The Man Who Broke The Klan

The Man Who Broke the Klan hero image from print publication

[T]he men of the 7th Cavalry who climbed down from the train at the pretty town of Yorkville, South Carolina, in March 1871 thought they had earned a respite from war. In fact, they were the spearhead of a campaign that President Ulysses S. Grant would have preferred not to wage. Since the end of the Civil War, the number of Federal occupation troops in the former Confederacy had dwindled toward the vanishing point. The few thousand who remained were spread thin, too thin to cope with the rapid rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which since 1868 had waged guerrilla warfare against Republican office holders and newly empowered freed people. Grant had hoped that the fragile postwar southern state governments would be able to cope with Klan terrorism on their own. To this point, they had largely failed. The Klan had spread to almost all of the former Confederacy, but no place was more firmly in its grip than York County, South Carolina. The appearance of three companies of the 7th Cavalry was meant to show that the federal government was determined to protect the embryonic two-party system in the South and secure the safety of black Americans and their white political allies.

THE KU KLUX KLAN OR INVISIBLE EMPIRE (1914)

Some of the 7th’s troopers were battle-hardened veterans. Many were immigrants, mostly Irish or German, but a few were from the South, from as far away as Louisiana and Texas, perhaps “galvanized Yankees” who had once fought with the Confederates. They were fresh from Fort Hays, Kansas, a bleak log-and-adobe outpost on the Great Plains, where they had been fighting the Cheyenne. Their commander was a deceptively boyish-looking major, Lewis Merrill, a compact, slightly stocky 36-year-old with a clear, round face punctuated by a wispy Van Dyke beard. Raised in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, he had been drawn to both the law and soldiering, first studying for the bar and then going to West Point, from which he graduated in 1855. As a lieutenant of dragoons, he served in “Bleeding Kansas” alongside J.E.B. Stuart, the future Confederate cavalry commander, quelling violence between pro- and anti-slavery settlers. Merrill was a rare abolitionist in the antebellum officer corps, though he kept his politics to himself.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST

When war broke out in 1861, he personally recruited 800 Unionist volunteers to form the 2nd Missouri Cavalry, often called “Merrill’s Horse,” which he led against pro-Confederate irregulars in that divided state. There he earned a sterling reputation as an exceptionally capable and aggressive officer. (A ballad dedicated to his regiment was titled “The Guerrillas Conquered”: “Wherever the ‘Blue Caps’ have been / All glory and honor to Merrill shall be / He’s the Champion and pride of his men….”)1 The war over, he served under George Armstrong Custer in the newly formed 7th Cavalry on the frontier, until he was ordered to South Carolina. He was an inspired choice. “I know of few if any officers of the Army who are so well qualified for duty of the peculiar nature of that in which Major Merrill has been engaged as he,” Major General Alfred H. Terry, the commander of the Department of the South, wrote of him. “To a natural aptitude for and a considerable knowledge of the law he adds great general intelligence and sagacity.”2 (Merrill in effect held an independent command under Terry’s supportive oversight; the 7th Cavalry’s colonel, Samuel Sturgis, was serving on detached duty, while its second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Custer, was posted with another detachment of the regiment in Kentucky, where he reportedly showed more interest in horse racing than in occupation duty.) Terry also credited Merrill with “immense energy, zeal, and discretion.”3 He would need them all if he was to prevail against the Ku Klux Klan.

Since its birth in 1866 among Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Klan had spread rapidly. At first it seemed harmless, a sort of fraternity whose members dressed in bizarre get-ups and paraded around the streets to the amusement of the townspeople. But the members entertained themselves not with fun but by harassing local blacks. Soon harder men saw the Klan’s potential as a terrorist weapon for subverting Reconstruction. In 1867, former Confederate officers meeting in Nashville laid out a plan to expand the Klan’s reach. They chose as their leader former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, prewar slave trader, talented cavalry commander, and the man who oversaw the 1864 Fort Pillow massacre of a mainly black Union garrison, the worst war crime ever committed in the United States apart from the Indian wars. Organizers fanned out to other states, forming “dens” or “klans” that were sworn to secrecy and dedicated to a strategy of voter suppression, the burning of black schools and homes, and beatings, floggings, murder, rape and other forms of sexual humiliation.

In most areas, the Klan operated with impunity. Such a place was York County. Nestled amid rolling, lightly forested hills, Yorkville, the county seat, liked to think of itself as a modern, get-ahead town. With a flourishing cotton economy, the town took pride in its churches, schools, and the up-to-date gas lamps that lighted its main artery, tree-lined Congress Street, with its two- and three-story brick business buildings and imposing, pillared county courthouse. In the surrounding blocks, the homes of the affluent stood amid handsome shrubbery clipped in stiff geometrical forms. Few whites saw any contradiction in their cultivated community and the surrounding county of 20,000, equally divided between white and black, being a hotbed of terrorism. A New York Tribune reporter later that year wrote, “a thin veneering” of manners, education, and Christianity covered “a depth of barbarism scarcely conceivable.”4

From its birth in 1866 among confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan had spread rapidly. By 1868, the Klan had a presence in almost all of the former confederacy, with no place more firmly in its grip than York County, South Carolina. Below: a Harper’s Weekly illustration from 1868 depicts “two members of the Ku-Klux Klan in their disguises.”

Merrill was initially skeptical of what he had heard. “I fully believed that the stories in circulation were enormous exaggerations, and that the newspaper stories were incredible,” he later wrote.5 He was quickly disabused by events. Traumatized freed people began turning up at his camp, many of them starving and suffering from exposure after weeks hiding in the woods. The reports of family, friends, and neighbors tortured and killed by the Klan overwhelmed him: One man, Anderson Brown, whose body was found in the woods, had been “shot in two places once in the head & once in the bowels”; the two “colored” women savagely whipped by a party of nine Klansmen; the beating of a woman and her child, who was said to have divulged information about the Klan “and was impudent to a white man who questioned her in regard to it.” Just before Merrill’s arrival, the captain of the local state militia, a freedman named Jim Williams, had been brutally murdered by a large party of Klansmen wearing false faces, hoods, and horns that had swept through the county seizing guns the state had issued to the militia. They broke into Williams’ home, pushed his wife aside, threw a rope around his neck, and forced him outside onto the limb of a tree. Williams clung to the branch until a Klansman climbed up and hacked his fingers loose with a knife. After the lynching, the murderers proceeded to a nearby plantation where they were rewarded with a generous lunch. There was no end to such horrifying stories. Conditions were just as bad in the surrounding counties. Jefferson Huskins, a black Republican, said he had been given more than a hundred lashes by horned Klansmen who then whipped his wife and three children, including his 9-year-old daughter. John Genobles, a 68-year-old white Carolinian who had overseen poll workers, testified that men disguised with “ears on their heads like mules” dragged him from his home with a rope, stripped him naked, flogged him while he crouched on all fours, and forced him to publicly declare his rejection of the Republican Party on the steps of the county courthouse. Constables, census takers, poll workers, and trial justices had been shot and whipped. In past elections, freed men had turned out in large numbers to vote. Now, in many areas, they feared to vote at all.6

Using skills of persuasion that he had learned during the guerrilla war in Missouri, Merrill first built a highly effective secret network of informants. His most valuable sources were local freed people, many of whom worked as tenants on farms owned by Klansmen. One of his most productive spies was a black man sufficiently trusted by the Klan to have actually participated in raids. He explained to Merrill that cooperating with them was the only way he would be allowed to live safely in his own home and tend his crops. Merrill knew that his black informants were taking their lives in their hands simply by reporting what had been done to them. “In almost every instance of outrage they have been threatened with death, in many instances if they simply told the fact that it had been done,” he later testified to a congressional committee.7

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

While Merrill was initially skeptical of what he had heard about Klan abuses in York County, he was quickly disabused by events— creditable reports of killings, beatings, and other acts of violent intimidation. Left: an 1872 work titled “visit of the Ku-Klux” depicts a member of the Klan aiming a gun at an African-American family through their front door.

Within two months of his arrival, Merrill felt that he had a grasp of the Klan’s internal workings and its membership. As in other parts of the South, its structure was nominally hierarchical under a “Grand Cyclops” who ruled over chiefs of “divisions,” which in turn were subdivided into individual dens generally consisting of up to 10 men. In practice, dens mostly operated autonomously or in loose cooperation with neighboring klans. Merrill estimated that between 1,800 and 2,300 Klansmen were active in York County alone, and that in the surrounding counties probably three-fourths of all white men were members. Yorkville itself, with a population of 500, hosted 12 dens with at least 120 members, including most of the business and professional men, and at least one trial justice. Den chiefs were responsible for furnishing weapons to men who couldn’t afford them; otherwise, the individual members were required to supply disguises for themselves and their horses. New members swore to maintain secrecy on pain of death. Merrill reported, “The new brother is then tested in some minor acts of lawlessness until he is fully committed and is according to his zeal and unscrupulousness confided with graver and graver crimes to be committed.”8 Raiding usually followed a standard pattern. “One klan would go and kick up their devilment for a day or two, and when it might reasonably be expected that they had gained my attention as military commander they would suddenly stop and at that time another klan in another part of the county would commence their operations,” he reported.9

Merrill learned that York County’s entire political culture, including law enforcement, had been thoroughly infiltrated by the Klan. Even Yorkville’s mayor had been among a gang that broke into the office of the probate judge, stole militia ammunition that was stored there, and distributed it to the Klan. “It is utterly useless to attempt to do anything in which the local civil authorities have a hand,” a disgusted Merrill reported. The courts, he wrote, simply released Klansmen if they were arrested and shrugged at retaliation against witnesses. “They will not prosecute a case vigorously and I doubt much whether the plainest evidence would secure conviction.”10

As long as the courts were in the Klan’s grip it was extremely difficult to induce freed people to give public testimony for fear of being murdered. One black witness called to give evidence at the inquest of a murder victim told Merrill that the coroner had simply laughed when he asked if he would be protected if he revealed what he knew. The victim’s offense, Merrill noted, was that he had belonged to a Negro militia company, had been whipped for it, and knew who it was that had whipped him. The only time an alleged Klan member had actually been brought to court, a crowd of men armed with pistols appeared at the hearing, and cheered when the jury declined to charge him.11

Unusually for a professional soldier, Merrill combined forcefulness with an acute sociological eye. Apart from the “cowardice and corruption of many of the officers of the law” that had accelerated the Klan’s spread, there was, he felt, a deep-seated kind of illness that flowed through the veins of southern society. The root of “Ku-Kluxism” obviously lay in the ruthless determination of white leaders to nullify the effects of the war, he reflected. Such men were able to easily manipulate the ignorant and uneducated. But much of the Klan’s rank and file consisted of “a larger number of young men who by reason of superior influence and social standing were all the more dangerous when determined to conspire together to defy law…. [G]rowing to manhood during the discordant social surroundings of the war, with scarcely even domestic control or discipline and in astonishing ignorance of the rights of free society, [they] are found now with no respect for law save what is bred of their fear of its penalties.”12

While Merrill labored to expose the Klan, the order mounted its own counterintelligence operation to defeat him. He suspected correctly that the Klan’s agents in telegraph offices in Yorkville and along the railroad were monitoring his dispatches. He also suspected that the town sheriff was rifling through the papers in his private office, which he confirmed by planting decoy messages that soon became common knowledge in the streets of Yorkville. From his spies, Merrill learned in June that the Klan was debating a massed attack on his camp in hopes of driving him out of Yorkville, but ultimately decided that they were likely to lose such a pitched battle. Instead, they began systematically trying to coax his soldiers into town, get enough of them drunk, and then make a hit-and-run raid on the army camp. That attack never materialized either, “but the continued discussion of it is a good indication of the wish to do, while the pluck and will to carry it out are wanting,” Merrill reported. The Klan achieved more success inducing desertions from his troops. Most of them, like other occupation troops, were working-class men who might be susceptible to insinuations that freed blacks would compete with them for jobs and molest their womenfolk. In the space of a few months, 14 men from the 7th Cavalry’s K Troop deserted, as did 42 from a single company of the 18th Infantry, which was stationed in a nearby county. Merrill reported that evidence “points strongly to the belief that several deserters were taken in charge of by a party of Ku Klux in this place, and furnished with horses and escorted towards the Charlotte and Columbia R.R.”13

While he was incensed at such losses, Merrill never doubted that the Klan could and would be broken. Implacably, he continued to build a case that could not be refuted by Klansmen’s disingenuous propaganda. In an effort to discredit him, the Klan’s local defenders and its apologists among the pro-southern Democrats in Washington, D.C., charged that Merrill must be a radical zealot filled with vengeful animus against the South. He parried their attacks stoically. Grilled by one hostile Democrat, Merrill conceded only that his opinions “coincide more nearly with the Republican than with any other party.” But he asserted stoutly that he refused to allow politics to affect his duty. “I am an officer in the army,” he replied, “bred up in a school which taught me that officers of the army were not proper persons to mix in politics. I have never cast but one vote in my life.” Whom he cast it for he declined to say.14

In July, a grand jury was impaneled to consider the information that Merrill and other sources had collected. He reported that to date the Klan had perpetrated between 300 and 400 whippings and beatings just since the previous year. He named many of them: Martha Woods, “greatly beaten and abused”; Charley Barron’s wife, “knocked down and beaten because she would not tell where her husband was”; Sam Simrell’s wife, “whipped and ravished at the same time”; Tony Wallace, “whipped and his watch stolen and his house ransacked”; Sylvester Barton, a boy, “beaten with clubs and pistols”; Addison Woods, “beaten with a gun”; Jesse McGill, “abused about the head and knocked with pistols”; Jerry Clowney, whipped and beaten because “he was a preacher, and a sort of leader of the Negroes”; Elias Hill, a crippled preacher, dragged from his bed with a strap around his neck and “severely beaten with a pistol” and then horsewhipped; Dick Wilson, beaten for allowing his son to make Republican speeches; John Wallace, “a respectable man and a man of means,” taken from his home and beaten for being a Republican; Dr. John Winsmith, a 70-year-old former legislator who became a Republican after the war, shot down on his veranda in a fusillade of bullets.15

When accused by pro-Southern Democrats of political bias, Merrill (shown here in a wartime photo) forcefully denied the charge. “I am an officer in the army,” he noted, “bred up in a school which taught me that officers of the army were not proper persons to mix in politics. I have never cast but one vote in my life.”

Placing their trust in Merrill, a remarkable number of witnesses risked speaking publicly for the first time. To Merrill’s fury, however, the hearings produced a stunning whitewash. The grand jury’s report ignored most of the material he had provided and concluded that “after careful examination of the facts” no “outrages” at all had occurred in York County. Merrill later learned that one-third of the jury members were Klan members, including high-ranking officers, and that at least two of them had been accessories to murder. The few members who wished to do their jury duty were browbeaten and overruled by the rest. “In view of this, it is small wonder that eleven murders and more than six hundred cases of whipping and other brutal outrages by the Ku Klux have to this day gone unnoticed” by the local courts, he later fumed.16 Not surprisingly, the grand jury’s report only emboldened the Klan. South Carolina’s beleaguered Republican governor Robert K. Scott wrote in desperation to President Grant, “Crime has run riot with impunity, all warnings have been disregarded and the efforts of the well-disposed citizens have proved unavailing.” A federal judge, also writing to the president, added, “It is no uncommon thing for men to boast that when the ‘Yankees’ leave here then ‘we’ll have Ku Kluxing right.’”17

But Merrill had hardly begun to fight. He knew that there was a powerful weapon in the federal armory that Grant had not yet deployed, hoping that the state courts would somehow manage to stop the Klan. In April, Congress had passed what came to be known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, penned by Benjamin Butler, who may have been a flawed wartime general but was now a talented Massachusetts lawmaker in the House of Representatives and an ardent Radical Republican. It empowered the president to employ troops to protect the rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, stipulating that anyone found on a public road in disguise “with intent to do any injury” or “to terrify, frighten, or overawe” would be guilty of a high misdemeanor if the offense was committed in daylight, or of a felony if at night. The bill designated as federal crimes: crossing state lines with the intent to terrorize; joining a secret organization that entailed an oath committing him to perpetrate or conceal an act of terror; and abetting an act of terror. Punishments were severe, ranging as high as $10,000 and 20 years in prison for felonies, and death for the worst crimes.

Merrill had also gained a powerful and passionately committed ally: Amos Akerman, Grant’s new attorney general. Akerman was well-suited for the job. Despite a Yankee boyhood—he was born in New Hampshire—he felt a deep attachment to the South. He made his home in Georgia, where he studied law and farmed his own land. He had served the Confederacy only reluctantly, as a supply officer, and after the war ended, joined the nascent Republican Party, which he saw as an engine that would drag the post-slavery South into the modern world. To a friend in Georgia, Akerman reflected, “Our citizens, or those previously recognized as such had it in their power by the exercise of some patience and of some judgement, to settle forever the domestic question of the relations of the races, and the more general question of the relation of the South to the general government and the North. There was a choice between acting in politics upon ideas which had prevailed in the war and upon the ideas which had been overcome. But that portion of the people were not equal to the occasion. They consulted the past rather than the future, were moved in politics by resentment rather than by reason.”18 A deeply religious man, he regarded the enforcement of federal law against the Klan as an opportunity less to punish the South than to perfect it. Although he looked meek, Akerman had a spine of steel. To E.P. Jacobson, the district attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, he wrote: “Nothing is more idle than to attempt to conciliate by kindness that portion of the southern people who are still malcontent. They take all kindness on the part of the government as evidence of timidity, and hence are emboldened to lawlessness by it. It appears to be impossible for the government to win their affections. But it can command their respect by the exercise of its power.”19

AMOS AKERMAN

BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY

BENJAMIN BUTLER

Grant dispatched Akerman to South Carolina to personally oversee the enforcement of the Ku Klux Klan Act. (They agreed that Akerman would communicate with him through the War Department only in code, since it had to be assumed that the Klan’s agents regularly tapped the telegraph wires.) When Akerman met Merrill he was impressed. “He is just the man for the work—resolute, collected, bold and prudent, with a good legal head, very discriminating between truth and falsehood, very indignant at wrong, and yet master of his indignation,” Akerman wrote.20

On October 12, at Akerman’s request, Grant issued a formal order commanding “all persons composing the unlawful combinations and conspiracies” to turn over their weapons and disguises to Federal officers.21 As expected, the Klan ignored the order. Grant had already ordered 600 more troops from the 7th Cavalry and the 18th Infantry to South Carolina, raising the total to more than one thousand, the most troops posted to a single southern state in years. In accordance with the Ku Klux Klan Act, Grant now proclaimed the suspension of habeas corpus in nine counties of upcountry South Carolina. Merrill was placed in charge of military operations in the upcountry counties and explicitly empowered to arrest, interrogate, and jail suspected terrorists and reluctant witnesses. Two days after the suspension of habeas corpus, his troopers swung into their saddles and fanned out across York County, hunting the Klan.

Merrill usually deployed his troops in groups of 10 or 20, rounding up Klansmen whose names he had painstakingly compiled over the previous months. Ranging across countryside tufted with ripe cotton looking like snowfall, the troopers apprehended some 600 suspects in one month in York County alone. One of the few firsthand accounts of the tactics they employed was penned by Sergeant John Ryan, a Massachusetts native who had fought at Antietam and Gettysburg, and then in the West, before being posted to South Carolina. Ryan remembered how his company would sometimes surround an entire town before dawn with orders to let no one leave, and then ride in with a federal marshal carrying a wad of arrest warrants. More commonly, he said, they tried to take single Klansmen by surprise. “We would ride up to within a couple of hundred yards of the man’s house that we were after, and dismount. Three or four privates would advance up to the house very quietly and a man would be posted at each corner of the house. The marshal and sergeant would knock at the door, and if the party we wanted was in the house and should attempt to make his escape, which was usually the case, and in making their escape jumped out of one of the windows, they would jump right into the arms of one of our men, or rather into the muzzle of one of their carbines.” One night, Ryan’s detachment searched a house but could not find their quarry anywhere, until Ryan opened the door to the bedroom of the man’s daughters. “I advanced to the bed and pulled off the bed clothes and there I found the gentleman we were looking for secreted between his daughters.” On another occasion, they found their man asleep in a hidden room above a barn. “I immediately whipped out my .44 caliber Colt’s pistol and pointed it at his head. I very gently shook him in the bed. If you ever saw a surprised man, he was one, as his hair fairly stood up.”22

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

This April 1871 illustration from Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper depicts President Ulysses S. Grant signing into law the Ku Klux Klan Act, which empowered the President to employ troops to protect the rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. After its enactment, Grant sent his Attorney General, Amos Akerman, to South Carolina to personally oversee its enforcement.

The arrests spread panic among upcountry whites. Men who had cruelly terrorized unarmed and isolated families caved when they were faced with Federal soldiers able to shoot back. Reported Merrill, “Many of the Ku Klux leaders suspected that means were being devised to bring them to justice, and with the cowardice which had characterized all their infamous crimes, fled, leaving their poorer followers and ignorant dupes to stand sponsors for the crimes of which they had been the chief authors and instigators.”23 At first scores, then hundreds of Klansmen took to the mountains or fled to other states. Merrill’s men monitored the highways and railroads, on the lookout for fugitives. Sergeant Ryan, disguised in civilian clothes, tracked one escaped Klansman to Augusta, Georgia, and then 20 miles beyond it into the countryside, having tailed the man’s wife and child, who changed trains several times. Federal detectives tracked others as far as Arkansas and Canada.

The Klan’s internal discipline began to collapse. Wrote Merrill, “Looking about for their chiefs and councilors and finding that to get orders or advice they must go to them in jail or follow their flight, they recognized the fact that the game was up. Conspirators of every grade of criminality have come in and surrendered by the score. Day after day for weeks men have come in in such numbers that the time to hear them confess and means to dispose of or take care of them both failed and I was powerless to do anything more than to secure the persons of those most deeply criminal and send¶ CONT. ON P. 66

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