Vermont Historical Society Photo
Marshall Twitchell, a carpetbagger from Vermont, is shown here years after his arms were shot during an attempt on his life.
BARRE — Marshall Twitchell enlisted in the Union Army at the recruiting office in Jamaica in September 1861. By the time the soldier was 24, he had been tested in battle, wounded in the Wilderness campaign, and commissioned a captain in the 109th Colored Troops in Virginia. The discipline of soldiering offered modest preparation for the tribulations that awaited him as a carpetbagger in northwestern Louisiana, where he served the federal government in the process of Reconstruction.
His remarkable life as a carpetbagger defined him as one of this state’s most unusual and historic Civil War figures. Memorabilia from Twitchell’s life is currently on display at the Vermont History Center’s exhibit in Barre, “Service and Sacrifice: Vermont’s Civil War Generation.” It includes items from the family such as a carpetbag, a cane that turns into a sword, and a small bronze statue of a catamount. (Twitchell, who later in life was armless, kept the statuette on his fireplace mantle and used the outstretched tail to scratch his nose. A presentation sword from the men of the 109th Colored Troops to their white officer is the centerpiece of the display.)
But it is what happened after the war that makes Twitchell’s story unique.
After the war
Twitchell was born in 1840 in Townshend, a small village in the hills above Brattleboro. He was raised on a subsistence farm that counted sugaring as the main cash crop for the family. Although he was a hardworking farm boy, he excelled in scholarly pursuits at nearby Leland Seminary, where he developed a schoolboy crush on Henrietta Day, a minister’s niece who was to play an important role in his later life.
His teen years found him teaching in the district school at neighboring Wardsboro.
At the first report of the defeat of the Union soldiers at Bull Run, Twitchell enlisted in the 4th Vermont Infantry Regiment and drilled near Brattleboro with the other recruits until their uniforms arrived. The 4th Vermont earned a reputation for hard fighting.
While his war record was exemplary, it was the experience after Appomattox that earned Twitchell recognition as a Vermonter who attempted to make his living as a Southern planter in the years after the Civil War.
Assigned to Texas with his regiment, he immediately requested transfer to the Freedmen’s Bureau in Louisiana, a government agency charged with assisting emancipated slaves in the transition to freedom.
As a Northerner serving the cause of the federal government, he was known by the pejorative term “carpetbagger.” For decades, the accepted characterization of the carpetbagger was an official who exploited both the freed slaves and the white citizens of the South. Indeed, even Northern newspapers believed the stereotype.
Twitchell responded to allegations from a Vermont paper by noting: “It has always seemed to me very strange that the northern people should so readily believe their young men the infamous wretches which the South represented them to be, on the testimony of men reared under the demoralizing influence of slavery, traitors to their government for four years, and then gamblers and barroom loafers.”
In fact, many like Twitchell worked earnestly in support of the former slaves and sought an amicable reconciliation with the former rebel soldiers. He protected schools for the children of freedmen while they remained closed in other Louisiana parishes.
Furthermore, it has been Twitchell’s life story, first in his own words, and later interpreted by scholars, that has helped to portray accurately the life of a Northern official or carpetbagger involved in Reconstruction. The story of his life became one of the first corrections in a depiction that defamed the Northern officials for decades. Accounts such as Ted Tunnel’s “Edge of the Sword” (a study of Twitchell’s life) along with other scholarly works helped redefine the carpetbaggers for academics as well as Civil War enthusiasts.
During his uneventful first six months in Louisiana’s Red River Valley, Twitchell fell in love with Adele Coleman, a young teacher at nearby Sparta Academy. Over the objections of her family, old Southern gentry who resented any and all Yankee authority, they married.
The 26-year-old left the U.S. Army to work on the Coleman plantation. Bringing his innate gifts of intelligence and hard work to bear on the debt-ridden plantation, he was almost solely responsible for the financial revival of the enterprise. In a letter from 1868 Adele remarked to her sister, “Pa says he don’t know what in the world he would have done without his Yankee son-in-law to help him out.”
With financial success at his own Starlight Plantation, Twitchell brought his brother and his three sisters and their husbands from Vermont to the Red River Valley to share in his bounty. His prominence in political life as a Republican functionary provided good-paying jobs to those who had been loyal to the Union. Within a few years he was elected to the Louisiana Senate, which further cemented his political power. The concentration of political might among Northerners was resented by the disenfranchised Southern elite who formed secret resistance groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and, in the Red River Valley, the Knights of the White Camellia. These groups were unabashedly racist and used coercion and violence to intimidate the former slaves and the Yankee interlopers.
Twitchell’s marriage into an established family had insulated him from the initial threats of what later became “the White League.” Their avowed purpose was “the extermination of the carpetbag element.” When the Southern planters lost the election of 1872, they turned to terror in earnest. More than 100 black farmers were murdered in a raid at Colfax, 50 miles south of Twitchell’s plantation.
The Democratic Party-supported White League spawned violence in the Red River Valley the next spring. While the young senator was in New Orleans, the Coushatta Massacre claimed the lives of his brother and two of his brothers-in-law. Six white Republicans and up to 20 freedmen witnesses were murdered. Had this mass murder had the desired effect, it would have changed the majority in the state Senate from Reconstruction Republicans to the white Democratic Party rule of the old South.
Federal troops were summoned to bring the terrorism of the White League to a temporary end. Had they not intervened, it would have meant the end of Reconstruction in northern Louisiana sooner rather than later.
By 1876 the animosities between the Republican Party of the carpetbaggers and the Democratic Party of the disenfranchised Southern whites reached new levels of rancor. Marshall Twitchell and his remaining relatives received warnings and threats — often written as anonymous notes. Twitchell saved some in a scrapbook that has been preserved at the Vermont History Center in Barre. One example, dated April 13, 1873, began politely enough: “Mr. Twitchell Sir, I must inform you that on court week your town is to be overrun and all your n---er officers and sum of your white-men are to be killed.” The writer claimed to have been in the firing line at the Colfax raid where 100 freedmen were murdered.
During the winter of 1875-76 another disturbing message had been left for Twitchell at his plantation, Starlight. It read, “I have bin maid to leave my home & friends & family on account of you & your crowd. ... This part of the country has become unhealthy that you can’t stay here.” The anonymous sender signed the threat the “Goggle Eyed Man.” The message also indicated that the Goggle Eyed Man “will come again at the proper time.”
Twitchell ignored the threat as he had many others delivered anonymously or in person and, while in residence at Starlight, made ready to cross the Red River by ferry to make his way to the Coushatta Courthouse. He hoped to conclude some business before heading north to Vermont for a vacation.
“Earlier that morning of May 2, 1876, a stranger mounted on a peculiarly colored pony, entered the town of Coushatta,” according to a congressional committee account from eyewitnesses. “He was disguised, having on a coat made of rubber or oilcloth, reaching nearly to his feet; his face was partially concealed by a heavy beard, evidently false; his eyes were covered by a pair of goggles, and he wore his hat down over his face.”
Meanwhile, Twitchell, casually reading a newspaper, with his remaining brother-in-law, George King, boarded a skiff rowed by a black boatman.
As he looked across the river he saw a rifle wielded by a man in green goggles aimed at his party. “Down in the boat!” yelled Twitchell.
His memoir describes the assault. “The first shot went over us. The next shot passed through the skiff and entered my left thigh. I immediately went over into the water, passing under the skiff and caught hold of the lower edge with my hand, keeping the skiff much between myself and the assassin.”
George King fired two pistol shots at the rifleman before the man in goggles turned the rifle on him, shooting him in the head. King lay dying on the floor of the boat. The assassin carefully aimed at Twitchell’s arms, the only part of his body exposed, and succeeded in shattering the bones in his left.
Twitchell recalled, “The assassin was one of the coolest of the kind which the South ever produced, and as a marksman, he was an expert, using his repeating rifle and revolver with such rapidity and accuracy that notwithstanding the poor mark I gave him by the time I had reached the middle of the stream, he succeeded with his last rifle shot in shattering my remaining arm, and I floated on my back away from the skiff. Apprehensive that more might follow I told the ferryman to call out that I was dead. This he promptly did, the words being repeated by ladies on the shore, and the assassin coolly and leisurely mounted his horse and rode away. Considering the fact that I had a wound in the back of my neck, a ball in my leg, and each arm shot twice through, I was but very little weakened, for the cold water of the river had so completely chilled me that it stopped the flow of blood which ordinarily would have taken place.”
Twitchell was taken to the home of King’s mother-in-law, where he was put under the care of an Army surgeon. His sister, Helen, also saw to his care. The following morning his left arm was amputated at the shoulder. The arm was buried with the body of George King on Starlight Plantation.
“For nearly a month I was encouraged to bear the discomforts of lying on one position by the hope that my right arm might be saved. On the last of May, late in the afternoon, the surgeon came into the room, lingering much longer than his custom, evidently dreading the disclosure he was about to make; finally he informed me that the arm could not be saved and that he would take it off in the morning,” he wrote.
“The picture looked so dark and discouraging that I fully made up my mind that life was not worth retaining longer. Sister Helen came to my bedside. I said to her, ‘The surgeon says my right arm must come off, and I do not see any use of living longer.’ She said, ‘There are plenty of hands in the world to do the work of heads which have the ability to direct.’ This gave me a new thought, and in a few moments I had my old-time courage again. The next morning the arm was skillfully amputated, and I started on the road to final recovery.”
With the removal of federal troops from Coushatta, Twitchell realized that he could not stay in Red River Parish. His assassin remained unpunished, and it was with misgivings and relief that he and his sister made their way north. Helen had been weakened by the stresses of the past months and collapsed in Indianapolis. She died there on July 12, 1876. After the funeral Twitchell continued to make his way back to Vermont. He stopped in Newfane to visit his mother and then made a visit to Philadelphia, where he was fitted with prosthetic arms.
He next traveled to Massachusetts, where he found his first sweetheart, Henrietta Day, a classmate from Leland Seminary. They were married in the fall and spent the remainder of 1876 in Vermont.
Despite returning to New Orleans to fulfill the rest of his Senate term, Twitchell never returned to Starlight, the plantation that had prospered under his management. His inability to directly supervise his holdings led to his properties being consumed by lawsuits and mismanagement. His properties in Red River Parish were finally seized by the courts and returned to the heirs of their previous owners. Twitchell’s aspirations for wealth in Red River Parish faded along with his dreams of Reconstruction in the South. At the end of the legislative session he sought a federal government appointment and was given a posting in the consular service.
He went to Kingston, Ontario, where he served as head of the consul, commencing his duties on May 1, 1878. Easily assuming the duties of his new position, he found he missed the bustle of New Orleans but eventually made an accommodation to a quiet life in Canada. He soon earned the respect of the Kingston community and enjoyed the arrival of his son, Emmus.
In later years he dictated his memoirs to an unnamed scribe and posthumously changed the narrative of Reconstruction when his autobiography was discovered by doctoral student Jimmy Shoalmire of Mississippi State University. Shoalmire had heard accounts of Twitchell and the Coushatta Massacre from his mother-in-law and, through happenstance, found Twitchell’s grandson living in Burlington.
Marshall Coleman Twitchell gave Shoalmire a copy of his grandfather’s memoir, and a new chapter was added to the history of Reconstruction.
Twitchell served as consul until his death on Aug. 21, 1905. His remains were returned to Townshend and buried in Oakwood Cemetery. The artifacts of his remarkable life are on display at the Vermont History Center in Barre.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian from Barre.MORE IN Central Vermont
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