They Called Themselves Redeemers -- The Rise of White Supremacy

Dan Bryan, February 26 2012

Members of Ku Klax Klan arrested in Mississippi, 1871Depiction of three Klan members arrested in Mississippi - 1871.

"Draw a line one side of which you see property, intelligence, virtue, religion, self-respect, enlightened public opinion, and exclusion from all political control; and on the other the absolute unchecked political supremacy of brute numbers, and there you will behold not one attribute of free government, but the saddest and blackest tyranny that ever cursed this earth." - Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II

Radical Reconstruction Begins

After 1866, the southern states were divided into five military districts. 20,000 troops were sent to the south to supervise elections and maintain order, commanded hated by generals such as George Meade and Philip Sheridan. They registered black voters across the south, at the same time barring many white voters who had fought in the Confederacy.

Republican politicians took advantage of this to elect their own governments across the south, stacking the top levels with northern politicians and civil war veterans. The mass of the lower offices were filled with leaders of the black community.

This system allowed the election of Adelbert Ames as governor of Mississippi. Ames was born in Maine, and as a general he was a war hero in the Union Army. He had never been to Mississippi in his life until the Reconstruction period.

It allowed the election of William Holden as the governor of North Carolina. Holden had run for governor as a peace candidate in 1864, while the war was still in progress, and he'd been trounced. As a native opponent of the Confederacy, he was despised by the white upper class of the south.

These are but two examples. Across the south of the late 1860s, nearly every political office was filled by a Republican who would have never been elected without the vote of the freed slaves. Most southern whites viewed them as an occupying force and despised them.

Corruption and Duplicity -- the "Carpetbaggers"

Reconstruction and General Grant, as depicted in Puck MagazineUlysses Grant depicted as the tyrant of the south.

What did the Republicans do with the power they held over the south?

In many cases, the inevitable result of occupation was exploitation and graft on a massive scale. Many Republicans in the north were honest motives and ideals, and were genuinely concerned with the rights of freed slaves and with their education. Among those, however, who actually made the trek down into the south to govern, ambition and greed were usually the greater motivators.

The Department of the Treasury sent agents to collect a 25% tax on cotton owned by the Confederate government. They were paid on commission for the cotton that they confiscated, and left with little supervision. Through innumerable tricks and bribery, most of them managed to both collect the commission on the tax, and sell the confiscated cotton for their personal profit (contrary to the law). Seeing this in action, many opportunists began to impersonate the Treasury agents and collect the money and cotton for themselves.

Property taxes increased astronomically in most states, as did the salaries of government workers. Before the war, property owners had generally been allowed to assess their own property, and even on that "value" of the land the rates were under one percent in many states. Now the property tax rates were sometimes multiplied by a factor of ten or more. The results were immediate -- an increase in foreclosures and tax sales. The newspapers filled up with announcements of such auctions. In some cases the victims were confederate war widows.

Who purchased this confiscated land? Northern speculators in many cases, attracted by the low real estate prices, and by the chances for collusion with the friendly state governments. In few places did this collusion express itself more drastically than it the area of railroad "construction", and the word construction can be used loosely here.

In one case, the Boston-owned Alabama and Chattanooga railroad secured $2 million in bonds from the state of Alabama. These bonds were taken to Europe and re-sold, and the proceeds put to use in constructing a hotel and opera house in Chattanooga.

In another instance, two "investors" swindled the state of North Carolina out of $4 million while that legislature was under Republican control. These were massive sums of money at that time, and they saddled the southern states with an oppressive debt burden for many years to come.

Terrorism -- the Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan

Outrage grew across the south. It was bad enough that entire states were being governed by Union generals. It was bad enough that northerners were enriching themselves while southern landowners were being taxed into penury and evicted. But the protection of the black vote and their civil rights was unforgivable. Simple math in most states dictated that this vote had to be suppressed by force if changes were ever to be made. Secret societies formed for this purpose. One of the earliest and most infamous was the Ku Klux Klan.

To avoid detection and to enhance their mystique, they attacked at night. Some carpetbaggers were targeted, but their first target was always the blacks. They killed no small number -- at least 1,500 -- though the secrecy of their operations precludes an accurate count. Bodies were left where they could be easily seen, in roads or hanging from trees. Homes were burned and the fires blazed through the night, sending their unmistakable message.

There was good reason for the infamous hooded outfit, beyond the aesthetic value of intimidation. The Klan was quickly labeled a terrorist organization, and it was hunted down by the federal troops. Ku Klux laws were passed and enforced by President Grant. Martial law was declared where the worst of violence occurred. By 1871, the Klan was finished.

Victory and "Redemption" -- the End of Reconstruction

The spirit of the Klan, however, was duplicated by numerous other groups. The Red Shirts, the White Line, and the White League are some examples. They used paramilitary tactics to suppress the Republican vote of all types, but above all the black vote. After 1871, the number of federal troops in place to guard against these methods gradually dwindled, due to a number of political factors in the north. By 1876, all but three states had been "redeemed", meaning that a Democratic government had retaken control.

The Presidential Election of that year is a long story in its own right, but the consequences for the black people of the south were simple. Rutherford Hayes won the disputed election, and in return he removed the remaining federal troops and ended Reconstruction. Many of the "carpetbaggers" had fled by then as well.

The mass of the southern white population was so opposed to black suffrage that only the presence of federal troops was sufficient to enforce that policy. When the limits of this commitment became clear, the system quickly crumbled.

The primary culprit for this was always the intractable racism of the southern whites at the time. But let it not be forgotten that the northerners' commitment to the rights of the freed slaves was shallow at best. Many moved into the south to seek their personal fortune. When that goal was achieved they left without a second thought -- the plight of the black people becoming little more than a distant memory to them.

And indeed, the fate of most blacks in the south was a very dark one as the Reconstruction program ended. The political victory of the southern white elite had been absolute in every area, except for that of outright slavery.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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