Military history



Ku Kluxers and the War against
Civil Rights, 1866–1876

ELIAS HILL WAS awakened after midnight on May 5, 1871. Lying in his tiny cabin in rural York County, South Carolina, he could hear the dogs barking and the men moving rapidly in the dark. They came first to his brother’s house next door, where they whipped his brother’s wife. “Where’s Elias?” they kept demanding. When she told him, they barged into Hill’s house. “Here he is! Here he is!” one of the men shouted triumphantly. They threw off his bedclothes and dragged him into the yard.

He could not resist because Elias Hill, now fifty years old, had been crippled since the age of seven. A dreadful disease, possibly muscular dystrophy, had shriveled his legs. They were no bigger than the size of a man’s wrist. His arms, too, were withered and his jaw was strangely deformed. Overcoming his physical limitations, Hill had emerged as an unlikely leader in the “colored community.” His father had purchased freedom for himself, his wife, and their son thirty years before, and Elias had learned to read from some white children. As he grew into adulthood, he had become a schoolteacher and a well-respected Baptist preacher who made a little extra money by writing letters on behalf of illiterate freedmen. He was also the local president of the Union League, a fraternal organization closely aligned with the Republican Party.

The Republicans advocated enforcing the newly enacted Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments granting civil rights to former slaves, something that was intolerable to the former slave owners who could not imagine a “superior race” (themselves) granting any opportunities to an “inferior race.”22 The South may have lost the Civil War, but that did not mean that whites were prepared to cede power to blacks or their allies, who were vilified as “carpetbaggers” if they came from the North and “scalawags” if from the South.

Most whites were terrified of the horrors that supposedly would be visited upon them if those they had oppressed for so long were to take power. (The Haitian Revolution, with its savage violence, was an oft-cited example.)23 White sentiment was summed up by one South Carolina newspaper that urged its readers, in a characteristically hysterical register, to fight against

the hell-born policy which has trampled the fairest and noblest States of our great sisterhood beneath the unholy hoofs of African savages and shoulder-strapped brigands [U.S. Army officers]—the policy which has given up millions of our free-born, high-souled brethren and sisters—to the rule of gibbering, louse-eating, devil-worshipping, barbarians, from the jungles of Dahomey [west Africa], and peripatetic buccaneers from Cape Cod, Memphremagog [Vermont], Hell, and Boston.24

The Ku Klux Klan stood ready to fight the “hell-born policy” of racial equality. Founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866 by a half dozen Confederate veterans for “diversion and amusement,” it originally resembled a college fraternity complete with “meaningless and mysterious” initiation rituals and secret signs. (The name derived from the Greek word for circle or band, kuklos.) But before long it had become a full-fledged terrorist organization that spread like a kudzu vine across an unrepentant South. A grand wizard was in nominal command: the former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. But the “Invisible Empire” operated with little or no central direction. As the historian Steven Hahn notes, “the Klan was less a formal organization than a rubric embracing a variety of secret vigilante and paramilitary outfits showing the marks of their local settings.” KKK “dens” (i.e., terrorist cells) sprang up spontaneously, as did similar organizations such as the Knights of the White Camellia, the Pale Faces, and the White Brotherhood. “Ku Klux” became a generic label for paramilitary organizations whose goal was to expel Republicans from office and to replace them with Democrats who would institute white-supremacist policies. The KKK was, in effect, the military arm of the Democratic Party, just as the Irish Republican Army would be the military arm of Sinn Féin. In many communities virtually all of the white men enrolled in the Klan, just as, before the Civil War, they had enrolled in militia companies and patrols designed to prevent slave uprisings. Total membership in the Klan and similar groups across the eleven states of the Confederacy was said to number half a million men. Because the bulk of its membership was made up of Confederate veterans, Hahn argues, it “may be regarded as a guerilla movement bent on continuing the struggle or avenging the consequences of the official surrender.”25 But unlike true guerrilla groups, the Klan did not target soldiers—only civilians like Elias Hill.

Their objectives and neuroses were apparent in the questioning of Hill, which was conducted by six masked “ghouls,” as rank-and-file Klansmen were designated. Although the popular image has the Klan exclusively wearing white sheets, their disguises were more diverse. Hill recalled, “Some had a kind of check disguise on their heads. One had black oil-cloth over his head, and something like gloves covering his hands and wrists.” They spoke in an “outlandish and unnatural tone” to disguise their voices and to inspire “awe and terror” in the supposedly “ignorant and superstitious . . . darkies” by pretending to be ghosts and goblins—a masquerade that would not have fooled a child, much less an educated preacher like Elias Hill.

The first question they asked Hill was “Who burned our houses?” Blacks were widely suspected of committing arson as a form of protest because they were too afraid to openly confront white supremacists.

“I told them it was not me,” Hill recalled. “I could not burn houses; it was unreasonable to ask me.”

The masked men did not like that answer. They hit him with their fists and extracted a phony confession. Next they wanted to know if Hill had told “the black men to ravish all the white women.”

He said no and they struck him again. They asked him if he was president of the Union League—a particular bugbear for the Klan because it sought to organize freedmen. He admitted it. More blows.

“Didn’t you preach against the Ku-Klux?” they demanded. In response to his denials, a strap was attached to his neck and he was dragged around the yard. Then a horsewhip was produced and he was hit eight times on the hip bone—“almost the only place he could hit my body,” he later testified, “my legs were so short.”

Finally, after more than an hour of torture in the chill night air, they left. But not before they had issued a series of demands. They wanted him to stop preaching. To stop subscribing to a Republican newspaper from Charleston. And to place an advertisement in the local newspaper renouncing “republicanism” and promising never to vote. If he did all those things, he could live. If not, he would be killed the following week.

That very same night in the very same small South Carolina community, the Klan paid a visit to a number of other black households. As Hill later told Congress, “They went and whipped J. P. Hill’s wife the same night they were at my house . . . Julia, Miles Barron’s wife: Rumor says they committed a rape on her . . . Samuel Simrell’s house was burned down that night.”26

At least they survived. Many did not. Jim Williams had grown up a slave in York County before escaping and enlisting in the Union Army. After the war he returned to become captain of a black militia company. On March 7, 1871—two months before the assault on Elias Hill—a group of forty or fifty masked men came to his house at 2 a.m. He was hiding under the floorboards, but the Klansmen, led by Dr. J. Rufus Bratton, a local physician, discovered his hiding place. They dragged him outside, tied a rope around a tree limb, and hung him. Not even elected officials were safe. Both state Senator Solomon Washington Dill, a white Republican, and state Senator Benjamin Franklin Randolph, a black Republican, were gunned down. So was a white poll manager who had the temerity to make whites wait in line to vote just like the Negroes.27

SOUTHERN GOVERNMENTS, EVEN when under Republican control, were virtually helpless to fight the “Invisible Empire.” White lawmen could not be counted upon to combat the Klan, nor white juries to convict them. Black militiamen were effective in some places, for instance Arkansas and Texas, but on the whole they were poorly trained and not well armed; as the historian Eric Foner noted, “blacks with military experience were far outnumbered in a region where virtually every white male had been trained to bear arms.”28Moreover, in most places white Republican officeholders were afraid to employ black militia for fear of alienating moderate whites and harming their own chances of winning reelection. “Even in Republican areas . . . ,” Foner wrote, “the law was paralyzed.”29

That left the job of enforcing Reconstruction to an army of occupation that was pathetically inadequate to the task. The number of federal troops stationed in the South dropped from 87,000 in 1866 to 20,000 in 1867 and 6,000 in 1876. The Freedmen’s Bureau in the War Department was supposed to help former slaves, but at its peak it had just 900 agents scattered across the South.30 In short, there were far too few federal representatives to enforce upon 9.4 million Southerners (5.5 million of them white) the social revolution known as Radical Reconstruction, which was launched in 1867 after white Southerners had made plain their determination to resist granting ex-slaves any social or political rights.31

NO ARMY OFFICER tried harder than Major Lewis M. Merrill to realize the ideals of Reconstruction and to expose “the villainies” perpetrated by the Klan, but his experience showed just how futile the struggle was. He arrived in South Carolina in March 1871 with three companies from the Seventh Cavalry—troops temporarily diverted from fighting Indians to fighting the Ku Klux Klan. Even with this influx, there were fewer than 1,000 soldiers in a state of 705,606 people (including 289,667 whites).

A West Point graduate, Merrill was described as having “the head, face and spectacles of a German professor, and the frame of an athlete.” An officer of “unusual talent,” he had fought Border Ruffians in “Bleeding Kansas” in the 1850s and bushwhackers in Missouri in the 1860s, so he knew how to conduct a counterinsurgency. Although not a lawyer himself, he came from a family of lawyers and had previously served as a judge advocate general, so he knew how to utilize the law to achieve his objectives. He was, in the words of U.S. Attorney General Amos T. Akerman, “resolute, collected, bold, and prudent, with a good legal head, very discriminating between truth and falsehood; very indignant at wrong, and yet master of his indignation.” In short, “just the man for the work.”

He set up headquarters in Rose’s Hotel in Yorkville, the York County seat (population: 1,500), and set out about collecting intelligence amid what a visitor from New York called “a general air of dirty dreariness.” When he first arrived, he was “kindly and courteously received . . . by the principal citizens of the town,” as befitting the usual Southern custom. He was under the impression that he would have to deal with nothing more than “sporadic instances of mob violence.” But before long he “became convinced that the Ku-Klux organization was not only a very large one and exceedingly well organized but a very dangerous one.” “I never conceived of such a state of social disorganization being possible in any civilized community as exists in this county now . . . ,” he later told Congress. “There appears to me to be a diseased state of public sentiment in regard to the administration of justice.”

Employing informers (“pukers” in local parlance), Merrill eventually gathered evidence on eleven murders and six hundred cases of “whipping, beating, and personal violence, excluding numerous minor cases of threats, intimidation, abuse, and small personal violence, as knocking down with a pistol or gun.” But although he could investigate, he could not prosecute. Because of “dishonest or intimidated juries and perjured testimony,” he knew that “the local civil authorities were powerless to cope with the strength of the Ku-Klux conspiracy, even if willing to make the attempt, and I have been compelled to believe that the desire to make the attempt was entirely wanting.” Such reluctance was hardly surprising given that “the conspiracy may be stated to have practically included the whole white community.”

Alarmed by the evidence gathered by Major Merrill and other investigators, Congress in April 1871 passed the Ku Klux Klan Act. It created a new federal crime—“deprivation of any rights, privileges, and immunities secured by the Constitution”—and authorized the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to enforce it. Six months later, President Ulysses S. Grant lifted habeas corpus protections in nine South Carolina counties, including York—the first and last time this provision was invoked. Within two days Merrill’s cavalrymen had arrested eighty-two suspects for crimes of “revolting wickedness.” Hundreds more surrendered voluntarily, overflowing the Yorkville jail. Merrill said the Klansmen were “bewildered and demoralized” and “recognized . . . that the game was up.”

In fact, the game was just beginning. There was no provision in the KKK Act for military tribunals, so the suspects were remanded to federal court in Columbia, South Carolina. Klan leaders raised $10,000 to hire two of the greatest defense lawyers in America, both of them former U.S. attorneys general. Out of 1,355 Ku Klux indictments, just 102 resulted in convictions and the longest sentence was five years. Those released outright included the leader of the Jim Williams lynch mob, Dr. Bratton, who had fled Merrill’s roundup. He was kidnapped by Secret Service agents in Canada, chloroformed, and smuggled back to American soil in an early, if ultimately futile, version of what is now called rendition.

In the spring of 1873 the U.S. attorney general suspended the prosecution of all pending cases. “The whole public are tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South,” President Grant conceded, “and the great majority are ready to condemn any interference on the part of the Government.” Whatever energy the federal government may have displayed in enforcing Reconstruction was dissipated by the congressional elections of 1874, which returned a Democratic majority for the first time since the Civil War. The army, for its part, was eager to end a distasteful mission and get back to “real” soldiering against the Indians; many officers were alarmed by reports, such as the one that Major Merrill submitted on September 23, 1872, noting that the “instruction” of his men in cavalry skills was falling “far short of even a respectable standard” because of the “circumstances of duty.” The last troops of the Seventh Cavalry pulled out of South Carolina in March 1873.

MERRILL BELIEVED THAT by this time “in York County the Ku Klux organization as such is completely crushed.”32 It was true that by 1873 the Klan had gone out of business, not to be revived for another half century. But by that point it was well on its way to achieving its objective: the disenfranchisement of the freedmen. The new constitutional amendments designed to guarantee equality under the law existed in name only. Even its founders felt that the Klan had “committed excesses”33 and that keeping it in existence risked a counterproductive backlash from the federal government. But that does not mean that Klansmen were prepared to make even the most minimal concessions regarding Negro rights. Many of the same men who had once been Ku Kluxers joined new paramilitary organizations such as rifle and saber clubs that sprang up across the South, including some known as “Red Shirts” in a backhanded tribute to Garibaldi. By now the irredentist forces were so strong that they felt no need to wear disguises. They could perpetrate their outrages in public, confident that no one would stop them.

By 1877 there were no federal troops and hardly any Republican officials left in the South. The soldiers had been pulled out as part of what was widely alleged to be a sordid political deal to seat Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, as the winner of the closely contested 1876 presidential election over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. New Democratic state governments began to enact the discriminatory codes that would become known as Jim Crow.34

With eleven years of terrorism that killed an estimated 3,000 freedmen, white Southerners achieved more than their armies had accomplished in four years of total war that left 650,000 to 850,000 dead.35 Terrorism is usually seen as an urban phenomenon, but the KKK was a rural group, and it was one of the largest and most successful terrorist organizations in history. Because of its ruthless campaign of murder and intimidation, the promise of Reconstruction would not be realized for another century.

Segregationists succeeded in dismantling Reconstruction in no small part because they won what a later generation would call “the battle of the narrative.” They did so by spreading the myth that it was the former slave owners, not the former slaves, who were the real victims of the post–Civil War era. The vilification of Reconstruction eventually came to be embodied in well-known books and films such as Birth of a Nation (based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan), and Gone With the Wind, but already by the 1870s it was the dominant narrative not only in the South but also in the North.

If the Ku Klux Klan or its successors had been determined to overthrow the federal government or even to secede from the United States, they never could have succeeded. But they were careful to strive for more modest goals and to avoid fighting federal troops. That made it easy, in the end, for the white-run federal government to concede their demands. Northerners were willing to fight to the death against secession but not against segregation.

Few terrorist groups were to enjoy the success of the KKK. The anarchists were more typical in their violent failure.

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