Race and the Second Amendment: Reconstruction and Repression

by Scott Wagner

This is the second part of our series on race and the Second Amendment. For Part One, click here. For Part Three, click here.

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

For white Southerners, the end of the Civil War in 1865 was nothing short of apocalyptic.

Thousands of their beloved sons and husbands lay dead on the battlefields, their mangled corpses rent by the brutal efficiencies of modern warfare. Their crops, homes, and livelihoods were burned to ash and spread into oblivion by the cold, merciless winds. The once Edenic city of Atlanta was, in the words of General William T. Sherman, “smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.” Worse still for Southern sensibilities, enslaved persons were asserting their freedom and their personhood—some even took up arms in the conquering Union Army. Southern economic infrastructure was shattered; their social hierarchy was upturned; their homeland was occupied. The War for Southern Secession was over, and the South had lost.

Before evacuating Atlanta, Confederate General John B. Hood blew up his munitions train and the depot with it. Library of Congress

But as the next 12 years would show, the War for Southern Society had only just begun. During Reconstruction (1865-1877), Black freedmen and Radical Republicans strove to break up the racist social hierarchy of the Confederacy and guarantee the full freedoms of the Constitution to former enslaved persons. But intransigent white Southerners fought them every step of the way, determined to preserve white supremacy by any means necessary.

For both sides, the key to victory was securing the right to bear arms. Radical Republicans ardently worked to disarm Americans still loyal to the ideals of the Confederacy and commissioned freedmen into state militias as a counterweight to white resistance. But their efforts could not overcome the vitriol of racial hatred in the South. White Southerners stubbornly refused to lay down their guns, claiming that the weapons were needed for self-defense in the event of Black retribution and a potential race war. Their aggressive actions, however, suggest the true purpose was offensive, not protective. Southern Redeemers repeatedly tried to disarm Black freedmen, first through legislative measures; when those failed, they formed paramilitary organizations to confiscate weapons from freedmen and terrorize them and their Republican allies into acquiescence. The Second Amendment was meant to protect the freedom of the American people by guaranteeing their access to weaponry; instead, it became the primary means by which Confederate sympathizers regained control of the South and ushered in a new century of segregation, abuse, and white supremacy.

The Road to Representation

An enslaved man named Gordon, later known as “Whipped Peter,” displaying the horrific bite marks of the white man’s whip. Photo taken in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, April 2, 1863

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Southerners reconstituted their state governments and redrafted legislation to accommodate the eradication of slavery. The new laws, known as “Black Codes,” were blatant attempts to preserve slavery in all but name. They envisioned former enslaved persons becoming contract plantation laborers—but with the added stipulation that laborers who absconded from their contracts could be hunted down and returned, much like enslaved persons in the antebellum period.

In addition to preserving the economic structure of slavery, the codes attempted to enforce prewar social norms regarding access to weaponry. Mississippi’s Black Code stated that “no freedman, free Negro, or mulatto…shall keep or carry firearms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk, or Bowie knife.” Florida’s Black Code also prohibited firearm ownership for freedmen and stipulated that infringements could be enforced with “39 stripes”—a punishment reserved solely for Black individuals. The message was clear: the end of slavery would not upend long-held social and political dynamics in the South.

The new state militias would make sure of that. Reconstituted after the war, the militias were the main police force available to the former Confederate states. The fact that they were often outfitted in the grey jackets of the Confederate Army left little doubt about their motivations and objectives. According to historian Otis Singletary, “disarming the freedmen was apparently considered a primary duty” of the militia. They actively scoured the countryside, seizing any weapons belonging to freedmen and administering punishment to those found in possession of firearms. Freedmen were no longer enslaved, but the repressive hand of white state militias shackled their efforts for full liberty.

The Radical Republicans then in control of Congress refused to see their plans for Reconstruction scuppered so swiftly. On March 2, 1867, they passed the first of the Reconstruction Acts, which seized power from Southern state governments and placed it in the hands of military governors. Power would only be returned to the states once they had drafted acceptable state constitutions and agreed to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended citizenship to freedmen and guaranteed them equal protection to “life, liberty, [and] property.”

A subtle but no less significant restriction was included in the Army Appropriations Bill, passed on the same day. “All militia forces now organized” in the formerly rebellious Southern states, the bill declared, are “forthwith disbanded, and the further organization, arming, or calling into service of the said militia forces…is hereby prohibited under any circumstances whatsoever.” In one fell swoop, a sanctimonious Congress struck down both the racist legislation of Southern states and the primary tool used to enforce that legislation.
But Congress had no control over the hearts and minds of bitter Southerners resentful of their recent defeat. When the militias were disbanded, paramilitary organizations took their place to fight for Southern Redemption. Foremost among them was the Ku Klux Klan.

“The Union As It Was: The Lost Cause Worse than Slavery,” lithograph by Thomas Nast. Published in Harper’s Weekly, October 24, 1874.

Garbed in hoods of white and armed with rifles, swords, and racial hatred, the Ku Klux Klan cut a swath of violence across the former Confederacy during the early years of Reconstruction. Though the term wasn’t used at the time, they were in effect a white supremacist terrorist organization. Comprised of well-to-do Southern citizens and former Confederate soldiers, the Klan worked to restore the former social and political structures of the South, where Black individuals were little more than disenfranchised laborers and white men reigned supreme in all affairs. To that end, they terrorized prominent Black political and civic leaders in an effort to discourage Black participation in the political process. One such victim was Abram Colby, a freedman and representative in the Georgia state legislature. In a painful testimony to Congress, Colby narrated his ordeal:

On the 29th of October 1869, [the Klansmen] broke my door open, took me out of bed, took me to the woods and whipped me three hours or more and left me for dead. They said to me, “Do you think you will ever vote another damned Radical [Republican] ticket?” I said, “If there was an election tomorrow, I would vote the Radical ticket.” They set in and whipped me a thousand licks more, with sticks and straps that had buckles on the ends of them.

In addition to whipping Colby within an inch of his life, the Klan also riddled Colby’s house with bullets and threatened to kill his wife and daughter. Debilitated by his injuries, Colby did not seek reelection.

The goal was subjugation; an unarmed populace is far easier to cow than an armed and vigilant one. As part of their crusade of white violence, the KKK seized weapons from freedmen. A thirteen-volume Congressional report on Klan activities written in 1872 is littered with testimonies of firearm confiscation. Typically, a posse of Klan members would approach a freedman’s home at night. They would demand that he turn over any weapons. Outgunned, outmanned, and petrified by the ghastly apparitions at his door, the freedman would accede, at which point the Klansmen would seize his weapons and assault or torture the freedman for good measure. Like the Founding Fathers, the Ku Klux Klan knew that an armed populace was the surest guarantor of liberty; to protect their authority, they steadfastly guarded their weapons while denying the same rights to Black Americans.

A still from Birth of a Nation (1915), where the freedmen are the villains and the Ku Klux Klan the heroes in D.W. Griffith’s racist fantasy.

The KKK dominated the headlines, but the entire South was a conflagration of insurgency violence during Reconstruction—and due to the disbandment of the state militias, governors had no power to put an end to the endemic conflict. Federal troops remained in the region, but outside of a few instances, President Ulysses S. Grant resisted using the US Army to police the South. In 1869, Congress begrudgingly repealed the prohibition on state militias in the South but only in states that were safely controlled by Radical Republican governors. By limiting the repeal, Congress hoped to ensure that the state militias became tools to enforce Reconstruction rather than white supremacy.

That, however, was easier said than done. Militias couldn’t be formed from the full body politic, as many citizens harbored strong Confederate sympathies and saw the Reconstruction governments as illegitimate. Before the disbandment of the previous North Carolina militia, for example, the commander of the New Hanover County militia was also the leader of the Wilmington branch of the Ku Klux Klan. In order for the militiamen to constitute an effective peacekeeping force, governors needed to ensure their commitment to policies of Reconstruction.

There was only one group that governors could trust to be loyal: freedmen. Their newfound political and social liberties were inseparably tied to the success of Reconstruction policies; they, more than anyone, had an active stake in the fight against white supremacy. Left with no other options, Radical Republican governors outfitted former enslaved persons as members of the new state militias. In doing so, they challenged the very nature of the Second Amendment and the white supremacists who used it for their own ends. The backlash was ferocious.

The Road to Repression

“The Black man has never had the right either to keep or bear arms,” Frederick Douglass bemoaned in a speech to the American Antislavery Society in 1865. That changed with the creation of Black militias under Radical governors during Reconstruction. Membership in a militia corps gave freedmen access to weapons for self-defense and protection from white paramilitary groups. Enterprising Black leaders formed private militias of their own and petitioned state governors to be outfitted as government forces. In Hamburg, South Carolina, Intendent John Gardner begged Governor Franklin Moses to commission his Black militia into the state forces “and use your authority in immediately arming them” to protect the community against a band of white paramilitary cavalrymen then in the area. Service in the new militias allowed Black men, for the first time in US history, to legally express their right of self-defense.

A sketch from an 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly depicting the Freedmen’s Bureau preventing racial violence in the South. Library of Congress

White Southerners complained that the Black militias were not a defensive force, but rather a tool for retaliation. They feared that after years of brutalizing Black bodies, the sins of slaveowning would be returned upon them in equal measure. Though rare, incidents of retaliation did occur, feeding the paranoid anxiety of former slave owners. One commentator in North Carolina feared that the presence of armed Black soldiers would bring about “a general massacre of the white population.” In the eyes of white Southerners, armed Black militias represented an existential threat. “We have a duty to perform,” said one Florida Supreme Court Justice, “the protection of our wives and children from threatened danger, and the prevention of scenes which may cost the extinction of an entire race.”

As horrifying as the thought of armed Black men was for whites, the ideological implications of a Black militia were perhaps even more troubling. Recall from the first part of this series that a militia was meant to be comprised of all the members of the body politic, or the “People.” It was the basic unit of political organization in the United States, particularly for middle- and lower-class citizens. By extending militia membership to freedmen, Radical governors were tacitly admitting them into the body politic. Black men were now a part of the “People.”

Their membership in the body politic was made explicit with the deployments of the new Black militias. Governors called upon them to protect polling places, ostensibly to ensure free and fair elections. There was an element of realpolitik here; freedmen were more likely to vote Republican, and by protecting voting booths with Black militias, Republican governors hoped to drive up Black turnout and increase their chances of electoral success. For white Southerners perturbed at the new social hierarchy, however, the presence of armed Black militiamen standing guard at the polls as former enslaved persons cast their votes was the surest sign that the world had turned upside down. There was only one recourse to protect their privileged place in the racist social hierarchy: take up arms and fight back.

And fight back they did. White paramilitary groups waylaid weapons shipments bound for Black militias in the South. They launched frequent attacks on Black militia companies, terrifying them into ineffectiveness or disbandment. One letter to Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames from a paramilitary group known as the White League taunted Ames to “send out your Negro troops and Gatlin[g] guns, and we will wipe them from the face of the Earth, which they disgrace. We have the best rifles, and [are] eager for an opportunity to use them.”

When they did use them, the skirmishes often went poorly for the Black militias. One such tragedy occurred in Grant Parish, Louisiana in 1873. After a Black militia unit moved into the parish seat in Colfax to protect the local Republican government, a force of white irregulars including members of the White League and the KKK launched an assault. The Black militiamen surrendered after the white forces brought a cannon to bear on the courthouse, but clemency was not an option; the white mob murdered somewhere between 60 and 150 Black men. A historical marker still stands at the site of the Colfax Massacre; the marker celebrates “the end of carpetbag misrule in the South,” rather than condemning the brutal killing of Black citizens.

Even apparent successes for Reconstruction governments soon backfired. In North Carolina, Governor William Woods Holden cracked down on the Ku Klux Klan, effectively eliminating the organization in his state. His heavy-handed tactics, including the suspension of habeas corpus and his use of Black militiamen, won him no support among the white population of North Carolina. In the midterm elections of 1870, a resurgent Democratic Party regained control of both houses in the state legislature. They impeached Holden a month later; one of the articles of impeachment referred to Holden’s “unlawful recruitment of troops.”

Holden got to leave in peace; in Louisiana, Governor William Pitt Kellogg left bloodied. The 1872 Louisiana election was disputed between Kellogg and the Democratic candidate, John McEnery. The dispute dragged on for a year, until President Grant stepped in and backed Kellogg. McEnery called on his supporters for aid; a force of 5000 men, largely made up of members of the White League and other affiliated groups, launched an attack on New Orleans in September 1874. They overpowered Kellogg’s Black militia—which was led by former Confederate General James Longstreet—and forced Kellogg to cower in the Custom House. Federal troops stepped in and restored Kellogg to power a few days later, but the coup d’etat effectively shattered the legitimacy of his Reconstruction government.

An engraving depicting the Battle of Liberty Place in an 1874 issue of Harper’s Weekly

The justifications of the White League responsible for the Battle of Liberty Place are revealing. In an event commemorating the one-year anniversary of the attack, a spokesman proclaimed that the attack was necessary because the “[white] militia was disbanded, their arms taken from them, and an exclusively negro militia organized instead.” Frederick Nash Ogden, who led the White League forces at Liberty Place, sold the attack as a “peacekeeping” effort. “One of the objects of the White League,” Nash said, “is to preserve the peace and hold in check our turbulent element”—no doubt referring to the Black militias. When pressed further, Nash responded sharply: “The right to bear arms is guaranteed to every citizen. Would you have deprived us of that right?”

To white Southerners, the new Reconstruction governments represented the very thing the Second Amendment was meant to protect against. The governments—often led by Republicans from the North known as “carpetbaggers”—were seen as impositions by the domineering federal government, rather than representatives of the Southern people. They systematically tried to disarm white Southerners and redistribute those arms to their own Black militias, who often served as de-facto private armies for the Radical Republican governors. From that perspective, then, the Reconstruction governments embodied the very form of tyranny feared by Madison, Jefferson, and the other Founding Fathers.

The incongruousness of white supremacists and former slaveowners whining about oppression is darkly ironic, to say the least, and exposes the fundamental conflict inherent in the Second Amendment. To protect their liberty, a free people must be guaranteed the right to bear arms. But who, exactly, is the “People?” Up until the Civil War, the body politic was restricted to white men; with the eradication of slavery and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, Black men were now legally a part of the body politic and entitled to all the rights and privileges therein. Such a massive social upheaval was unpalatable for white Southerners—and, indeed, some white Northerners as well—who could not accept Black Americans as social or political equals. Stymied by legislation in Congress and the state Reconstruction governments, Southerners took up arms, all the while couching their resistance in a Second Amendment defense of liberty—but the liberty they professed to protect was as white as their hoods and their robes.

Black expression begets white anxiety, which fuels conservative backlash. During Reconstruction, the sight of Black freedmen asserting their new liberties infuriated white Southerners, who responded by creating the Ku Klux Klan. The characters changed, but the story remains the same. 100 years after Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement ushered in a new era of Black liberty, but the corresponding white disquietude spawned a conservative renaissance that propelled the National Rifle Association to political prominence.

Scott Wagner is the supervising editor of INTERZINE.

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