Part 6 of 7 in a Series on Reconstruction 1865-1877
In 1867, because unscrupulous members of the Union League and Freedmen’s Bureau were reported to have been inciting newly freed slaves to use violence, former Confederate Lieutenant General John Brown Gordon told a group of blacks:
“He who teaches you to regard our interest as conflicting, is not a friend to your race. Our interests are identical. If the white man is oppressed, his colored neighbor must suffer with him. They are embarked together; the one cannot swim if the other sinks.”
The following from a Union League Catechism outlines the divisive political nature of that organization and Radical Republican objectives:
Q: With what party should the colored man vote?
A: The Union Republican Party
Q: What is the difference between Radicals and Republicans?
A: There is none
Q: Would the Democrats take away all the Negro’s rights?
A: They would.
Q: The colored men then should vote with the Republican or Radical Party?
A: They should and shun the Democratic Party as they would the overseer’s lash and the auction block.
Gordon had always demonstrated a benevolence and kindness towards blacks in keeping with his standards as a gentleman and a Christian. As a U.S. Senator from 1873 to 1880 and again from 1891 to 1897 and as Governor of Georgia from 1886 to 1890, he was viewed in Congress and at home as a “moderate” Democrat. He was, however, a relentless opponent of Reconstruction policies and fervent defender of the Southern people.
Gordon ended the war in 1865 as one of Robert E. Lee’s most trusted commanders. He was in charge of the Confederate troops surrendering at Appomattox. Following the War, as a businessman, U.S. Senator, and Governor, Gordon and his ally, Henry W. Grady, editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, called for a new economic future free of the shackles of slavery, but paying homage to the Confederate past. Gordon and Grady were among the first of this New South breed. He was also the first Commander of the United Confederate Veterans established in 1890, which later became the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, John Brown Gordon cannot be understood outside the context of his Christian Faith. He was much like Lee in that regard and may be best understood by a quote about Lee following Lee’s death:
[All Judgment was] made subservient to his Christian faith. This made him habitually unselfish and ever willing to sacrifice on the altar of duty and in the service of his fellows…He is an epistle, written of God and designed by God to teach the people of this country that earthly success is not the criterion of merit, not the measure of true greatness.”
Gordon often defended the Klan’s original motives, while serving in the U.S. Senate. While it is almost impossible to look at the Klan in an objective dynamic historical context today because of hysterical political correctness and modern political agendas, it is necessary to do so to have more than a terribly distorted and thoroughly agenda-driven, demonizing misconception of American history. Nathan Bedford Forrest made this statement to a Congressional Committee in 1870:
“The Klan was intended entirely as a protection to the [Southern] people, to enforce the laws and protect the people from outrages.”
Both Forrest and Gordon realized, however, that after a few years, the Klan, formed in a people’s desperate cry for survival and justice, had itself become an often lawless outrage. In human history, noble motives and good intentions often dissolve over time into outrageous distortions of their original virtue.
“The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked…”—Jeremiah 17:9
The Klan was nevertheless in its better forms an ironic instrument in defeating the political and moral outrage of Reconstruction.
As Confederate veterans and other like-minded Southern men regained their right to vote they elected Democrat “Redeemer” governments, ousting Republican carpetbagger governments. Tennessee was the first, but it came about under a conservative Republican Governor, Dewitt Clinton Senter, a former Tennessee legislator, in 1869, following the radical misrule of Republican Governor William G. “Parson” Brownlow, who appointed himself to the U.S. Senate. North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia elected Democrat Redeemer governments in 1870.
In North Carolina, that resulted in the impeachment of carpetbagger Governor William W. Holden for abuses of power perpetrated by the Union League and Kirk’s Raiders under Holden’s direction. The most vigorous abuse came in the “Kirk-Holden War” against the Klan in July of 1870. Kirk’s 300 unruly irregulars had roamed several “insurrectional” counties, abusing citizens and their property and arbitrarily arresting 100 prominent citizens without evidence. A Federal Judge ordered the release of Kirk’s prisoners, and he fled the state but was arrested by a U.S. Marshall in Tennessee and brought to Raleigh. However, he was secretly released and fled to Washington. In 1869 alone, the Union League was responsible for burning barns, homes, and even churches in all 100 North Carolina counties. The Redeemer Democrats captured the State Legislature in the August election and with a two-thirds vote sent Holden packing.
Texas elected a Redeemer government in 1873. Arkansas and Alabama followed in 1874 and Mississippi in 1875. In 1876, only three states, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana still had Reconstruction governments and were occupied by Union troops.
In the November 1876 Presidential Election, Samuel Tilden, the Democrat presidential nominee, won a narrow majority of the popular vote against Rutherford Hayes, the Republican nominee. The electoral votes in the three Union Army occupied states—South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana—were disputed.
A bipartisan electoral commission was appointed by Congress to settle the controversy. On a party-line vote, it gave all the disputed Southern electoral votes to Hayes, making him president. The Democrats held a majority in the U.S. House and could have nullified this decision. But in what has been called the secret Compromise of 1877, they did not nullify it, clearing the way for the inauguration of Rutherford Hayes as President of the United States. Immediately after his inauguration, Hayes ordered the withdrawal of Federal troops from South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, the last three occupied states, ending Reconstruction.
John Brown Gordon had been elected by the Georgia Legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1872 and took office in 1873. He was a skilled diplomat and negotiator and is widely credited with brokering the secret deal that made the Compromise of 1877 that ended Reconstruction. He was also able to persuade Hayes to prevent any further, untimely Congressional attempts to coerce the South on social and political matters that might exacerbate racial or political tensions and erupt into violence. He advocated gradual and voluntary changes. Bedford Forrest is also alleged to have had a representative in the Compromise of 1877 negotiations.
The final blow to Reconstruction, however, was the election of former Confederate General Wade Hampton Governor of South Carolina. Hampton was moderate on racial issues and made a deliberate appeal to and received the support of many black voters. Hampton won by only 1100 votes that the Radical Republicans backing Governor D. H. Chamberlain claimed were fraudulent. Backed by Union troops, Chamberlain and his lieutenants refused to vacate South Carolina’s government and legislative buildings. Hampton’s “Red Shirt” para-military backers were posed to force the issue.
Gordon and Forrest were allegedly ready to assist Wade Hampton with Klan support, if the Radicals tried by force to defeat Wade Hampton’s election as Governor of South Carolina. Forrest was the more visible, promising 15 thousand armed Klansmen already in South Carolina to support Hampton if needed with more on the way from Georgia and Tennessee.
This may have been another of Forrest’s bluffs, but it worked. President Hayes’ strongly worded advice and order to remove Union troops plus Forrest’s threat of Klan assistance to Hampton’s South Carolina Red Shirts ready to oppose Union League militias backed the Radicals down. The Radicals vacated the South Carolina legislative buildings and the Democrat majority assumed power, confirming the election of Wade Hampton. Wade Hampton’s inauguration as Governor of South Carolina was the final and glorious victory in redeeming the South from the tyranny of Reconstruction.
By the end of 1877, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida completed the South’s domination by Redeemer Democrats. What the Radical Republicans hoped would be a solid Radical Republican South had become a solid conservative Democrat South.
In October 1877, just weeks before his death, Nathan Bedford Forrest made this statement:
“There never was a time before or since its organization when such an order as the Ku Klux Klan could have lived. May there never be again!”
The legacy of militant, politicized Reconstruction turned out to be harmful to race relations in the South. This in turn retarded the advancement of former slaves in freedom and prosperity.
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