Confederacy. And, while Louisiana led the way in sugar cane production, even in the Pelican State cotton was king with the state producing almost 800,000 bales of cotton in 1860.
To understand Louisiana’s secession, one must understand Louisiana politics. And, to understand Louisiana politics, one must understand the way that Louisiana’s typical and unique aspects interacted with one another. From the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 until today, Louisiana has combined its unusual traits with its regional characteristics. In the twentieth century, this interaction fueled the rise of Huey Long and Edwin Edwards. From the 1830s to 1860s, it fueled the rise of a vibrant Whig-Democratic competition, new state constitutions in 1845 and 1852, and Louisiana’s departure from the Union in 1861. While Louisiana’s state politics occurred across a backdrop of swamps, bayous, and levees, it also possessed the same stately plantations and yeoman farms of its Confederate neighbors. So, when it came to secession, Louisianans answered the “unique or southern” question the way they always have. Louisiana’s secession demonstrated that the state was both unique and southern.
John M. Sacher is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. His book A Perfect War of Politics: Parties, Politicians, and Democracy in Louisiana, 1824–1861 can be purchased at 40% off during LSU Press’s Civil War Sale.