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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 still lives.

Source: The Uncivil War by Mike Scruggs
Copyright 2007 by Universal Media, Inc.