|05-02-2006, 08:16 AM||#1 (permalink)|
MSgt USMC Ret
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: San Diego
1871 War on Terror
In the aftermath of the Civil War, America's federal authorities took unprecedented action to crack down on the Ku Klux Klan.
By David Everitt
Secret cells of violent zealots target civilians in their homes and workplaces. When not carrying out terrorist acts, they conceal themselves among the general population, aided by local officials. As waves of fear spread, an American president decides the time has come to strike back.
A description of recent world events? Not necessarily. The scenario also fits another time in Americaís history. The campaign against Al Qaeda and its allies is not the United Statesí first war on terror. In the American South during the aftermath of the Civil War, a terrorist organization emerged. Cloaked in ghostly disguise, it sought to murder and maim in the dead of night as it set out to impose its ideological agenda. For several years the governmental response was ineffectual. Finally, in 1871, the U.S. Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant took action and initiated a new policy in South Carolina, where the organization was especially brazen. The government took extraordinary -- some said excessive -- measures to crack down on the brutal crimes of this terrorist group, the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan.
Some of the issues surrounding this 19th-century war on terror are reminiscent of those we face now. Like George W. Bushís today, Grantís administration was criticized for overstepping its authority and for not understanding the true nature of the problem. In the end, the offensive that Grant launched against the Klan produced some very tangible results, but the ultimate success of his effort is still open to debate.
Terrorism thrives on great turmoil, and in the conquered and humiliated South it found an ideal breeding ground. Reconstruction upended society as white Southerners knew it, not only freeing blacks from slavery but also providing opportunity for their advancement in both business and government. Enraged by those developments, many Southern white men looked for some way to lash out at emancipated slaves and their white supporters. More than that, they hoped to restore the old order. For them, the Ku Klux Klan was the answer.
In 1868, the Klan was imported to South Carolina from Tennessee, where it had originated earlier that same year. The organization immediately demonstrated it would not tolerate former slaves exercising their right to vote. During the 1868 South Carolina election campaign, the Klan murdered eight blacks, two of them state congressmen.
The state government controlled by Republicans -- the party of Abraham Lincoln -- met the terrorist threat by raising a special militia and filling its ranks with black citizens. That proved to be dramatic enough to inflame the Klan, but not strong enough to defeat it.
During the 1870 election campaign, the new militia countered the Klanís intimidation tactics to some extent, and the ballot results enraged Klan members even further when the Republican governor, Robert Scott, was re-elected. The next day, South Carolinaís wave of terror truly began.
South Carolina was by no means the only state plagued by Klan violence -- the organization was active throughout the South -- but in portions of South Carolina the acts of terror were especially alarming between the fall of 1870 and the summer of 1871. A public Klan proclamation announced that the organizationís targets were "the scum of the earth, the scrapings of creation" and that they intended to do everything possible to oppose "negro rule, black bayonets, and a miserably degraded and thievish set of lawmakers." Over a nine-month period in South Carolinaís York County alone, six murders were attributed to the Ku Klux Klan, while whippings and beatings might have numbered in the hundreds.
One of the most notoriously brutal cases was the murder of a black man named Tom Roundtree. The Klan shot him to death, then mutilated his body and sank it in a nearby stream. Other infamous crimes involved the black militia, an especially hated target of the Klan. In one instance, in Unionville, Klansmen lynched 10 black militiamen who had been jailed for the murder of a whiskey peddler. In another case, in the town of Yorkville, a black militia captain named Jim Williams allegedly issued a threat against whites in the area. The Klan dragged him from his house and hanged him. On his dangling body they left a card on which they had written "Jim Williams on his big muster."
The Klan cast a wide net and showed little mercy for those unlikely to be able to defend themselves. One of their whipping victims was a 69-year-old white man who had offended the Klan by acting as a Republican election officer, and another was a black preacher, incapacitated from birth by stunted arms and legs, who was charged with rabble-rousing from the pulpit. At times the Klansmen also took it upon themselves to punish what they considered domestic offenses. In an incident that would have pleased todayís religiously fanatic terrorists, for example, Ku Kluxers in Spartanburg County once whipped a woman for the crime of leaving her husband.
As indefensible as the Klanís actions surely were, apologists for those acts were plentiful, and they did not necessarily come from the South. Sometimes their statements echo reactions to modern terrorism that weíve heard in recent years. Certain pundits in the early 1870s, for instance, offered the terrorists-as-freedom-fighters rationalization. On the floor of the U.S. Congress, Representative S.S. Cox from New York argued that "South Carolina has been infested by the worst local government ever vouchsafed to a people." Comparing the Klan to the Carbonari, which fought for constitutional government in Italy during the early 1800s, Cox concluded, "All history shows that such societies grow by persecution and that they are the bitter fruits of tyranny." Even those in the South who criticized Klan excesses only did so because they considered them counterproductive as opposed to immoral, similar to the way some Middle Easterners today have criticized suicide bombers because they donít help the Palestinian cause, not because the acts themselves are unspeakable.
In the North, newspapers often minimized the Klan threat. A New York Times editorial stated that when there werenít enough real Klan atrocities to report, "the matter was put into the hands of literary gentlemen who thereupon started armed bands in all directions through the newspaper woods, dragged out newspaper negroes from newspaper homes, and, tying them up to trees of the mind, lashed their newspaper backs till blood ran down, awful to behold."
With little support for a forceful response, Governor Scott tried appeasing the South Carolina Klan. In February 1871, he disarmed York Countyís black militia, hoping that this would persuade the Klan to stop its raids. But the Ku Kluxers responded to that gesture as if it were a sign of weakness -- they resorted to even more violence. At his witsí end, Scott requested help from Washington, and in March President Grant sent in federal troops.
The soldiers assigned to South Carolina belonged to the 7th Cavalry, Lt. Col. (Brevet Maj. Gen.) George Armstrong Custerís regiment, which had recently fought the Cheyennes on the Great Plains. The troops were headquartered in York County, the center for much of the Klan activity in the state, and they were commanded by 37-year-old Major Lewis M. Merrill. At first skeptical of the seemingly alarmist accounts of the KKK, Merrill soon became convinced of the basic truth of the allegations and would go on to play a crucial role in combating terrorism in the state.
Merrill quickly discovered that he faced great obstacles.
Like terrorist organizations today, the Klan was highly compartmentalized. Klan chiefs had no direct contact with underlings, making it difficult for the Army to collect evidence against ringleaders. And even after Merrill and his men collected information on subordinates, local authorities sabotaged any effort to win a conviction in court. As Merrill later described it, "I never conceived of such a state of social disorganization being possible in any civilized community." Still, he continued to investigate in the hope that the federal government would find a way to bring the terrorists to justice.
In May 1870, Congress had passed the Enforcement Act, which had attempted to prevent the Klan from violating citizensí constitutional protections, but the law produced little result. Now, in 1871, Republicans in Congress considered passing a much stronger bill.
The Ku Klux Act, as it came to be called, targeted people who "conspire together, or go in disguise upon any public highway, or upon the premises of another" for the purpose of depriving any citizens of their legal rights. The bill authorized President Grant to dismantle those conspiracies in no uncertain terms: He could, in effect, place an area under martial law and suspend the writ of habeas corpus, which would allow authorities to imprison suspected Klansmen for extended periods of time without bringing them to court to face formal charges.
Democrats charged that the methods of enforcement amounted to tyrannical, unconstitutional powers. In rebuttal, Representative Robert B. Elliott, a black Republican from South Carolina, drew his fellow legislatorsí attention to more basic Constitutional protections. He pointed out that the Constitution states, "The United States shall guarantee to every State in the Union a republican form of government." States like South Carolina were denied this type of government, Elliottís argument went, as long as terrorists threatened citizensí right to vote. Strong as his case might have been, it could not overcome the congressional bickering that gridlocked the bill. What was needed was the moral authority of President Grant. The Ku Klux Act finally became law on April 20, only after Grant publicly urged Congress to ratify it.
Now, Major Merrillís efforts had a chance of making a difference. That summer, he testified before a congressional subcommittee that arrived in South Carolina to investigate the extent of Klan outrages in the state. The intelligence Merrill had gathered on whippings, beatings and murders painted a disturbing portrait for the congressmen.
During their four-week tour of the state, the congressmen could see for themselves how desperate the situation had become. Refugees from Klan violence congregated wherever the subcommittee convened. Many of them, both white and black, had been spending their nights in the woods for months to avoid Ku Klux attacks. According to a New York Times report, "It was found impossible for the Committee to examine more than a small part of the crowds of whipped, maimed, or terror-stricken wretches who flocked in upon hearing of their coming."
Pressing the case for forceful action was Grantís attorney general, Amos T. Akerman. A scalawag, according to conventional Southern wisdom of the day, Akerman was a transplanted Northerner who had spent his adult life as a citizen of Georgia and was now a staunch supporter of Reconstruction. He went to South Carolina to conduct his own investigation in late September and concluded that the Klan could be smashed quickly if the government took decisive steps that would rattle rank-and-file Ku Kluxers and convince them to confess. As Klan raids continued, Akerman met with Grant in early October and helped persuade him that the time had come to activate the Ku Klux Actís enforcement measures.
On October 12, Grant ordered the South Carolina Klan to disperse and disarm in five days. The warning was ignored. On October 17, Grant proclaimed that "in my judgment the public safety especially requires that the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus be suspended." The suspension applied to all arrests made by U.S. marshals and federal troops in nine of the stateís western counties.
Akerman immediately met with Merrill to assemble a list of Klansmen to be arrested, based on information gathered by the major over the previous seven months. Their strategy was to hit several towns suddenly and simultaneously, with teams of federal marshals backed up by the 7th Cavalry, in order to instill panic throughout the organization. The plan could not have worked better.
Within 10 days of Grantís proclamation, marshals and troops made 100 arrests in York and Spartanburg counties. Many more Klansmen came in on their own, and by the end of November federal officials in South Carolina had made 600 arrests in all. A large number of those were very willing to "puke," the colorful slang term in those days for confess. There were 160 confessions in York County alone, and in the process investigators learned of five murders that had previously gone unreported. The federal crackdown had such a profound effect that Yorkís county seat had "the look of a town in wartime recently captured by an invading army," according to a New York Tribune correspondent.
Louis F. Post, an aide to Merrill, contended that the mass confessions were the direct result of the suspension of habeas corpus. "For a time the prisoners were silent," he wrote. "But as hope of release died out and fears of hanging grew stronger, the weaker ones sought permission to tell Major Merrill what they knew."
Some editorialists saw grave dangers in the governmentís actions. Similar to some of todayís critics of the war on terrorism, these people claimed that the governmentís aggressiveness was only making more enemies. "I shudder to think," wrote a New York Herald correspondent, "what the retaliation will be [from the Klan] for the imprisoning of two hundred white men and the driving from their homes of three or four hundred others."
To be precise, hundreds of South Carolinians were not driven from their homes -- they fled to avoid prosecution. This was both good news and bad. True, the flight of so many Ku Kluxers disrupted the organization, but the fugitives included some of the most prominent Klan chiefs. Federal prosecutors would only be able, for the most part, to press charges against the organizationís underlings. Still, Akerman believed that convictions of these men would send a strong warning to anyone considering further Klan raids.
The Ku Klux court cases began November 27, 1871, in the U.S. Circuit Court in the South Carolina capital of Columbia. The first to go on trial was farmer Robert Hayes Mitchell, an ordinary, subordinate Klansmen whose case provided an extraordinary glimpse into the inner workings of the KKK and two of its most notorious crimes.
Like other defendants who followed, Mitchell was charged with conspiracy to prevent black citizens from voting. To illustrate the nature of the conspiracy, prosecutors called on one witness to outline the elaborate series of signs and passwords that Ku Kluxers used to identify one another and maintain security. The government also presented testimony on the Klan constitution. Acquired at Merrillís instigation, the document revealed the organizationís deadly oath of secrecy: Anyone breaking this oath, the constitution stated, "shall meet the fearful penalty and traitorís doom, which is death, death, death."
Specific instances of conspiracy included the murder of Captain Jim Williams of the black militia. Klan supporters maintained that the organizationís raids had been provoked by militia excesses, which typically amounted to arrogant, intimidating behavior. Federal prosecutors, though, established in court that the Klan had first resorted to violence two years before the black militia was formed in 1870.
Another count of conspiracy against Mitchell involved the assault against a black man named Amzi Rainey who had offended the Klan by voting for radical Republicans. The victimís testimony dramatized the savagery of the attack. Crashing into Raineyís house around midnight, the Klan beat not only Rainey but also his wife. At one point Raineyís little daughter ran at the Klansmen, yelling, "Donít kill my pappy; please donít kill my pappy!" One of the attackers responded by firing a shot that grazed the little girlís forehead.
In his summation for the defense, attorney Reverdy Johnson saw no point in trying to dispute the charges of Klan violence, conceding that the outrages "show that the parties engaged were brutes, insensible to the obligations of humanity and religion." Instead, he argued that the Enforcement Act of 1870 and the Ku Klux Act were unconstitutional. The argument made little impression on the jury of 10 blacks and two whites who took only 38 minutes to bring in a guilty verdict.
Through the month of December, similar verdicts followed, along with a procession of guilty pleas. In pronouncing sentences, Judge Hugh L. Bond brought a finely tuned moral voice to the proceedings, showing both leniency for unsophisticated men pressured into the Klan ranks and severity for those who exercised some degree of authority. The most common of the 58 prison sentences ranged from three to six months, while others entailed both prison time and some sort of fine.
The most severe was a combination of five years and $1,000, reserved for the likes of Klan chief John W. Mitchell, a prominent member of his community and somebody, Judge Bond asserted, who should have known better. In his sentencing, the judge stressed Mitchellís abdication of responsibility: "Knowing all this [about the Klanís activities], hearing of the ravishing, murders and whipping going on in York County, you never took any pains to inform anybody; you never went to the civil authorities and you remained a chief till they elected somebody else."
The federal crackdown did not stop there. Through 1872, Major Merrill continued to make arrests, and in April the federal court in Charleston delivered 36 more convictions. At the same time, though -- as critics branded Grant a dictator -- the government began to back off.
Attorney General Akerman resigned in January 1872, and though his exit was amicable on the surface, some have speculated that he was frustrated by the lack of funding for ongoing Klan prosecutions. His replacement was less concerned with Klan violence, even though a federal marshal was killed in South Carolina while enforcing the Ku Klux Act, and a prosecution witness had his throat slit. Further impeding the anti-Klan campaign was Congressí decision in 1872 to restore habeas corpus rights. By August, the federal government began pardoning convicted Ku Kluxers. The governmentís war on Ku Klux Klan terror came to a definitive end in 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered the end of Reconstruction.
Looking back upon this episode, we can see that the Grant administration faced two especially difficult questions that confront us today as once again we wage a war on terror. First, how much should the government limit constitutional rights when fighting an enemy that does not respect the rights of others? By imposing federal authority on local jurisdictions and suspending the writ of habeas corpus, the Grant administration was taking unprecedented measures in peacetime to deal with a dire crisis. In 1876, five years after the first Klan prosecutions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Enforcement Act of 1870 and the Ku Klux Act were indeed unconstitutional, that they had improperly superceded the rights of the states.
The second question is: How does one know when a war on terror is truly won? Although the Klan prosecutions did not last long, some historians maintain that they accomplished their immediate goal. According to Allen W. Trelease, author of White Terror, "The federal government had broken the back of the Ku Klux Klan throughout most of the South." And it is true that the Klan did not rise again until after World War I, some 50 years later. But the Grant administration left larger goals unrealized. Even though the outer trappings of the Klan might have disappeared, its attitudes and the willingness to impose those attitudes through violence remained. And once Reconstruction ended and the passage of repressive Jim Crow laws began, white supremacy reigned once again throughout the South. Jim Crow would continue to rule for another 80 years, until the dawn of the modern civil rights movement.
Union forces won the Civil War against the Confederacy. President Grantís marshals and troops won the battle against the Reconstruction-era Klan. Nevertheless, the federal government failed to see its war on terror as a long-term commitment, and it failed to come up with a practical plan for rebuilding the South and bringing the Old Confederacy into the modern, fully democratic age. As a consequence, some might say that the North ultimately failed to win the peace.
Article from American History Magazine
|1871, terror, war|
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