The United States Civil War (1861-1865) was the greatest political and social disruption the nation had ever faced. With over 600,000 Americans dead and many others displaced, injured and disposed the United States faced the bleak prospect of rebuilding the nation and reintegrating the South as a viable political and economic entity. The U.S. was torn politically and bordered on economic insolvency. Critical measures needed to be taken to ensure that the United States would be whole once more and that future insurrection would not be a viable option. On May 1st, 1864 President Andrew Johnson announced his plan of Presidential Reconstruction which contained the basic outline by which the former Confederate States would be brought back into the Union fold. This proclamation was made possible only by the surrender of the Northern Army of Virginia under Robert E Lee at Appomattox. This brought about a cessation of official hostilities between the Union and Confederate forces, but a new battle was already taking shape. The Second Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a war measure enacted by the Lincoln Administration as a war measure designed to weaken and fragment the Southern war effort (All slaves in the Confederacy were “freed” by a Union declaration). The freedom of slaves throughout the Southern states and the turmoil caused by political upheaval and economic devastation would give rise to one of the most infamous political terrorist organizations in U.S. History, the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan has changed its methodology and tactics over its long history, but its goals of the use of terror to achieve specifically political goals has not changed. The goals of the KKK during the period of Reconstruction were the extension of the Confederate War effort though the use of guerilla or partisan tactics, the use of terror against Republican officials, freed blacks and Union sympathizers in the South to regain Democratic political hegemony, and the re-imposition of antebellum social norms related to white and black social interactions.
Contrary to modern popular depictions of the Ku Klux Klan as illiterate buffoons wearing ill-fitting sheets and a moronic agenda which seems more pathetic than terrifying, the origins of the Klan were based on a paramilitary hierarchy which would act as an armed wing of the Democratic Party and continue a partisan war against Union occupiers. On December 24, 1865 the first formal meeting of the Klan took place in Pulaski, Tennessee. The organization was formed by ex-Confederated military officers, and was envisioned as a “secret empire” that would wage a war of terror and attrition on the forces of reconstruction and in doing so, win by unconventional means the war that was lost using conventional military tactics. It is critical to understand that the Klan was not initially envisioned as an instrument of revenge or a means to redress grievances (Although this was the primary form the organization would take in the future). It was specifically a military means of waging war and extracting a huge cost in men and treasure that the North would be eventually unwilling to pay. In this effort, they chose former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to lead the Klan. Bedford was a brilliant former cavalry officer who combined a genius in tactical acumen with a venomous sense of brutality, and a sadistic streak when dealing with enemies. Forrest led the Confederate forces that massacred the predominantly black Union garrison at Ft. Pillow. Nathan Bedford Forrest was the perfect leader for a specifically military organization bent on continuing the insurrection against the North. This was a premier goal of the early Ku Klux Klan and the organization must be viewed though this prism of a specifically military organization.

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The Ku Klux Klan During Reconstruction

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Aside from their role as a military extension of the old Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan was also a political organization dedicated to the restoration of the Democratic Party and white rule throughout the entirety of southern political institutions. They were aided unexpectedly by the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 which codified the protection of freed in both the political and social realms. This act was the final in a series of acts to enhance the political participation of blacks; with the most potent being the 13th Amendment enacted December 18th 1865, which specifically prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. This official recognition of the new political status of blacks provoked a violent backlash from Southern partisans in both an official and unofficial capacity The Black Codes of 1865 were political edicts that used the threat of criminal penalties for vagrancy to force blacks back into servitude on plantations and into debt peonage. This was followed with acts of terror designed to cow the newly freed population such as the Memphis Race Riots of 1866 in which forty-eight people are killed and over 100 black homes, churches and schools were pillaged or burned. The Klan played an active role in organizing and orchestrating specific acts of political acts of terror across the South, and in depressing black voter turnout with the hopes of electing Democrats to Southern Legislatures, which in turn would elect U.S. Senators to Washington. The tactics of violence and intimidation were uniquely political in nature, and helped to eventually overturn much of the progress that had been made such as the election of black politicians like Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Abram Colby of Georgia. When President Johnson declared an official end to Reconstruction in 1865, the Klan had helped sow the seeds of violence and marginalization that would see a return to Democratic (White) domination of the political system starting with the capture of the Mississippi Legislature in 1875. The long road to political and social justice would be delayed for almost another 100 years.

The Ku Klux Klan largely achieved their political goals, if not military hegemony over the South. After the demobilization of the Union Army and their withdrawal from former Confederated territory at the end of 1867, the Southern U.S. was in the process of reestablishing Democratic rule in political matters, and end to Republican interference in terms of occupation and federal oversight and a tightening of social controls by which black were economically and socially little better off then they were before the war. This was a major goal of the Klan: The military role they played in combating the forces of Reconstruction were little more than a nuisance to a well trained force of regular army veterans, but the Klan was very effective in wearing down Union will to continue the political reforms and grand designs of the most ardent Republican stalwarts. Stripped of political and military protection, blacks soon became the targets of an unofficial internal enforcement arm. The Klan was the blunt instrument that would ensure compliance and social continuity. The war had the effect of granting slaves freedom, but the forces of tradition and violence would see this freedom was short-lived. The Klan goals of subjugating the freedman and eliminating them as a political force is the great “achievement” of the organization during and post reconstruction. It is a dark chapter in the history of the United States.