Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction

Image of Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction
Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“Bordewich’s book should serve as a cautionary tale to keep us alert to the modern incarnation of the KKK, which has traded its bed sheets and hoods for coats and ties.”

The period of American history following the Civil War known as Reconstruction offered a moment of great biracial, democratic promise in the Southern states of the Confederacy, as well as those along the rebel border.

Klan War: Ulysses Grant and the Struggle to Save Reconstruction is Fergus Bordewich’s gripping account of the president’s determined but ultimately doomed effort to achieve that promise.

In Klan War, Bordewich builds on his earlier, accessible books and essays on the Underground Railroad and the radical Republicans in Congress before and during the Civil War. And like these, Klan War begs to be turned into a PBS documentary series.

Reconstruction was an unprecedented opportunity in American history, Brodewich writes.

“The South seemed poised for a racial revolution that would transform former slaves into free actors in national life, and overthrow the white oligarchies that had ruled the slave states since the founding of the republic. . . . Rarely if ever had any Americans demonstrated such soaring hope as African Americans now did that democracy would redeem the sufferings of generations.”

The greatest impediment to that goal was formidable—groups of night-riding terrorist groups that came to be known as the Ku Klux Klan.

Rather than “a fringe movement of a few socially marginal individuals,” at its height, the 300,000 Klansmen “included leading men in their communities—doctors, lawyers, journalists, and churchmen,” he writes.

Essentially, Bordewich argues in this largely untold story, Grant saved the Union twice—once by defeating the Confederate Army on the battlefield, and then by defeating the KKK nightriders in the cities, towns, and rural hamlets of the Southern and border states.

“The Klan’s rise was swift, and its fall almost as fast, thanks to Grant’s decisiveness. By 1872, the organized Klan was in retreat,” he writes. “This book is the story of how the federal government under Ulysses Grant fought and beat the Klan.”

Through beatings, floggings, rapes, mutilations, lynchings, and shootings, the Klan was on the way to crushing the rights of the formerly enslaved Freedmen, and their courageous, white Republican allies from the South and the North in the early post-war years.

In coastal New Hanover County, North Carolina, for example, African American voters in the 1868 presidential election “were forced into the headquarters of the Democratic Party and made to swear under threat that they would vote for” the Democratic ticket, Bordewich writes.

(This foreshadowed the “Wilmington Massacre,” which would take place on Election Day 1898, sealing the end of biracial politics in that state.)

In retrospect, what the Freedmen needed in the face of this merciless, implacable foe, as much as the franchise, were guns and bullets. Understandably, the book’s catalogue of horrors may make some readers wish they had access to a time machine and a Gatling gun.

For decades, the conventional wisdom among historians, students and the public has been that though the Confederacy lost the war, through the Klan it won the post-war struggle to reinstate white supremacy, and thus won the peace.

In order to do so, cynical ex-Confederates, and especially the heretofore ruling planter class, projected their fears of Negro domination, outrages and violent actions. The reason? They were essentially a portrait of their own predilections. These were exactly what they planned to do: dominate through terror.

“The Klan embodied an ugly paradox,” Bordewich writes. “Although sadistic terror was its trade, the terrorists, or at least its leaders, were usually drawn from members of the prewar elite whose stake in power was great and whose wealth suffered most from emancipation of their slaves.”

Further conventional wisdom that dominated American historiography in the first half of the 20th century was that President Grant was unenthusiastic and ineffectual in his war to defend the rights—and the security—of the Freedmen.

On this latter point, Bordewich strongly disagrees, and proceeds to tell a quite different story, beginning in 1869. “Only with the inauguration of Ulysses Grant,” he writes, “did the federal government react. When it did, it acted decisively, undertaking what was in essence a guerilla war across the former Confederacy, involving the United States Army, prosecutors, judges and ordinary citizens who took their lives in their hands to sit juries that were willing to judge Klansmen who had shown little mercy to public officers of any type.”

As Bordewich puts it, “no previous president had ever invested as much of his office’s moral force and political capital on behalf of such a dramatic enlargement of civil rights.”

The president used as his justification for military intervention (and, critically, suspension of habeas corpus) the Third Enforcement Act, designed to protect the rights of full citizenship guaranteed by the 14th amendment. That law came to be known as “The Ku Klux Klan Act.”

One of the earliest efforts, in South Carolina, beginning in 1871, was spearheaded by Major Lewis Merrill. He was a Union cavalry officer who was well-prepared for the assignment, having battled pro-Confederate irregulars in Missouri during the Civil War. He trained as a lawyer before entering West Point, which led him to resort first to legal action rather than firefights.

In nine counties of upcountry South Carolina, in Spartanburg and York County in particular, a brutal nest of Klansmen, he first used a network of spies, turncoats and informers. In the end, it was an army of federal prosecutors, backed by Union soldiers, that broke the Klan. Most of this exemplary damage was accomplished in the federal courts.

U.S. Attorney General Amos Akerman, dispatched by Grant to the area to oversee Merrill’s campaign, wrote, “It is the business of a judge to terrify evil doers, not coax them.”

It soon became apparent that the local Klan, accustomed to unchallenged night rides for bullying, bushwacking, flogging, and lynching, had little stomach for standing up to opponents who were armed, organized and determined.

In a single month in York County alone, some 600 Klansmen were arrested and 2,000 more fled the area for fear of arrest. What happened in South Carolina chilled Klansmen throughout the southern and border states, prompting them to surrender, confess and turn states evidence against their former comrades.

“In state after state,” Bordewhich writes, “the Klan hemorrhaged members . . . For the first time in four years, there was reason to hope that the Klan would soon be gone for good . . . The Klan had clearly been shattered in its stronghold in the Carolinas and knocked back on its heels almost everywhere.”

The problem was, Bordewich writes, “Although the Klan had disappeared as a force in [South Carolina], much of the white population remained unreconciled to what they persisted in calling ‘Negro rule,’” which in fact never existed.

The president was frustrated but reflective about his failure to ensure the franchise for the formerly enslaved men, and his hope for a viable, two-party system in the South. “Grant knew that he had not prevailed over the demons of race, but he hoped, intensely, that Americans someday would,” Bordewich writes.

The political implosion of Reconstruction, before and after the Klan War, was facilitated in part by the growing opportunism, spinelessness, and duplicity of conservative and racist Republicans, North as well as South.

“Northern Republicans were bored with the South’s troubles and, in truth, bored with the fate of Blacks,” Bordewich writes.

The tragedy was that, although Grant crushed the Klan militarily, the damage of its terror had been done. The sellout of the “Compromise of 1877,” which gave the White House to the Republicans, resulted in the withdrawal of the few remaining Union troops in the South, and left African Americans and their white allies undefended. The great biracial experiment was finished.

In his Epilogue, Bordewich returns to one of the book’s heroes, Major Lewis Merrill. “In South Carolina, Merrill had demonstrated that even with the limited resources he was given the law could be enforced, terrorism suppressed, and Black Americans sufficiently protected that they could advance in political and public life. Where men of his caliber had a free hand, the defenders of civil rights prevailed in the war against the Klan. Temporary though that victory was, it demonstrated for the first time in American history that the national government could enforce legal principles of civil rights.”

Stepping back, Klan War is an example of the political uses of history, in the best sense. There is a line connecting the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists to suppress African American suffrage in the years following the Civil War, and the modern efforts of the hooded wing of the current Republican Party, which is to say the entire party.

It has taken nearly 150 years to restore the rights of African Americans to vote again in the South. In this dog whistle period of modern American history, venal Southern Republican politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis cloak their racism in what they cynically call “anti-Wokeism,” or “Voter Security.” Their goals are the same: to dilute and suppress the votes of African Americans in the South.

Bordewich’s book should serve as a cautionary tale to keep us alert to the modern incarnation of the KKK, which has traded its bed sheets and hoods for coats and ties. As William Cullen Bryant wrote, and Martin Luther King Jr. liked to quote: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”