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Caffery Prize winner lifts the veil on hidden history of region's vigilantes

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A graduate student’s paper revealing the forgotten history of vigilantism in south Louisiana has earned this year’s Jefferson Caffery Research Award.

Kelsey Couvillon authored “Attakapas Vigilante Committees: Race, Class, and Extrajudicial Violence in Antebellum Louisiana.” It examines the factors that motivated organized vigilantes in the region now known as Acadiana in the years prior to the Civil War.

Couvillon is pursuing a master’s degree in history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The Caffery prize recognizes outstanding student research that utilizes primary sources housed in Special Collections at the University’s Edith Garland Dupré Library.

Lawlessness was a challenge in antebellum Louisiana, and ineffective law enforcement led to the formation of vigilante committees in several parishes that meted out punishment for a host of real and imagined crimes. Sentences ranged from exile to beatings to lynching.

Couvillon said these groups “claimed that they were ridding the area of criminals, but my paper shows how they used violence and intimidation as a means of social control on the eve of the Civil War.”

The paper is part of her master’s thesis. The larger study connects antebellum vigilantes to similar extrajudicial organizations such as the Knights of the White Camelia and the White League that formed in the region and throughout the South in the postwar years. 

Couvillon’s exploration of 19th-century vigilantes began in a decidedly 21st-century forum: social media. On Facebook, she came across an advertisement for a reenactment of the Battle of Bayou Queue de Tortue, an 1859 armed confrontation between vigilantes and residents who opposed their activities.

Couvillon contacted the reenactment’s organizer to learn more about the vigilantes. He told her one of the group’s members, Alexandre Barde, published a memoir in 1861 that “chronicled the group’s membership and targets, and provided justifications for their actions,” she said.

Couvillon found Barde’s book, Histoire des Comités de Vigilance aux Attakapas, in Special Collections. Other materials held in the archives were vital to her study as well, she said.

“The collections provided a window into the thoughts of other Lafayette citizens who wrote about the actions of the vigilantes in their letters. The Lucile Mouton Griffin Papers and the Paul DeBallion Papers provided important background information on vigilante committee members.”

Couvillon said she was surprised that few historians have examined the vigilantes, especially given the richness of available primary sources. “They are fascinating as local history and as part of a wider movement of vigilante groups that organized during this period,” she said.

A native of Shreveport, La., Couvillon earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UL Lafayette in 2013. She plans to pursue a Ph.D in history at Rutgers University after she completes her master’s degree this summer.

Ambassador Jefferson and Gertrude Caffery established the award in 1967. Dupré Library and the University Library Committee administer the competition. A $500 prize accompanies the award.

Jefferson Caffery was a member of the first class to enter Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute, now UL Lafayette, in 1901. He served as an American diplomat for 44 years. His postings took him to 12 foreign countries on five continents.

Special Collections is home to Caffery’s papers and other mementos of his long career. The library’s Jefferson Caffery Louisiana Room and a major thoroughfare in his native Lafayette are named in the diplomat’s honor.  

Find more about the Jefferson Caffery Research Award, including the deadline to submit papers for the 2020 prize, here.

 

Photo caption: Kelsey Couvillon, winner of the Jefferson Caffery Research Award (Photo credit: Doug Dugas / University of Louisiana at Lafayette) 

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