Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
The years following the Civil War were especially hard for newly-freed slaves. With no homes, no money, and no prospects, one can imagine the hopelessness that came with freedom.
To help, President Abraham Lincoln advocated for a bill to establish an organization to assist freedmen.
On March 3, 1865, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill. The new agency was created within the War Department, the only federal agency with a structure that could be assigned in the South to assist freed slaves in obtaining relief, land, jobs, fair treatment, and education.
The Freedmen’s Bureau arranged for schools and served as legal advocates for African Americans in both local and national courts, mostly in cases dealing with family issues and property issues. Assistance was also provided to help African Americans find family members who had become separated during the war. The Bureau encouraged former planters to rebuild their plantations, urged freedmen to gain employment, kept an eye on contracts between the newly free labor and planters, and pushed both whites and blacks to work together as employers and employees rather than as masters and as slaves. The bold undertaking met with successes and failures.
The Bureau divided Louisiana into districts, each containing one to three parishes. Each district was assigned an agent, an army officer if possible, but when they could not be obtained, a citizen was appointed. Most of the officers were in the Veteran Reserve Corps, such as New York native Lieutenant Simeon G. Butts whose office was in Vernon in Jackson Parish.
When civil war broke out, Butts had joined the 11th Michigan Infantry, leaving behind a wife and three small children. After suffering a series of ailments and then injury in a train wreck, the army sent Butts to the Invalid Corps where he was assigned noncombatant duties. After the war, he was appointed as a Second Lieutenant in the 12th Volunteer Reserve Corps and sent to Louisiana with the Freedman’s Bureau.
In a report on the Freedmen’s Bureau, the overall commander of the U.S. Army occupation forces in Louisiana during Reconstruction, General William T. Sherman, wrote, “As a general thing the agents have been treated very courteously by the people of their respective parishes. There are some exceptions, however. In some portions of the State (principally the northern and northwestern) our officers and agents are insulted and threatened.”
Butts, who had survived bouts with illness and a serious train wreck during the war, would not survive the seemingly innocuous duty as a low-level government social worker.
North Central Louisiana’s West-Kimbrell gang consisted of the state’s most notorious outlaws during the Reconstruction era. Much has been written about the clan based in Winn Parish but often the stories were based on unsubstantiated legend. The official record is slim the gang was adept at keeping much of its activity secret.
Monroe’s Ouachita Telegraph noted the outlaws, known as the Nightriders, “headed by a man named West, have been operating as highwaymen with unvarying success ever since the close of the war, and perhaps before its close, and have sent unheralded and unprepared into eternity the soul of many an innocent victim, stimulated thereto solely by an ungodly greed for gain.”
John West and the Nightriders preyed on travelers traversing central Louisiana headed to Texas, killing entire parties, dumping the bodies in wells, and absconding with all the victims’ property leaving no evidence of their fates.
On July 7, 1866, Lieutenant Butts and his captain left Natchitoches with an army payroll bound for Vernon. After spending the night in St. Maurice, Butts continued alone, spending the second night at a home near the village of Lewisville in Winn Parish.
Three months later, his bones were found next to a spring three miles from the house where he had spent the night. General Sherman wrote his superiors that, “Every effort has been made to obtain some trace of the party who committed the cowardly act, but without avail.” The murder was denounced in New York newspapers and across the country.
When locals had finally had enough, the Nightriders were destroyed in 1870. Only then did the full story of Butts’s fate became known.
The Ouachita Telegraph told the story in a lengthy article on May 27, 1870: “Mrs. West and a man named Dean, one of West’s accomplices, now clear up the mystery of the Lieutenant’s death. He was killed by West not far from the Saline Mills in Winn Parish. Information had been conveyed to West that the Lieutenant had drawn $2,700 at Natchitoches.
“West, Dean and another man overtook Butts on the road, and to allay suspicion told him they were hunting cattle. Riding on, they came to a point near which there is a fine spring. Butts was induced to turn off to the spring to get some water. While drinking from the spring, West deliberately shot the unsuspecting man through the head until now the manner of his death was a profound mystery.”
The spring where Butts died would thereafter be called Yankee Springs. A Baptist church and cemetery were established near his burial spot. The grave was marked but the exact spot was lost over time. Local historians located the approximate site and recently installed a marker for Lt. Butts. The grave is within the Kisatchie National Forest.
Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Greetings From Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out his Louisiana history blog at http://diggingthepast.blogspot.com