Written by Dr. Timothy D. Hudson
James Etherington Trimble played a pivotal role in Union Parish and the surrounding region during the two decades following the War. Born in Bridgewater, Pennsylvania in 1834, at the age of fifteen Trimble was appointed as a midshipman and ordered to Annapolis, Maryland, where he passed his examinations and received his commission. He entered the Naval Academy, but subsequently resigned due to the serious illness of his mother. His U.S. Representative then appointed him to West Point, but they declined his application and instead, he attended Williams College, graduating from in 1857. Trimble then moved to Arkansas, and in 1859, he accepted the position of President of the Farmerville Male and Female Institute. When the War began, Trimble decided to continue his teaching position and not enlist in the Confederate military, since he had close personal friends serving as officers in the Union Army. The Farmerville Institute suspended operations at the end of 1861 due to the war, and in February 1862, he wrote to the Confederate Secretary of War, saying that, “…now that my country needs the services of every son I cannot longer hold back,” offering himself if needed by the military. The Confederate War Department assigned Trimble to special duty as a military engineer west of the Mississippi River rather than in a military capacity, and he served in this position and as a clerk for the War Department until the conflict ended. Afterwards, Trimble returned to Farmerville, studied law, was appointed as Farmerville’s Justice of the Peace in September 1865, and was admitted to the Louisiana Bar in July 1866. He opened a law practice in Farmerville and was appointed as Farmerville’s postmaster on 17 October 1867 and as district attorney, and he also served as chairman of the board of voter registration.
Despite his strong support of his adopted home by his service for the Confederate States Government, James E. Trimble joined the Republican Party in 1868. Only a handful of other local residents became vocal supporters of the Republicans, including Trimble’s fellow Northerner, John L. Barrett, as well as several former Whigs who refused to reconcile with their former political archrivals, the Jacksonian Democrats: Dr. William C. Carr, Shiloh physician Jesse J. Booles, and Spearsville merchant Joseph R. Goyne. During several elections in the year 1868, tensions over voting rights for former slaves ran high across Louisiana, as many white farmers refused to allow their former slaves still working their farms as sharecroppers to vote Republican. Instead, they demanded their workers join Democratic clubs and vote the Democratic ticket, regardless of their voting preference. In fulfillment of his duties as registrar, Trimble canvassed all regions of the parish and encountered hostility and threats to his life over his support of Republican candidates. Since casting a vote in those days was a public event (secret ballots came years later), Trimble said he advised many black men to join the Democratic clubs and vote Democratic, for otherwise they would risk their lives. He said that, while many black men would have voted Democrat regardless, that year most truly supported the Republican Party candidates, yet out of fear for their lives, they all voted Democrat. Of the Presidential election that November, Trimble said, “I am the only person in the whole parish, white or black, who voted the Republican ticket.” Even the other vocal white Republicans felt uncomfortable casting a vote for the Republican Party. Although a group of men assaulted Trimble after the election and conditions remained tumultuous in Farmerville and Union Parish until 1870, the region managed to escape the extreme violence and bloodshed experienced by other locales across the state during the 1870s.
In the 1872 election, James E. Trimble ran as a Republican for District Court Judge, and in Union Parish, he received 439 votes, coming in third in his home parish. His judicial district also included Claiborne, Jackson, Bienville, and Red River Parishes, and due to strong Republican Party support in Red River Parish, where he was virtually unknown, James E. Trimble won the election. Judge James E. Trimble acquitted himself well on the bench, receiving praise from the Vienna and Monroe newspapers for acting as “an impartial and fair-minded judge, and an able dispenser of justice” and for doing his utmost to “do all parties justice and to discharge his duties faithfully and impartially.” By all accounts, his courtroom knew nothing of politics, only impartial justice. Trimble’s actions contrasted with those of other, mostly radical, Republicans in the state, as the party seemed riddled with corruption and fraud.
The both Democrats and Republicans claimed victory following the 1872 gubernatorial election in Louisiana, with two administrations forming, a situation that “plunged the State into anarchy and confusion.” Backed by President Grant and the U.S. troops he sent to enforce military law, Republican Gov. Kellogg finally prevailed. As the 1874 election season neared, the Republicans intended to ensure their party’s victory in all contests. In October, U.S. marshals supported by detachments of the U.S. Calvary entered many parishes, armed with long lists of registered white Democratic to apprehend. They sent U.S. Marshal Edgar E. Seleye, backed by Lt. B. H. Hodgson with a squad of fifteen soldiers of the Seventh U.S. Calvary, on a campaign across north Louisiana intended to intimidate white Democratic leaders and prevent them from voting. Armed with his list of voters and a stack of blank arrest warrants, Seleye and Hodgson made their way through Union, Lincoln, and Claiborne Parishes. In Claiborne Parish, Lt. Hodgson arrested three of the most prominent citizens, Mr. Richardson, Mr. Ramsey, and Judge Scott, and then went to Vienna to arrest Sheriff J. G. Huey. When Sheriff Huey requested the reason for his arrest, Lt. Hodgson treated him violently, ordered his men to aim their loaded rifles at Huey, and drew his own pistol on him and threatening to shoot Huey, then, nodding to the firearms pointed at the unarmed Huey, Hodgson said, “This is my authority.” Upon leaving Vienna and headed to Farmerville, Lt. Hodgson ordered his men to destroy Western Union’s telegraph wires leading from Vienna to Farmerville by cutting and then twisting the wires around tree stumps. They continued the telegraph destruction in several places along the route to Farmerville, but their targets there had forewarning and left town to hide in the woods. All the men arrested were estimable and influential local elected officials, but Lt. Hodgson treated them as common criminals, handcuffing them to one another and delivered them to the military jail in Monroe.
Outraged at this injustice, Judge Trimble issued a writ of habeas corpus to Hodgson and Seleye, ordering them to present evidence before his court for the crimes committed by the men they arrested. When presented with the writ by the Claiborne Parish Sheriff Aycock, Hodgson pulled his pistol at the sheriff and replied,
“Give Judge Trimble my compliments; tell him to go to hell; tell him next time to send three copies of the writ. I would like one to shave with, one to light my pipe, and one to use when I go to the privy.”
Incensed, Trimble charged both Hodgson and Seleye with contempt of his court, destruction of telegraph wires, assaulting a lady with a pistol, and forcible abduction. He sent Lincoln Parish Sheriff Howard with a posse of two hundred local residents to arrest them at Monroe on November 6th. Sheriff Howard and his men found Hodgson eating breakfast at his hotel and arrested him without incident. Forewarned of the posse’s impending arrival, Marshal Seleye fled the hotel for the nearby home of Judge John T. Ludeling, Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. A small posse demanded to search the house, but Judge Ludeling refused, acting in a rude, violent manner, with utter contempt of the justice over which he was the supreme authority. The posse forced themselves into the house, and after a search of the first two floors yielded nothing, the posse demanded a key and candle to search the attic, finally finding Seleye crouched in the far attic corner, his clothing covered in dust and plaster. The men disarmed the visibly agitated Seleye, brought him downstairs, gave him wine as he requested, and then led him away, sans handcuffs. According to law, Trimble imprisoned them both for ten days and fined them $100. For his actions unbecoming of an officer, Lt. Hodgson was court-martialed and convicted by a military tribunal. However, he received no sentence and soon returned to duty. Meanwhile, Radical Republican Governor William Kellogg issued an immediate pardon to Seleye.
Hodgson and Seleye’s actions, and those of other operatives across the state, had the intention of intimidating the white Democrats from voting, leading to a Republican victory. The failure of the U.S. Cavalry troops from arresting the Union Parish Democrats as they vanished into the woods foiled the Radical Republican plan to alter the election in the parish. Instead, late on Sunday night, November 1st, two days prior to the election, they sent operatives into Farmerville to steal the poll book, original voter registration book, and all ballot-boxes from the courthouse. This obvious attempt to disrupt the election made national headlines, and Registrar of Voters John Martin Lee, Jr. went to Judge Trimble’s house on Monday to plan for how to conduct the election. Trimble personally supervised the election on November 3rd with Lee, and the election proceeded smoothly, without further incident.
Judge Trimble’s actions against the outrageous activities by Hodgson and Seleye made him a regional hero, gaining him widespread admiration across Union, Claiborne, Lincoln, and Ouachita Parishes, as well as the entire state. These events made national headlines and led to Congressional Hearings in which Trimble testified. However, his actions infuriated the Radical Republicans in Louisiana’s state government, who began impeachment proceedings against Trimble in January 1875. The Radicals never managed to secure Trimble’s impeachment, and in their session the next year, the House of Representatives approved a resolution supporting the judicial integrity of Judge Trimble. His term on the bench expired at the end of 1876, and rather than run for re-election, Trimble stepped down and resumed his law practice in Farmerville. Disgusted with the utter corruption endemic in Louisiana’s Republican Party, Trimble switched his party affiliation and became a staunch Democrat.
Dr. Timothy D. Hudson is the mathematics department head at Southeastern Louisiana University and an avid historian on Union Parish. Dr. Hudson is a Union Parish native and graduate of Farmerville High School.