I have no doubt I made blunders and mistakes in my military movement in 1870. But there is truth in the old adage, “Desperate diseases require desperate remedies.” And I again declare that all I did in that movement was done with a purpose to protect the weak and unoffending of both races, to maintain and restore the majesty of the civil law, and not to gratify personal feeling on my part, or to promote party interests or party ascendancy. (Holden, 88-89).
Governor Holden, like any other politician, was faced with critics, accusations, fraud, etc., but Holden himself, was forced to deal with a violent unsuppressed militant group who was willing to do anything to get him out of office. His memoirs, published in 1911 and mostly written by his daughter because of Holden’s illnesses, contain letters and speeches that were written in response to the Klan’s actions and other political issues. Using this primary source allows historians to reach into the mind of Governor Holden to gain insight into why he went through with the Shoffner Act and why he felt it was necessary. The memoirs themselves seem a little scattered, but they have a specific order to them that surrounds the troubles Holden had to face. It begins with his early political career and defenses of his character and then ends with a huge load of reports, speeches, and letters about the Kirk-Holden War.
Gentlemen: - Allow me respectfully and earnestly to call your attention to the necessity which exists for such amendments to the militia law as will enable the executive to suppress violence and disorder in certain localities of this State, and to protect the persons of citizens, their lives and their property. (Holden, 121).
This message, delivered in Raleigh on December 16, 1869, led to the enactment of the Shoffner act. The act authorized the Governor to declare states of insurrections, suspend civil law, and the authority to arrest suspects. The message itself contained language that showed the North Carolina general assembly a state rampant with violent criminals. Holden makes sure to note in the message that without the governor’ assistance, innocent people will surely be in harm’s way. Holden also notes the Ku Klux Klan as the main group committing the violence, but doesn’t use them by name, a smart move in order to avoid sympathizers. “Numerous outrages of the most flagrant character have been committed upon peaceable and law-abiding citizens, by persons masked and armed, who rode at night, and who have thus far escaped the civil law” (Holden, 121). With this one sentence, Holden lists his reasoning behind the passing of an act that would give him more power: 1) there are crimes being committed; 2) the criminals are masked, armed, and terrorize people at night time; and 3) are not being punished because the civil law is not strong enough, or willing, to do so. Even when the act passed however, Holden was still somewhat hesitant to push it to its true limits and instead he chose to appease and talk to many county leaders in an attempt to end the turmoil. In 1869, Holden sent a legal militia to the aid of Jones, Crave, and Lenoir counties in an effort to bolster the civil law. It was a success and the local courts were able to put up about 18 suspects into a trial, which successfully ended any extremely violent actions in those regions. In other counties, Holden appointed prominent democrats to political positions in an attempt to appease the county and stop KKK activities. In Chatham County, N. A. Ramsey was appointed, and in Orange, Captain Pride Jones. Jones and Holden would contain a long correspondence of their actions and follow ups once Jones was appointed to Captain. Members of the county believed the “appointment would give entire satisfaction to our citizens, and would go far towards establishing, on a firm basis, good order throughout the County” (Holden, 128). Holden would agree, seeing that a democrat in power would satisfy Klan members and conservatives, but also because a conservative would have more influence over the democratic citizens of the county and therefore would have a much better job of restoring civil order. In the following letter, Holden gives Jones the commission and acknowledges that he will perform admirably for the state. He also talks about how Captain Ramsey, the other democratic appointment, has done a good job in Chatham and Holden trust in the civil government there has been restored. The letter however, also talks about the final straw for Alamance County: “I have constrained to declare the County of Alamance in a state of insurrection. I have done this with reluctance and regret. The civil law is silent and powerless in that County” (Holden, 128). He continues by adding that people in the County feel they are in danger and only the military can save them. This letter, addressed to a political adversary to his administration, shows that Holden’s first goal was to restore civil authority, not to control it. When Holden finally saw Alamance as lost, he felt there was no other method to restore that authority without the use of the Shoffner Act.
Caswell County was declared a state of insurrection in a similar way. After proclamations issued in June 1870 asking for aid in stopping the Klan Holden felt, forced by a sense of duty” to declare the county in a state of insurrection. These proclamations were issued in response to a sum of ten murders committed in four different counties. The proclamation contains rewards for arrests and convictions of murders and denouncements of the Klan and their ideals. “I urged all officers, both civil and military, to aid in bringing offenders to justice and restoring peace and good order to those portions of the state” (Holden, 137-138). Holden continues by saying that he sent letters to various officers and only saw grand juries failing to find bills, or petit juries refusing to convict suspects. These letters and proclamations show that Holden was still relying on the civil authorities to enforce the law and protect citizens from violence, but they were not able to do so. Not only were the officers not doing an efficient job of protecting citizens, but the civil courts were powerless to send criminals to jails and prisons. Crimes were going un-punished and Holden felt that the people relied on him as their governor for their last hope. After the murder of Senator Stephens and ignored proclamations and letters, Holden felt his hand once again forced to call another county into a state of insurrection.
The rest of Holden’s memoirs are filled with Klan murders and power and a weakening civil government. “I have information of not less than twenty-five murders committed by members of this Klan, in various Counties of the State. Very few, if any, convictions have followed in these cases. The civil law was powerless” (Holden, 140). There were even some cases where the Klan would brave itself to attack the civil authorities themselves. “The Sheriff of a County was waylaid, shot and killed on a public highway, and the Colonel of a County was shot and killed in the open day, while engaged in his usual business” (Holden, 141). As Holden continues to add atrocities committed by the Klan to this list, he adds that there are no convictions and no justice being served. At the end of this list Holden states his last option in not undergoing with the Shoffner act. He met with the President of the United States and asked him of what he should do. In response, Holden felt that the president used his troops to “prevent resistance to the steps which I deemed absolutely indispensable to the restoration of the civil law and the re-establishment of peace and order” (Holden, 144). With the President only able to support the governor and not directly interfere with state affairs, Holden decided his last possible remedy to the situation was to enforce the Shoffner act. The act became the sole means to not destroying a political party or arresting certain individuals, but to restore civil authorities and law in places where there was none.