Union League Terrorism During The Occupation
Union League meetings were conducted as a mystical secret society
with secret rituals. Meetings were especially devoted to stirring
up enmity between blacks and whites.
A catechism written
by Radical Republicans in Congress was used in Union League meetings
to create an unreasonable sense of entitlement, grievance, and
resentment. They were taught that Northern Republican whites were
their friends northern Republican Whites were their friends and
allies and that White Southerners and Democrats were enemies to
be hated and despised. They were frequently promised that they
would receive land and livestock confiscated from the Whites.
In some cases they were even promised racial dominance that would
entitle them to the wives and daughters of their White enemies.
This led to a number of violent racial incidents. Such racial
incidents were frequently used by carpetbagger governments to
demonstrate to Washington and the Northern press and public the
continued need for Southern reconstruction. Other promises were
in the form of threats of a death penalty by hanging to any Black
who betrayed the League by voting Democrat.
With the coming of Radical Reconstruction and martial law, the
role of the Union League became more aggressive. Union League
militias were formed and were an enforcement arm of the carpetbagger
governments. The militia was composed of former slaves and black
troops stationed in each state. The Union League had 250,000 men
in ten Southern states. North Carolina’s Scalawag Governor William
W. Holden had a Union League militia of 80 thousand at his bidding.
The primary role of the Union League was now to keep the corrupt
carpetbagger governments in power. This included suppression of
competing carpetbagger factions.
In order to insure that all blacks voted Republican, the Union
League bullied and beat other Blacks into submission. Even flogging
with the lash was used. If that did not work, they exacted the
death penalty, frequently by lynching. In order to intimidate
Whites from seeking power or influencing black voting, they conducted
terror campaigns. Barns and sometimes houses of Whites were burned.
In some cases small towns were burned as in Warren and Hamburg,
Arkansas. Men, women, and children were killed in raids on "insurrectionary"
communities and counties. Their deaths were reported as "killed
trying to escape." There were Union League barn burnings
and other destruction in every North Carolina County. During a
single week of 1869 in Gaston County, North Carolina, nine barns
were burned. In two months of the same year in Edgecombe County,
two churches, several cotton gins, a cotton factory, and many
barns and homes were burned. The Raleigh Sentinel reported on
August 29th of the same year that ten Federal Army companies associated
with the Union League had terrorized the Goldsboro area and committed
violent depredations of all sorts. It reported the actions of
the troops "so violent that it was unsafe for women to leave
their homes." This was all part of the Reconstruction mandate
to remake the South.
In Myrta Lockett Avary’s 1906 book, Dixie After the War, she
relates a tragic, but not untypical atrocity. In Upstate South
Carolina a group of Union League federal soldiers marching and
singing halted to discharge a volley of bullets into a country
church during services, instantly killing a fourteen year old
girl. At a nearby residence a squad of the same troops entered
a home and bound the elderly owner as they ransacked his house
and argued over who would first ravage his daughter. The girl
when approached drove a concealed knife through the heart her
assailant. She was then beaten to death by the rest. But under
corrupt military and carpetbagger rule, Southern whites had little
recourse to justice. No federal justice occurred.
By 1870 the corruption of the carpetbagger governments and the
violence of the Union League was becoming a concern to a significant
minority in the U.S. Congress. As Klan activity increased in response
to Union League and other Reconstruction misdeeds, the Radical
Republicans formed a committee to investigate the Klan. A minority
report by Northern Democrats and Conservative Republicans representing
more than a third of the committee, however, noted that the Union
League had "instilled hatred of the White race" and
had "made arson, rape, robbery, and murder a daily occurrence."
They also noted the role of corrupt government and Union League
violence in driving whites to take law into their own hands.
A very stringent anti-Klan law was passed by the North Carolina
legislature under the direction of Governor William W. Holden
in January of 1870. True to past Radical Republican despotism,
it gave the Governor power to declare counties in a state of insurrection
and supersede practically all laws and Constitutional rights in
its prosecution. Despite a vigorous attempt to enforce the law,
Klan-like activity increased and a top Black activist and leader
of the League in Alamance County was found hanging in a tree.
Shortly thereafter, Senator John Stephens, a ranking White operative
for Governor Holden, seeking evidence for Klan prosecutions, visited
a Caswell County Union League meeting. There he handed to each
of about twenty members a box of matches with the suggestion that
they should be put to good use burning barns. The next night seven
barns, a row of houses, and the tobacco crops of several prominent
citizens were burned.
A few days later Senator Stephens attended a rally at the Yanceyville
Courthouse for the purpose of making notes on the speeches. He
was quietly abducted, gagged, and brutally murdered in one of
the Courthouse rooms with an open window to the crowd outside.
His body was not discovered until two days later. It was not proven
until 1936 that it was a well organized assassination by the KKK.
The gruesome mystery and death of Stephens prompted Governor Holden
and his advisors to launch a military campaign against the KKK
in June. They hoped this would also be a political positive in
the coming August elections.
Holden called upon Black Union League militia regiments in eastern
North Carolina and the White veterans of Union Colonel George
W. Kirk’s notorious bushwhackers from the mountains to score a
decisive victory. Kirk was to be in charge. Kirk was a Confederate
deserter that had been made a colonel in the Union Army during
the War. During the war Kirk had commanded a combined force of
Union Army regulars, Confederate deserters, and opportunistic
criminals. A good size book could be written on the depredations
and atrocities Kirk and his men inflicted on civilians in western
North Carolina during the war. According to a report by a Union
officer stationed in Yanceyville, Kirk lived up to his evil reputation
in the service of Governor Holden. Kirk’s troops were "an
armed mob roaming the country, pillaging at will, insulting citizens
with impunity, and even threatening to attack the United States
troops." Many KKK suspects were arrested and imprisoned.
But on August 4 of 1870 the elections in North Carolina took
place. Despite their despotic tactics, the Republicans were very
nearly routed. More than two-thirds of the legislative seats went
to the Democrats. A growing number of Whites had been able to
register, and many Blacks and even Union Army men had found the
carpetbag corruption and tyranny so despicable that they voted
for the Democrats. On August 6, U. S. District Court Judge George
Brooks found that Kirk had no evidence against any of his prisoners
and ordered their release. Thus ended the "Kirk-Holden"
War. Kirk fled north, and within a few months Governor Holden
was impeached by the North Carolina House for abuse of power,
tried by the Senate and removed from office. Within a year the
Union League in North Carolina was disbanded and disappeared.
Former Confederate General John B. Gordon testified in 1871 to
the Joint Congressional Committee on Affairs in the Insurrectionary
States that: "The first and main reason (for the Klan) was
the organization of the Union League."
Gordon, who later became Governor of Georgia and then a U. S.
Senator, also stated that even the burning of Atlanta and the
devastation of Georgia during the war did not create a tenth of
the animosity created by the Union League’s treatment of the Southern
people. Former Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest, a reputed
founder of the Klan, testified before the same committee that:
"The Klan was intended entirely as a protection to the (Southern)
people, to enforce the laws and protect the people from outrages."
Both men realized, however, that after a few years, the Klan,
formed in a people’s desperate cry for survival and justice, had
itself become a lawless outrage. But it was the federally sponsored
Union League that ranked first in time and violence. It should
not be forgotten. The evils it inflicted on both Black and White
Source: The Uncivil War by Mike Scruggs
Copyright 2007 by Universal Media, Inc.