Klan War: how Ulysses S Grant took the fight to the extreme right

<span>Photograph: Spencer Arnold/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Spencer Arnold/Getty Images
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Beginning in Ulysses S Grant’s first term, the civil-war general turned president focused his energies on a new campaign. Although this one also involved the army, it primarily relied on the forces of the American legal system to combat a rising threat in the south – the racist violence of a new clandestine organization, the Ku Klux Klan. To a large extent, Grant prevailed, as chronicled in a new book, Klan War: Ulysses S Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction, by the historian Fergus Bordewich.

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A longtime chronicler of American history, Bordewich now aims to correct what he sees as an unfair portrayal of Grant: a great general but a poor president. In his view, Grant showed rare courage and determination to prosecute the Klan to the fullest possible extent.

“Looking at Grant through the lens of his staunch support of civil rights, human rights, and the empowerment of Black citizens after the war, you see a different Grant than the one whose reputation was tarred,” Bordewich says.

The 18th president took office in a complex period: the Reconstruction years that followed the civil war. Black Americans had won unprecedented freedoms with the passage of the 14th amendment, which aided former slaves by guaranteeing citizenship, with protection on an equal level to all other US citizens. Yet such hard-won gains were menaced by vengeful white people, most notoriously through the Klan, which was founded not long after the war in Pulaski, Tennessee.

“It was the first organized terror movement in American history,” Bordewich says. “Its stock-in-trade was violence – intimidation and violence. People were beaten, people were flogged, people were lynched, people were shot. People’s homes were raided, they were dragged outdoors and flogged in the streets.”

And, he says, the violence often included “truly horrifying sadism”.

“It liberated the absolute worst impulses among” its members, Bordewich says, adding: “You can see this in today’s terrorist movements in other parts of the world – al-Qaida, IS. These are the organizations the Klan should be compared to. We think of terrorism today as something happening in other countries. It happened here in the 1870s.”

At its height in the late 19th century, the Klan had an estimated membership in the hundreds of thousands, including many of the former Confederacy’s so-called upstanding citizens, from doctors to lawyers to journalists to members of the clergy. Ex-Confederate generals filled its ranks, such as the cavalry leader who became the first grand wizard of the Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. In the civil war, Forrest led an infamous massacre of the Union garrison – including 72% of Black troops – at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

Forrest “played an important role in organizing local Klan dens or Klan units, networking among his fellow former Confederate officers to stimulate development of the Klan in different states,” Bordewich says. However, he adds, “the Klan was fundamentally decentralized. It would be a mistake to think Bedford Forrest sat in his home in Memphis directing everything … a given county might have 10 different dens of the Klan that would not take direction at all from Forrest or any other national leader.”

Bordewich details crimes the Klan committed against free Black people and their white allies. The firsthand accounts he cites make for difficult reading, filled with racial slurs from perpetrators and graphic descriptions of atrocities from mutilation to rape to lynching.

Many of such heartbreaking words came from testimony to a joint congressional panel, nicknamed the Ku Klux Klan committee, with sub-committees that traveled across the south to investigate the organization and its crimes, compiling 13 volumes of testimony.

“You get people who walked 20, 30, 40 miles to a place where hearings are taking place,” Bordewich says, noting that many reported death threats if they testified. “It’s incredible, the bravery of Black citizens. I feel I owed it to them to tell their story.”

A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a civil war general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a civil war general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Photograph: ZUMA Press, Inc/Alamy

Why hadn’t local or state authorities intervened before? Often, it was because they were themselves members of the Klan. It was up to the federal government to step in, and that’s what it did under Grant and capable subordinates including the attorney general Amos Akerman and Maj Lewis Merrill of the seventh cavalry.

Akerman, a New Englander who moved to Georgia and joined the Confederate army in the civil war, saw Reconstruction as a way to reform his adopted home. He turned in invaluable work as Grant’s top prosecutor. In arguably the epicenter of Klan violence – upcountry South Carolina – Merrill was the point man who used troops and espionage to bring the Klan to bay.

“Akerman personally went to South Carolina and worked hand-in-hand with Lewis Merrill, a heroic military figure,” Bordewich says.

As Grant’s administration dismantled the Klan, it suspended habeas corpus in nine counties of South Carolina. To Bordewich, this was essential.

“Why was this necessary?” he asks. “Because the so-called judicial system in the states was so infected by the Klan, so co-opted by the Klan … Akerman mobilized federal prosecutors to prosecute the Klan and the army to arrest members of the Klan.

“Without the suspension of habeas corpus, it would have been impossible to bring them to justice,” Bordewich concludes, noting that the policy had repercussions for the president: “Grant was accused of tyranny and dictatorship.”

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Bordewich credits Grant with achieving 80% of his aims against the Klan. The remaining 20% was a bridge too far. Akerman was forced out of office by Grant after only a year, for not-quite resolved reasons. The volume of cases – thousands arrested, hundreds indicted – created a backlog that was only cleared through numerous plea bargains. A previously sympathetic US senator from Missouri, the German migrant and civil war general Carl Schurz, turned against Reconstruction and sought a more conciliatory policy with southern whites. Public opinion shifted to this position.

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By 1874, Grant had lost control of Congress and with it the funding to keep troops and federal prosecutors deployed. Meanwhile, supreme court cases changed the interpretation of the 14th amendment, making it harder for the federal government to defend it. Grant’s second and final term concluded amid a disputed election settled with a compromise that officially ended Reconstruction, paving the way for decades of white rule in the south.

Though this was a disheartening conclusion to Grant’s noble efforts, Bordewich is encouraged by the fact that he made such tangible progress against the Klan.

“The war against the Klan succeeded to the degree that Grant destroyed the Klan, smashed it as an organization,” Bordewich says.

“Ultimately, he was not able to sustain Reconstruction beyond 1875 and 1876,” he adds, but he calls Grant “a man to admire” nonetheless.

“He was a modern man to the extent that like many Radicals of that era, he could kind of see the America that was going to come into being, that we live in today,” Bordewich says. “A much more open and, despite a lot of conflicts, a more tolerant society, where human rights and civil rights are part of our bedrock condition.”