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.