Union League meetings were conducted as a mystical secret society with secret rituals. Meetings were
especially devoted to stirring up enmity between blacks and whites.
A catechism written by Radical Republicans in Congress was used in Union League meetings to create
an unreasonable sense of entitlement, grievance, and resentment. They were taught that Northern
Republican whites were their friends northern Republican Whites were their friends and allies and that
White Southerners and Democrats were enemies to be hated and despised. They were frequently
promised that they would receive land and livestock confiscated from the Whites. In some cases they
were even promised racial dominance that would entitle them to the wives and daughters of their White
enemies. This led to a number of violent racial incidents. Such racial incidents were frequently used by
carpetbagger governments to demonstrate to Washington and the Northern press and public the
continued need for Southern reconstruction. Other promises were in the form of threats of a death
penalty by hanging to any Black who betrayed the League by voting Democrat.
With the coming of Radical Reconstruction and martial law, the role of the Union League became more
aggressive. Union League militias were formed and were an enforcement arm of the carpetbagger
governments. The militia was composed of former slaves and black troops stationed in each state. The
Union League had 250,000 men in ten Southern states. North Carolina's Scalawag Governor William W.
Holden had a Union League militia of 80 thousand at his bidding. The primary role of the Union League
was now to keep the corrupt carpetbagger governments in power. This included suppression of
competing carpetbagger factions.
In order to insure that all blacks voted Republican, the Union League bullied and beat other Blacks into
submission. Even flogging with the lash was used. If that did not work, they exacted the death penalty,
frequently by lynching. In order to intimidate Whites from seeking power or influencing black voting, they
conducted terror campaigns. Barns and sometimes houses of Whites were burned. In some cases small
towns were burned as in Warren and Hamburg, Arkansas. Men, women, and children were killed in raids
on "insurrectionary" communities and counties. Their deaths were reported as "killed trying to escape."
There were Union League barn burnings and other destruction in every North Carolina County. During
a single week of 1869 in Gaston County, North Carolina, nine barns were burned. In two months of the
same year in Edgecombe County, two churches, several cotton gins, a cotton factory, and many barns
and homes were burned. The Raleigh Sentinel reported on August 29th of the same year that ten
Federal Army companies associated with the Union League had terrorized the Goldsboro area and
committed violent depredations of all sorts. It reported the actions of the troops "so violent that it was
unsafe for women to leave their homes." This was all part of the Reconstruction mandate to remake the
In Myrta Lockett Avary's 1906 book, Dixie After the War, she relates a tragic, but not untypical atrocity.
In Upstate South Carolina a group of Union League federal soldiers marching and singing halted to
discharge a volley of bullets into a country church during services, instantly killing a fourteen year-old
girl. At a nearby residence a squad of the same troops entered a home and bound the elderly owner as
they ransacked his house and argued over who would first ravage his daughter. The girl when
approached drove a concealed knife through the heart her assailant. She was then beaten to death by
the rest. But under corrupt military and carpetbagger rule, Southern whites had little recourse to justice.
No federal justice occurred.
By 1870 the corruption of the carpetbagger governments and the violence of the Union League was
becoming a concern to a significant minority in the U.S. Congress. As Klan activity increased in
response to Union League and other Reconstruction misdeeds, the Radical Republicans formed a
committee to investigate the Klan. A minority report by Northern Democrats and Conservative
Republicans representing more than a third of the committee, however, noted that the Union League
had "instilled hatred of the White race" and had "made arson, rape, robbery, and murder a daily
occurrence." They also noted the role of corrupt government and Union League violence in driving
whites to take law into their own hands.
A very stringent anti-Klan law was passed by the North Carolina legislature under the direction of
Governor William W. Holden in January of 1870. True to past Radical Republican despotism, it gave the
Governor power to declare counties in a state of insurrection and supersede practically all laws and
Constitutional rights in its prosecution. Despite a vigorous attempt to enforce the law, Klan-like activity
increased and a top Black activist and leader of the League in Alamance County was found hanging in
a tree. Shortly thereafter, Senator John Stephens, a ranking White operative for Governor Holden,
seeking evidence for Klan prosecutions, visited a Caswell County Union League meeting. There he
handed to each of about twenty members a box of matches with the suggestion that they should be put
to good use burning barns.
The next night seven barns, a row of houses, and the tobacco crops of several prominent citizens were
A few days later Senator Stephens attended a rally at the Yanceyville Courthouse for the purpose of
making notes on the speeches. He was quietly abducted, gagged, and brutally murdered in one of the
Courthouse rooms with an open window to the crowd outside. His body was not discovered until two
days later. It was not proven until 1936 that it was a well organized assassination by the KKK. The
gruesome mystery and death of Stephens prompted Governor Holden and his advisors to launch a
military campaign against the KKK in June. They hoped this would also be a political positive in the
coming August elections.
Holden called upon Black Union League militia regiments in eastern North Carolina and the White
veterans of Union Colonel George W. Kirk's notorious bushwhackers from the mountains to score a
decisive victory. Kirk was to be in charge. Kirk was a Confederate deserter that had been made a
colonel in the Union Army during the War. During the war Kirk had commanded a combined force of
Union Army regulars, Confederate deserters, and opportunistic criminals. A good size book could be
written on the depredations and atrocities Kirk and his men inflicted on civilians in western North
Carolina during the war. According to a report by a Union officer stationed in Yanceyville, Kirk lived up
to his evil reputation in the service of Governor Holden. Kirk's troops were "an armed mob roaming the
country, pillaging at will, insulting citizens with impunity, and even threatening to attack the United States
troops." Many KKK suspects were arrested and imprisoned.
But on August 4 of 1870 the elections in North Carolina took place. Despite their despotic tactics, the
Republicans were very nearly routed. More than two-thirds of the legislative seats went to the
Democrats. A growing number of Whites had been able to register, and many Blacks and even Union
Army men had found the carpetbag corruption and tyranny so despicable that they voted for the
Democrats. On August 6, U. S. District Court Judge George Brooks found that Kirk had no evidence
against any of his prisoners and ordered their release. Thus ended the "Kirk-Holden" War. Kirk fled
north, and within a few months Governor Holden was impeached by the North Carolina House for abuse
of power, tried by the Senate and removed from office. Within a year the Union League in North
Carolina was disbanded and disappeared.
Former Confederate General John B. Gordon testified in 1871 to the Joint Congressional Committee on
Affairs in the Insurrectionary States that:
"The first and main reason (for the Klan) was the organization of the Union League."
Gordon, who later became Governor of Georgia and then a U. S. Senator, also stated that even the
burning of Atlanta and the devastation of Georgia during the war did not create a tenth of the animosity
created by the Union League's treatment of the Southern people. Former Confederate General Nathan
B. Forrest, a reputed founder of the Klan, testified before the same committee that:
"The Klan was intended entirely as a protection to the (Southern) people, to enforce the laws and
protect the people from outrages."
Both men realized, however, that after a few years, the Klan, formed in a people's desperate cry for
survival and justice, had itself become a lawless outrage. But it was the federally sponsored Union
League that ranked first in time and violence. It should not be forgotten. The evils it inflicted on both
Black and White still lives.
Source: The Uncivil War by Mike Scruggs
Copyright 2007 by Universal Media, Inc.