The Ku Klux Klan as Extension

In 1871, a congressional committee investigated Ku Klux Klan terror in the Reconstruction South. The testimony offered to (and the findings of) the “Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States” aids scholars in answering an important historical question: How did Americans — Northerners, Southerners, black, white, white hooded, and more — view Klan activities and violence as they related to Southern history, whether recent or deep? Based on the evidence, it is safe to posit that Northern sympathizers viewed the Klan as an extension of historical Southern disorder, while Southern apologists saw it as rooted in traditions of Southern order. Both historical contexts were of course defined by the need to preserve white supremacy. Interestingly, this thesis also prompts us to consider where Americans placed the Confederate army on a spectrum of blame for the war.

The majority report, issued by the Republicans on the committee, drew a connection between the South’s insurrectionary strain in the early 1860s and the “cowardly midnight prowlers and assassins who scourge and kill the poor and defenseless” that followed.[1] Although “less than obedience” from Southerners “the Government cannot accept,” Klan sentiment was comprehensible, even expected. “The strong feeling which led to rebellion and sustained brave men, however mistaken, in resisting the Government…cannot be expected to subside at once, nor in years,” the majority wrote.[2] The South’s rebellious streak was not yet wholly tamed. “It required full forty years to develop disaffection into sedition, and sedition into treason. Should we not be patient if in less than ten we have a fair prospect of seeing so many who were armed enemies becoming obedient citizens?”[3] In other words, while the Klan tortured, raped, and murdered blacks for exercising their new rights as citizens and achieving economic success and community development, many white Southerners had fallen back in line — the mindset of disorder and insurrection was being purged, but more time was needed.

Interestingly, while centering the Klan in “remnants of rebellious feeling, the antagonisms of race, [and] the bitterness of political partisanships,” the Republicans also sought to frame the organization as a disgrace to the Confederate army, as if the military had been divorced from such elements.[4] Confederate soldiers were “brave men,” as noted, who made an “enormous sacrifice of life and treasure,” truly “magnanimous enemies,” but the Klan “degrade[d] the soldiers of Lee and Johnston into” nothing but cutthroat bandits.[5] The committee majority understood that former Confederate soldiers and Klansmen were often one and the same.[6] Here the Republicans issued an appeal to soldierly pride and military order or decorum — the Confederate army was an honorable force, operating under the rules of war, it and each combatant simply following orders; the Klan was lawless, its vigilante violence in homes and churches a far cry from proper clashes on the battlefield. It was no place for a good soldier. The KKK, then, was an extension of Southern rebelliousness, but not an extension (rather, a devolution) of the mechanism of that rebellion, the Confederate military. These ideas were expressed in the same paragraph of the report, and it appears no contradiction was found, which may suggest that Republican officials of the era indeed saw the rebel army as in some fashion outside insurrectionary elements of the South, or secondary to them, i.e. a mere tool of secessionist public officials. If this public presentation represented sincere belief, no inconsistency exists. Yet it could be, if Republicans privately thought differently, that this was a valid contradiction far too useful to be noticed or corrected: it was too important to both find the roots of the Klan in Southern disobedience to government and to urge true soldiers not to partake in disorder (the press covered the hearings closely, so the appeal would find readers).[7]

White Southerners and Klansmen, of course, saw the KKK as evolving from rather different historical trends. How explicit was former Confederate soldier William M. Lowe of Alabama when he testified before the committee that “The justification or excuse which was given for the organization of the Ku-Klux Klan was, that it was essential to preserve society,” for given “the feebleness with which the laws were executed, the disturbed state of society, it was necessary that there should be some patrol… [This] had been a legal and recognized mode of preserving the peace and keeping order in the former condition of these States.”[8] “And it was, therefore,” a committee member asked, “natural that it should be resumed?” Lowe confirmed. The Klan, then, was an extension of the slave patrols of the antebellum South. Interest in maintaining law and order was again rooted in the control and subjugation of blacks, evidenced not only by Klansmen’s documented terror but by how they described perceived threats to white society during the hearings.[9] For example, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, likely the founder of the KKK, testified that blacks were “becoming very insolent,” and Southern whites were “alarmed,” afraid they would be “attacked.”[10] White “ladies were ravished by some of these negroes,” who would also “kill stock” and “carry arms.”[11] The Klan formed to “protect the weak; to protect the women and children,” and to prevent “insurrection” and black vengeance.[12] (Identical concerns motivated whites to fight for the Confederacy, according to historian Chandra Manning.[13]) Haiti had fallen to black revolutionaries, Forrest said, and it was critical the same did not occur in the South.[14] In sum, the Klan was not the real lawless force — it existed to “enforce the laws” in a dangerous time.[15] This indeed mirrored the function of slave patrols, which sought to maintain white dominance.[16] The Klan was seen as the natural successor to or resumption of former systems of order and oppression.

Of course, the irony of insurrectionist soldiers framing their violence against black voters, politicians, landowners, businesses, churches, schools, etc. as preventing insurrection was either lost or ignored — or contemporarily nonexistent.[17] It is difficult to know which from these texts. Again, there is room for questions concerning how 1870s Americans, this time including Southerners, saw the Confederate army. If it was judged far less culpable in the rebellion as Confederate legislators, a simple tool, then irony would be more a modern construction, imagined by a resident of the twenty-first century with rather different views. But if the army was thought less outside the insurrection, as central as politicians, then Forrest’s framing was cynical, hypocritical. Given Manning’s research on soldiers’ motivations, cited above, there may be a case for this. Still, popular assessment of institutional responsibility could nevertheless remain distinct from common individual motivations.

To conclude, the idea that Northerners and Southerners viewed the Ku Klux Klan differently, as an extension of rebellious tendencies or proper white law enforcement, is as well-supported in the 1871 hearing documents as it is expected. Yet its full exploration not only replaces mere assumption with historical evidence, it reveals unexpected nuances and generates new historical questions. Future studies should examine Americans’ private thoughts on “the Klan in historical context,” the Klan as successor, utilizing letters, journals, and so on — the hearings only offer public sentiments. Historians should also explore the new, associated problems, gathering public and private texts. Outlining to what extent the Confederate army was considered insurrectionary, compared to state leaders, will advance our understanding of the mentalities of hearing participants, and be a worthwhile contribution to the field in its own right.

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[1] Shawn Leigh Alexander, Reconstruction Violence and the Ku Klux Klan Hearings (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015), 127.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 127, 102, 113.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid., 118.

[9] Ibid., 35-102 for testimony on KKK violence and intimidation.

[10] Ibid., 108.

[11] Ibid., 108, 113.

[12] Ibid., 109.

[13] Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2008), 12, 36-39, 217-218.

[14] Alexander, Hearings, 112.

[15] Ibid., 110. See Lowe’s remarks on page 118.

[16] Vanessa Holden, Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021), especially chapter one.

[17] Alexander, Hearings, 7, 35-102.