Last week I was honored to be part of the Lincoln Legacy Lectures at the University of Illinois Springfield. Allen Guelzo and I spoke on aspects of Lincoln and Reconstruction … well, except for the fact that Allen was under the weather, and so our host, Michael Burlingame, read Allen’s paper. Anyway, here it is.
On October 10, 1865, Andrew Johnson greeted members of the First District of Columbia Colored Regiment on the grounds of the White House. He wanted to thank them for their service, and give them some advice now that the war was over and they would be leaving military service.
You do understand, no doubt, and it you do not, you cannot understand too soon, that simple liberty does not mean the privilege of going into the battle-field, or into the service of the country as a soldier. It means other things as well; and now, when you have laid down your arms, there are other objects of equal importance before you. Now that the government has triumphantly passed through this rebellion, after the most gigantic battles the world ever saw, the problem is before you, and it is best that you should understand it; and, therefore, I speak simply and plainly. Will you now, when you have returned from the army of the United States, and take the position of the citizen; when you have returned to the associations of peace, will you give evidence to the world that you are capable and competent to govern yourselves? That is what you will have to do.
Basically, that’s the question offered in this article from the Associated Press (a video will eventually play to augment the article).
I was particularly struck by the following claim in the article:
Formed just months after the end of the Civil War by six former Confederate officers, the Klan originally seemed more like a college fraternity with ceremonial robes and odd titles for its officers. But soon, freed blacks were being terrorized, and the Klan was blamed. Hundreds of people were assaulted or killed as whites tried to regain control of the defeated Confederacy. Congress effectively outlawed the Klan in 1871, and the group died.
The curious construction of the second sentence, complete with the double use of the passive voice, is remarkable. Might the Reconstruction KKK have had something to do with conducting a war of terror against freed blacks (and their white allies)?
Maybe. Just maybe.
As for the rest of the muddled narrative, let’s assume that the author has at best a partial understanding of the Ku Klux Act of 1871, how President Grant used the powers it authorized him to use, and the degree to which Grant’s actions destroyed the KKK.
The various reincarnations of the KKK in the 20th century, while inspired by the Reconstruction KKK (or, to be more precise, by the portrayal of that group in the movie Birth of A Nation), are distinct from that organization, even if they have many things in common, including an identification with the Confederacy and the preservation of white (Christian/Protestant) supremacy through terror, intimidation, and violence. But to say that they are the same is to overlook a great deal.
It is also unfortunate that many people identify white supremacist terrorist violence during Reconstruction with the KKK alone. That would be incorrect. Violence and suppression against freed blacks started during the summer and fall of 1865: we can see institutional evidence of state-sponsored white supremacy in the passing of the Black Codes and in the shaping of the southern legal sysyem by the state governments founded during presidential Reconstruction (especially during the Johnson presidency). Neither the Memphis nor New Orleans massacres of 1866 were KKK operations. Moreover, the tendency to identify the KKK with Nathan Bedford Forrest tends to obscure the fact that many Confederate veterans, including prominent ones such as John B. Gordon, donned Klan robes and did all they could to counter the emergence of black equality and political power. The KKK was far more pwerful in 1867 and especially 1868, when it battled the advent of black political power and the Republican party, and the organization in various forms persisted into the early 1870s, proving especially important in the Carolinas.
But the so-called destruction of the KKK in the aftermath of the passage of the Ku Klux Act and Grant’s application of the act in South Carolina in September 1871 did not spell the end of white supremacist terrorist violence. Far from it. Such violence took new forms under new names and emplyed new tactics and strategies (see the Mississippi Plan of 1875) as it did much to accomplish what the original KKK failed to achieve. Occasionally even biographers of Grant ignore or stumble over this inconvenient truth, most notably in Geoffrey Perret’s 1997 study, which was virtually silent about Reconstruction in Grant’s second term. By paying far too much attention to the KKK as the expression of such violence, Perret blinded himself to what else was going on … or perhaps he simply didn’t know about it. We must not be so ignorant.
But wait … there’s more.
Like several Confederate heritage groups, the KKK makes for good video, especially with the Confederate flag waving in the background or in places like Stone Mountain, a place favored by, among others, the Virginia Flaggers. Indeed, it’s not hard to draw connections between the KKK, other white supremacists, and Confederate heritage groups, as this news item this past week demonstrates. Note that the KKK leaders portrayed in this report endorse Trump and pledge death to their enemies (although they then claim that they don’t mean what they say–we’ve heard that excuse before from Confederate heritage apologists when white supremacists have advocated violence). And, of course, many of you will recall Mr. Heimbach’s association with a certain Virginia-based Confederate heritage group, one the group’s leadership has never disavowed (recall Virginia Flagger Tripp Lewis’s declaration that Mr. Heimbach was “a good guy”). A review of the social media offerings of several Virginia Flaggers reveals that, like the KKK and their buddy Heimbach, they, too, support Donald J. Trump for president.
Then again, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was prominent in KKK circles during Reconstruction, did much to play down that association when he appeared before a congressional investigating committee in 1871. The Virginia Flaggers would like to do the same with their association with Heimbach and other white supremacists, including two people who rented them land upon which to fly their flags near Virginia interstates. But how can we forget that the spokesperson of the Virginia Flaggers, Susan Frise Hathaway, openly idolizes Forrest and Wade Hampton, whose Red Shirts used white supremacist terrorist tactics to regain control of South Carolina’s state government? The woman in the red dress loves that man and his Red Shirts.
As Mark Twain once reminded us, although history may not repeat itself, sometime it rhymes.
Over the first 24 hours of the conference attendees have been treated to discussions about white southern concepts of honor during Reconstruction, especially among former Confederates; several perspectives on black emancipation and the efforts of the formerly enslaved to reconstruct their lives; how white northerners viewed Reconstruction; the experience of military reconstruction for the occupying forces; and, this evening, a series of talks about Union and Confederate veterans, culminating in a presentation exploring how one rather prominent Union veteran–namely Ulysses S. Grant–sought to define and defend in peace what seemingly had been secured in war.
For those of you who are interested in that last topic, I’d make sure to fire up C-SPAN3 at 7:15PM ET. You may recognize the speaker.
During the next several days I’ll offer a few observations on what is happening at Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, which this year explores Reconstruction. As I am typing this, Peter Carmichael, sans scarf, is setting forth the issues of the conferences. He argues quite passionately that the outcome was not preordained.
Do you agree?
Phil Leigh is a very funny person posing as a student of the American Civil War. He’s duped other people and publishers into believing the same thing. Writing about history allows him to get something off his chest, and he can become very unhappy when someone reveals that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that what he says reveals that he holds some beliefs and prejudices that might not make him a very appealing person … unless, of course, you are a fellow Confederate heritage apologist in a state of constant denial (with a bitter edge) when it comes to African Americans.
Readers of this blog will recall that not long ago I mentioned the Memphis Massacre of 1866 (also known as the Memphis Riot of 1866, although the reasons for the renaming are of interest) in examining a rather badly-flawed attempt to discuss the event and its implications.
It seems only right and proper to direct you now to a blog bringing together and reporting on the results of a recent conference on the event. Click here to go there. I guarantee you’ll learn something.
I think this is a wonderful way to share the scholarship presented at a conference by people who know what they are talking about, and I believe more conferences should follow suit.
Phil Leigh’s upset. Having had his essay on the Memphis Riots shredded in this blog, he complains that I’ve failed “to address the central question of whether black suffrage in the South was more important to Radical Republicans as a matter of morality or as a tool to sustain the Party’s political power.”
Generally speaking, that’s not the central question people choose to explore when they discuss the wholesale slaughter of African Americans, including US Army veterans, by an out-of-control white supremacist mob egged on by local leaders. But Mr. Leigh would rather not tell you whether white southerners who opposed Reconstruction killed African Americans for political advantage or simply because they were vile racists. After all, in his mind it was the murderers who were the victims, not the murdered.
On May 1, 1866, a mob of whites in Memphis, Tennessee, attacked blacks in the city. The violence continued through May 2 and ended only after federal forces intervened on May 3. By that time some forty-six blacks were dead, while only two whites died; five women had been raped, and a significant number of people were injured. You can read a summary of the event here. Blogger Patrick Young has written on both the riot and the events leading up to it.