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Message from Governor Holden to the General Assembly, November 22, 1870


Message from Governor Holden to the General Assembly, November 22, 1870


As Governor Holden attempted to oust the Ku Klux Klan from North Carolina, he issued many proclamations directed toward the Klan, before he reverted to the use of military force. In this message to the General Assembly, Governor Holden stated the several proclamations he issued. The first proclamation dealt with the authority of the government. The second proclamation dealt with crimes and penalties of "masked men" causing terror toward other citizens. The last proclamations dealt with Governor Holden's power to declare a county in a state of insurrection. Governor Holden discussed the violent reports of Klan violence in the state of North Carolina, and he spoke of many people who became victims of the Klan. Governor Holden discussed declaring Alamance and Caswell Counties being in a state of insurrection, and he justified his actions by stating that it was his responsibility to protect the citizens of North Carolina and restore order to Alamance and Caswell counties.


William Woods Holden


"Memoirs of W.W. Holden," Documenting the American South, accessed November 4, 2014,




Jessie Byrd




North Carolina
Alamance County
Caswell County

Original Format



On the 22nd of November, 1870, I sent my third and last message to the General Assembly. In this message I used the following language:

"The present government of North-Carolina commenced its operations on the 4th day of July, 1868. This government is based on the political and civil equality of all men, and it was lawfully and constitutionally established by the whole people of the State. The State had just emerged from a protracted and desperate conflict with the government of our common country, in which many valuable lives and a vast amount of property had been sacrificed. It was hoped and expected that the government thus established, after so much suffering and so many calamities, would be allowed to move quietly forward, protecting all alike, dispensing its equal benefits with an equal hand, and preparing the way for a realization of that prosperity which the State had formery enjoyed. But the validity of the Reconstruction Acts was questioned, and the authority of the State was represented as having been derived in such a manner as to render it binding on the people only nutil an opportunity should be offered to throw it off. Combinations were formed in various parts of the State, of a secret character, the object of which was to render practically null and void the Reconstruction Acts, and to set at naught those provisions of the Federal and State Constitutions which secure political and civil equality to the whole body of our people. My attention was first called to these combinations in October, 1868, and I

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then deemed it my duty to issue a proclamation, setting forth the nature of our government, the manner in which it had been established, vindicating its authority as a government, not merely de facto, but de jure, and giving warning of the consequences that must follow, if any attempt should be made to subvert the government, or to assail by force the right of suffrage as guaranteed to any portion of our citizens. In that proclamation I said: 'Every race of men in this State is free. The colored citizen is equally entitled with the white citizen to the right of suffrage. The poor and the humble must be protected in this right equally with the affluent and the exalted.' It was also enjoined upon 'all magistrates, Sheriffs and other peace officers to be vigilant, impartial, faithful and firm in the discharge of their duties, magnifying and enforcing the law, ferreting out offenders, protecting the weak against the strong who may attempt to deprive them of their rights; to the end that the wicked may be restrained, the peace of society preserved, the good name of the State maintained, and the government perpetuated on the basis of Freedom and Justice to all.'

"And in April, 1879, after the General Assembly, had passed "An Act making the act of going masked, disguised or painted, a felony," I issued another proclamation setting forth this Act, and giving notice that 'bands of men who go masked and armed at night, causing alarm and terror in neighborhoods, and committing acts of violence on the inoffensive and defenceless,' and 'depredators and robbers, who lived

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on the honest earnings of others,' would be followed and made to feel the penalty due to their crimes.

"And in October, 1869, I deemed it my duty to issue another proclamation, setting forth the fact that in the Counties of Lenoir, Jones, Orange and Chatham, "there is, and has been for some months past, a feeling of insubordination and insurrection, insomuch that many good citizens are put in terror for their lives and property, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to secure a full and fair enforcement of the law." I gave notice in this proclamation that violations of law and outrages in the aforesaid Counties must cease; otherwise I would 'proclaim those Counties in a state of insurrection,' and would 'exert the whole power of the State to enforce the law, to protect those who are assailed or injured, and to bring criminals to justice.'

"And in March, 1870, I was forced by a sense of duty to 'proclaim and declare that the County of Alamance is in a state of insurrection.'

"And in June, 1870, I issued another proclamation, in which, on account of ten murders mentioned, committed in four Counties, and other acts of violence, such as whipping, and the driving a State Senator from the State, I offered rewards for the arrest and conviction of murderers, amounting in the aggregate to a large sum. In this proclamation I denounced the outrages, such as murders and scourgings, by the Kuklux Klan, and also retaliation by others, such as the burning of stables, mills and dwelling houses; and I urged all officers, both civil and military, to

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aid in bringing offenders to justice and restoring peace and good order to those portions of the State.

"And in July, 1870, I was forced by a sense of duty to 'declare the County of Caswell in a state of insurrection.'

"These proclamations are printed in the 'Appendix' to this document, and I trust every member of your honorable body will give them a careful perusal.

"In addition to these proclamations I addressed letters to various civil and military officers, and to citizens, urging the necessity of repressing these outrages and of enforcing the law. For the space of twelve months, while the laws were thus being set at naught, and while grand juries were failing to find bills, or, if they were found, petit juries refused to convict, I was almost constantly importuned by letters, and in person, by many of the victims of these outrages, and was urged to adopt some means of protection to society, and especially to the victims of the secret combinations referred to.

"These combinations were at first purely political in their character, and many good citizens were induced to join them. But gradually, under the leadership of ambitious and discontented politicians, and under the pretext that society needed to be regulated by some authority outside or above the law, their character was changed, and these secret Klans began to commit murder, to rob, whip, scourge and mutilate unoffending citizens. These organizations or these combinations were called the Ku Klux Klan, and were revealed to the public, as the result of the measures which I adopted, as "The Constitutional Union

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Guards," "The White Brotherhood," and "The Invisible Empire." Unlike other secret political associations, they authorized the use of force, with deadly weapons, to influence the elections. The members were united by oaths which ignored or repudiated the ordinary oaths or obligations resting upon all other citizens to respect the laws and to uphold the government; these oaths inculcated hatred by the white race against the colored race; the members of the Klan, as above stated, were hostile to the principles on which the government of the State had been reconstructed, and, in many respects, hostile to the government of the United States. They met in secret, in disguise, with arms, in a dress of a certain kind intended to conceal their persons and their horses, and to terrify those whom they menaced or assaulted. They held their camps, and under their leaders they decreed judgment against their peaceable fellow-citizens, from mere intimidation to scourgings, mutilations, the burning of churches, school-houses, mills, and in many cases to murder. This organization, under different names, but cemented by a common purpose, is believed to have embraced not less than forty thousand voters in North Carolina. It was governed by rules more or less military in their character, and it struck its victims with such secrecy, swiftness and certainty as to leave them little hope either for escape or mercy. The members were sworn to obey the orders of their camps even to assassination and murder. They were taught to regard oaths administered before magistrates and in Courts of Justice, as in no degree binding

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when they were called upon to give testimony against their confederates. They were sworn to keep the secrets of the order - to obey the commands of the Chief - to go to the rescue of a member at all hazards, and to swear for him as a witness and acquit him as a juror. Consequently, Grand Juries in many Counties frequently refused to find bills against the members of this Klan for the gravest and most flagrant violations of law; and when bills were found, and the parties were arraigned for trial, witnesses, members of the order, would in nearly every case come forward, and, taking an oath before the Court on the Holy Evangelists to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, would swear falsely, and would thus defeat the ends of justice. There are, at least, four Judges and four Solicitors in the State who will bear witness to the fact, from their own experience, that it was very difficult, if not impossible, to convice members of this Klan of crimes and misdemeanors. I have information of not less than twenty-five murders committed by members of this Klan, in various Counties of the State, and of hundreds of cases of scourging and whipping. Very few, if any, convictions have followed in these cases. The civil law was powerless. One State Senator was murdered in the open day in a County Court-house, and another State Senator was driven from the State, solely on account of their political opinions. In neither case was a bill found by a Grand Jury. A respectable and unoffending colored man was taken from his bed at night, and hanged by the neck until he was dead, within a short distance of a County

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Court-house. Another colored man was drowned, because he spoke publicly of persons who aided in the commission of this crime. No bills were found in these cases. A crippled white man, a native of Vermont, was cruelly whipped because he was teaching a colored school. No bill was found in this case. 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. A County jail was broken open, and five men taken out and their throats cut. Another jail was broken open, and men taken out and shot, one of whom died of his wound. Another jail was broken open and a United States prisoner released. No punishments followed in these cases. The members of this Klan, under the orders of their Chiefs, had ridden through many neighborhoods at night, and had punished free citizens on account of their political opinions, and had so terrified many of them by threats of future visitations of vengeance that they fled from their houses, took refuge in the woods, and did not dare to appear in public to exercise their right of suffrage. Some of these victims were shot, some of them were whipped, some of them were hanged, some of them were drowned, some of them were tortured, some had their mouths lacerated with gags, one of them had his ear cropped, and others, of both sexes, were subjected to indignities which were disgraceful not merely to civilization but to humanity itself. The members of this Klan, under orders of their Chiefs, had ridden, defiantly and unmolested through the towns of Hillsborough, Chapel Hill,

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Pittsborough and Graham, committing crimes, defying the lawful authorities, and causing real alarm to all really good people. In fine, gentlemen, there was no remedy for these evils through the civil law, and but for the use of the military arm, to which I was compelled to resort, the whole fabric of society in the State would have been undermined and destroyed, and a reign of lawlessness and anarchy would have been established. The present State government would thus have failed in the great purpose for which it was created, to-wit: the protection of life and property under equal laws; and, necessarily, the national government would have interfered, and, in all probability would have placed us again and for an indefinite period under military rule.

"In June, 1869, about twelve months before I declared the Counties of Alamance and Caswell in a state of insurrection, I caused eighteen men, murderers and robbers, to be arrested in Lenoir and Jones. They were examined before Judge Thomas. Five of them turned State's evidence, and exposed the secrets of the Klan and the crimes of their confederates. None of them have been convicted. Yet, the result of these arrests was, that peace and order were almost immediately re-established in those Counties.

"In the early part of 1870 I employed, in Chatham, Capt. N. A. Ramsey, and in Orange Capt. Pride Jones, both belonging to the political party opposed to my administration, to aid in repressing the Ku Klux and in composing the troubles in those Counties. They performed their duty in a manner which

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entitles them to the thanks of every friend of law and order.

"In July, of the present year, I deemed it my duty to embody a portion of the militia, and to make a number of arrests of suspected persons in the Counties of Alamance and Caswell. I exercised this power by virtue of the State Constitution, which declares that "the Governor shall be Commander-in-Chief, and have power to call out the militia to execute the law, suppress riots or insurrection, and to repel invasion." And also by virtue of an Act of the General Assembly, passed at the session of 1869-'70, which provides that the "Governor is hereby authorized and empowered, whenever in his judgment the civil authorities in any County are unable to protect its citizens in the enjoyment of life and property, to declare such County to be in a state of insurrection, and to call into active service the militia of the State to such an extent as may become necessary to suppress such insurrection; and in such case the Governor is further authorized to call upon the President for such assistance, if any, as in his judgment may be necessary to enforce the law."

"This was my authority, gentlemen, for the course which I adopted in this grave emergency. It was my sworn duty, as Chief Magistrate of the State, to "execute justice and maintain truth." I was satisfied that the civil authorities in the Counties referred to were not able to protect their citizens in the enjoyment of life and property; and, after much forbearance, and many remonstrances, and when patience was exhausted, I could adopt no other course which promised

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to restore civil law and to re-establish peace and order in these Counties.

"Many of the persons thus arrested were examined before the Chief Justice and two of the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, in this city, and forty-nine of them were bound over to appear and answer to the Superior Courts of Caswell and Alamance. It is supposed that not less than twenty or thirty of the worst characters in Caswell and Alamance and other Counties, have fled the State, to escape arrest and punishment for their numerous crimes.

"The correspondence between the Chief Justice and myself in relation to these matters, and all the material evidence elicited in the cases, are given in the Appendix to this document, to which I invite your attention.

"I did not proceed to final action in this matter until I had consulted the President of the United States, which I did in person in July last. It will be seen, by his letter published in the Appendix, that he sustained me in my action. The federal troops in the State at that time were re-inforced by his order, and every precaution was taken 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.

"The report of the Adjutant General, which will be laid before you, will contain information as to the operations of the militia in Alamance and Caswell, and statements of the expenses of the same. Any information on this or other subjects which the General

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Assembly may desire, will be promptly and cheerfully furnished.

"The result of this action on the part of the Executive, in pursuance of the Constitution and the laws, has been in the highest degree fortunate and benficial. The power of the State government to protect, maintain, and perpetuate itself has been tested and demonstrated. The secret organization which disturbed the peace of society, which was sapping the foundations of the government, setting the law at defiance, and inflicting manifold wrongs on a large portion of our people, has been exposed and broken up. Well meaning, honest men, who had been decoyed into this organization, have availed themselves of this opportunity to escape from it, and will henceforth bear their testimony against it as wholly evil in its principles and its modes of operation. A score or more of wicked men have been driven from the State, while those of the same character who remain have been made to tremble before the avenging hand of power. The majesty of the law has been vindicated. The poor and the humble now sleep unmolested in their houses, and are no longer scourged or murdered on account of their political opinions. Peace and good order have been restored to all parts of the State, with the exeception of the County of Robeson, in which some murderers and robbers are still at large, but it is expected they will speedily be arrested and brought to punishment. In view of this altered and gratifying condition of things I issued another proclamation on the 10th of this month, revoking former proclamations which placed Alamance and Caswell in

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a state of insurrection. Allow me, gentlemen, to say to you in the language of this proclamation of the 10th instant, that I trust that peace and good order may continue; that partisan rancor and bitterness may abate; that our people of all classes and conditions may cultivate harmony and good will among themselves; and that the whole people of the State, without respect to party, may unite fraternally and cordially to build up North Carolina, and to elevate her to the proud eminence which she once occupied as a member of the American Union.

"It will afford me pleasure, gentlemen, to co-operate with you in such measures as may be considered best calculated to promote the prosperity and happiness of our people.

I have the honor to be, with great respect,
Your obedient servant,


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William Woods Holden, Message from Governor Holden to the General Assembly, November 22, 1870, Civil War Era NC, accessed July 14, 2024,