Klansman John B. Gordon Justifies the KKK

On July 1, 1863, or so we are told, John B. Gordon came across a wounded Union general on a knoll north of the town of Gettysburg.  He directed that the officer be given such medical aid as could be spared, promised to communicate the wounded officer’s condition to his wife (a nurse in the Union army), and rode on.  We are told (by no less an authority than Gordon himself) that years later he would encounter the officer again.  It was Francis C. Barlow.  Gordon thought Barlow had died of his wounds (or so he claimed); Barlow had heard that a General James B. Gordon had died in 1864, and mistook that Gordon for the officer who had come to his assistance that July day at Gettysburg.  The two men shook hands.

There’s a great deal of controversy about whether the story is true.  There’s even a nice little film celebrating the story.  It fits nicely into a reconciliationist narrative of the conflict.

It also distracts our attention from Gordon’s activities as a leader of the Georgia KKK during Reconstruction.  Not that he wanted to be so forthcoming about that story.  Here’s a portion of Gordon’s testimony offered before a Congressional investigating committee in 1871:

Question. What do you know of any combinations in Georgia, known as Ku-Klux, or by any other name, who have been violating law?

Answer. I do not know anything about any Ku-Klux organization, as the papers talk about it. I have never beard of anything of that sort except in the papers and by general report; but I do know that an organization did exist in Georgia at one time. I know that in 1868—I think that was the time—I was approached and asked to attach myself to a secret organization in Georgia. I was approached by some of the very best citizens of the State—some of the most peaceable, law-abiding men, men of large property, who had large interests in the State. The object of this organization was explained to me at the time by those parties; and I want to say that I approved of it most heartily. I would approve again of a similar organization, under the same state of circumstances.

Question. Tell us about what that organization was.

Answer. The organization was simply this—nothing more and nothing less: it was an organization, a brotherhood of the property-holders, the peaceable, law-abiding citizens Of the State, for self-protection. The instinct of self-protection prompted that organization; the sense of insecurity and danger, particularly in those neighborhoods where the negro population largely predominated. The reasons which led to this organization were three or four. The first and main reason was the organization of the Union League, as they called it, about which we knew nothing more than this: that the negroes would desert the plantations, and go off at night in large numbers; and on being asked where they had been, would reply, sometimes, “We have been to tho muster ;” sometimes, ” We have been to tho lodge;” sometimes, “We have been to the meeting.”

Those things were observed for a great length of time. We knew that the “carpet-baggers,” as the people of Georgia called these men who came from a distance and had no interest at all with us; who were unknown to us entirely: who from all we could learn about them did not have any very exalted position at their homes—these men were organizing the colored people. We knew that beyond all question. We knew of certain instances where great crime had been committed; where overseers had been driven from plantations, and the negroes had asserted their right to hold the property for their own benefit. Apprehension took possession of the entire public mind of the State. Men were in many instances afraid to go away from their homes and leave their wives and children, for fear of outrage. Rapes were already being committed in the country. There was this general organization of the black race on the one hand, and an entire disorganization of the white race on the other hand. We were afraid to have a public organization; because we supposed it would be construed at once, by the authorities at Washington, as an organization antagonistic to the Government of the United States. It was therefore necessary, in order to protect our families from outrage and preserve our own lives, to have something that we could regard as a brotherhood—a combination of tho best men of the country, to act purely in self-defense, to repel the attack in case we should be attacked by these people. That was the whole object of this organization. I never heard of any disguises connected with it; we had none, very certainly. This organization, I think, extended nearly all over the State. It was, as I say, an organization purely for self-defense. It had no more politics in it than the organization of the Masons. I never heard the idea of politics suggested in connection with it.

Question. Did it have any antagonism toward either the State or the Federal Government?

Answer. None on earth—not a particle. On the contrary, it was purely a peace police organization, and I do know of some instances where it did prevent bloodshed on a large scale. I know of one case in Albany, Georgia, where, but for the instrumentality of this organization, there would have been, beyond all doubt, a conflict, growing out of a personal difficulty between a black man and a white man. The two races gathered on each side, but this organization quelled the trouble easily and restored peace, without any violence to anybody, and without a particle of difficulty with either tho black race or the white. They stopped one just as much as they did the other. This society was purely a police organization to keep the peace, to prevent disturbances in our State. That was the motive that actuated me in going into it, and that was the whole object of the organization, as explained to me by these persons who approached me. I approved of the object.

Note: in discussing this testimony, a contributor remarked:

How many people, even civil war buffs, have ever even heard of this terrorist group called the Union League?

(from the gift that keeps on giving.)

Gordon’s an interesting character.  Here he is, attempting to skirt around the issue of his career as a Klansman, being every bit as artful as Nathan Bedford Forrest, who also testified before the same committee.  And yet the history of the KKK in Georgia in 1868 is rather clear.  After the Republicans won state elections in the spring of 1868, the KKK went after Republican voters and officeholders, murdering several, and successfully returned the state to the Democratic column in the fall presidential contest … whereupon the state’s electoral vote was set aside and the state returned to federal supervision under the Reconstruction Acts.

In short, Gordon had a lot in common with Forrest.  Just remember that the next time you read about Gordon recalling helping Barlow at Gettysburg or returning Chamberlain’s salute at Appomattox.

More on Victors in Blue

Well, now … if this doesn’t simply raise expectations.  🙂

Albert Castel with Brooks D. Simpson. Victors in Blue: How Union Generals Fought the Confederates, Battled Each Other, and Won the Civil War. Univ. Press of Kansas. November. ISBN 9780700617937. $34.95.
The Union’s generals were complicated men, riddled with weaknesses—and yet they beat their Confederate counterparts. Go along with these authors to learn how and why.

And to think that I was able to get several books and several book chapters out this past year, all while battling the BCM. 🙂

The Need for a Yankee Strawman

Some people need to construct strawmen in order to make a point, oblivious to the fact that by constructing the strawman, they damage their own argument, because they concede it’s not grounded in reality.

Take, for example, the argument I hear from those white southerners (and others) who declare that white northerners today believe that the North went to war in 1861 to free the slaves.  When pressed to name names (and especially to cite historians who argue this), the argument loses much of its force.  Oh, I’m sure there are some folks in the North who say the North went to war to free the slaves, just as there are some white southerners who say it was all about state rights or the tariff and had basically nothing to do with slavery.  But no one would argue seriously that reputable scholars believe this: outliers and exceptions do not make the rule and serve as poor material for stereotypes.

So why make the argument?  Why claim that this is what white northerners believe?  After all, isn’t this argument the kissing cousin of Robert Penn Warren’s claim that today’s white northerners embrace a supposed Treasury of Virtue that allows them to lord it over the South?

The argument is made precisely because it’s a strawman.  It serves as a touchstone of criticism that is far more political and ideological than it is historical.  It’s also a way for those who make it to skirt the slavery issue itself and to avoid the notion that secessionists seceded to protect slavery, and many of those who had reservations about secession or opposed it worried about the impact of secession and war upon slavery.

So let’s get a few things out of the way.  Saying that the underlying cause of the American Civil War was a debate over slavery is not the same thing as saying that the North went to war to free the slaves.  Moreover, no one’s excusing or denying the racism of northern whites.  Among northern whites, abolitionists were in a decided minority; the Republican party’s members held a wide range of perspectives on race and slavery, with a good number of them opposing slavery for one reason or another (and sometimes for more than one reason) without necessarily embracing equality for blacks (and there existed in American thought different levels of equality).

Moreover, saying that most white northerners did not support the war because they sought to destroy slavery (and pointing out the prevalence of racism in the North, etc.) has very little to do with why white southerners went to war in 1861.  Slavery and its future were at the core of the debates over secession in 1860-61.  That debate was fundamental to the secession of the first seven states that formed the Confederacy, and it was the major issue in the remaining slave states, including the four that eventually joined the Confederacy.

We might also consider that “slavery” represented various things to various white northerners.  The expansion of slavery limited the area open to free labor; it enhanced the growth of southern political power (thus the “slave power,” which had no problem using the federal government to protect and promote its economic interests (this is something the advocates of “it’s all about the tariff” tend to overlook); and it did promote a system that many white northerners in fact did find distasteful.  Thus, one could oppose “slavery” in its many manifestations without concentrating on the issue of its morality or embracing black equality.

That being said, the function of the claim becomes more apparent.  It allows some people to have it both ways on Lincoln. Gee, these folks argue, why didn’t he simply free all the slaves in 1861?  If he was really antislavery, wouldn’t he have done that?  Why didn’t he simply seek a way to secure emancipation peacefully (right, Ron Paul?)?  Why not offer compensation to masters and make emancipation gradual? (What, you say he made that offer?)  Oh, he was a racist, because he believed in colonization.  (What, you mean he advocated it in large part because of his beliefs concerning the persistence of racism in a post-emancipation society?)  Well, he was a tyrant who broke the Constitution to establish an empire (wait … are you telling me that his actions concerning emancipation were conditioned by his understanding of what was constitutionally possible?).

The Yankee strawman is also a way for certain liberal white southerners to lash back at Yankee critics (real and imagined) in a way to confirm their credentials as southerners.  They then stand on common ground with those conservative white southerners and defenders of Dixie who are sometimes mistermed neo-Confederates (and, with some more justice, Lost Causers) … although they would claim in polite company that they have next to nothing in common with those folks.  This is especially delightful when the liberal white southerners in question accuse white northerners of stereotyping the South (or fashioning “the South as Other,” as some put it), because, of course, they are constructing their own strawmen and stereotypes, although the implications of this practice often elude their minds, because the argument they make is grounded in something other than their intellect.

And, of course, the Yankee strawman is simply a way for white southerners to mock white northerners.  It makes them feel smug (even as they hope to mock Yankees smugness).  It’s also a wonderful way to divert attention from looking at the South and slavery.  People who make the “you, too” argument tend to emphasize the “you” in the hopes that everyone will forget the “too.”  Highlighting that there was racism in the North, for example, in no way excuses racism in the South, but you would never know it from some of these advocates (who often highlight that some of their best friends are black, that their ancestors did not own slaves or were really kind masters, and that race relations in the South are … er, were … much better in the South than in the North, look what happened to Native Americans, and so on).  In short, it’s as much an argument about themselves and who they are today as it is about history and events of 150 years ago.  For these folks, history is identity (sometimes real, sometimes imagined, as in those people who hold to a romantic view of the antebellum South straight out of Gone With the Wind … the movie version).

Again, many white southerners do not feel the need to construct this strawman.  But some do.  Why?

Slavery, Slaves, and White Racism: Some Queries from the Commonwealth

Sometimes you find claims to historical knowledge and understanding in the darnest places.  Such places are worth exploring, if for no other reason than to get an idea of how some people understand American history or conduct historical discussions.  Take, for example, the state of slavery in the South before and during the Civil War.  What should we make of the peculiar institution?  What were the relations between master and slave?  And how do the answers to those questions affect what happened during the war?

As one poster asked:

I’m asking where were the revolts. As far as I can think, much terror and violence results in the same. Why wasn’t that visited upon the perpetrators? … What kept million of slaves working on farms during the war when locales were barren of men other than old men and young boys?

The same poster also observed:

... as best as I can make out from readings, the people that owned slaves were generally the least racist in antebellum and post-war society. It was the people who had little exposure to blacks, such as your beloved east Tennesseans, who exhibited the greater racist tendencies.

What do we make of these observations?  First, are they grounded upon a sound sense of history?  Second, how would you answer these questions/respond to these observations?  Third, do they tell us anything about … wait for it … Civil War memory?

A Different Sort of Counterfactual

People have speculated in the past about how the Civil War would have been different if it were televised. This speculation has usually followed one of two lines of inquiry: would Abraham Lincoln have been a viable presidential candidate in the age of television, and how would Americans have reacted to televised images of the battlefield, especially the death and carnage?

Frankly, I don’t find either line of discussion as compelling as do some others. Continue reading

Professional Historians and the BCM: A Further Response

I thank those posters who have contributed their own thoughts on this question during the past several days.  In some cases, the conversation’s reinforced impressions I’ve had, including one that there continues to be a failure to communicate with those who seem skeptical of this whole enterprise.  I say that because several of the points raised have already been addressed before, but that doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on the minds of the skeptics.

Continue reading

Professional Historians and the Black Confederate Myth: Part Two

Professional historians differ as to how to respond when confronted with the Black Confederate Myth.  After all, they’ve already acknowledged that the Confederates made use of enslaved blacks in support of Confederate military operations, and they are willing to concede that there may have been a handful of people classified as African American who enlisted (or were conscripted) into Confederate military service as soldiers.

Beyond that, however, historians disagree as to how to address these claims.  Continue reading

The Sunday Question: Professional Historians and the Black Confederate Myth

Here’s the deal: I’m busy today, and I’ve already locked in my “part two” dealing with this issue for Monday.  So what do you think professional historians should do in response to the Black Confederate Myth?

Note: I’ll be out of touch with online access today, so it may be a while before your answers appear.  Hopefully I’ll have access in time to post your comments before my own answer appears Monday.

Meanwhile, Happy Father’s Day!