On paper, Grant’s nomination of Amos Akerman as Attorney General might have looked like a conciliatory gesture to the planters. It wasn’t.
Akerman was an attorney, a Confederate Colonel and a former slaveholder from Clarksville, in Georgia’s rugged north. He was also a Dartmouth graduate, born in New Hampshire, who moved south originally as a teacher. Having been a Whig before secession, he made the move into Republican politics after the war. Akerman was a Republican delegate to Georgia’s constitutional convention in 1868 and Grant appointed him US Attorney for the State the next year.
When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, granting voting rights to freedmen, it appeared that the power of the Southern planter class might be broken. What followed was a lethal wave of terrorism organized and funded by the planters which, by 1870, threatened to lock freemen out of politics and suppress any white collaboration with Republicans. Congress responded to Southern terrorism by creating the Department of Justice and granting vast new powers to the Attorney General in The Enforcement Act. In June of 1870 Grant replaced his lackluster AG with Akerman, and the counterinsurgency began in earnest.
It’s a mistake to assume that the failure of Reconstruction was inevitable. Likewise, the prevailing narrative that white terrorism defeated Reconstruction is misleading, perhaps deliberately so. Grant’s brief campaign broke the Klan and seriously weakened white terror networks. Had it continued, we would likely be living in a very different country. Akerman’s campaign was blunted by an alliance that would have been unthinkable prior to the war. Wealthy Northern industrialists, not the planters, defeated Reconstruction.
Early on, Grant had denied requests to send new troops South to fight the Klan, but conditions in South Carolina had become sufficiently dire by 1871 that he was willing to reposition army units there. Akerman was aided by the deployment of three companies of the Seventh Cavalry under the command of Major Lewis Merrill.
Maj. Merrill was well-prepared, having served in the guerilla campaigns in Missouri and also as an inspector general and judge advocate. His legal and combat skills would be the hammer and anvil of the campaign against the Klan in South Carolina. By the middle of 1871, Merrill had carefully documented 11 Klan murders around the South Carolina town of Yorkville. He complained about the strange frequency with which his men were being injured by falling out of windows at the hotel they were using as a base and the Klan campaign to encourage and abet desertion. When he grew suspicious over the enthusiastic cooperation of the local Sheriff, he arranged a special raid that only the Sheriff could have known about, exposing the man as a mole.
When a delegation from Congress came to visit Merrill, his efforts to impress on them the seriousness of the Klan threat were aided by the Klan. A band of Black musicians who gathered to perform for the delegation was attacked by a white mob. One band member was shot by a policeman, William Snyder, who was also a known Klansman. When reports of the incident reached Grant he was livid. He reinforced Merrill with two new companies of the 7th Cavalry and suspended habeas corpus in South Carolina.
By October 1871, Attorney General Akerman, a former soldier himself, joined Merrill and his troops in the field to participate in nighttime raids against suspected Klansmen. Together they made hundreds of arrests while thousands of Klansmen reportedly fled the state. Across the South, with the assistance of Solicitor General Benjamin Bristow, the new Department of Justice arrested and charged 3000 Klansmen.
Returning to Washington in November Akerman found little enthusiasm for the campaign against the Klan. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish noted in his diary that Akerman had the Klan “on his brain.” And regarding the Cabinet briefings on the matter, “it has got to be a bore to listen twice a week to this thing.”
With no apparent notice, Grant asked for Akerman’s resignation in December. Grant remained committed to the Klan fight. Akerman was replaced by George Henry Williams, a nice guy, but a figure more amenable to financial persuasion. It wasn’t the Klan campaign that sunk Akerman.
Despite Secretary Fish’s complaints, the Klan wasn’t Akerman’s singular obsession. He was using the Justice Department to begin a cleanup of government and especially the new civil service. With the railroads, Akerman had gone just one reform too far.
Under Lincoln’s Pacific Railroad Act, the Union Pacific had received land grants and bonds contingent on their completion of a branch line through Kansas. The railroad did not complete the line, complaining of financial troubles, but applied for their payment anyway. Others were doing the same, expecting the government to quietly give them the payments they needed. Akerman refused. This infuriated railroad baron Collis Potter Huntington, who used his ties to the Interior Secretary to pressure Grant to dismiss Akerman. It also upset the shady grifter-tycoon Jay Gould.
Gould had collaborated with Grant’s brother-in-law, Abel Gordon, on a failed scheme to corner the gold market and had excellent access to the Administration. Whatever Akerman might be achieving against the Klan paled in importance next to the anger being stirred up among wealthy Republican donors. Grant biographer, William McFeely explained, “Akerman himself had been stopped in 1871 because men from the North as well as the South came to recognize, uneasily, that if he was not halted, his concept of equality before the law was likely to lead to total equality.”
With Akerman removed, Major Merrill lost a critical ally in Washington. New Attorney General Williams expressed determination to continue the anti-Klan campaign, the hard part was approaching. Having rounded up thousands of Klansmen the government now needed to try them, an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Klan groups all over the South were disbanding, many of their leaders jailed or charged. Heading into the ’72 Election there was a strong incentive to declare victory and direct resources elsewhere. Williams urged prosecutors, many already reluctant to pursue these cases, to extend clemency. He explained, “My desire is that the pending prosecutions be pushed only as far as may appear to be necessary to preserve the public peace and prevent further violations.”
Akerman had earlier warned against this kind of half-hearted prosecution. “For unless people become used to the exercise of these powers now, while the national spirit is still warm with the glow of the late war, there will be an indisposition to exercise them hereafter, and the ‘States Rights’ spirit may grow troublesome again.” Thanks in large part to Akerman’s campaign against the Klan, Republicans won an overwhelming victory in 1872, but their wins would be quickly rolled back.
New white terror groups emerged, including the White League. The White League organized an army that would remove Republican officeholders, organize the slaughter of freedmen at the Colfax Massacre in Louisiana in 1873, and then stage a violent coup against the state government in New Orleans the following year.
The earliest use I could find of the term “white supremacy” comes from an account of the Colfax Massacre in Louisiana in 1873, an incident eerily similar to Camilla. A mob formed to depose the elected local government of freemen, part of a spate of violence related to the 1872 Election. A Confederate Captain named Dave Paul, a former Klansman, rallied a white mob, “Boys this is a struggle for white supremacy.” They would slaughter almost 150 men, most after they had surrendered.
Faced with the destruction of their power, Southern planters discovered a use for poor whites, admitting them into an emerging mythology of “white supremacy.” Under this new mythology, Blacks weren’t merely an asset held by a lordly planter class, but a dangerous menace to all around them. “Knights” of the KKK and “Knights” of the White Camelia gave poor laborers their first access to the language, symbols and status of Cavalier mythology. Where they had been a useless class of “white trash,” a problem for the planters to solve, white supremacy was transforming landless whites into “knights” of the exalted master race. Lower class whites were gaining admission to the master race through baptism in blood.
New white terror groups staged violent suppression of freedmen at the polls all over the South in 1874 with little or no response from the Federal government. When voter suppression enabled a resurgence of Democratic electoral power in 1876, Reconstruction was doomed. Over the next two decades Southern governments set in place a terror regime that locked Blacks out of political participation and left them little more than slaves.
Frederick Douglass had warned that “the law on the side of freedom is of great advantage only where there is power to make that law respected.” Akerman and others had been defeated in their efforts to put power on the side of freedom not by the violence of Southern planters, but by Northern money.
Money doesn’t care about human values. It doesn’t care about justice. It’s a tool, like a gun, devoid of feeling or ambition. Those who commit themselves to an ideal often feel ambivalence toward mere tools like guns or money, but this is a mistake. With creativity and initiative, money can be made to flow in almost any direction, a force like a river that can carve through stone. Like the gun, money is a tool of power rewarding those who master its uses regardless of the worthiness or unworthiness of its aims. Ignoring money is a certain route to failure.