Part Three: Series on Reconstruction 1865-1877: The Kirk-Holden War in North Carolina: Plundering the South

William Holden

William Woods Holden, North Carolina Governor circa. 1870

A very stringent anti-Klan law was passed by the North Carolina legislature under the direction of Governor William Holden in January of 1870. This was in response to Radical Republican leadership in Washington. True to Washington Radical Republican despotism, it gave the Governor power to declare counties in a state of insurrection and supersede practically all laws and Constitutional rights in its prosecution. Despite a vigorous attempt to enforce the law, Klan activity increased and a top black activist and leader of the League in Alamance County was found hanging in a tree. Shortly thereafter, Senator John Stephens, a ranking white operative for Governor Holden, seeking evidence for Klan prosecutions, visited a Caswell County Union League meeting. There he handed to each of about twenty members a box of matches with the suggestion that they should be put to good use burning barns. Barns were especially important to Southern farmers. Without a barn a familys livelihood was severely threatened. The next night seven barns, a row of houses, and the tobacco crops of several prominent citizens were burned.

A few days later Senator Stephens attended a rally at the Yanceyville Courthouse for the purpose of making notes on the speeches. He was quietly abducted, gagged, and brutally murdered in one of the Courthouse rooms with an open window to the crowd outside. His body was not discovered until two days later. It was not proven until 1936 that it was a well organized assassination by the KKK. The gruesome mystery and death of Stephens prompted Governor Holden and his advisors to launch a military campaign against the KKK in June. They hoped this would also be a political positive in the coming August elections.

Holden called upon the largely black Union League militia regiments in eastern North Carolina and the white veterans of Union Colonel George W. Kirks notorious bushwhackers from the mountains to score a decisive victory. Kirk was to be in charge. Kirk was a Confederate deserter who had been made a colonel in the Union Army during the war. During the war Kirk had commanded a combined force of Union Army regulars, Confederate deserters, and opportunistic criminals. A good size book could be written on the depredations and atrocities Kirk and his men inflicted on civilians in western North Carolina during the war. According to a report by a Union officer stationed in Yanceyville, Kirk lived up to his evil reputation in the service of Governor Holden. Kirks troops were an armed mob roaming the country, pillaging at will, insulting citizens with impunity, and even threatening to attack the United States troops. Many KKK suspects were arrested and imprisoned.

However, on August 4 of 1870 the elections in North Carolina took place. Despite their despotic tactics and corrupt leverages, the Republicans were very nearly routed. More than two-thirds of the legislative seats went to the Democrats. A growing number of whites had been able to register, and many blacks and even Union Army men had found the carpetbag corruption and tyranny so despicable that they voted for the Democrats. On August 6, U. S. District Court Judge George Brooks found that Kirk had no evidence against any of his prisoners and ordered their release. Thus ended the Kirk-Holden War. Kirk fled north, and within a few months Governor Holden was impeached by the North Carolina House for abuse of power, tried by the Senate and removed from office. Within a year the Union League in North Carolina was disbanded and disappeared.

Former Confederate General John B. Gordon testified in 1871 to the Joint Congressional Committee on Affairs in the Insurrectionary States that:

The first and main reason (for the Klan) was the organization of the Union League.

Gordon, who later became Governor of Georgia and then a U. S. Senator, also stated that even the burning of Atlanta and the devastation of Georgia during the war did not create a tenth of the animosity created by the Union Leagues treatment of the Southern people. Former Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest, a reputed founder of the Klan, testified before the same committee that:

The Klan was intended entirely as a protection to the (Southern) people, to enforce the laws and protect the people from outrages.

Both men realized, however, that after a few years, the Klan, formed in a peoples desperate cry for survival and justice, had itself become a lawless outrage. But it was the federally sponsored Union League that ranked first in time and violence. It should not be forgotten. The evils it inflicted on both black and white still live.


At the end of the Civil War in the spring of 1865, the South had lost over 254,000 men killed in battle or died of wounds or disease. Of the 194,000 seriously wounded at least half had some physical disability from lost limbs, eyes, or other crippling wounds and injuries. Destruction of public and private property was widespread. In the states of South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi where the Norths total war policies had been most zealously carried out by General Sherman, private property destruction exceeded 50 percent. In Virginia, Sheridans troops had laid bare the fertile Shenandoah Valley. The loss in private property included not only homes and furnishings, but barns, livestock, crops, tools, and means of transportation. Confederate currency and bonds were worthless. Two thirds of the Souths railroads were utterly destroyed or severely crippled. Countless bridges and river transports had been destroyed. Many industries and business had been laid waste. Most of Columbia, Atlanta, and much of Charleston had been deliberately torched. In Oxford, Mississippi, only one commercial business was left standing. Many small towns in numerous states literally vanished with only a smoldering trace. After the War, General Sherman himself gave a vivid description of Southern devastation:

Mourning in every household, desolation written in broad characters across the whole face of their country, cities in ashes and fields laid waste, their commerce goneRuin, poverty, and distress everywhere, and now pestilenceadding to their misery.

The South was utterly prostrate and destitute. In contrast to Lincolns total war policy, with some exceptions the United States pursued a generally more benevolent policy towards civilians and private property during the Second World War. At the end of the War in 1945 the United States sought to secure future peace and the common good with massive assistance in rebuilding the economies of Western Europe including West Germany and Italy. That was the Marshall Plan. Reconstruction after the Civil War was no Marshall Plan.

Reconstruction was not a plan to rehabilitate the Southern economy. It was a plan to remake the South into the ideological image of the North, plunder its resources and economy, punish the South for its rebellion and sins, and make certain that Republican political power in Washington would persist for the long term. The wisest method of providing economic recovery and relieving human misery is a benevolent plan to cut taxes and government regulations as well as lending material assistance in rebuilding infrastructure and meeting urgent humanitarian needs. Instead, Reconstruction policies instituted punitive taxes and sent swarms of tax collectors and despotic government regulators to oversee the plunder and humiliation of the South. They were accompanied by swarms of political opportunists, shameless swindlers, and misinformed militant do-gooders.

There are two warring academic schools of thought on Reconstruction. Until the early 1960s, the Dunning (William A. Dunning) school prevailed. He and his students viewed Reconstruction as the most corrupt, tyrannical, and disgraceful period in American history. In todays hysterically politically correct era, the Foner school prevails with a decidedly heavy hand. Eric Foner is a Marxist Columbia University professor, who believes Reconstruction did not go far enough and that even harsher methods should have been used to remake the South into a more liberal society. This is all part of a cultural Marxist war against truth that now dominates academia and the mainstream media, including most of the internet and social media.

To be continued…

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