1898 Wilmington Race Riot

The Union League in North Carolina:

The creation of the Ku Klux Klan after the War Between the States cannot be explained without first discussing the infamous organization that brought the Klan into being—the Union League.

As race relations between black and white North Carolinians were mostly amicable in antebellum times, albeit with both free and slavery-bound blacks in the State, a question to answer as one moves forward in history is what happened between the two races by 1898, and who instigated the unrest that ended in violence in Wilmington and elswhere at the end of the century?

"(Negro voters) have elected white (Republican) bosses to the positions, and they have drawn the pay while the Negro was taught to curse and vote against the Democrat. They had been taught by the bosses to hate those with whom they had been raised and lived with all their lives, greatly to their disadvantage."

James A. Lowrey, Chairman of the Independent Republican Convention, held in New Hanover County, August 18, 1888.)

The Union League is the identity of the instigator, and the Lowery quote above show the long-lasting effects of the hatred for Southern whites instilled in the black race, for political purposes. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a defensive measure to protect white Southerners after the war is tied directly to the Union League. After the demise of the Union League in 1870 (due to Klan retaliation), the Republican party and its carpetbag regimes in the South continued to foment hatred for Southern white people in the the blacks, in order to maintain their political ascendancy. The Lowery quote is a case in point.

"When freedom came to the slave in 1865, power was thrust into hands not ready to wield it. Authority, backed by federal bayonets, was given to people who had never issued an order in their lives.

Mistakes were made and excesses committed that only the passing of years—even generations—could obliterate. Most of the depredations of the freed slaves consisted of barn-burning and larceny.

In all fairness to the Negro race, let it be said now that most of the trouble makers were an irresponsible minority acting under the orders of the Union League and the protection of agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Appeals for redress of grievances did no good. In fact, matters reached the point where if a white man complained he could almost certainly expect his barn to be burned, or his livestock stolen within a few days.

The Union League, which came with the carpet-baggers in the wake of the federal army, began organizing the Negroes for political purposes. Any Negro who refused to join was called a Conservative, and severe punishment was dealt him by his own race. Naturally, the Union League operated in the interest of the Republican party. Their primary aim was to put that party in power and keep it there by the votes of the freed slaves.

Nightly, the sky glowed with the light of burning barns. The normal sounds of night were mixed with abnormal noises: that scrape and thud of the feet of stolen cattle and horses being led away.

The (black) hoodlum element grew more reckless as the courts refused to convict them. Insults and indignities were the order of the day. The situation grew intolerable for the embattled whites and the Conservative Negroes.

Then out of the night came the thundering hoof beats of horses ridden by white hooded and white sheeted riders. The Ku Klux Klan! Ride, Redeem and Restore Order was the directive under which they operated. The Klan and similar orders by their nature operated beyond the law, but they visited swift and severe punishment on the Union Leaguers. By the end of 1870, the Union League had vanished. Law and Order had been reestablished throughout the State."

The Negro in Harnett County, Malcolm Fowler, pp. 121-122

E. Merton Coulter On The Union League:

Begun in Philadelphia (some say Pekin, Illinois) in 1862, the Union League started its Grand Council in Washington, DC in 1863. It was originally formed as a patriotic organization, but by the end of the war it developed into an arm of the Republican party in the South, determined to turn the newly enfranchised blacks against their white Southern neighbors. This was done in order to politically rule the South after hostilities had ceased, and ensure the ascendancy of the Republican party. "Republicans…said that if the Democrats won they would…restore slavery. They paraded "rebel atrocities," how Negroes throughout the South went to bed every night with the fear that they would have their throats cut or their cabins burnt before morning, how Christmas and election days were reserved by Southerners for killing "peart niggers" and all the other days for "robbing and personal violence." (Nation, XXVIII (1879), 242)

Disorders were invited by Northern arms companies advertising "life-sized" pistols in Southern newspapers, and by Federal troops ostensibly scattered throughout the country to preserve order.

(The South During Reconstruction, E. Merton Coulter, pp. 368-369)


The Union League Moves Into North Carolina:

In North Carolina alone the clubs of the Union League of ex-slaves had 80,000
Gov. W. W. Holden

members led by Governor Holden in 1867. Many organized into armed military companies, drilling day and night as white people lived in constant fear. This black militia was at intra-racial war with black Democrats and a sign at an 1878 polling booth reading “Death To Colored Democrats” was no idle threat. The Documentary History of North Carolina (edited by W.L. Fleming) states that “the colored people of North Carolina have, since the passage of the Reconstruction measures of Congress, been taught to believe by the leading members of the Leagues that the white men of the country are their enemies; that their only friends are the northern men….and that it is the desire and deliberate purpose of the (Southern) white people….to restore slavery at the earliest possible moment.” Governor Wiliiam W. Holden was the first president of the Union League Grand Council in North Carolina and James H. Harris, a black, was vice president.

Harris was a Holden protégé in Wake County politics and he exercised considerable influence in the house of Representatives and the Republican

Party. Harris was also an astute politician who would announce his candidacy for a State office desired by a white northerner so as to be bought off for several thousand dollars in order to deliver the black vote. Harris was a founder of the Union League in Wilmington, served as Grand Marshal of the National Council in 1867 and in 1868 was vice president of the League in North Carolina, with Governor Holden as president. Along with Harris was John L. Hays and David Heaton, black Wilmingtonians who served as members of the executive committee. George Z. French, carpetbag politician in New Hanover County also served as president of the local Union League. As a result of French’s support of carpetbag rule in Wilmington and corruption in the North Carolina legislature, he was summarily run out of this City under threat of hanging in November 1898 and only his Masonic membership saved his life.

The existence of the Union League in Wilmington is revealed by northern General Weitzel being visited on a blockading ship in late 1864 “by the president of the clandestine Loyal Union League in Wilmington who had been secretly brought on board.” This unidentified person (see "Confederate Goliath," page 36, Rod Gragg, HarperPerennial, 1991) provided the invading forces with information regarding Southern troop positions and strength. In July of 1865, the by-then strong Union League in Wilmington was petitioning the City government to appoint black policemen and inspectors. Within a week of the second restoration of the Conservative government in Wilmington, an advertisement in the Herald that informed the “brothers of the Union League” would be meeting in a sheltered area due to inclement weather. Remember that the entire municipal government in Wilmington resigned on 2 August 1865 after mobs of black troops and civilians attacked local police.

During his one year tenure as president, Holden maintained a tight control of the local councils. Probably in no other State were the Republicans as successful in providing central direction for the Union Leagues as in North Carolina. In the 1867 election campaign, Holden conducted the registration of voters under military supervision to help ensure the outcome, and from Raleigh, he cajoled local Republican leaders to work diligently to perfect the organizations of the Union League and the regular County units of the Party. After his victory in that election, Holden exulted in the large Republican majorities cast by freedmen in eastern North Carolina where the Union Leagues were strongest. Wilmington population at that time had swollen to a nearly 60% percentage of blacks.

In September 1868, Holden appealed to the federal military in North Carolina to station troops at election polls “to inspire a salutary terror” among the disaffected to which General Meade declined. Holden was then forced to rely upon the resources of his administration which were the militia and the Union League, Holden’s twin allies of terror. Regarding the federal troops still in North Carolina in 1868, the Raleigh Sentinel reported on 29 August that “ten companies of Negro federal troops were concentrated in Goldsboro and a reign of terror followed during which depredations of all sorts were committed and the conduct of the troops so violent that it was unsafe for women to leave their homes.”

Inciting The Freedman Against Native Whites:

A Union League circular in the October, 1868 New Bern Sentinel urged tri-weekly meetings “with as much excitement of the freedmen as possible. They were to be drilled constantly and told that if the Democrats (Conservatives) won the election, they would all be sold back into slavery. Farms and mules should be promised to all who voted for Grant with the additional promise that if he was elected, most of the patronage offices would go to freedmen.” All methods were to be employed to poison their minds against the native white people, and if riots followed, no harm would be done to them. If needed to arouse them, some cabins should be burned and the misdeed attributed to the Conservatives.

In North Carolina the most common outrage committed by the League militia against whites was barn burning. The loss of the barn meant complete ruin and starvation to the farmer and it occurred in every County. Conclusive evidence shows that the burnings were decided upon at League meetings. In Gaston County (1869) there were nine barn burnings in one week. In Edgecombe County in two months of 1869 there were two churches, several cotton gins, a cotton factory, barns and dwellings burned and traced to black incendiaries. State Senator John W. Stephens, a henchman of Governor Holden, at a Yanceyville Union League meeting gave a book of matches to all the freedmen in attendance with the suggestion that they would be useful in burning the native white’s houses and barns. Stephens was later executed by the Klan and this led Holden to enact the anti-Klan law of 1870, the Shofer Bill. The carpetbagger and former federal General Milton Littlefield, infamous for his fraudulent railroad schemes and political corruption in North Carolina, became president of the NC Union League in 1868 after Holden, and presided over the national meeting in 1870, in New Jersey. The council of Union Leagues over which Milton presided represented the command of the field forces in the purpose embodied in acts President Grant had recently signed to compel observance of the 14th and 15th Amendments and to strengthen Reconstruction State governments against the Ku Klux Klan.

An Alamance County mulatto named Wyatt Outlaw organized the radical Republican Loyal League with initiates known as Pioneers, the same name given to black railroad workers who served as labor for federal troops in the war. Like the Union League, members were posted at each of the polls to observe who voted and how. North Carolina carpetbag governor W.W. Holden sought to disband the Loyal League and have its members absorbed by the Union League, over which he had control. Outlaw was instrumental in employing many freedmen with the Republican-controlled North Carolina Railroad and recruited members from those workers, while white Southerners were not hired. He was commissioned in July 1868 by Holden as deputy member of the Grand State Council of the Union League which allowed him to travel the State to initiate members and install officers. As the railroad was in the hands of the Republicans and Union League, any white workers were fired and were replaced with League members.

The Klan Emerges:

Conservatives insisted that the Union League created the situation which called for the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan and there can be no doubt that the League was guilty of grave excesses, and murders of white people were attributed to the Leagues. “Barns were burned but”, says Dr. Hamilton in his “Reconstruction in North Carolina”, “the fact that the Leagues usually met in a schoolhouse or church explains the burning of so many schools and churches by white people.” Hamilton goes on to say that “At first, some attempt was made by white Conservatives to cheque the growth and activity of the (Union League) organization by refusal of employment to all its members. But it soon became evident that this meant refusal to employ colored labor at all, and the time came when the employing class became supplicants, so sharply was the need for laborers felt.” Therefore the Klan.

As stated in The Documentary History of Reconstruction, “If there had been no Loyal (Union) League in North Carolina, there would have been no Klu Klux.” The freedmen adhered to the party of Lincoln so emphatically that planters attempts to control or work with them only aroused greater opposition. The Democrats efforts in courting the black vote accomplished little in areas where League organizing had taken place and faced with this failure of a peaceful coexistence, the planters ran short of alternatives to outright violence if they wanted to contest Republican control of the black vote. Physical coercion replaced financial pressure as the chief method of opposing the League and this ineffectiveness of economic intimidation led directly to the emergence of the Klan.

After Governor Holden’s efforts to suppress Klan activity in North Carolina in early 1870, several Conservative newspapers praised his leadership (to end violence) but were careful to suggest that he give the same attention to the Union League and black arsonists.

General John B. Gordon of Georgia testified to the 1871 Joint Congressional Committee on Affairs in the Insurrectionary States that “the first and main reason (for the Klan) was the organization of the Union League, as they called it….these men were organizing the colored people.” General Nathan B. Forrest likewise testified before the Joint Committee that “the organization (the Klan) was intended entirely as a protection to the (Southern) people, to enforce the laws and protect the people from outrages.” Even the northern press saw the Ku Klux resistance clearly in 1870 as “The Nation” magazine commented on Klan outrages in South Carolina…”this is all horrible, but we have no hesitation in saying that it is not the unnatural consequence of the caricature on government which has been kept up in that State for the last 4 years”. Regarding the effect of the League, General John B. Gordon further stated that the “burning of Atlanta and all the devastation through Georgia never created a tithe of the animosity that has been created by this (Union League) sort of treatment of our (Southern) people.”


An 1870 Congressional Committee report provided this indictment of Republican rule over the conquered South:

“hatred of the white race was instilled (by the League) into the minds of these ignorant people by every art and vile that bad men could devise; when the Negroes were formed into military organizations and the white people of these States were denied the use of arms; when arson, rape, robbery and murder were things of daily occurrence,…and that what little they had saved from the ravages of war was being confiscated by taxation…many of them took the law into their own hands and did deeds of violence which we neither justify or excuse. But all history shows that bad government will make bad citizens.”


Robert Penn Warren best encapsulated the results of the Republican and Union League efforts to control the black vote in the postwar South, stating in his essay “The Briar Patch” that:

“He (the Negro) discovered himself as a political power, but he was also to discover that the fruits of his power were plucked by someone else, by the friends who gave him big talk and big promises. Sometimes he got an office out of it all and smoked cigars in the chairs of a legislature. The political training he received, however, was the worst that could possibly be devised to help him; it was a training in corruption, oppression and rancor. When the earth shook and the fool, or scoundrel departed…leaving his bankrupt promises, the Negro was to realize that he had paid a heavy price for the legislative seat and the cigar. He had been oppressed for centuries, but the few years in which he was used as an instrument of oppression solved nothing. Instead, they sadly mortgaged his best immediate capital; that capital was the confidence of the Southern white man with whom he had to live. The rehabilitation of the white man’s confidence for the Negro is part of the Southern white man’s story since 1880.”

    Sources and Recommended Reading:

    Reconstruction In North Carolina, Jos. G. de R. Hamilton.
    1971 Books For Libraries Press

    The Union League, Washington’s Klan, John Chodes.
    1999 League of the South Institute

    The Tragic Era. Claude G. Bowers.
    1929 Literary Guild of America

    North Carolina Histories. Hugh Talmadge Lefler, Editor

     The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Vol. IV.

    Jane T. Turner, Editor, 1986 Johns Hopkins Press

    The Documentary History of Reconstruction,

    W.L. Fleming, Editor, 1871

    Quoting “Outrages In The Southern States”, B.F. Moore.

    The Prince of Carpetbaggers, Gen. Milton Littlefield. Jonathan Daniels. 1958 J.P. Lippincott Company

    Wade Hampton and the Negro. Hampton M. Jarrell
    1949 University of SC Press

    Iron Confederates, Southern Railways, Klan & Reconstruction. Scott Reynolds Nelson
    1999 UNC Press

    The Union League Movement in the Deep South. Michael W. Fitzgerald
    1989 LSU Press

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