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Source documents from a turbulent past.

"Brutal attacks and political murders throughout the South continued to plague the administration. The worst violence, in North and South Carolina, prompted Grant to invoke the new Enforcement Act, ordering in troops and suspending the writ of habeas corpus. The ensuing mass arrests and numerous convictions curbed excesses and hindered the Ku Klux Klan. But such measures provoked a backlash," (1)

Federal Intervention was necessary to prevent the United Front organizations of KKK affiliated groups from using state and local support to conduct unlawful attacks on black and white Republicans and other Americans that supported the Constitutionally protected rights. Picture: July 25, 1868, Harper's Weekly. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D. C. LC-USZ62-105555 (2)

Last week's blog entry Nothing New Under the Sun: Domestic Riots and Agitation, noted that the 1860s through the 1880s was the most violent and divisive period in the history of America. This week we are going to highlight the controversial move by President Grant to use Federal Troops, U.S. Marshalls, and other methods to combat the local and state government

s support of the resistance movements to the Constitution and a recently unified America, by highlighting the excellent series of source documents contained in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant published by the Southern Illinois University Press and available online.*

Nothing the U.S. has encountered since has matched the level of violence, division, and threats to the Republic. Ironically, this period is glossed over in most discussions about contemporary issues that relate to it. Chief among those that receive relatively unfocused examination is President Grant. This omission is disconcerting as it was President Grant, and not Lincoln, who did far more to advance the entry and equality of black Americans during this period. Grant faced political backlash in deploying federal troops, U.S. Marshalls, and initially supporting Attorney General Amos Akerman to unmask the masked rioters such as the KKK. His actions received fierce backlash from Democrats and a growing number of Republicans, earning him the title of "Dictator" and "Kaiser Grant" for his crusade.

Both as General and as President, Grant fought resistance to Constitutional equality during and after the Civil War. In many aspects, when the guns fell silent at Appomattox was when a different and, in some ways, a more difficult battle began for Grant and the nation.

The Klan and its "United Front" network of organizations was only one aspect of the nation's difficulty. Newly enfranchised black Americans tended to vote Republican. They began to create businesses that competed with the vested economic interests and challenged the Democratic party's core beliefs in the social order. In response, the KKK and other organizations mobilized to create chaos, sow fear, and suppress the black and white Republican vote. Even in areas where the majority could not be suppressed, the results of elections were contested by unreconstructed Democrats, who wanted to return to the status quo before the war. Sadly, many Republicans and those neutral to party politics began to move to support these small revolutions against the Federal Government. In addition to direct violence, economic pressure and subversion were other methods to disenfranchise black entrepreneurs were and emerging skilled labor. "In some southern states, white employers threatened blacks with job losses if they voted Republican. . . "(3)

The decision to use Federal powers, soldiers, and the Attorney Generals office power against mobs protected by the states was not taken lightly. To do so, tread on the hallowed "States Rights" and used (some say abused) the Federal Government's power in local affairs. However, given the long list of continued mob violence perpetrated by masked perpetrators that were facilitated by the local governments, combined with the pleas of the law-abiding citizens working to recover after the long and divisive Civil War, it was the only moral action to take.

Photo by author.

The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant contains not only the letters and directives of President Grant but also the many messages sent him that show the information he saw at the time through the eyes of the citizens themselves. Through these letters, we get a feel for the time, uncensored by over a Century of political manipulation and amnesia. For example, page 15 contains a letter from a group of 34 people in Alabama on June 16, 1871:

"all the undersigned citizens of Fayette county Ala. pray your honor to enforse the late act of congress in our country in reguard to Ku Klux autrages they go to our churches on the Sabbath and disturbe our Sivil courts and they whip or Kill Some one every Saturday and oft times from five to ten in one night we know verry near evry man that belongs to the Klan they verry often go out in there disguise in day time we pray your honor to Send five hundred federal soldiers under some man like general Butler that will not let them go upon their own Story We went and arrested thirteen and there disguises had them Bound to court and the judge taken no notice of them dismissed evry case without any trial . . . "(4) (Grammatical errors in original)

Another letter from a J. Pinkney Whitehead:

"Your petitioners respectfully represent that the Condition of Affairs are such in Fayette County Alabama as to render the lives of loyal Citizens wholly insecure. Armed bands styling themselves Klu Klux are Committing Crimes and outrages upon peaceable and law abiding persons. Murders by these ruffians who have long disgraced this Countrypeaceablewholly are a common occurrence. The civil authorities have been overawed and are utterly powerless to execute the laws. Your petitioners are assured that unless the crimes which have been committed by these ruffians can be put to a stop to and the organization itself entirely broken up Civil liberty and personal safety are at an end in Fayette Country and life and property and everything else will soon be at the mercy of an organized mob For such reasons we do most humbly and imploringly appeal for the protection which the Constitution and laws guarantees to every Citizen of the United States. "(5)(Grammatical errors in original)

Many other states echoed the same tales of intimidation, violence, rioting, and support by the local governments in refusing to prosecute the masked terrorists:

"With the utmost anxiety I write to ask if something cannot be done to suppress the Klu Kluxism in Geo for these Devils incarnate are riding at night whipping Colored people and killing white, Though I was a member of the Constitutional Convention with Mr. Akerman your Attorney Gen, the danger of staying at home was not as great as now, As the enemies of the Government have everything systematised and their Persecution of union men is most carefully fortified by secreet grips, passwords &c, A number of my friends have been killed and I as a Republican ask you to have it stoped. I am representing the County of Wilkinson where every few weeks these masked Assassins ride as if your arms had never prevailed over this Country. Think of waking up at midnight and looking out of your window and seeing one or two hundred of these mounted men on a raid to kill a neighbor, or whip a colored man who was with you voted for the man of your choice, Do while we have a vestige of Republicanism left in the Gubernatorial Department, listen to the Calls for help, from Georgia for unlike South Carolina who has been carried Republican all the time, Georgia has an enormous revolutionary element, who has regularly organized to oppress the few union men sticking to their Governmt, Hoping something may be done speedily." (6)(Grammatical errors in original)

To compound the resistance to the Grant administration, local courts that would not try the masked rioters would arrest and prosecute those upholding Federal laws and Constitutional rights. Even U.S. Soldiers were not immune to the violence and legal maneuverings of the local Democrats. An August 13, 1871 letter to Grant from E.D Pennington noted that in Tennessee "Federal Soldiers and officers are now in jail Some in State prison for Life having bin Indicted be fore the Grand Jurors of the Difernt Counties of Tennessee for the Killing of Bush whackers and Relbls under orders from their commanding officers while in Survice of the united States and in the Line of Duty they also have one Lady in jail at Sparta in White Co. Cuseing her of giving infirmation to Federl Soliders in the Killing of one Bushwhacker" (7) (Grammatical errors in original).

The number of letters highlighting a concerted campaign to resist the Federal Government, Grant's administration, and the Constitution included in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant re-enforce the lesson that there is nothing new the sun and that patterns in American history have indeed repeated themselves. In response to the Constitutional laws' resistance, Grant made a move that earned him the title of "Dictator" and names such as "Kaiser Grant" in the headlines of the day. He called on Federal troops to intervene in the violence and even suspended the legal protections of Habeas Corpus and the ban on mass arrests in South Carolina to curb the violence and carry out justice where the local and state courts refused.

"Whereas, in my proclamation of the twelfth day of October in the year eighteen hundred and seventy-one, it was recited that certain unlawful combinations and conspiracies existed in certain counties in the State of South Carolina, for the purpose of depriving certain portions and classes of the people of that State of the rights, privileges, and immunities, and protection named in the Constitution of the United States, and secured by the act of Congress. . . and the persons composing such combinations and conspiracies were commanded to disperse and to retire peaceably to their homes within five days from said date. . .

Whereas it has been ascertained that unlawful combinations and conspiracies of the character and to the extent and for the purposes described in said proclamations do exist in the county of Union in said State:

Now, therefore, I, Ulysses S. Grant, President of the United States of America, do hereby revoke, as to the said county of Marion, the suspension of the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus directed in my said proclamation of the seventeenth day of October, eighteen hundred and seventy-one.

And I do hereby command all persons in the said county of Union composing the unlawful combinations and conspiracies aforsaid. . . to deliver either to the marshal of the United States for the district of South Carolina, or to any of his deputies, or to any military officer of the United States within said county, all arms, ammunition, uniforms, disguises, and other means an dimplements used, kept, possessed, or controlled by them, for carrying out the unlawful purposes for which the combinations and conspiracies are organized." (8)

The backlash was fierce in many quarters, and especially on many newspaper headlines. Still, Grant held firm to his convictions and those of the "radical" Republicans that believed it essential that newly freed black Americans be fully provided for all of the Constitutional liberties and opportunities on par with the white citizens. His actions caused a small schism in the Republican party, with many feeling he had gone too far in wielding Federal power and seeing an economic advantage in aligning with Democrats. They still sought ways of maintaining a plantation economic model, with other means such as repressed and unfair wages, sharecropping, etc.

The result of this and other Federal interventions by Grant and Federal prosecutions helped drive the Klu Klux movement underground. Nevertheless, the campaign was just the "street army" of the party, which now sought legal means to suppress the Congressional rights to black Americans. Republican malaise and a desire to economically benefit from a new "plantation economic model" based on depressed black labor, sharecropping, and alliances with Southern Democrats mean the Republican party stalwarts, as the radical Republicans were now called, receeded in power. Democratic political gains over time meant that soon Democrats were back in the White House, and by the early 20th Century, were reversing and erasing the last vestigates of Grants work....and perhaps our memory of his as well.

Thankfully the 31 Volumes of his source documents are available for the public to examine and rediscover this pivotal and arguably misunderstood leader in our nation's history. And in so doing, rediscover American history as well.

Sources used:

  1. John Y. Simon, ed. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant Volume 22: June 1, 1871 - January 31, 1872. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998.), Introduction material front flap.

  2. Image taken from

  3. Ron Chernow. Grant. (New York: Penguin Press, 2017.) p 621

4. John Y. Simon, ed. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant Volume 22: June 1, 1871 - January 31, 1872. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998.), p. 14

5. Ibid., p 15.

6. Ibid., p184.

7. Ibid., p185.

8. Ibid., p200.

* The 31 Volumes of the papers relating to Ulysses S. Grant are available both in print and online. The unique compilation allows the researcher easy access to the source documents to better understand the mechanisms of the American response to civil unrest, the Reconstruction period, growing international engagements, and the evolving story of America. Volume 31 covers the reconstruction, Federal Action against the KKK, Civil Service Reform, Mormon actions in Utah, diplomatic engagements with England, Spain (over Cuba), Japan, the Manchurian Empire, and other topics during the dawn of the "Gilded Age" in American politics. If you don't want to wait for the print version to arrive, the 31 Volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant is here:

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