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The Kirk-Holden War of 1870

In a June 1870 proclamation, North Carolina's Republican governor, William Wells Holden (1818-1892), condemned the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, accusing them of murdering North Carolinians and using terror tactics to suppress the vote of both newly enfranchised African Americans and white Republicans. This proclamation was just one incident in an escalating series of conflicts between Holden and North Carolinians who were either members of, or sympathetic to, the Klan during the spring and summer of 1870. This series of conflicts, in which Union officer George W. Kirk was to play a crucial role, came to be known as "The Kirk-Holden War" and is thought to have played a large part in the Republican Party's later electoral defeat in the state, as well as Holden's December 1870 impeachment and March 1871 conviction. This June, Documenting the American South remembers the Kirk-Holden War by highlighting a variety of materials from its collections that discuss this conflict.

Formed in the wake of the Confederacy's loss in the Civil War, the Klan spread quickly across the South. Holden's attempts to use local authorities to control the Klan in the Piedmont counties of Alamance and Caswell was ineffective because community leaders there were often either members of the Klan themselves, or sympathetic to it. In response, Holden declared martial law in both counties. To impose and maintain order, Holden brought in George W. Kirk, a former Union cavalry officer with a reputation for having terrorized Southern mountain communities during the Civil War. Led by Kirk, the state militia arrested and jailed over 100 suspected Klan members in the two counties. Both Kirk and Holden ignored writs of habeas corpus issued by a state court on behalf of the arrested men, so their supporters turned to the federal judiciary for help. President Ulysses S. Grant informed Holden that he would no longer support Holden's controversial policies, and the suspected Klan members were released in August 1870. In November 1870, Alamance and Caswell counties were declared to no longer be in insurrection.

In his Memoirs of W.W. Holden (written 1889-1890, published posthumously in 1911), Holden does not use the phrase 'Kirk-Holden War' to describe his struggles with the Klan in Alamance and Caswell counties. Still, discussion of those incidents dominates the fourth chapter of his Memoirs. Holden writes that, as governor, he understood that his duty was to uphold the law of North Carolina "without respect to party or color" (p. 120). And because the Klan's terror tactics were being used to keep newly emancipated African Americans from exercising their legal right to vote, Holden was obliged to try to stop those tactics. Holden also defends his choice of Kirk as state militia leader. "It was stated," he writes, "that [Kirk] had said that if he were attacked at his place in the Court House at Yanceyville, that he would resist and burn the town and murder the women and children" (p. 124). But "[t]here is no foundation whatever for this story," Holden writes, "and there is less foundation … for the further statement that the Governor had so told him to do" (p. 124). Holden goes on refute charges that he ordered Kirk and his men to treat the residents of Alamance and Caswell counties cruelly: "I gave the strictest orders to the officers both verbally and in writing to treat all persons humanely, and to be very careful of human life" (p. 125). Holden repeatedly characterizes his actions regarding Alamance and Caswell counties as motivated by a respect and desire for law: "the object of all this is to restore peace and good order. Every citizen, no matter of what color, or how poor or humble, has a right to labor for a living without being molested; to express his political opinions without let or hindrance; and to be absolutely at peace in his own house" (p. 131).

An "Address To The Colored People of North Carolina" shows that Holden was not without his supporters. Dated December 1870 and signed by seventeen presumably African American state representatives, the announcement defends Holden as a leader who wants African Americans to "have the right to go to the polls unmolested" (p. 1). It also bemoans the impeachment proceedings he faces, saying that such proceedings are the work of men who are "mad because their slave property is lost … mad because the Reconstruction measures have triumphed, and we are permited to represent you in this body." And while the 1872 "Read and Circulate!" dates from after Holden's impeachment, it is a piece of Republican campaign literature that similarly defends Holden. It attacks state Democrats for having "spent sixty-five thousand dollars to impeach Gov. Holden for trying to put down the Ku-Klux" and accuses them of continuing to make political "capital out of the doings of Holden and Kirk" (pp. 5, 7). As both fliers make clear, whether one saw Holden (and by extension, Kirk) as a hero or a villain, the events of the Kirk-Holden War inspired passionate feelings on both sides of issue.

Holden's Memoirs is part of DocSouth's "First-Person Narratives of the American South" collection, which is a collection of diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and ex-slave narratives written by Southerners. Both "Address To The Colored People of North Carolina" and "Read and Circulate!" are part of DocSouth's "North Carolina Experience" collection, which collects a wide variety of print and manuscript materials that tell the story of the Tar Heel State as seen through representative histories, descriptive accounts, institutional reports, fiction, and other writing.

Works Consulted: Raper, Horace W., "William Woods Holden, 24 November 1818-2 Nov. 1892," Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, ed. William S. Powell, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979-1996, 169-171; Tomberlin, Jason, "This Month in North Carolina History: June 1870—The 'Kirk-Holden War,'" University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, 22 May 2008, online article.

Harry Thomas