BORDEWICH: Klan War (2023)

Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction by Fergus M. Bordewich. Alfred A. Knopf, 2023. Cloth, ISBN: 9780593317815. $35.00.

During Reconstruction, northerners, southerners, and the formerly enslaved struggled to make sense of the Civil War. Clearly, the late conflict had resulted in the abolition of slavery, but what would the transition to freedom look like? Would the formerly enslaved be afforded equal treatment before the law? Would they have the right to vote? Would they be able to secure economic independence? In a larger sense, was multiracial democracy possible in the United States during the nineteenth century?

Fergus M. Bordewich, the author of several popular histories, seeks to answer these questions in his latest book, Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction. Documenting the Grant administration’s response to the racial terror inflicted by the Ku Klux Klan, Bordewich demonstrates how white supremacist terrorism shaped the fate of Reconstruction. Drawing largely from personal letters, newspaper articles, and court testimony, Bordewich puts the Ku Klux Klan—and the war President Grant waged against it—into the larger context of the Reconstruction era.

Bordewich’s chronological narrative follows the rapid expansion of the Klan throughout much of the former Confederate South. Recounting hundreds of episodes of Klan violence, Bordewich brings to life in painstaking detail the reign of terror that the Klan wrought on both white and black Republicans. Through their terror, Klansmen looked “to subvert trust in government, prevent freedmen and white Republicans from voting, reverse the Union victory in the Civil War…and cripple the great social experiment that was born from that victory” (xvii).

With lawlessness prevailing throughout much of the South, the federal government was forced to intervene. From the beginning, Radical Republicans in Congress understood the dire situation that the freedmen faced. So too did Ulysses S. Grant. In line with a recent wave of Grant revisionism, Bordewich reevaluates the eighteenth president’s role in the enforcement of Reconstruction legislation. Bordewich demonstrates Grant’s unflagging support for Radical Reconstruction policies—even once Republican support began to wane by the early 1870s. Bordewich succeeds in demonstrating Grant’s involvement in the legislative process that brought about the passage of the Enforcement Acts. But while those acts proved vital to Grant’s victory over the Klan, sewn within that victory were the threads of Reconstruction’s demise.

Even as it was dedicated to Radical Reconstruction, Grant’s administration had also promised to reduce the federal debt. “While Congress had enacted a battery of strong anti-Klan laws,” Bordewich writes, “it failed to appropriate the money to fully enforce them” (293).

Moreover, the arrests of the hundreds of suspected Klansmen proved to be a logistical nightmare that quickly overwhelmed the federal court system. With waning support for Reconstruction among white northerners and continued resistance from white Southerners, it is little surprise that Grant’s policies failed to achieve more in the long run. “Had Grant’s campaign’s been properly financed, sustained over time, and supported by consistent punishment by the courts,” Bordewich writes, “it could have not only destroyed the Klan, but ensured the survival of a two-party system and civil rights in the South” (361-362).

Even so, Grant was satisfied with the progress that had been achieved in the South through his war against the Klan; as such, the president took the momentous step to grant amnesty to remaining ex-Confederates. Hopeful that such a policy would lead to an acceptance of freedmen’s rights in Southern politics, Grant had made a major miscalculation. Many of the gains of Grant years would be lost as the nation pivoted from the promise of Reconstruction to the “nadir” of Jim Crow.

Fergus Bordewich’s Klan War adds greatly to the growing literature on the Civil War’s aftermath and contributes to a better understanding of Ulysses S. Grant’s role in shaping of Reconstruction policy. It is a sobering reminder that rights gained can be easily taken away.

Riley Sullivan teaches history at San Jacinto College in Houston.

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