Ku Klux Klan - Reconstruction
The Ku Klux Klan, a postwar organization that had a considerable membership by 1870-1871, became an object of special concern to the Army, as it did to Congress, because of the Klan's terrorist tactics employed in an attempt to wrest the South from African American-Radical Republican control. Consequently, one of the most important Army functions in this period was support of federal marshals in an effort to suppress the Klan. This became an Army responsibility despite the restoration of state militia forces under the reconstruction governments as a means of relieving some of the burden on the regular troops, which were spread thin.
Since many of these new militia forces consisted of African Americans, they were not very effective against white terrorists, who directed some of their acts against the militiamen themselves. These militia forces mainly performed general police duty and watched over elections and voting. Eventually, because of the opposition of white Southerners to African Americans in uniform, the African American militia forces were disbanded.
Six restless young men formed the Ku Klux Klan in a Pulaski, Tennessee law office in May 1866. The name "Ku Klux" came from the Greek Kuklos, circle, and "Klan" was added for alliteration. The Southerners contended that the Klan was organized to counteract the Union League, a secret organization which gave the negro solidarity and, it was claimed, encouraged him to commit acts of violence. The league originated in the North in £he Uni.on 1862 to support the cause of union when democrats were the South, attacking the war policy of the republicans. It was secret, and its members swore to vote for none but union men for office. It did good service until the end of the war, when it was mostly abandoned, but survived in some places chiefly as local social organizations. Late in the war it was extended to the South among union men there, who were generally whites. With the coming of peace negro members began to be admitted. At first they were but few, but they increased in numbers as negro suffrage became more probable. The conservative white members now withdrew, and the organization became a mass of blacks controlled by white men. Its influence was probably never great, but the whites, always alarmed at anything which might lead to an insurrection of the blacks, looked upon it with horror.
There were many evidences of self-assertion by the negroes. Houses and barns were burned, men were waylaid, and other evidences showed a new spirit in a people long noted for their submissiveness. Friends of the blacks asserted that the whites practiced numerous outrages upon the freedmen. It is hard to place the responsibility where it belongs, but it is well to remember that violence begets violence, and that social chaos was great in 1867. Whether justified or not, the whites regarded the organization of blacks into the Union League as inimical to good order and security.
Originally formed as a social club, early Klansmen raised fear and anxiety by riding about the countryside at night, dressed in sheets and hoods, frightening rural blacks. Reconstruction Southerners, depressed over military defeat and angry at the military occupation of the Union Army, quickly populated the Klan as it spread throughout the former Confederate states. Several organizations are known under the general term Ku Klux Klan; the "Knights of the White Camelia," chiefly in the Gulf states, "Constitutional Union Guards," "Pale Faces," the "White Brotherhood," the "Council of Safety," and the "Association of '76," as well as the Klan proper. Black Belt whites preferred to entrust the preservation of white supremacy to Klan-like groups such as the Knights of the White Camelia, the White Brotherhood, the White League, and the Men of Peace. They were alike in purpose, organization, and methods.
Thus was established the "Invisible Empire," presided over by the Grand Wizard and his ten Genii. Each state became a "Realm" under a Grand Dragon and his eight Hydras, each congressional district a " Dominion" under a Grand Titan and his six Furies, and each local group was a "Den" under a Grand Cyclops and his two Nighthawks. It was the Den that did the actual work for which the "Invisible Empire" existed.
During Reconstruction, the group claimed 12,000 members in Alabama - about one in every nine white voters - although some counties, such as Madison, boasted of having as many as 800 Knights. More importantly, though, the KKK enjoyed deep and wide-spread support from many whites, including women and children. Democratic newspapers printed Klan advertisements, songs, jokes, and macabre warnings, and published favorable editorials. One historian claimed that every white man, woman, and child in Alabama was in league with the Reconstruction Klan. Despite the obvious exaggeration of this statement, it resonates because the Klan did enjoy overwhelming support and, in April 1867, gained increased legitimacy when Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest agreed to serve as imperial wizard of the empire. Other Confederate generals followed the example by serving as state Klan leaders.
Most dens were made up of younger men, partially because of the physical nature of Ku Kluxing, but also because many of them felt they had "missed out" on the war. Still, many dens enjoyed considerable support from older and prominent citizens who "continued to smile to themselves or quietly applaud whenever some `uppity' black or `rascally' carpetbagger received his just dues." Mystery was part and parcel of the order, largely to instill fear. Klan members wore long flowing white robes, high conical hoods, and adorned themselves with stars, moons, skulls and crossbones.
Said one partisan "But while the hand of Ku-Kluxism is stained with blood, yet, considering the sufferings the South endured during the brief existence of that organization, it is the purest and whitest hand ever raised by an outraged people to repel the assaults of their oppressors. Under the reconstruction laws of Congress the people of the South were required to overthrow their own State governments; to repudiate, not only their State debts, but their own private contracts, as well; to ratify the taking from them by force, and without remuneration, almost their entire property, and to adopt Constitutions for their government which stripped them of the right dearest to every citizen-the right to vote and hold office, while the ignorant black man was clothed with all the rights and immunities of citizenship. Is it any wonder, then, that the people took refuge in Ku-Klux Klans, that they might strike against the ruin and desolation, peculation and violence that threatened to destroy them? When Federal bayonets were used to enforce the intolerable exactions of the government in the way of taxes, and the arm of the negro militia to sustain black demons in their violation of the sanctity of homes and the chastity of women-is it any wonder that men rushed into secret societies for the defense of their wives, their mothers, their sisters and their homes ?
Long before a Ku-Klux was ever heard of in the South, armed mobs of negroes and low-down scalawags and carpet-baggers were marching through our towns and country, insulting citizens and spreading terror among all classes. Carpet-bag judges so interpreted the law that scalawag juries found it an easy task to acquit these demons when charged with crime; but if, perchance, a conviction could be had, a Republican Governor stood ready to pardon the offender for his vote. The result was that all good men were alarmed for the safety of their property and families, and they very naturally looked for some measures of protection."
The real power of the Klan was with the Den, the local unit; and the Dens easily fell into excesses. They were composed of venturesome persons, generally youDg men, drawn from all classes in the community. If the Cyclops had strong character and was judicious he might restrain harsh conduct. If he himself was rash or weak-willed, the violent members were apt to prevail. If such members got control in a Den, the moderate men would withdraw. Symptoms like these did not appear at first. But by the beginning of 1869 rashness was evidently increasing, and the men at the head of the organization ordered the dissolution of the "Invisible Empire." Their order was not effective. Everywhere members withdrew, glad to escape without being considered traitors, but the Dens did not dissolve. They remained more than ever in the hands of the rasher element.
Leading Democrats supported the Klan, and the party was largely indistinguishable from it. Klansmen beat, maimed, intimidated, and even killed Republicans of both colors who challenged them at the polls, or blacks and whites who tested the bounds of white supremacy by providing education or relief to the black freedmen. After 1870, federal legislation that empowered officials to punish Klan atrocities, South Carolina's suspension of habeas corpus and legal proceedings against hundreds of Klansmen, and the Amnesty Act that refranchised former Confederates encouraged the decline of Ku Kluxism. But it was the 1874 triumph of Alabama's Democratic party in "redeeming" the state from Republican rule that finally made the KKK obsolete.
In April 1877, as a result of the compromise by which Rutherford B. Hayes became President after the disputed election of 1876, the last of the troops on reconstruction duty in the South were transferred to other duty and the federal military occupation of the South came to an end. The Army's role in the South in the years 1865-1877 was without precedent in the United States.
The Reconstruction Klan functioned as the terrorist arm of the Southern Democratic party, waging a kind of guerilla warfare after Appomattox that targeted freed blacks who sought to exercise their newfound freedoms as well as any whites, Northern or Southern, who would assist them. Congress documented over a thousand Klan-committed killings in the South during Reconstruction.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|