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Allen Boyer Review – ‘Klan War,’ by Fergus M. Bordewich

Editor’s Note: Fergus Bordewich will hold a book signing for “Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the
Battle to Save Reconstruction” at 5:30 p.m. today, Tuesday, Oct. 24, at Off-Square
Books.

In the spring of 1869, scant days before Ulysses S. Grant began his first term as president,
Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment, forbidding any state to deny or abridge the right
to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

In this sprawling, thoughtful history, “The Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save
Reconstruction,” historian Fergus Bordewich makes clear the scale of the battle that Grant
faced. The battle for racial equality and justice was one that the Nineteenth Century could not
win – but which Grant sustained, as long as it lay within his power.

When the amendment was ratified, a spontaneous celebration broke out in Washington. Black citizens cheered and processed:

“Five thousand marched in a torchlight parade to the White House, ringing bells, spontaneously dancing, waving banners praising God and Grant, and shouting ‘Glory, hallelujah!’ Wagonloads of Negro girls dressed in white waved flags. Black policemen and firemen strode proudly in crisp uniforms.

More wagons – an extraordinary sight—carried mixed parties of Blacks, whites, Indians, and even Chinese… Speaking from the portico of the White House, Grant told the gathered multitude, ‘There has been no event since the close of the war in which I have felt so deep an interest as the 15th Amendment. It looked to me as the realization of the Declaration of Independence.’”

Five years earlier, Grant had won the Civil War. Within a few months, however, any peace
brought by the war and the benefits won by the black people of the South came under threat.
Across the South, Confederate veterans struck out individually against Reconstruction and
emancipation.

(T. J. Stiles, author of “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War,” has pointed out that this notorious outlaw was typical of the young men who brutally fought Reconstruction, only more bitterly obstinate.)

In Pulaski, Tennessee, a group of young Confederate veterans began to meet, calling themselves the Midnight Rangers. By the middle of 1866, they settled on a different name, the Ku Klux Klan. By July 4, 1867, a Klan parade reportedly sent black people running. Endorsed by Nathan Bedford Forrest (former Confederate commander in the western theater of war), the Klan prospered as violence simmered.

Disguised by strange rituals and peculiar titles (Grand Kyklops, Grand Dragons, Grand Wizards,
Furies, Centaurs and Yahoos ruled over Realms and Dominions), sometimes called the Invisible
Empire, evasively described by men who scorned the government but feared it, the Klan
provided a framework for white men intent on undoing—so much as they could – the
emancipation of black people.

Fergus Bordewich

As Bordewich writes: “By 1868 (the Klan) had spread across the South to serve in many areas as the de facto military wing of the Democratic Party’s most reactionary elements … Racist foolery became floggings and beatings, and then lynchings and shootings, often of savage cruelty.”

Beginning in 1866, by decreasing majorities, Congress passed laws to defend freed slaves’ voting rights. The Third Enforcement Act of 1871, known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, gave Grant the power to deploy federal troops and suspend the writ of habeas corpus – i.e., to round up Klansmen and hold them for trial in federal court. Major Lewis Merrill, a Union veteran of the Civil War in Missouri, led troops of the Seventh Cavalry against Klan sympathizers in South Carolina. Hundreds of Klansmen were convicted.

The federal government’s determination to enforce the law even led to an international incident, when a Klan leader was kidnapped and lugged home from Canada. Grant kept up the fight to preserve freedmen’s rights, dismissing charges of “Caesarism.”

Black Southerners resisted, choosing able leaders and fielding militia companies of their own, only to
find themselves outgunned and viciously outfought by white Southerners (and often massacred
afterwards). By 1876, there were full-dress battles, fought with artillery and repeating rifles, with courthouses burned and black bodies left lying in the street.

And yet, the movement that had saved the Union and freed the slaves lacked the will to fight on decade after decade. The government’s success in arresting Klansmen was undercut by a lack of resources to prosecute and convict them: as trials lagged, murder charges were plea-bargained down to violations of a victim’s civil rights.

As amnesties took effect, hundreds of Confederate veterans sat in Democratic conventions, and scores of rebel officers were elected to Congress. Supreme Court decisions cut back on the power of the central government to enforce citizens’ rights – leaving this to state governments, which were increasingly under white control.

Bordewich is a prize-winning historian of the American republic, and deservedly so. From this
book, there may be a great movie to be quarried, something on the order of Steven Spielberg’s
“Lincoln.” It might mean trimming the story, focusing on the grimmest crimes and fiercest
investigations – highlighting Grant and Merrill and the Seventh Cavalry, Forrest and his ruthless
henchmen, the black leaders and communities who were never finally defeated. That would
simplify the story, but it would not reduce its drama.

Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction, by Fergus M. Bordewich.
Knopf. 447 pages. $35.00.


Allen Boyer, book editor of HottyToddy, grew up on Oxford and now writes in New York City.

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