Chapters 14 & 15: The Gunshot that Ended Reconstruction
The Hidden History of Guns and the 2nd Amendment
The Gunshot That Ended Reconstruction
If this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle [of ending slavery] . . . I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.
—Abraham Lincoln, speech in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 22, 1861
The Civil War was over. The South had surrendered, and Lincoln had broken the South into administrative sections under control of the Union Army.
Southerners hated the arrangement—just four years earlier they had seceded from the United States to fight for their states’ rights to own slaves. And now, they had lost the war and lost their slaves. Adding insult to injury, many southern slave patrols were replaced with police forces that included Black freedmen.
For more than a century, the hierarchy of the South was clear: there were the unarmed slaves, and there were the well-armed white folk. Now, with the Union Army in charge and freedmen acting as law enforcement, the tables seemed to be turned.
In short, they felt their way of life was being taken away by northern elitists who didn’t understand or respect the culture of the Old South.
John Wilkes Booth was an actor who also held strong loyalties to the South. A supporter of slavery, he’d joined the Richmond militia and witnessed the hanging of abolitionist John Brown in October 1859. He escaped fighting for the South in the Civil War because he’d accidentally shot himself in the thigh during an 1860 performance of Hamlet.2
In November 1863, he performed in a play called The Marble Heart in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC; in the audience were President and Mrs. Lincoln. A few months later, in May 1864, Booth invested his entire life savings in an oil operation in western Pennsylvania; it later turned out he’d been swindled and he lost everything. Bitter, angry, and fully bought into the southern story that the Civil War was all about the evil bankers and investor class in the Northeast, Booth joined a small group of bitter Confederates in a conspiracy to kill Lincoln and decapitate his administration.
Thus, in April 1865, Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head while the president enjoyed the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. Booth then flung himself from the balcony, making his motives clear as he dramatically shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants!”).
The event marked the first time a U.S. president was assassinated. It also marked the end of any serious efforts to reconstruct the South and to ensure the safety and equality of millions of newly enfranchised freedmen.
The end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments marked the official end of slavery in American history—but not the end of white supremacy, or of the Old South’s race-based hierarchy and its use of guns to enforce it.
The Failure of Reconstruction and the Rise of the Klan
The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.
—President Woodrow Wilson, who screened the Klan
recruiting film Birth of a Nation in the White House
Armed police forces and their predecessors throughout history have been the major institutions that define hierarchies in a given area. A prime example of this is how Irish immigrants in America began to be accepted as “white” in the early 20th century as urban police forces became staffed with Irish immigrants, while Italian immigrants (who mostly came to the US in large numbers a few generations later in the late 19th century) became a more noticeable “other” who could be blamed for crime and “general seediness” in a community.
Before the Civil War, law enforcement was an all-white matter in the South. During Reconstruction, the Union Army disbanded the slave patrols and created new police departments in the South—with emancipated black freedmen acting as police officers and justices of the peace. Reconstruction was turning the Old South on its head—but not for long.
By removing Lincoln from power, John Wilkes Booth succeeded in using his gun to end the aspects of Reconstruction that southerners found most egregious. The vice president, whom Lincoln had chosen in a misplaced burst of hope for national unity, was Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat.
Not only was Johnson a fan of slavery and a slaveholder, but the first slave he had bought, early in his life, was a 14-year-old girl, Dolly, who bore him three children. This fact became widely known while Johnson was still a state senator, and he addressed it by saying that Dolly had explicitly asked him to buy her because, he said, “she liked my looks.” It was a thin excuse, but more than enough for southerners.1
Johnson quickly issued a series of proclamations that allowed southern states to establish their own civil governments and set their own policies without interference from the North. This effectively ended the Union Army’s role in governing the South.
Not surprisingly, southern states quickly removed freedmen from police forces and began implementing “black codes” to preserve white supremacy in the South.
We see a telling example of how the Civil War and Reconstruction ultimately failed in Portsmouth, Virginia. Sally Hadden writes in Slave Patrols about the rapid changes in Portsmouth between Union occupation in 1861 and just five years later in 1866.
When the coastal city of Portsmouth, Virginia, fell to the Union Army in 1861, the residents saw their first African American policemen, chief of police, and justices of the peace. Prior to 1861 no police force had existed in Portsmouth; instead, slave patrollers had the same duties as “policemen of today,” according to Jan Pyatt, a former slave interviewed in the 1930s. In 1866, when civic elections were held again, Pyatt reported that “a mayor was elected head of the city, and the colored policemen, Justice of the Peace, and Chief of Police was done away with. In their places, a [civilian] provost-marshal with a white staff was appointed.”2
At the end of the war, it wasn’t uncommon for a freedman to own a gun. Many newly freed Black Americans had served in the Union Army, and the federal government, short on money to pay these soldiers’ full wages, allowed former soldiers to keep their guns instead.
Suddenly, in the South, former slaves were arming themselves under the same Second Amendment that southern slaveowners had used to prevent and suppress slave revolts for the previous 100 years.
Freedmen weren’t just arming themselves; they began to drill with their weapons in public, which only fueled race-based fears of “Negro risings.”
It didn’t take any time at all for white southerners to realize that if the race-based hierarchy of the Old South was to be preserved, white people needed to be the only armed people.
Hadden reports that “the occasional discovery of a cache of arms confirmed the worst fears and intensified the campaign to disarm the black population.”3
As Adam Winkler wrote in the New Republic in 2013, “Within months of the surrender at Appomattox, recalcitrant white racists committed to the reestablishment of white supremacy determined to take those guns away from blacks. States in the South passed the Black Codes, which barred the freedmen from possessing guns. . . . To enforce these laws, racists began to form posses that would go out at night in large groups, generally wearing disguises, and terrorize black homes, seizing every gun they could find.”4
In the Cape Fear region of North Carolina, Sally Hadden points out, the “county police” armed themselves to disarm freedmen and search for guns in the homes of Black American citizens, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.
In 1866, the same year that the mayor of Portsmouth, Virginia, purged the city’s law enforcement ranks of freedmen, Governor Perry of South Carolina declared that militia organizations were “charged with the police and patrol duty of the country.” Perry’s decree, along with innumerable “black codes,” was invalidated by Congress. But federal invalidation didn’t stop white supremacists across the South from banding together to raid homes and disarm Black Americans.
Police forces in the South adopted militaristic techniques that nearly every Southern male had learned while fighting for the Confederacy over the course of the Civil War.
While police departments in the South served to preserve the hierarchy of the Old South within the context of a post-slavery legal system, bands of posses and lynch mobs served to preserve the hierarchy of the Old South while ignoring completely any changes to the law.
A dramatized example of this is found in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? where the protagonists, facing three ropes and their own shallow-dug graves, tell their lynchers, “You can’t do this—we just been pardoned! By the governor himself! . . . It went out on the radio!”
The characters’ pleas are met with the simple statement, “Is that right? Too bad we don’t have a radio.” Similarly, in the more rural areas of the post-bellum South, federal and even state laws were meaningless and lacked any real local enforcement.
Black Americans often encountered even more brutality in the postwar South than they had as chattel slaves, Hadden notes, because “as slaves, bondsmen had been protected from patrollers by their masters, who (for paternalistic or materialistic reasons) did not wish to have their ‘property’ damaged by roving slave patrols.”5
Southern posses and lynch mobs made sure that Black Americans were intimidated and terrorized into staying submissive to their former owners and overseers, regardless of any new laws.
These roving bands didn’t just search the homes of Black Americans for guns; they were also looking for any “stolen property,” a designation frequently applied to any goods in a freedman’s possession, regardless of how the freedman had acquired it.
“Naturally,” Hadden explains, “the stolen goods often ended up in the hands of county police who retrieved them but did not necessarily return them to their white, allegedly rightful, owners.” (Today’s police forces echo this practice with “civil asset forfeiture,” a situation whereby police can simply seize someone’s property without filing criminal charges against the person.)
At first, there were many of these posses across the South, which identified themselves with a variety of names: in Alabama there was the Black Cavalry, in Louisiana there were the Knights of the White Camellia, and in Texas there were the Knights of the Rising Sun, among countless others across the former Confederacy.6
Eventually all the groups merged and became known simply as the Ku Klux Klan.
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