The NRA and the White Line Militia

Just finished reading Ron Chernow’s outstanding new book Grant, a biography of the most complex and contradictory man ever to occupy the White House. All 959 pages of it. Had already read General Grant’s every-bit-as-long memoirs several years ago so I didn’t think I’d find much new. But I did. Loads of new material, especially about Grant the president, and Reconstruction. He presided over times that were much worse, and infinitely bloodier, than the ones we’re stuck in now.

When Grant entered the White House in March of 1869 he found the defeated South in turmoil. The outgoing President Andrew Johnson, a strident white supremacist, had all but restored the leaders of the Confederate Slaveocracy to power. The Ku Klux Klan’s “Invisible Empire” was poised to reverse the outcome of the Civil War and bring back slavery, or something even worse. US Army troops were the only thing that blocked a Klan takeover.

Commander-in-Chief Grant took charge as quickly and decisively as he ever did on a Civil War battlefield. And not just troops, but lawyers, led by Solicitor General Benjamin Bristow, a crusading US attorney from Kentucky. Bristow and his team filed 3,384 indictments and won 1,143 convictions against murderous Klansmen despite uncooperative Southern juries who either hated Yankees or feared retribution if they returned a guilty verdict. That was 1,143 convictions more than Andrew Johnson’s Justice Department obtained in nearly four years.

By 1872 the Klan was almost dead. Black men were voting and electing other black men to public office. There were black governors and mayors and sheriffs. Black Senators and Representatives walked the Halls of Congress. Former slaves were rapidly becoming literate. But it didn’t last.

Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864.

The Klan rose again in the form of a welter of organizations with names like The Knights of the White Camelia, and The White Man’s Party, and The White Man’s League, and The People’s Party…and The White Line Militia. Yes, a “militia” and a bunch of other quasi-military organizations that called themselves “rifle clubs.”

During daylight hours these “Clubs” and “Militias” paraded through Southern towns and cities behind the Stars and Bars wearing Confederate uniforms and fully armed. At night they roamed those towns and cities and the surrounding countryside slaughtering Negroes by the thousands. Not content merely to kill, they disemboweled their victims, hacked them to pieces, torched their crops and homes.

Not all their victims were black. White Northern “carpetbagger” Republicans were also a target, but their greatest wrath was reserved for “scalawags,” Southern whites who supported Reconstruction. There weren’t all that many of them. The most prominent being ex-Confederate General James Longstreet, West Point classmate and friend of Ulysses S. Grant, and a firm backer of Reconstruction, who led African-American troops against the violently anti-Reconstructionist White Man’s League at the Battle of Liberty Place (LA) in 1874. Longstreet wasn’t murdered for his heroic action. Only his military reputation was destroyed by the “Lost Cause” movement that accused him of losing the Battle of Gettysburg; a dishonor that should properly have fallen on their Patron Saint Robert E. Lee. Other, less prominent, “scalawags” weren’t so lucky.

So, do all these “Militias” and “Rifle Clubs” sound familiar to you? They were fierce supporters of “States Rights” and their own warped interpretation of the “right to bear arms” under the 2nd Amendment, then. Could their direct descendants still be around today? Under a different name, of course…

If you want to know what really happened during Reconstruction read Chernow’s book and throw Gone with the Wind in the garbage. Where it belongs.