American Story: Night Riders


Night Riders

As Confederate soldiers returned to Alabama in 1865, they found a very different set of circumstances to those they had left.

They had lost the War.
They had lost thousands of comrades to battle and disease.
They had lost the use of slave labour to work their land.

They soon resented martial law under Union garrisons - funded by the seizure of cotton reserves grown before and during the War.
They soon loathed the Freedman Bureau's program of providing new schools and churches for negroes - funded by poll taxes they could barely pay.
They soon hated the Loyalty Leagues of freed black slaves that agitated locally for the redistribution of white owned land - "40 acres and a mule".

These men had lost the institution of slavery. This loss they begrudgingly accepted because they did not have the power to alter it. But they were damned if they were going to lose their farms as well.

The most publicised of Veterans' postwar responses in the South was pseudo-military. A number of regional historians have since written book-length accounts of the various vigilante groups that were formed. The tendency of these authors was to glamourise the ominous discipline of silent 'night-parades', to tell and retell the most theatrical events, rather than the mundane realities of whipping, hanging, and burning.

And some of it was 'inspirational'. The 'noble' side of 'white supremacy' was about protecting the widows and orphans of the Confederate dead from the ravages of black lawlessness and revenge. But while the latter was a not entirely fanciful possibility, the threat of mass slaughter implied by the former was more imagined than real.

In the words of one early twentieth-century apologist for Alabama: 
"On account of the disordered condition of the state in 1865, some kind of a police power was necessary, the Federal garrisons being few but weak. The minds of all men turned at once to the old ante-bellum neighborhood police patrol the entire community once a week or once a month, usually at keep the black population in order, and to this end the patrollers were invested with the authority to inflict corporal punishment in summary question any strange negro found abroad...without a pass...The whites where accustomed to settling such matters outside of law or court."

From this point of view, the Klu Klux Klan was "more and more a band of regulators, using mystery, disguise, and secrecy to terrify the blacks into good many ways a military organisation, the shadowy ghost of the Confederate armies".

In truth, the 'impressive' performance of "midnight rides and drills and silent parades" by "weird night riders in ghostly disguises", was not "in order that honor, life, and property might be made secure". It was about "creating a white terror [actual] to offset the black one [imagined]".

In retrospect, white fears of black violence were ludicrous. The black population of freed slaves were as woefully under-prepared for their new status as were their former masters. They had not come to their liberty by revolutionary violence. They had no tradition of armed insurrection. In practice, they were as helpless before the new uncertainties of their existence as anyone. How would they feed themselves? Where would they live? What would tomorrow bring? These were their anxieties, essentially the same as the whites. They sought the reassurance of former economic relationships continuing, not their destruction. They shared the same problems of life in a blighted war-torn economy, with the poor harvests and rundown infrastructure effecting their well-being too.

One of the last raids by Union troops in Alabama was up the western side of Tombignee River in early 1865. Passing through Choctaw County they seized horses, cattle and corn, and destroyed ports and buildings as they went. The harvest in 1865 was consequently a quarter of its normal size and 1866 was also below average. The prospect of famine was something that everyone had in common.

The concern of the whites really came down to comparative numbers. For example, the 1860 Federal Census counted 13,877 inhabitants of Choctaw County. 6,767 of them were white and 7,110 were black. The 1880 Census declared 15,731 inhabitants. 7,390 were white and 8,341 were black. Although there was a general increase in the County's population over the 20 year period, the proportions of black and white did not really change.
Before the Civil War, Choctaw was a black majority district. After the Civil War, Choctaw was a black majority district. The only thing that changed was the majority's political status. In 1860 the blacks were slaves but in 1880 they were free.

From the point of view of scared whites, 'stability' belonged to prewar society. To regain an ante-bellum 'balance' was about restoring an atmosphere of intimidation, of getting the blacks to 'cower' again. The bullet, the bullwhip and the hangman's noose, or at least the threat of them, were redeployed in Choctaw County as they were throughout the Deep South.

Details of the 'Reconstruction' period under Northern administrators are obscured by secrecy. Vigilantism (Klan) and 'sedition' (League) were both technically illegal. Membership was hidden and suspicion was rife. As is the experience of many 'occupied' lands, official government became 'blind' to what was really going on in the society they supposedly ruled. Substantive decisions about community affairs were made at a local, unofficial level.

Evidence of actual racial violence in Choctaw County can only be surmised from two sets of documents reported from that era. These were the US Congress Klu Klux Report for Alabama (1871) and the Jack Turner Conspiracy Papers for Choctaw (1883). Both sets of documents have since been discredited as exaggerated or fraudulent. At the time, however, they were believed by significant sections of the black and white communities to be true.

In 1871 testimony was taken in Mobile Alabama by a Committee of two Senators and three Congressmen into the activities of the Klu Klux Klan. This Committee's final 3 volumes of evidence was complicated by 'majority' and 'minority' findings. A Table of Alleged Outrages compiled from the Klu Klux Testimony for 1865-1871 provided the following summary for Choctaw County: 11 Killings, 1 Outrage, 3 Shootings, 0 Whippings, totalling 15 offences committed. In other words, the black population believed that the Klan was active in the County and that their campaign of aggression had resulted in 11 murders and 4 attempted murders (or 'warnings').

In 1883 a bundle of papers was found on the side of the road near DeSotoville in Choctaw. These papers outlined a plan, apparently in existence since 1878, for 400 armed negroes to massacre the entire white population of Choctaw County. The 'ringleaders' named in the documents were quickly rounded up and locked in the county jail at Butler. The alleged plotters included "a notorious black negro by the name Jack Turner" ("the head devil of the whole affair", "the evil spirit of the conspiracy"), "secretary Fred Bonner", and "Limon, a preacher". 

The next morning, before an assembled crowd of 700 in the main street of Butler, Bonner was taken from jail by the whites and "interrogated". Bonner denied all knowledge of the conspiracy. One newspaper reported, "He was tied up by the toes, while Rev. Limon was brought out to tell what he knew. He knew any-nothing at first, but under the refreshing and persuasive influence of the lash, applied vigorously on his bare back, he remembered and told a great many things...But he could not be whipped into telling where the books and other papers were kept".

Following this brazen display of extra-judicial examination, "it was unanimously agreed among the whites that 'Gen. Jack Turner ought to swing'. So accordingly he was taken from the jail, and between the hours of 12 and 1 o'clock in the broad open light of the day he was hanged to the limb of a tree on the main street of the town. There was a strong intimation manifested on the part of the people to hang the other six, but older and cooler counsel prevailed, and they were spared".

The white people of Choctaw were not strangers to public flogging or lynching. When roused, it was as if the years since 'the troubles' just melted away. The issue was about numbers (again) and 'due deference'. It did not matter whether the papers and the improbable plot they contained were genuine or not. The relevant fact was that whites at that time believed in its apparent confirmation of their own worst fears.

Old Jack Turner's real 'sin' was his role as political activist and Republican Party organiser. His reputation as a "turbulent and dangerous character, a regular firebrand in the community" was based on him being a black leader in the Loyalty League and someone 'who got the black vote out'. By encouraging black independence, Turner was judged 'insolent' and disrespectful to white sensibilities and political preferences.

In conclusion, it would not be accurate to assume that all whites in Choctaw County were Klu Klux Klan supporters or in favour of lynching. However, those who did disapprove were not vocal in their opposition. Their silence was to some extent complicit. The mob-rule elements of summary executions may have intimidated some whites into effectively condoning 'rough justice'. But this defense is inherently weak on moral grounds. In a functional democracy, and particularly in a culture that prides itself on 'community policing', dissenting voices should be heard.

Something that can be assumed from contemporary press reports is the extreme sensitivity of Southern whites to how others see their behaviour. This is demonstrated by articles in the next editions of regional newspapers that addressed the Turner lynching. The Choctaw Courier was adamant that everything was done properly and in perfect order, but its defensive argument betrays an essential unease.

"A big effort is being made by Republicans all over the district to make political capital about the hanging of Jack Turner; but it won't do. People at a distance can say what they please with impunity. They can charge us with timidity, cruelty, imprudence or anything they choose. The facts, however, will give lie to all their utterances. We are not only willing to undergo and investigation, but demand one to be properly understood by the world...
The papers themselves are as distinctively negro as the kinky head and black skin, and no one having the slightest knowledge of negro character would doubt, after reading the papers, that they were conceived and executed by the brain of a negro...
We expected to be maligned, and would have been disappointed had it been otherwise...
Conscious of right we fear neither lies, slanders, misconceptions nor courts. We acted in good faith, with calmness and deliberation, and can set ourselves right before the forum of the world...
As to the charge of excitement and fear, methinks it falls to the ground as meaningless slander when the cool and quiet manner in which the plot was suppressed is taken into consideration. To avoid all hasty or inconsiderated [sic] action, the bar rooms were closed and except about two hours Thursday afternoon, no whiskey was sold in Butler until after the hanging. Does this look like a frightened or excited action?
No people could have behaved better, and no people ever showed more magnanimity under excessive aggravation than the people of Choctaw county throughout this entire trouble..."



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