Part 5 of a Series on Reconstruction 1865-1877
At the end of war the South had not only suffered tremendous human losses, but was also materially and economically devastated. Yet there was no Marshall Plan for her recovery put forth by the dominant faction of Northern political leaders.
Instead, Reconstruction was a plan to punish the South and remake Southern society, while continuing and even increasing her ruthless economic exploitation for the benefit of Northern commercial and industrial interests. The total war policies of the Union Army and the exploitive policies of the Reconstruction governments had caused a famine in the South in 1866, while the North was enjoying economic prosperity and plenty.
Although many private relief agencies and churches in the North sent some relief, the U.S. government sent no aid and continued to force its destructive confiscation and tax policies on the South. All this was related to maintaining the political dominance gained by the Republican Party in 1860 and furthering the agenda of the Radical Republicans. If the South could not be remade into a region of political vassal states to the Radical Republicans, the Republicans would lose their national power. Enfranchising and capturing the black vote was a primary strategy to that end. Destroying the economic, cultural, and political influence of former Confederates served that end, as well as providing the means for enriching opportunist carpetbaggers and government officials.
By means of a Reconstruction Act in March of 1867, Confederate veterans and former political leaders had been disenfranchised. Most white Southerners were then left without political power or any recourse to justice or relief from Reconstruction despotism. Radical Republicans, moreover, continued hell-bent on controlling the South through black dominance. It was probably not encouraging to hear of the North’s most acclaimed orator and most renowned and fervent of the radical abolitionists, Wendell Phillips, saying from the pulpit of Henry Ward Beecher,
“I do not believe there will be peace until 347,000 men of the South are either hanged or exiled.”
Radical Republican tyranny even extended to religion. A number of churches were closed and their clergy barred from preaching because they would not offer prayers for the President and government. Richard Wilmer, Episcopal Bishop of Alabama, was one who bravely suffered this fate. Wilmer insisted that the government had no authority in affairs of religion and worship, further stating that:
“No one can be expected to pray for the continuance of military rule.”
This type of religious interference by Federal Army officers had also been a problem in Border States and occupied areas during the war. Fortunately, Bishop Wilmer had many Northern allies, and his case was eventually brought before a U. S. Supreme Court unsympathetic to the Radical Republicans. Wilmer’s victory in Court was a major victory for religious freedom.
In such conditions the Ku Klux Klan became the hope of a powerless and beleaguered Southern people for relief from the intolerable tyranny of Reconstruction. The Klan of those years was quite different from later and modern imitators. Bedford Forrest described them in this way to a Congressional Investigation Committee in 1870:
“They admitted no man who was not a gentleman, and a man who could be relied upon to act discreetly; not men who were in the habit of drinking; boisterous men, or men liable to commit error or wrong.”
In 1869, the Grand Dragon of Tennessee stated that it was essentially a protective organization with the purpose:
“to protect all good men, whether white or black, for the outrages and atrocities of bad men of both colors, and who have been for the past three years a terror to society, and an injury to us all.”
General John B. Gordon, speaking of the violence perpetrated by the Union League, explained to a Congressional committee in 1871 that the Klan:
“was therefore necessary to protect our families from outrage and preserve our own lives, to have something that we could regard as a brotherhood—a combination of the best men of the country to act purely in self defense.”
By 1869, Reconstruction in some states had become intolerable, but the Klan was seeing considerable success against the Union League and in thwarting some of the more egregious conduct of Treasury and Freedman’s Bureau agents.
On March 4, there was a significant political change in Tennessee, the original home of the Klan.
Radical Republican Governor “Parson” William G. Brownlow appointed himself to the U.S. Senate. The new Governor, Dewitt Clinton Senter, a more traditional conservative Republican, returned the voting franchise to Confederate veterans and disbanded Brownlow’s gangster army of bullies.
Klan leaders also began to be gravely concerned that Klan violence was growing out of control. Much of the violence was by imitators, and even more by their enemies in the Union League, but there was a growing violation of discipline and principle in the Klan itself. In October of 1869, General Forrest issued an order stating that:
“Whereas, the Order of the KKK is in some localities being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purposes; …and is becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace and public safety for which it was intended…It is therefore ordered and decreed, that the masks and costumes of the Order be entirely abolished and destroyed.”
Forrest went on the declaim those who had used the KKK as an instrument of personal vengeance. But he further stated that: “This is not to be understood to dissolve the Order.” He went on to prohibit several actions such as the whipping of blacks or whites or interfering with any man on account of his political opinions.
A U.S. Congressional Committee investigating the KKK starting in 1870 was more political grandstanding than a search for the truth.
The majority report had simply condemned the Klan, which was the electioneering purpose of the committee in the first place. But in 1871, a minority report of eight Northern Democrats and conservative Republicans gave a more useful and fairer appraisal. Here is an excerpt of their report.
*The KKK arose as an inescapable response to Union League brutality and lack of legal redress under corrupt occupation governments.
*Many crimes against blacks were committed by Union League men disguised as Klansmen.
*Had there been no wanton oppression and tyranny against Southern whites by corrupt
carpetbagger and scalawag governments, there would have been no KKK.
*From the oppression and corruption of the carpetbagger governments and the violent
actions of the Union League sprang the outrages of the KKK and its successors.
The minority report summarized the truth, which has since been buried by political correctness in one of the greatest cover-ups of American history.
“…when the courts were closed and Federal officers, who were by Congress absolute rulers and dispensers of what they called justice, ignored, insulted and trampled upon the rights of the ostracized and disenfranchised white men while officials pandered to the enfranchised negro on whose vote they rallied, in short, when people saw that they had no rights which were respected, no protection from insult, no security, even for their wives and children, and that what little they had saved from the ravages of war was being confiscated by taxation…many of them took the law into their own hands and did deeds of violence which we neither justify or excuse. But all history shows that bad government will make bad citizens.”
Donn Piatt, Washington newspaper editor, Union Brigadier General during the war, and personal friend of Lincoln editorialized that:
“All race antagonism in the South came from carpetbaggers using the Negro votes to get their fingers in the treasury.”
Piatt was very pessimistic that the damage to race relations could ever be repaired. He believed race relations in the South had been permanently poisoned by Reconstruction. Former Confederate General John Brown Gordon told the Congressional committee in 1871 that:
“We never had any apprehension from the conduct of the negroes until unscrupulous men came among them and tried to stir up strife.”
Gordon was a highly significant personality in redeeming the South from Reconstruction. He was revered for his courage and dedication demonstrated in the war. His sincere brand of Christianity was very similar to that of Robert E. Lee, and he was also noted for his wisdom and integrity. Moreover, he was a master of diplomacy and negotiation.
Although he never admitted specifically to being a member of the KKK, he did admit to having been a member of an organization of its kind, and frequently sought to give Northern Congressmen a better understanding of the true nature of the KKK and why it was needed in its time. President Theodore Roosevelt admired him as a soldier and a statesman, saying,
“A more gallant, generous, and fearless gentleman and soldier has not been seen by our country.”
Gordon loved the South and its people and was tireless in every effort to rescue and redeem them from the ravages of war and Reconstruction. He once made this statement, with which many Southerners can identify:
“No people in the history of the world have been so misunderstood, so misjudged, and so cruelly maligned as the people of the South.”