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Reconstruction and the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan

Part 3 of a Series on Reconstruction 1865-1877

Mike Scruggs- Few nations in the last millennium have been so devastated by loss of life and property as the South in 1865. Perhaps only the Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Serbians, and in turn the Germans themselves in the Second World War endured such suffering.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate Cavalry general most feared by Union generals.

A Union general bragged that crows flying over the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia would need to pack their own lunches. The Union conquerors then proceeded with the Reconstruction of the South by laying on heavy taxes, confiscating much of their remaining wealth in cotton and other goods, and forcing the sale of land under tax duress. They gave the right to vote to blacks, but took it away from Confederate veterans. They removed from Confederate veterans and their families all recourse to civil law and justice. They sent in swarms of Northern school teachers to teach their children to be ashamed of their fathers and their Southern heritage. They released upon them a reign of terror with a constant threat of depredations and outrages at the hands of the Union League.

Political opportunists from the North constantly promised blacks that the properties of whites would be confiscated and given to them, if they voted Republican. Many of them also promised that Republican voting blacks would be given political and racial hegemony over the whites. The Union League regularly promised to hang blacks that did not vote Republican. Many blacks were, in fact, beaten or murdered for resisting Union League political objectives. These circumstances made forceful underground resistance to Radical Reconstruction inevitable.

Christmas Eve of 1865 was not a time of joy in Pulaski, Tennessee. But six young Confederate veterans meeting in a law office decided to lift the spirits of that town by forming a club or fraternity. Five of these six were Confederate officers during the war. Four of them were to become lawyers, one a circuit court clerk, and one a newspaper editor. Their first objective was to have some fun and lift the spirits of the town. To that end they devised the rituals of a secret fraternal society with mysterious code words, elaborate titles, and costume disguises.

Starting with the Greek word for circle, kuklos, they came up with the name, Ku Klux, and then added Klan because they were all of Scotch-Irish descent. Their costume regalia for themselves and their horses were made up of available bed sheets. The next week at dark they rode into town to introduce their new club, show off their mysterious regalia, and amuse and serenade sweethearts and families. It was a roaring social success.

Their former slaves, however, thought they had seen the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers. The next week the agitation that had been stirred among their former slaves by political opportunists from the North was considerably reduced. The six young members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) now realized they had a powerful psychological tool to curtail the violence and outrages being suffered by Southern families. It could be a protective organization for beleaguered Southern whites as well as their black friends.

The original founders had strict character standards for membership. They wanted men of principle and reliability. They placed a high emphasis on the ideals of chivalry, patriotism, respect for the Constitution and legitimate law. They sought to protect the weak and defenseless, especially Confederate widows and their children, and to relieve the injured and oppressed. This included relief from the oppressive and hated cotton tax. Initiates pledged total abstinence from alcohol as long as they were members. They also pledged never to reveal that they were a member of the KKK or to reveal the names of any other members. They were not anti-black, but they were white supremacists. This advocacy of white supremacy must be seen in historical perspective to be fully understood. Living under a black dominated society was an intolerable prospect to them, but this prospect was constantly threatened by Federal authorities, the Union League, and carpetbagger demagogues appealing for black Republican votes.

White supremacy was not a political idea that was confined to the South. In fact, Southern white supremacy retained a paternalistic view of blacks, whereas the equally prevalent white supremacy of the North was simply anti-black. Most Northern states did not want blacks within their borders, and Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Oregon had strict laws to enforce this bias. The “Black Laws” of some Southern states after Reconstruction were based on Northern models.

Lincoln’s attitude toward blacks was very typical of Northern whites, and he sometimes appealed to this sentiment in his political speeches. Lincoln was personally against slavery, but not at the cost of breaking up the country. Originally, before using Emancipation as a military strategy, Lincoln favored a gradual slave-owner compensated emancipation of African slaves, but favored their removal to Central America, the Caribbean, or back to Africa. Lincoln’s thinking was very prevalent in the North. Before the war, Massachusetts was the only state in which blacks were allowed to be jurors. Even after Radical Reconstruction disenfranchised whites and enfranchised blacks in the South in 1867, voters in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Kansas refused to extend the franchise to blacks.

The situation in Tennessee was aggravated by its Radical Republican Governor, William G. Brownlow. Brownlow forced through the puppet Legislature a bill disenfranchising Confederate veterans in June of 1865, a full twenty-one months before such a measure was taken in ten other Southern states. Brownlow, a former Methodist minister, also provoked fear in Tennessee and the whole South with public pronouncements such as this:

If I had the power I would arm…every negro in the South, every devil in Hell, clothe them in the uniform of the Federal Army and then turn them loose on the rebels of the South and exterminate every man, woman, and child, south of the Mason and Dixon line.”

Brownlow also said this to a New York audience:

I would like to see Negro troops under Ben Butler crowd every rebel into the Gulf of Mexico, and drown them as the devil did the hogs in the Sea of Galilee.”

Brownlow disbanded the regular Tennessee Militia and replaced it with a force of black Union Army veterans and white bushwhackers to intimidate political opposition and resistance to his corrupt and tyrannical government. Thus Southern white supremacy was bolstered by constant threats of black supremacy and even wholesale white annihilation. Brownlow’s sentiments were also echoed by a vocal minority of Northern radical politicians and preachers.

In one postwar speech, Brownlow spoke enthusiastically of exterminating former Confederates, declaring:

I am one of those who believe that the war ended too soon. We have whipped the Rebels, but not enough. The loyal masses constitute an overwhelming majority of the people in this country, and they intend to march against the South and intend the second war shall be no child’s play. The second army of invasion will, as they ought to do, make the entire South as God formed the earth, without form or void. They will not, and ought not leave one rebel fence rail, outhouse, one dwelling, in the seceded states. As for the Rebel population, let them be exterminated. When the second war is wound up, which should be done swift destruction, let the land be surveyed and sold out to pay expenses.”

These speeches by Governor Brownlow, echoes from Northern politicians and pulpits, and numerous economic and political outrages revealed daily across eleven Southern states convinced a group of former Confederate officers that the KKK needed a prestigious Southern leader to unite their efforts to defend former Confederate families against exploitation, violence, and mortal dangers. In the spring of 1866, a secret meeting was held in the Maxwell Hotel, right under the noses of the Union Army, in Nashville, Tennessee. The famed former Confederate Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest of Memphis was elected and accepted leadership of the Klan as the first Grand Wizard. Forrest had already become concerned about the injustices of Reconstruction perpetrated by Governor Brownlow and the many letters relating to woeful injustices and outrages sent to him by his former soldiers. Forrest was widely admired by the Southern people, Confederate veterans, and former Confederate generals for his military and cavalry genius and fighting spirit. He was probably the most feared Confederate general among Union generals, many of whom after the war came to have a high personal regard for his fierce genius, valor, generous nature, and incorruptible personal principles.

The KKK thus advanced as a champion of the Southern people against the tyrannies of Reconstruction. But they would soon face serious discipline and control problems. Noble objectives often deteriorate and sometimes succumb to baser motives. Moreover, there were imitations of the original KKK that were not accountable to their authority or steadfast to the same principles. The Klan did not have an enforceable patent on wearing white sheets. Such dress often became a convenient disguise for personal vengeance or criminal acts. Furthermore, the Union League sometimes committed crimes disguised in Klan garb. This allowed them to blame their own criminal and political violence in behalf of radical politicians on the Klan.

On February 25, 1869, Tennessee Governor Brownlow appointed himself to the U.S. Senate, and Dewitt Senter was elected Governor. It is uncertain whether Forrest continued active leadership in the Klan much later than March 1869, following Senter’s restoration of Confederate veteran voting rights and disbanding Brownlow’s nefarious State Guard. But the Klan would have an important role in removing North Carolina Governor William Holden in 1870.

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