A Contested Election: Report to Congress on the Activities of the Ku Klux Klan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The activities of the newly organized Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee so disrupted the 1868 election in the Fourth Congressional District that Governor William Brownlow invalidated the election results and declared Republican candidate Lewis Tillman the winner. Conservative candidate C. A. Sheafe, who received the majority of votes, contested the decision and petitioned the US House of Representatives to reverse Brownlow’s ruling. The House committee tasked with investigating the matter took extensive testimony, which revealed the nature and extent of the Klan’s efforts to intimidate African Americans and their white supporters. As a result, the House of Representatives decided that Tillman should be awarded the seat in Congress. The committee’s inquiry prompted widespread interest in Klan activities and was instrumental in the establishment of a joint committee of Congress to investigate the Klan’s influence across the South.

Summary Overview

The activities of the newly organized Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee so disrupted the 1868 election in the Fourth Congressional District that Governor William Brownlow invalidated the election results and declared Republican candidate Lewis Tillman the winner. Conservative candidate C. A. Sheafe, who received the majority of votes, contested the decision and petitioned the US House of Representatives to reverse Brownlow’s ruling. The House committee tasked with investigating the matter took extensive testimony, which revealed the nature and extent of the Klan’s efforts to intimidate African Americans and their white supporters. As a result, the House of Representatives decided that Tillman should be awarded the seat in Congress. The committee’s inquiry prompted widespread interest in Klan activities and was instrumental in the establishment of a joint committee of Congress to investigate the Klan’s influence across the South.

Defining Moment

In August 1868 the Tennessee state legislature had initiated its own investigation into the activities of the Ku Klux Klan as part of an ongoing campaign by Radical Republican Governor William Brownlow to reactivate the Tennessee State Guard, a militia under his control. The Guard was established in 1867 and used effectively to keep peace during elections that year; however, early in 1868 it was deactivated. Reports during the spring of 1868 of growing violence against African Americans and white Americans who supported Republicans made Brownlow fearful that congressional elections in November would be disrupted. Convinced that federal troops would be unavailable to stop Klan violence, Brownlow called a special session of the Tennessee legislature in July 1868 to push through legislation reactivating the Guard.

During the session, a joint military committee conducted an inquiry into Klan activities. Led by Tennessee state senator William J. Smith and state representative William F. Prosser, former Union officers and staunch supporters of Reconstruction, the committee took testimony from dozens of witnesses who told horrifying stories of intimidation, physical abuse, rape, and murder. The committee’s report was printed in September 1868. To Brownlow’s dismay, however, the bill authorizing reestablishment of the Guard did not pass in time for him to deploy troops to areas where Klan violence was likely to be highest during the November election.

Initial results in Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional District indicated that conservative C. A. Sheafe defeated Republican Lewis Tillman by a comfortable majority. Governor Brownlow was convinced that Klan intimidation kept many of the district’s nearly eight thousand African Americans from voting; he declared the results invalid and certified Tillman as the winner. Sheafe contested the decision, and in 1869 the matter was taken up in the US House of Representatives, which has the power to seat its members.

The House committee adjudicating Sheafe’s claim heard testimony from individuals who had been subject to Klan intimidation. Also testifying was Tennessee state senator William J. Wisener, another member of the state legislature’s joint military committee. Through him, extracts from the joint military committee’s report were made part of the House investigation. The House committee also incorporated into its report information from an 1868 account of Klan activities in Tennessee submitted by Major General William P. Carlin, assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau, to Major General Oliver O. Howard, commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Washington, DC, as well as accounts from other bureau agents. Their reports confirmed the testimony of witnesses to both the Tennessee legislature in 1868 and the House committee in 1869 that the Ku Klux Klan was a growing menace, posing a serious threat to the restoration of democracy and the guarantee of equal rights in former Confederate states.

Author Biography

The principals in the 1868 election in Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional District were little more than pawns in the chess game between Southerners intent on restoring the social and political order as it had existed before the war and Radicals bent on reconstructing the state in the image of its Northern neighbors. Ironically, Republican candidate Lewis Tillman was a Tennessee native who had spent his career in the state’s court system and as a newspaper editor, while his conservative opponent, C. A. Sheafe, was an Ohioan who had served in the federal army before moving to Tennessee.

That the Ku Klux Klan played a role in keeping Tillman’s supporters from the polls seems indisputable, yet it is in some ways remarkable. Founded in 1866, the Klan had no strong formal organization; many bands of miscreants rode through the countryside calling themselves Klansmen. While the perpetrators of violence were most often members of the working classes, a number of prominent Southerners had ties to the Klan, helping to protect other Klansmen accused of crimes. The Klan remained active throughout the South until the mid-1870s.

In Tennessee the fight against the Klan was led by William G. Brownlow. Born in 1805 in Virginia, Brownlow became a minister and was a traveling preacher throughout Appalachia before settling in Elizabethton, Tennessee, in 1836. Before the Civil War he was editor of a pro-Union newspaper. He left the state after Tennessee seceded but returned in 1863 when Union troops established an occupation force there. He was elected governor in 1865 and was reelected in 1867, largely on votes of his new constituency, freed slaves. Shortly after the 1868 elections, he began lobbying the legislature to appoint him US senator for Tennessee, a position he assumed in March 1869. After serving one term, he returned to Tennessee and resumed his newspaper career until his death in 1877.

Among the groups that gathered information on atrocities committed by the Ku Klux Klan and other reactionary groups in the South, none was more important than the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Established by Congress in 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau, as it was popularly known, assisted freed slaves with a variety of economic and political issues. Led by Union General Oliver O. Howard, a native of Maine, the Bureau placed agents throughout the South to carry out its mission. These agents were often targets of Klan violence themselves, and their reports to the Bureau’s headquarters in Washington, DC, provided further evidence of the difficulties African Americans faced in becoming fully integrated into postwar society.

Document Analysis

The excerpt above is part of an official report of a committee of the US House of Representatives appointed in 1869 to investigate a contested election that took place the previous November in Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional District. The committee was charged with making recommendations to the full House regarding a challenge filed by C. A. Sheafe, who had won the popular vote. Governor William Brownlow, determining that voter intimidation had been rampant in the district, certified Sheafe’s opponent, Republican candidate Lewis Tillman, as the winner. The committee’s report is contained in the Miscellaneous Documents of the Forty-First Congress (1869–71) under the title Papers in the Contested Election Case of Sheafe vs. Tillman in the Fourth Congressional District of Tennessee, which has an official printing date of February 11, 1870. The excerpted passages are taken from official reports and witness testimony that describe conditions in Tennessee during the spring and summer of 1868. The initial selection provides a summary and findings from a joint military committee appointed in August 1868 by the Tennessee legislature to investigate activities of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was thought to be responsible for an ongoing campaign of intimidation directed at recently freed slaves and their white supporters in order to keep those in the state supportive of Radical Republicans from voting or exercising other civil rights. Reports written by agents or managers of the Freedmen’s Bureau provide information to superiors about the conditions of freed slaves in regions for which the agents were responsible. The brief excerpt from testimony by Reverend H. O. Hoffman describes his experience with the Klan.

Like most reports, the document prepared by the House of Representatives has a formal organization that reflects the conduct of the investigation. In the full report, transcripts of questions posed to each witness and witnesses’ responses are recorded verbatim. Among those testifying before the House committee was Tennessee state senator William Wisener, who provided information about his own experiences with the Klan as well as information from reports he had received while serving as a member of the joint military committee. As a supplement to Wisener’s testimony, the congressional committee authorized the printing of an appendix that offers further evidence of the scope and characteristics of activities being conducted by the Klan. The excerpts above are taken from this appendix, which provides graphic details of the Klan’s activities throughout Tennessee.

Founded as a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan quickly transformed into an agency of white supremacists and former secessionists disgruntled with Radical Republican efforts to give African Americans equal rights. At a meeting held in Nashville in 1867, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was selected as national head of the organization. Despite some attempt to create a structure and hierarchy (complete with mysterious titles for leaders such as “Grand Wizard,” “Grand Dragon,” and “Grand Cyclops,” to name a few), the Klan remained only loosely organized and its leaders had little control over individual groups operating locally under its aegis. In keeping with the secretive nature of the organization, Klan members tended to act at night and nearly always wore disguises. Many Southerners insisted that the Ku Klux Klan did not exist at all. Supporters claimed that much of the violence attributed to the Klan was imagined by its supposed victims, and that night riders who might have caused injury on occasion were simply vigilantes or misguided fun-seeking youth who meant no real harm.

The Testimony

The excerpts from the House of Representatives report represent a sampling of firsthand testimony describing encounters between the Ku Klux Klan and its many victims, and secondhand accounts from officials who routinely received reports of acts of violence. In the first passage, the authors of the joint military committee’s report to the Tennessee legislature make clear that, despite protests from many white citizens that the Klan was not really dangerous, this “organization of armed men” posed a serious threat to the safety and well-being of the state’s African American population. The summary statement that “poor negroes” were being robbed of their firearms, whipped, hanged, shot, and driven from their homes is based on testimony from numerous African American victims and from white Americans who either witnessed the atrocities or learned of them shortly after they occurred.

The committee seems to go out of its way to stress the widespread nature of the Klan’s reign of terror. Traditionally, Tennesseans viewed their state as being divided into three broad regions. When talk of secession grew in 1861, West and Middle Tennessee, areas with many slaveholders, sided with the newly forming Confederacy. East Tennessee, populated by small farmers, was inclined to remain in the Union. While one might have expected trouble in the western and middle regions of the state, the authors of the report make it explicit that all three sections were experiencing an upsurge of Klan violence. After claiming that the “depredations” caused by the Klan extended across the entire state, the committee lists specific counties in which violence was especially prevalent. This list actually served a second purpose: it provided Governor Brownlow a reason for declaring martial law in particularly troubled areas and for deploying troops from the Tennessee State Guard there. Although the governor was unable to send troops in before the November election, after the State Guard was finally reactivated early in 1869, Brownlow declared martial law in nine counties in February.

Particularly noteworthy, too, is the report’s stress on the violence committed against white Americans in Tennessee who were working to advance the improvement of the African American population. Virtually every person identified in the excerpt from the joint military committee report is white, including numerous individuals teaching in African American schools who had been intimidated, beaten, or otherwise threatened simply for wanting to educate former slaves. The report’s authors also play upon a fear common among Southerners, the desecration of the family (“women and children have been subjected to the torture of the lash”) and especially of women (“the persons of females have been violated”). Though perhaps not intentional, there is a note of irony in this behavior. One of the principal arguments of white supremacists was that, if not checked, African Americans would take advantage of white women and adulterate the purity of the race.

Because the joint military committee report was being submitted to colleagues in the legislature, the authors include incidents in which elected officials have suffered at the hands of Klansmen who have no respect for the law or those sworn to uphold it. The extensive description of the treatment of the aging Senator William Wyatt is intended to make fellow legislators realize that the danger posed by the Klan could easily be visited upon them. The allusion to State Senator Almon Case and his son would have also caused consternation among Radical legislators. Case was murdered in January 1867, his son four months earlier. Case’s assailant was known but escaped prosecution because he enjoyed the protection of white Americans sympathetic to the Klan’s activities. The committee may have been looking toward the upcoming congressional elections when they cited the case of Samuel M. Arnell, who had been elected to the US House of Representatives in a contested election a year earlier. Arnell’s experience makes it clear that even members of Congress had much to fear from Klansmen “thirsting” for their blood.

Reports from various officials of the Freedmen’s Bureau corroborate the testimony of witnesses before the joint military committee and the congressional committee investigating the contested election. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established as the Civil War was coming to a close by President Abraham Lincoln, who foresaw that former slaves would need assistance in becoming independent citizens. Designed to provide legal, medical, educational, and economic aid, the Bureau established offices and deployed agents throughout the South. Their efforts met with stiff resistance from the white population, and many agents found themselves subjected to harassment and intimidation similar to that suffered by the clients they were supposed to be serving. Major General William Carlin’s report on conditions in West Tennessee highlights several cases of brutality that had occurred recently in this region, among them the ongoing hostility toward education for African Americans exhibited by “pro-slavery people,” by which he means former secessionists who had adopted the mantle of white supremacists. Throughout the South, many white Americans were fearful that, once educated, African Americans would become a powerful political force in communities where they outnumbered white people, and therefore posed a threat to their former masters. Few in the South believed that the races could coexist harmoniously; white Americans especially feared that educating and arming the African American population would inevitably lead to a revolution aimed at wiping out all white people.

Undoubtedly many of the attacks on African Americans perpetrated by the Klan were launched randomly against any African American unfortunate enough to be spotted by night riders out to cause mayhem and create terror. As the reports by agents A. H. Eastman and J. K. Nelson indicate, however, some African Americans were targeted for their political activity. Both Joshua Ferrell and D. Webb were told they were chosen by the Klan because they supported the Union League or the Loyal League, held Radical sympathies, or voted for the Radical Republican candidate for governor in the most recent election. The activities of the Union League (sometimes called the Loyal League) were particularly vexing to former secessionists and white supremacists. Founded in 1862 in Northern cities to support the Union cause, the Union League organized chapters in the South after the war to promote the Republican political agenda and to encourage African Americans to vote and become involved in politics. Many former slaves joined the Union League even if they were not political activists.

As every witness testifies, the Klan’s actions ranged from simple intimidation to significant physical violence, sometimes resulting in murder. In many cases threats alone were enough to cause white and African Americans alike to submit to the Klan’s will. One intimidation technique typical of many groups of Klansmen is described by the Reverend H. O. Hoffman, who reports having received threats himself, including one delivered in a fashion typical of Klansmen at the time: a note left in his yard warning him that his “name is before the Council” and that the Klan “will attend to you.” Such notes alone were often sufficient to deter whites from continuing to support African Americans, and in some cases caused them to leave the region rather than face the prospect of reprisal for their actions.

A number of whites were forced to submit to public insult, which, coupled with secondhand reports of violence, caused them to behave like agent J. K. Nelson, who slept with firearms nearby. Many African Americans, fearing for their lives and wishing to keep themselves and their families safe from Klan attacks, simply fled to what they perceived to be safer regions. As the joint military committee report indicates, this posed new problems: the “two hundred colored men” who fled to Nashville ended up “destitute of food, or any means of subsistence.” This early instance of African American flight to urban centers is a harbinger of what would come for many who left the harsh life of the segregated rural South only to end up no better off in crowded cities, where they remained victims of inequality and prejudice.

Language and Rhetoric

Some of the hyperbolic language in these excerpts can be attributed to a general tendency during the nineteenth century for Americans to assume an oratorical posture in their writing. A comparison of these reports with contemporary sermons might reveal striking similarities. Words such as “outrage,” “depredation,” and “reign of terror” appear regularly in written communications from this period, particularly in newspapers. While some accounts are emotionally charged and may be exaggerated, the sheer volume of reporting makes it evident that the Klan’s campaign of terror was effective in keeping freed slaves and their white supporters from exercising their civil rights.

The inclusion of lengthy descriptions of specific acts of mayhem and torture, however, would have had immediate impact on readers of these reports, and would have convinced even the most skeptical to agree that strong countermeasures were required to curb the Klan’s activities. Reverend Hoffman’s description of the injuries suffered by the “colored man by the name of Jeff,” agent Eastman’s testimony about the treatment Joshua Ferrell received simply because he supported Governor Brownlow and the Union League, and the manhandling of Minor Fletcher and D. Webb described by agent J. K. Nelson contain little overblown rhetoric. Instead, the graphic language used in a series of declarative sentences filled with strong action verbs conveys without exaggeration the horror of the circumstances in which these men found themselves. The detail with which incidents of brutality are described is clearly intended to provoke both fear and outrage. The elderly Senator Wyatt was pistol-whipped so badly that he suffered a “frightful gash, saturating his shirt with blood, leaving him insensible.” Joshua Ferrell, also old and apparently harmless, was similarly beaten, the pistol “cutting a gash half an inch wide, four inches long” into his skull. Little is left to the imagination except the unstated conclusion that incidents like these will continue to occur unless the Klan is neutralized.

Also common among these reports is the tendency to establish clear political and moral differences between perpetrators and victims in the attacks. For example, Senator Wyatt is described as “a Christian gentleman” and “a Union Man.” The schoolteacher Dunlap is “a member of the Methodist Church,” quiet and inoffensive. Many of the victims are former members of the Union Army. Those who threaten these honest, law-abiding, loyal citizens of the United States are violent, lawless bands intent on sedition. The attack on Senator Case indicates to the writers of the joint committee report that “no loyal man” is safe at present. Additionally, there is a sense running through these reports that these individual groups of “night-prowlers” are part of a larger, sinister organization that was creating a “system of anti-lawry and terrorism” for political motives: to deliver votes in the upcoming presidential election to the Democratic ticket.

The testimony recorded in these reports displays the power of anecdotal evidence in supporting an argument for government support of victims. The specific action sought by both state and federal officials was armed intervention. In his June 1868 report, Carlin makes it clear that Freedmen’s Bureau agents were powerless to “remedy” the “evils that cry out for redress,” and he predicts exactly what Governor Brownlow feared. The level of Klan activity in the early months of 1868 strongly suggested that “frequent disturbances” would continue to occur during the fall campaigns for president and seats in Congress. The Klan’s activities were certain to “bring about a state of affairs that will preclude the possibility for the colored people, and the active, out-spoken Union men” to vote in the November election. Carlin is clear in his belief that nothing short of martial law “will preserve the peace and insure safety.” No doubt in the summer of 1868 Governor Brownlow was pleased to see this kind of support for his own position against the Klan. For members of Congress receiving this report in 1870, the message was equally clear: some definite action was needed to ameliorate or eliminate Klan violence, or the country as a whole might slip back into anarchy and civil strife.

Essential Themes

The importance of congressional investigations into the activities of the Ku Klux Klan during the first decade following the end of the Civil War can hardly be overstated. Between 1866 and 1870 the Klan had spread to virtually every state in the former Confederacy. Its brutal campaign to intimidate the African American population in those states not only affected the political climate, but also caused many former slaves to fear for their lives and their property. The ability of Klansmen to act with impunity, knowing that sympathetic white officials in law enforcement and government would do little to prosecute them for any crimes they committed, created a virtual state of anarchy that many then and later would equate with terrorism. Although it is impossible to speculate on what might have happened, many scholars agree with those who witnessed Klan violence that the United States may well have slipped back into civil war had the Klan’s activities not been checked. Hence, reports that document the Klan’s systematic assault on equal rights were instrumental in bringing about action at the federal level to suppress the organization and restore order and the rule of law in the South.

Various investigations led to decisions that influenced the future of the nation. Undoubtedly the 1868 report prompted Tennessee legislators to reestablish the State Guard. In 1870 the House of Representatives was convinced by its committee’s report that the African American population in Tennessee had been denied their civil rights; it voted to allow Tillman to retain the disputed Fourth District seat in Congress. Widespread accounts of Klan violence such as the ones documented in the House committee’s report were instrumental in generating further action at the federal level. In 1871, Senator John Scott of Pennsylvania convened a congressional committee to investigate Klan activities in the South. The extensive testimony presented before Smith’s committee was published in thirteen volumes in 1872 as Report of the Joint Select Committee Appointed to Inquire in to the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States. It became the most important contemporary document outlining the nature and extent of Klan violence during the early years of Reconstruction. The report also prompted passage of a stronger law allowing the federal government to counter Klan activities, which were identified as supporting a specific political agenda, that of the Democratic Party.

As a result of strong enforcement by President Ulysses S. Grant, the Ku Klux Klan’s influence was almost completely nullified by 1877, when Reconstruction ended and former Confederate states were once again allowed to participate as full partners in the national government. Unfortunately, once free to act without federal supervision, many Southern states enacted laws that brought about the same result that the Klan had sought through violence: a segregated society in which African Americans remained separate and decidedly unequal.

Bibliography
  • Alexander, Thomas B. Political Reconstruction in Tennessee. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1950. Print.
  • Coulter, E. Merton. William G. Brownlow: Fighting Parson of the Southern Highlands. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1937. Print.
  • Katz, William L. The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan Impact on History. Washington: Open Hand, 1986. Print.
  • Queener, Verton M. “A Decade of East Tennessee Republicanism, 1867–1876.” East Tennessee Historical Society’s Publications 14 (1942): 59–85. Print.
  • Severance, Ben H. Tennessee’s Radical Army: The State Guard and Its Role in Reconstruction, 1867–1869. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2005. Print.
  • Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. New York: Harper, 1971. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Bergeron, Paul H., Stephen V. Ash, and Jeanette Keith. Tennesseans and Their History. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1999. Print.
  • Budiansky, Stephen. The Bloody Shirt: Terror after Appomattox. New York: Viking, 2008. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper, 1988. Print.
  • Horn, Stanley F. Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, 1866–1871. Cos Cob: Edwards, 1969. Print.
  • Martinez, J. Michael. Carpetbaggers, Cavalry, and the Ku Klux Klan: Exposing the Invisible Empire during Reconstruction. Lanham: Rowman, 2007. Print.
  • Newton, Michael. The Ku Klux Klan: History, Organization, Language, Influence, and Activities of America’s Most Notorious Secret Society. Jefferson: McFarland, 2007. Print.
  • Patton, James Welch. Unionism and Reconstruction in Tennessee 1860–1869. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1980. Print.
  • Rable, George C. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2007. Print.
  • Randel, William P. The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1965. Print.
  • Summers, Mark W. A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009. Print.
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