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The Ku Klux Klan and the Kirk-Holden War

On February 26th, 1870, more than one hundred members of the Ku Klux Klan took Wyatt Outlaw from his bed and with guards posted took him into the central square of Graham, North Carolina. They hung him from a large oak tree facing directly across from the county courthouse with a note pinned on him that read “Beware you guilty both white and black.” (Hahn 2005, 275) Then on May 21st, 1870, during a Conservative campaign rally at the Caswell courthouse, John Walter Stephens was lead to a basement room by Frank Wiley, a former sheriff, where there was a group of men waiting for him. They put a rope around his neck, and then stabbed him three times slitting his throat. They left him on a pile of wood in the bottom of the courthouse. The hands of the Ku Klux Klan dealt these two events along with multiple whippings, plundered homes, and other murders. The Ku Klux Klan sought to enforce the subordination of former slaves and punish whites and blacks who threatened the white racial hierarchy. Local officials, who were either in association with the Ku Klux Klan, or feared them, carried out no attempts to stop the terror. If action had been taken to stop the Klan, it had been exhausted. As klan terror and anarchy grew, the state sunk into a deeper upheaval. Governor Holden viewed Caswell and Alamance in a state of rebellion. Action had to be taken, and Republicans threatened to fight back with guerilla warfare of their own. (Trelease 1995, 208)

To combat this terror in early 1870 the legislature gave Holden another “weapon” to fight the Ku Klux Klan, the Shoffner Act. Alamance Republican T. M. Shoffner introduced the act to secure the better protection of life and property. It gave the governor authority to declare a “state of insurrection” in the affected counties and send in the militia to suppress disorders, whether invited or not. (Trelease 1995, 209) Governor Holden would not use this act immediately because he needed cooperation from his opposition party in order to tame the magnitude of the white rebellion. In order to do this, he recruited Democrats such as N.A. Ramsey of Chatham County, who spoke to the county on the need of respecting the laws and keeping the peace and meeting Ku Klux Klan leaders to persuade them with the possibility of no prosecution if they stopped their acts of rebellion. However if they chose not to stop, he warned of federal occupation. (Wise 2010, 116) The acts of terror began to occur less and less often in the county. Holden continued to work with leaders of the opposing party in order to subdue the rebellion, and his efforts were successful in Orange County where the Klan was eventually disbanded altogether by April of 1870.

Despite these successes, the counties of Alamance and Caswell were the toughest and most resilient. Holden chose to send troops in after the murders of Wyatt Outlaw and John Walter Stephens. The army only had the authority to assist local law enforcement, which were more times than not associated with the Klan. The violence in Alamance was escalating further out of the government’s hands. So Governor Holden turned to President Ulysess S. Grant asking him to press Congress for the authority to suspend habeas corpus, so these vigilantes would have to go before a military tribunal for their crimes. (Wise 2010, 117) Not only was the Klan out of control, but also Holden was feeling the wrath of Conservatives more and elections were right around the corner. The situation was one that needed action quickly, and Holden was in a state of desperation. After Republican Stephen’s murder, he chose to call in more troops. Governor Holden did not take these steps without making sure it was in the provisions of his power. He consulted Grant in order to ensure he had support in Washington. Grant’s reply was, “why have you not led troops in yourself before now?” (Wise 2010, 124) Grant also assured Holden with his opinion that North Carolina law gave him the authority to put disorder down and if the need for federal troops arose they would be on their way. Grant also directed the War Department to provide the state with gear and equipment it would need to put down the rebellion.

Governor Holden and his colleagues organized two regiments of the state militia with William J. Clarke the commander of one and George W. Kirk the commander of the other. Holden recruited both of them; his decision to recruit Kirk was questioned. The selection of Kirk would contribute to his eventual downfall. On June 20, 1870, Kirk’s commission was official, and Kirk began to enlist men. He enlisted a total of 670 men. In Alamance County, the troops occupied the county courthouse. (Wise 2010, 126) A week after Caswell County was declared in a state of insurrection, Kirk and his men arrived at the court house in Yanceyville, the one in which John W. Stephens was murdered, and broke up a political riot there. Within a week to two weeks, around one hundred citizens were arrested and awaiting military trials. The lawyers of the prisoners petitioned to Justice Richmond Pearson for a writ of habeas corpus. Justice Pearson issued the writ. (Wise 2010, 129) The writ required that the prisoners be brought before him for his decision to ensure they were being held for just cause. Kirk refused the writ because the prisoners were to go before a military tribunal. Of course Holden intervened, informing the judge that Kirk was just following orders. Pearson in his ruling approved Holden’s use of the military but denied his right to suspend habeas corpus. (Wise, 130) Despite Pearson’s ruling, Holden refused to produce the prisoners. This would be a one of the many charges brought against him in his impeachment. He made a valid point to support his stance on the prisoners. “It would be a mockery in me to declare that the civil authority was unable to protect the citizens against the insurgents, and then turn the insurgents over to the civil authority.” After the defeat of the Republican Party, things worsened for Governor Holden. The attorneys of the prisoners turned to federal judge George Washington Brooks who agreed with Pearson’s ruling. Brook’s decision called for Holden to declare habeas corpus. Holden refused to honor Brooks’ writ. Holden turned to Grant to support him. This time Grant sought legal advice on the matter. After the advice of the Attorney General, Amos Ackerman, who stated that Judge Brooks was acting legally and Holden needed to comply with his decision, Grant therefore had no choice but to uphold this advice as well as it was what complied with the law. Some of the cases were brought before Brooks, and he dismissed most of them due to lack of evidence. The rest were heard by Judge Pearson, who released all but three. Unfortunately after all the violence, bloodshed and terror no one was ever convicted for any alleged Ku Klux Klan crime in Alamance or Caswell counties. (Wise 2010, 131)

Holden disbanded the militia in September 1870 and declared the state of insurrection over. The militia Holden organized silenced the Ku Klux Klan, but not until after they had accomplished their goal. The results of the election declared their victory. The Democratic Party and Conservatives gained political power of the state. While the prisoners went home to celebrations and congratulations, militia officers such as Kirk were sought out to be arrested, and they were dismissed. Governor Holden’s fate was sealed though, and the result of the election was the seal. The state Supreme Court ruled that a “Court of Impeachment is the proper tribunal to try abuses of Executive authority.” (Wise 2010, 132) The Democrats had an important victory within their grasp. Holden's actions in the series of conflicts in the Kirk-Holden War lead to his impeachment. 

The Ku Klux Klan and the Kirk-Holden War