Hahn descendent hopes to preserve family history

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 1, 2001


LAPLACE – He laid out the town of Hahnville in St. Charles Parish, subdividing his plantation. He served the people as a notary public, Orleans Parish School Board president, congressman, district judge, journalist and governor of Louisiana.

To most historians, he was Michael Hahn. To Marilyn Santa Cruz of LaPlace, he is “Uncle Mike.”

Santa Cruz is the great-granddaughter of Hahn’s half-sister, Caroline Ursin, and hopes to keep alive the memory of her accomplished relative, preserving old photographs and papers.

Among those papers is a personal letter from President Abraham Lincoln.

Born Marilyn McMaster, Santa Cruz wasn’t even aware of her blood relationship to the former Union-backed Louisiana governor, as some relatives, it seemed, were ashamed of the connection.

For many people, especially in the South, hard feelings run deep about the Civil War and some view Hahn as a “traitor” to the Confederate cause.

However, Hahn was always an outspoken supporter of Lincoln and opposed succession, putting him on the political outside during the early war years.

When he was elected governor in 1864, it was only for that portion of Louisiana actually under Union control since the fall of New Orleans in 1982. At the same time, Henry Watkins Allen was elected the Confederate governor for the remainder of the state.

Lincoln wrote to Hahn the following on March 13, 1864:

“My dear sir:

I congratulate you on having fixed your name in history as the first, free-state governor of Louisiana. Now you are about to have a convention which, among other things, will probably define the elective franchise. I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in – as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably keep, in some trying time to come, the keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom. But this is only a suggestion, not to be public, but to you alone.

Yours truly,

A. Lincoln”

Hahn was born Nov. 24, 1830, in Klingennuenster, Bavaria, Germany. His family emigrated to Louisiana when he was 10 years old. Being uncommonly intelligent, he earned his law degree at 20 years old and began practicing law at the University of Louisiana (later Tulane University) before he was old enough to vote.

Within two years, he was president of the Orleans Parish School Board.

As war clouds gathered, he opposed succession from the Union and supported Stephen A. Douglas for president in 1856. When New Orleans fell, the young attorney remained and was elected to Congress, representing Union-held Louisiana.

Likewise, a vigorous opponent of slavery, he made speeches everywhere from Haiti to the halls of Congress and established the New Orleans True Delta newspaper in 1864, an anti-slavery, pro-Lincoln newspaper.

In February 1864, Union Louisiana consisted of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. James, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Ascension, Assumption, Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Mary and St. Martin parishes.

The following winter, he was elected to the U.S. Senate but resigned following Lincoln’s assassination, disagreeing with President Andrew Johnson on reconstruction policies and supporting Lincoln’s own views of a gradual granting of the vote to freed slaves.

White supremacists found themselves unexpectedly on the outs of political winds, which were moving toward black suffrage. As Louisiana prepared to grant voting rights to blacks, a riot erupted on July 30, 1866, where Hahn found himself wounded in the melee, giving himself a life-long limp.

In 1867, he founded The Repubican newspaper, edited it for four years, then returned to his St. Charles Parish home.

Hahn then laid out the village of Hahnville, just upriver from the tiny community marked on maps as “St. Charles Courthouse” and either bought the 20-year-old L’Avant Coureur and changed its name or established the St. Charles Herald in 1873.

Hahn’s later career included serving in the Louisiana legislature from 1872 to 1876, superintendent of the U.S. Mint in New Orleans, 26th Judicial District Judge and back to Congress in 1884. He died in Washington, D.C. on March 15, 1886.

“I never even heard of him until the 1960s, when my mother mentioned him,” Santa Cruz said. One aunt said she remembered her mother putting his portrait in the trash, Hahn considered something of a family embarrassment for his pro-Union views.

Santa Cruz researched his life and history and concluded his was a courageous position, worthy of honor in Louisiana history. She campaigned unsuccessfully to have the Interstate 310 bridge named in his honor and still hopes to see a more public recognition of his memory.

“He was a handsome man,” she commented. “Too bad, he never had any children, but he was married to Louisiana.”

He polled 6,171 votes and took office. His inauguration took place on March 3, 1864.