North Carolina’s Kirk-Holden War

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the state of North Carolina underwent a period of Ku Klux Klan violence that saw the assassination of a State Senator and the impeachment of an elected Governor.

Governor William Holden

By 1870, all of the former Confederate states had been re-admitted to the Union, under state constitutions that were specified by Congress and enforced by Federal troops. By this time, however, the Klan had become so powerful in the former Confederacy that the newly-elected President Ulysses S Grant had a law passed specifically outlawing the organization and authorizing him to use the Federal Army to combat it by force. But the Klan continued to target African-Americans and their white supporters.

One of those targeted was John W Stephens. During the Civil War, he had worked for the Confederacy in Greensboro as an “impressments agent”, turning out draftees and confiscating horses and mules for the Army. Just before the end of the war, Stephens became involved in an incident involving some stray chickens on his farm. Although the story would later be embellished and re-told in several different versions (varying mostly according to the teller’s political sympathies), he apparently got into an altercation with his neighbor, spent a night in jail, and had another confrontation in which a gunshot was (accidentally, in most accounts) fired, wounding a bystander. In later years, his political opponents would use the story to mock him as “Chicken” Stephens.

After the war, he moved to Yanceyville, in Caswell County, and worked as a tobacco trader. But, like many other Southerners at the time, Stephens apparently had a political change of heart, and became active in the Republican Party and the Freedman’s Bureau, set up by the Federal Government to aid the newly-freed slaves in obtaining land and jobs.

It was a position that guaranteed hatred against him. The defeated Confederacy, and particularly the Klan, viewed those who switched to the “Yankee side” as at best opportunists and self-promoters, and at worst as traitors and collaborators. Stephens was ostracized, expelled from the local Methodist Church, and shunned by “respectable” white society. Rumors were circulated that he had burned some buildings in town, and had even killed his own mother. In 1868, Stephens decided to run for the State Senate on the Republican ticket. Caswell County at the time had a higher population of former black slaves than it had whites, and with these new voters, Stephens handily won, defeating the long-serving Democrat Bedford Brown. The local white aristocracy now seethed with white-hot rage, and the local Ku Klux Klan chapter held a mock “trial” and “sentenced” him to death.

Remarkably, we have a detailed written account of how the assassination was planned and carried out, by one of the actual participants. The local Klan leader was John Lea, a local white businessman. In 1919, decades after the event, he wrote a long confession describing the Stephens murder, sealed it, and left it with the North Carolina Historical Commission, with the understanding that it would not be opened and published until after Lea’s death, which happened in 1935.

After taking office as State Senator, Stephens began attempting to convince other local politicians to switch parties to become Republicans, and one of these was the former Sheriff, Frank Wiley. Wiley, as it happened, was a member of the local Klan chapter, and together with Lea, they formed a plan to kill Stephens.

On May 21, 1870, Wiley agreed to meet with Stephens at the county courthouse in Yanceyville, where the local Democratic Party was holding its convention. The Senator knew he was being targeted by the Klan, and made it a habit to always carry a number of pistols on him. So when Stephens was led into the basement by Wiley, he was ambushed by surprise, by at least six or seven local Klansmen who were waiting there fore him. They pushed him onto a woodpile, breaking his ankle in the process, then tied a rope around his neck and attempted to hang him before finally strangling and stabbing him. As Lea described it later, “Captain Mitchell rushed at him with a rope, drew it around his neck, put his feet against his chest and by that time about a half dozen men rushed up: Tom Oliver, Pink Morgan, Dr. Richmond and Joe Fowler. Stevens was then stabbed in the breast and also in the neck by Tom Oliver, and the knife was thrown at his feet and the rope left around his neck. We all came out, closed the door and locked it on the outside and took the key and threw it into County Line Creek.”

One of the pistols carried by Stephens on that day is now on display in the local Caswell County history museum.

When word of the Stephens assassination reached North Carolina’s Governor, William Holden, he declared martial law in Caswell County and sent a detachment of Federal troops under cavalry Colonel George Kirk. It was the beginning of a long political and legal conflict that became known as the “Kirk-Holden War”.

Holden issued a proclamation condemning the Klan and upholding the right of former slaves to vote. “The object of all this,” he declared, “is to restore peace and good order. Every citizen, no matter of what color, or how poor or humble, has a right to labor for a living without being molested; to express his political opinions without let or hindrance; and to be absolutely at peace in his own house.” After certifying that “a state of insurrection” existed in the county, he suspended habeas corpus and had Kirk’s militia arrest over 100 local citizens as members and supporters of the KKK. At one point, Kirk’s 300 militiamen engaged in a gunfight with a gang of about 30 Klansmen.

In the midst of this, elections were held in August 1870, in which there was a massive effort by the local Klan to prevent newly-freed slaves from voting. Lea, in his written confession, describes how he altered the voting in his district with the cooperation of one of the Federal officials: “The Freedmen’s Bureau Agent from Michigan, Captain Dawes, came down to take charge of the election. I carried him down home with me. He and I fought each other in the Civil war. I carried him out fox hunting and had a beautiful chase, and on the day of the election he came to me and said that he was sent to carry the election by the government and if it was found out on him he would be courtmartialed and possibly shot. He told me where he put the ballot box, so I worked on the ballot box until twelve o’clock at night and then rode to Locust Hill, nine miles distant, and counted until day, and we elected a ticket by twenty-seven votes.”

Now the North Carolina State Legislature was dominated by ex-Confederate Democrats, and launched a political crusade against Holden and the Republican “scalawags”. Kirk was arrested by a US Marshall from Tennessee and was briefly held before being released in Raleigh. The Legislature filed a series of trumped-up charges against Holden and began impeachment procedures to remove him from office. Holden thundered that the charges were bogus and the result of a campaign by former slave-owners who were “mad because their slave property is lost and mad because the Reconstruction measures have triumphed.” But in a straight party-line vote, Governor Holden was impeached and convicted of charges in March 1871 (the first US Governor to be removed from office).

In 2011, the State Legislature formally revoked its 19th century impeachment vote and cleared Governor Holden of any wrongdoing.

But by now public opinion in the North, which had been firmly on the side of aiding the newly-freed slaves, also began to change. When Governor Holden appealed to the White House for Federal help, President Ulysses S Grant refused—he had already begun withdrawing Federal troops from the South, and did not want to become embroiled in another conflict. And in 1874, the US suffered an economic depression that left thousands in poverty and hampered the ability of the US Government to act.

Facing struggles of their own, the victors of the Civil War now lost interest in helping those newly-freed slaves on whose behalf they had fought on the battlefields. In addition, Grant and Congress realized that the terrorist Klan violence across the South would require a substantial and prolonged military effort to uproot, and also that breaking the power of the white aristocracy in the South would require an economic power shift—including land reform to break up the large plantations and provide farms to newly-freed slaves as well as landless poor whites—which neither the public nor the government was prepared to carry through.

In 1875, when yet another new wave of Klan violence broke out during elections in Mississippi, President Grant once again declined to send Federal troops to deal with the situation. The message was clear—the Federal Government no longer could or would use its power to defend its African-American citizens against the depredations of white-dominated state governments. In 1877, the decision was formalized when, during a contested Presidential election, the Southern states threw their electoral votes to Rutherford B Hayes in exchange for a pledge to withdraw all the Union troops from the occupied South. The former Confederates once again had free reign. All of the previous social gains were lost, and Jim Crow segregation would rule in the South for the next 100 years until the civil rights movement appeared in the 1950s. The abolitionist North had won the war, but lost the peace.

Since that time, moreover, the United States has continued to struggle with the issues of racial equality, white supremacy, voting rights, and cultural diversity. The Civil War, it could be argued, has still not really ended.



9 thoughts on “North Carolina’s Kirk-Holden War”

  1. BTW, Grant has been taking it on the chin in some commentaries lately, and you are pretty hard on him here. Chernow’s new bio is very strongly pro-Grant, and argues that he strove mightily to do all he could as the political situation changed about him.

    1. As a General, Grant was one of the best. As a President, he was … not so great.

      To be fair though, he was working under some big difficulties. The economy tanked bigtime, which left him with few resources, and the pro-south Democrats in Congress blocked virtually everything he tried to do. On top of all that, Grant chose his cabinet poorly, and many of them ended up in jail for corruption.

  2. As I understand it, even slavery wasn’t really removed from the constitution, because of a clause that states that convicted criminals can be compelled to work. All very well, but now lobbyists for the for-profit prison system work energetically to have ever more things declared felonies, and for ever longer sentences for ever more trivial “crimes.”

    Predictably, the prison population is growing and growing, and the U.S. is now home to a million slave laborers, imprisoned on what amounts pretty much to trumped-up charges, simply to feed the demand for cheap labor.

    Now this in itself I can deal with – no system is perfect, and in any nation there are inevitably people exploiting loopholes in order to thwart the spirit of the law, if not its letter. What really worries me is that a good half of Americans will angrily and aggressively defend this travesty as if it’s a good thing. Patriotism and paranoia about “criminals” apparently trumps all other considerations.

    This makes me despair for a nation I have long admired as a light in the world.

    1. The US has, alas, lost its mind–drowning in white nationalism, militarism, and religious fundamentalism. Perhaps we will straighten ourselves out, perhaps we will not. But we are no longer the light in the world. One could argue that we have instead become one of the biggest dangers to the world.


      1. It’s a peculiar thing, how empires come and go, and I don’t think anyone actually knows why exactly. I well remember a time when America was the coolest place on earth. Everyone wanted to be American, or at least be like Americans.

        Only a few decades later, and the place has almost entirely lost its cool, and in the same countries where everyone wanted to be like Americans, people now tell American jokes like we used to tell Irish jokes when I was a kid. What took the Roman Empire centuries seems to be playing itself out here in decades. It is truly painful to watch.

        1. When the Brits collapsed as world leaders, they accepted their fate pretty quickly and went quietly. Even the apartheid regime in South Africa went pretty quietly once they realized the game was over.

          The US won’t. We’ll go out kicking and screaming and biting and lashing out at everything within reach. It’s just the way we are.

          1. Well, I don’t know: given the weird tantrums the Brits are throwing around the Brexit negotiations, one gets the impression they have not quite made peace with their reduced status yet… 🙂

            But yes, loud arrogance and overreach do seem to be characteristics of empires in decline.

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