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The Post-War Birth of the Ku Klux Klan – A Bit of Amusement and Terror

Following the Civil War, most Southern whites figured that though the slaves had been freed, they would behave pretty much as they had prior to the war. Certainly, they would have to be paid some pittance, but their status would be fairly unchanged. Unfortunately for these Southern whites, this was not the case. For their liking, too many black Americans resolved to claim any freedom that a white man could claim. To combat against this, many southern states enacted black codes suspiciously similar to pre-war slave codes.

These codes, enacted with the blessing of President Andrew Johnson, were passed by southern leaders who were largely in the former Confederate government or supporters thereof. With the failure of these codes, embittered whites turned to organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. 1For this detail, see the article “Black Codes as Slavery Forever”. Think of it sort of as a prequel to the present article.

Klan rider, 1868.
Klan rider, 1868.

The Republicans in the United States Congress were livid over such codes and took Johnson to task. The Joint Committee on Reconstruction, was established to sort out the details of how blacks were being treated in the former slave-states. It was because of this that the Civil Rights Act of March 1866 was passed. Johnson, however, vetoed the bill. After even more violence, Congress drafted and passed the Fourteenth Amendment. As it made its way through the states for ratification, still more violence against blacks emerged.

A pattern was soon found. These acts of violence, while mostly spontaneous, were being committed by organized bands – almost militias, some even having official names like “Regulators,” and “Black Horse Cavalry.” By the start of 1867, the violence had reached a shameful crescendo, and Congress finally took action.

The southern states that refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment were divided up into military districts, their governments all but dissolved. Blacks were put on equal footing, allowed to vote and to even hold office. Former Confederate officials were not just barred from office, but disfranchised. This Radical Reconstruction was passed to force the formerly-seceded states to ratify the amendment – once they did, the sanctions would be lifted, and they would be once again admitted into the United States. Johnson could do nothing about it as the Republicans held a two-thirds majority in congress.

To many in the South, this, and not Appomattox, was their defeat. While Radical Reconstruction did not give birth to the Ku Klux Klan, it fed its ranks with bitter Southerners, terrified that their entire culture and heritage would be lost to the black race.

But that is not where it began. Though this terrified bitterness allowed it to flourish across the South, the origins of the South’s most famous terrorist organization came during the time of Black Codes and slavery in all but name.

The Beginnings of the Klan
Its birth was held in early 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee. Six former Confederate officers gathered together in a second story law office to, as one recalled, “get up a club or society of some description.” These six former Rebels were, apparently, bored. A nameless club without purpose or meaning was formed and soon joined by several friends. A chairman was elected, rules of order established, and committees formed.

John Lester, one of the six founders of the Ku Klux Klan.
John Lester, one of the six founders of the Ku Klux Klan.

After a week, they had settled upon an object: amusement. There was little more they craved in their day-to-day lives. The war had passed, and while they had lost, life seemed to have changed little. Slavery in middle Tennessee was not the life’s blood of other Southern locales, and the few freed blacks strolling the streets of Pulaski were of small consequence.

The newly-minted club had settled upon Ku Klux Klan as a name, from the Greek “Kuklos,” meaning circle or group. The “Klan” tacked onto the end was redundant, but sounded fitting. The moniker didn’t merely dance upon the tip of the tongue, but stuck in the throat in an almost hollow fashion. “The sound of it is suggestive of bones rattling together!” mused an early Klan biographer. 2John Lester Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin (The Neale Publishing Company, 1905) 55-57. The original edition was published in the 1880s.

This rattling sound must have moved the minds of the small revelers to the macabre. They would, they decided, clad themselves in sheets of white, play-acting as ghosts to frighten those found in the dark. As they took to the streets that same night, their objective was not terror or mayhem, blood or murder, but frivolity and highjinks.

Reconstruction Era Klansman.
Reconstruction Era Klansman.

Over the course of weeks, they added accouterments to their costumes – hoods, stars, moons – meaningless symbols all to enhance the mystery of their disguise. And with these additions came equally mysterious names for Klan officials – Grand Cyclops, Grand Magi, Grand Turk. It was all part of the elaborate prank. These antics attracted more and more members, and soon local Klans were forming in the surrounding counties. 3Wyn Craig Wade The Fiery Cross; The Ku Klux Klan in America (Simon & Shuster, 1987) 32-35. It’s rare that a stray from primary or academic sources, but Wade’s book is concise and well written, especially for the purposes of a brief overview.

Through the winter of 1866, membership in the Klan surged as new “dens” were established. Spreading now into Alabama and Texas, the Pulaski den was seen as its heart, the Grand Cyclops as the overall leader. Their objective unstated, the members seemed to unanimously assume a similar goal. Nearly all were Confederate veterans, and nearly all were now feeling the Northern grip of Reconstruction with the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the push towards the Fourteenth Amendment.

Their amusement turned to “serious work,” in the words of one of the founding members, John Lester. This work, however, went undefined. When questioned by nonmembers of their intent, the Klansman, cloaked as ghostly figure would respond: “A spirit from the other world. I was killed at Chickamauga.”

Almost nobody believed such things. Though Lester insists that “to a superstitious negro” this act “was extremely terrifying,” it’s unlikely that few apart from children took them seriously. Lester claims that “the feeling of the negroes and of many of the white people, at the mention of the Ku Klux, was one of awe and terror.” 4Lester, 71-74.

Likely, this was either wishful thinking or a memory of reactions following the advent of Klan terrorism. At this stage of their strange existence, their presence was merely tolerated. 5This is evidenced by the many accounts of black people given in the testimony about the Klan in the Shaefe Vs. Tillman case in February 1870. These fascinating testimonials are available here. Filled with terror or not, the black community was soon specifically targeted.

Daguerreotype of a late 1860s Klansman.
Daguerreotype of a late 1860s Klansman.

Lester complained that black people’s “transition from slavery to citizenship was sudden. They were not only not fitted for the cares of self-control, and maintenance so suddenly thrust upon them, but many of them entered their new role of life under the delusion that freedom meant license.”

In Lester’s account, blacks simply ignored the law. However, he neglected to clarify that the laws to which he refers were the pre-war Slave Codes, gone with the institution. The immediate post-war Black Codes, too, were fading. Black people ignored these laws simply because they believed that they were entitled to all of the freedoms enjoyed by the white people.

But even Lester admits that “the Klan gradually realized the most powerful devices ever constructed for controlling the ignorant and superstitious were in their hands.” 6Ibid., 78.

Despite the Klan not being established as a racist organization, their tactics were almost immediately turned toward terrorizing black people. This was not the stated intent of the Klan, so much as it was merely a given. Blacks were targeted because they were the ultimate “other.” It may have, at first, been all in good fun, but it was fun at the expense of the black community. And soon, it was not fun, but, as Lester admitted, serious work.

Soon, the elections of 1867 would be upon them, and soon the small minds of the revelers would be set to the business of terrorizing the black community and Republicans in general in order to keep them from voting.

Re-Organization and Forrest

When the conservative Democrats gathered in Nashville in April of 1867, so too did the Klan meet nearby. In the Maxwell House Hotel, the Ku Klux Klan reorganized itself. That the Democrats and the Klan gathered at the same time in the same place was as curious as it was fortuitous. The Klan was exclusively conservative Democrat, and the Democratic Party understood the importance of this organization.

1867 Klan broadside.
1867 Klan broadside.

The convocation was held, according to Lester, “to bind the isolated dens together; to secure unity of purpose and concert of action.” The “Invisible Empire,” as the territory of the Klan was called, was divided into “realms,” which were sub-divided into “dominions,” and then into “provinces,” and “dens.”

They also established the principles by which they would work. These, on the surface, were patriotic and vague. They pledged their allegiance to the United States, vowed to “protect the weak” from the lawless, swore to “protect the States and people thereof from all invasion from any source whatever,” and vowed to uphold “all constitutional laws.”

Shortly thereafter, a new leader was crowned: Nathan Bedford Forrest, The Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire. Though it’s validity is questioned, Forrest’s reaction upon hearing of the Klan was: “That’s a good thing; that’s a damned good thing. We can use that to keep the niggers in their place.” This tale was related by an unidentified Klansman, who claims to have heard it from John Morton, the man who introduced Forrest to the Klan. 7Jack Hurst Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography (Vintage Books, 1993) 284-5.

From here on out, the Klan became increasingly violent as well as public. Secrecy as to membership and leadership was paramount, but visibility of the robed and masked figures, their horses clad in similar fashions, was equally important.

The 1867 Election

Though it would be easy to conclude that the newly-revalorized Klan fell upon the black community during the 1867 campaign season, it would be incorrect. The general idea, espoused by everyone from conservative Democratic leadership to Forrest himself, was to wait it out. The Radical Reconstruction laws had just given blacks the right to vote, and it was almost assumed that they would vote as their former white masters voted. Many black Americans still lived on or near the same plantations, and through council, it was hoped that they could be convinced to vote in favor of the conservative whites.

Somehow, the Klan in Tennessee had no idea that the voting blacks weren't just a bunch of "happy darkies."
Somehow, the Klan in Tennessee had no idea that the voting blacks weren’t just a bunch of “happy darkies.”

This does not mean, however, that there was not animosity. When asked about “the spirit manifested by the conservatives or democrats toward you and your men” during the elections in Pulaski, Captain J.J. Mankins of the Tennessee State Guards (US) testified that “they treated me with contempt, and they were defiant at all times.” 8Sheafe Vs. Tillman, 264.

James H. Miller, a Unionist farmer, stated that there were “lots of them [black men] at the election in 1867, and lots of them voted.” Even conservative militias who were typically posted to terrorize blacks seemed to let off around the election. 9Ibid., 49-50.

There was no tampering with the votes, as far as any testimony holds, in the August 1867 election. Though a Federal inquest attempted to tie the Klan to this early election, nothing could be made to stick (that would not be the case in the following year).

The results of this election were a landslide by Radical Republicans across the state of Tennessee (and much of the South). This was due to the revelation, surprising to the Klan members and Democrats, that black people actually had thoughts and opinions of their own. They may have nodded in agreement when their old masters told them how to vote, but in their minds they understood that their future, at least in the immediate, was aligned with the Radical Republicans.


The Beginnings of Klan Retribution

Whites generally could not understand that black people voted for what they saw as their own best interests. It was assumed that the Union League or Republican Party had somehow gotten to the black community. Through a forked-tongue and threats of violence, the progressives must have somehow convinced the blacks to vote in favor of their own equality. That the seemingly docile and obedient black people had an intelligence independent of their former white masters seemed to have never occurred to them.

With this misconception still in place, the Klan became increasingly active against not only black Americans, but the white Republicans who supported them. Through the autumn of 1867, the Klan began a campaign of attacks against political blacks, as well as black churches and schools.

The report filed by General Oliver Otis Howard pertaining to July 1867 through June 1868 mentioned the rise of the Klan throughout. Gathering reports from officers in all of the formerly seceded states, it was found that Klan violence far from contained in Tennessee alone.

In Virginia, it was reported that “the Ku-klux Klan have made their appearance in various localities, visiting the houses of colored men at night, in some cases placing ropes around their necks, and threatening to hang them on account of their political opinions.” 10Oliver Otis Howard, “Report of the Condition of Affairs….” As printed in Annual Reports of the War Department (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1868) 1036. The entire report can be found here.

Lynchings of the Reconstruction Era.
Lynchings of the Reconstruction Era.

Though the violence in Virginia had not yet reached that of murder, the same could not be said for Texas. “Armed bands styling themselves Ku-klux, &c., have practiced barbarous cruelties upon the freedmen. Murders by the desperadoes who have long disgraced this State are of common occurrence. The civil authorities have been overawed, and, in many cases, even the bureau and military forces have been powerless to prevent the commission of these crimes.”

The month of March, 1868, alone saw the murder of twenty-one blacks and fifteen white allies. By July, the murders of blacks was up to thirty-two. By August, the report concludes, “there were probably 5,000 indictments pending in the State for homicide, in some of its various degrees, in most cases downright murder. Yet since the close of the war only in one solitary case (that of a freedman who was hung at Houston) has punishment to the full extent of the law been awarded.” 11Ibid., 1052.

“The Ku-Klux Klan serve their mysterious notices and make their midnight rounds in different parts of the State,” came the report from Arkansas. It spoke of church and school burnings, of wanton violence, and evil. “Lawless violence and ruffianism have prevailed to an alarming extent.” 12Ibid., 1054.

Even Kentucky, which had officially remained loyal to the Union, had fallen to this scourge. “The outrages perpetrated by the Ku-klux Klan have caused a great exodus [of black people] into other States,” read the report. There were recorded against the black population twenty-six murders, three rapes, thirty shootings, along with 265 other various acts of terror – all committed by whites against the black citizens of Kentucky. As in other states, very few had been arrested, and much fewer were found guilty. 13Ibid., 1056.

A mock Klan lynching. Likely a depiction of an initiation.
A mock Klan lynching. Likely a depiction of an initiation.

From Alabama came the report of “the organization known as the ‘Ku-Klux Klan’ have abused colored men in some sections of the State.” It blamed “the apathy of the courts” for the lack of convictions against white men perpetrating the crimes. 14Ibid., 1046-1047.

In Louisiana, it was noted that blacks were generally receiving their education, except “in the more remote sections [where] the prejudice and opposition of white citizens” prevented it. However, it also recalled that “lawless ruffians have overawed the civil authorities, ‘Vigilance committees’ and ‘Ku-klux Klans,’ disguised by night, have burned the dwellings and shed the blood of unoffending freedmen. In many cases of brutal murder brought before the civil authorities, verdicts of justifiable homicide in self-defense have been rendered.” 15Ibid., 1051. This sounds too familiar.

While the Klan had, by this time, proliferated throughout the South, the violence could not always be attributed back to them. In Delaware, a school was burned. 16Ibid., 1033. Georgia saw at least one lynching of a black man accused of raping a white woman. He was burned alive. Nobody was charged for the crime. 17Ibid., 1044. Mississippi reported “personal abuse and outrage” against the black population due to the election results. 18Ibid., 1048.

But there was also a bit of good news. Though South Carolina saw “many instances” of such violence, it had actually fallen from the year previous. 19Ibid., 1040. From Florida came the report that “More harmonious relations between the races have obtained here than in most portions of the south.” 20Ibid., 1042.

With the decrease in South Carolina, the apparently good relations in Florida, and even the lack of notice in North Carolina, it might have been assumed that this was all a bit of growing pains. Perhaps as time went on, the murders, the rapes, the burnings, the lynchings and violence would abate. Perhaps the embittered white people would calm down, and the black community would soon find that these “harmonious relations between the races” had spread across the entire South.

Of course, that wasn’t what happened. In fact, the entire South would rage with fire, blood and fury for decades to come. And the Ku Klux Klan had only just begun. The scores of murders already committed would soon pale in comparison to the thousands that would follow.


References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.