Reconstruction’s Economic and Political Tyranny

Part 4 of a Series on Reconstruction 1865-1877

George Washington Kirk - Union Colonel, Kirk’s Raiders, Guerrilla warfare and arbitrary arrests.
George Washington Kirk - Union Colonel, Kirk’s Raiders, Guerrilla warfare and arbitrary arrests.

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.

In 1869, there were Union League barn burnings and other destruction in every North Carolina County. During a single week in Gaston County, 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.”  

As Klan activity increased in response to Union League and other Reconstruction misdeeds, the Radical Republicans, who commanded a majority in Congress, formed a committee to investigate the Klan. An 1871 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’s radical Reconstructionist dominated legislature under the direction of Governor 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. Barns were essential to the livelihood of farmers.

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 of Tennessee and North Carolina to score a decisive victory.  Kirk was to be in charge. Kirk was a Confederate deserter who 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 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.

In 2011, the North Carolina Senate gave Governor Holden a posthumous pardon based on his opposition to the Klan. Judge for yourself their motives and whether this was a fully informed vote. 

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 former leader 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 live. 

The high tariff policies that touched off Southern Secession in 1860-61 were kept in place until 1912. As feared, these high tariffs increased the costs of living and business, hindered export profits, and kept the South impoverished.

One asset the South had left after the war despite all the destruction was five million bales of cotton. Prices were also at an all time high of 50 cents to a dollar per pound.  The North confiscated three million bales of this cotton on the grounds of its association with owners who had previously sold cotton to the Confederate government.  Cotton raised by slaves was also subjected to a 25 percent tax.   It was up to the owners of cotton to prove the absence of any Confederate or slave taint, so U. S. Treasury agents frequently made some arrangements to clear the cotton by some means of bribery. Many Treasury agents were racketeers, using threats of total confiscation, if an appropriate bribe was not forthcoming.  They also purchased cotton at low prices using this racketeering scheme. One Texas widow was forced to sell her 400 bales of cotton valued a $200 per bale for $75 per bale or have it confiscated for Confederate taint.   Treasury agents took their payment in cotton.  They were normally entitled to 25 to 50 percent of confiscated cotton as their fee, but their shameless greed exceeded their authority.  They were willing to defraud the U. S. government as well as cotton owners.  Some were caught red handed in these schemes, but were released by the Army.

In addition, a three-cent per pound export tax was put on cotton.  This was to pay for the war, which according to the Northern party line, Southerners had started.  When cotton returned to its normal price range of twelve to eighteen cents per pound, the three-cent tax was a 20 percent burden.  As usual, Treasury agents often settled for a bribe. A transportation fee of four cents per pound was also charged for the privilege of getting it to market.  Cotton planters were forced to survive a gauntlet of numerous Treasury agents, racketeers, and swindlers in getting their cotton to market with any profit at all.  Reconstruction governments dominated by opportunistic carpetbaggers with little sympathy for Southerners and with their own fingers deeply into corruption left white Southerners little legal recourse.  They began to call on the KKK for justice.  Usually only a Klan warning for the Treasury agent to leave town was sufficient for cotton producers to get their cotton to market.  The cotton tax was removed in 1868 in response to falling cotton production and increasing embarrassment in Congress. Also two-thirds of the Northern opportunists who bought cotton plantations at distressed prices, failed in the cotton business. Treasury Secretary, Hugh McCulloch, was by conscience finally forced to admit,

“I am sure I sent some honest agents south; but it sometimes seems very doubtful whether any of them remained honest very long.”

Reconstruction state legislatures raised property taxes to levels averaging four times that of 1865.   South Carolina property taxes increased thirty fold. This was not to pay for their outrageous deficit spending but to force Southern property owners to sell their land at distressed prices.  At one time over 20 percent of the land in Mississippi was for sale under property tax duress. 

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