Notice from the Ku Klux Klan to Davie Jeems Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first years after the Civil War proved to be a time of racial and political violence in the former Confederacy. Federal troops enforced the rights of former slaves to vote and own property, and many of the former Confederate states achieved biracial Republican legislatures and set up schools, transportation networks, and civil assistance organizations for former slaves. Former Confederate soldiers–disenfranchised, armed, and eager to restore white supremacy–took advantage of the postwar chaos to threaten and intimidate African American citizens. Republicans, white and black, were targets of gangs, especially the newly formed Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which used violence to deprive newly enfranchised Southern black citizens of their rights. In 1868 alone, the Freedmen's Bureau catalogued 336 cases of murder or attempted murder. The KKK attacked black men and women and white “carpetbaggers,” outsiders who were assumed to be (and usually were) aiding the cause of the former slaves. In this letter, an anonymous writer assumes the character of the ghost of a Confederate soldier to threaten a black elected official in Lincoln County, Georgia.

Summary Overview

The first years after the Civil War proved to be a time of racial and political violence in the former Confederacy. Federal troops enforced the rights of former slaves to vote and own property, and many of the former Confederate states achieved biracial Republican legislatures and set up schools, transportation networks, and civil assistance organizations for former slaves. Former Confederate soldiers–disenfranchised, armed, and eager to restore white supremacy–took advantage of the postwar chaos to threaten and intimidate African American citizens. Republicans, white and black, were targets of gangs, especially the newly formed Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which used violence to deprive newly enfranchised Southern black citizens of their rights. In 1868 alone, the Freedmen's Bureau catalogued 336 cases of murder or attempted murder. The KKK attacked black men and women and white “carpetbaggers,” outsiders who were assumed to be (and usually were) aiding the cause of the former slaves. In this letter, an anonymous writer assumes the character of the ghost of a Confederate soldier to threaten a black elected official in Lincoln County, Georgia.

Defining Moment

In the Georgia state elections of 1867 and 1868, many seats were won by black candidates or white Republicans seen to be closely allied with their interests. This outraged many former Confederates, and the Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1866 in Tennessee, gained significant support in Georgia. For many white people in Georgia, the KKK and its public wing, the Young Men's Democratic Club, offered the chance to take action and return the states to what they considered the proper racial hierarchy. In early 1868, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest visited Atlanta several times, and though his meetings were secret, it is widely believed that he used these visits to set up a formal Ku Klux Klan organization in the state. On March 31, 1868, Republican organizer George Ashburn was murdered in Columbus, and by the summer of 1868, attacks against African Americans and their allies were widespread across Georgia.

Many of the members of the Ku Klux Klan were former Confederate soldiers who were armed, experienced fighters with a personal reason to hate carpetbaggers, or Northerners who moved to the South after the Civil War, and the changes to the political and social structure that came with the enfranchisement of African American voters. Many believed that black voters were being tricked into supporting Republican candidates, since they were too ignorant to know for whom to vote. Like the Confederate “rebel yell,” early Klan activity was designed to terrorize and intimidate. They paraded at night dressed in ominous white costumes and left letters and posters signed by the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers. They threatened Republican leaders with violence unless they left their post. Homes and barns were burned to the ground, and livestock was stolen or slaughtered. The Ku Klux Klan became increasingly violent through 1868, and to add to threats and intimidation, there were hundreds of cases of whippings, particularly of women, as well as arson and murder.

The political terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan was very effective in Georgia. At some polling places, the Klan was able to overpower federal troops protecting voters. In elections from April to November of 1868, the Democrats won dozens of seats, as voters were too intimidated to vote for Republican candidates. Some elected officials were too frightened to take their seats and resigned. Georgia was almost completely under conservative Democratic control by the end of 1871.

In addition to political terrorism, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to return free Southern blacks to a state of servitude. They whipped women seen as insolent, burned churches and schools, disrupted social gatherings, and attacked teachers and relief workers. Anyone who was accused of not showing the proper deference to a white man could be beaten or killed. African American communities became increasingly isolated, but also developed strong internal support networks. After the Klan's political goals were realized and its leaders aggressively pursued by the federal government, the popularity of the organization waned, though local groups remained active. The note left for Davie Jeems in 1868 was typical of the kind of intimidation technique employed by the Ku Klux Klan that resulted in Republican losses throughout the state.

Author Biography

The writer of the note to Davie Jeems is an anonymous Ku Klux Klan member, so nothing is known about him. He adopted the character of the ghost of a Confederate soldier–“I was Killed at Manassus in 1861”–and notes that there are 200,000 dead Confederates all around. “I am here now as Locust in the day Time and at night I am a Ku Klux sent here to look after you and all the rest of the radicals and make you know your place.”

Davie Jeems, the man to whom the note is addressed, was a black Republican who had recently won the election for Lincoln County sheriff. It is not clear how Jeems responded to this note.

Document Analysis

This letter is typical of the kind of terrorism used by the Ku Klux Klan in 1868 to turn the political tide in their favor. The Klan was murdering elected officials during this time, so a note like this was a very real threat.

The writer of the note begins with sinister humor, telling Jeems to be “be a good boy” and not shoot his gun in the night, as it “keep[s] people from sleeping.” This may be a reference to an earlier altercation, or is offered as evidence that the writer is familiar with Jeems' habits. The writer then identifies himself as a ghost living “above the Ford of the Creek” and says that he is a Confederate soldier killed at the First Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run), in Virginia, in 1861.

The threatening tone continues with a promise of constant surveillance: “I have got my eye on you every day.” The writer identifies the members of the Ku Klux Klan as the ghosts of Confederate soldiers who come out at night, saying, “at night I am a Ku Klux sent here to look after you and all the rest of the radicals and make you know your place.” Jeems and another man, identified as Platt Madison, are issued a thinly veiled death threat: “We have, a Box. For him and you. We nail all, radicals up in Boxes.”

The writer returns a number of times to the theme of the dead Confederate soldier as the new Ku Klux Klan member, such as when he states, “There is. 200 000 ded men returned to this country.” Their mission is clearly political: “to make you and all the rest of the radicals good Democrats and vote right with the white people.” According to the writer, the only way that Jeems and other black Georgians would be safe would be to join the local Democrats, or get out of town. If they chose not to, “no nigger is safe.” Jeems is encouraged to pass the threat on to his friends.

This note makes the political objectives of the Ku Klux Klan plain. Davie Jeems was instructed to switch political allegiances, “leave this country,” or be killed. The haunting image of Confederate ghosts coming back to restore racial and political order is employed throughout the note, and it connects the KKK once again to white Southerners who were angry and armed following the recent war.

Essential Themes

The most prominent theme in this note is the author's desire to control the political behavior of the recipient through threats of violence. The note makes it clear that black voters and officeholders will not be safe from the Ku Klux Klan unless they step down or declare their allegiance to the Democratic Party.

Another theme of this note is the role that Confederate soldiers played in the Ku Klux Klan. The writer of the note claims to be a dead soldier and also states that there were 200,000 more ghosts like him all around. They were watching black men and women by day and became Klan members at night. Thus the Klan was tied directly to the soldiers who had fought the Union, and the Klan paid homage to their deaths.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bryant, Jonathan M. “Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction Era.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. Georgia Humanities Council, 9 May 2013. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.
  • Martinez, J. Michael. Carpetbaggers, Cavalry, and the Ku Klux Klan: Exposing the Invisible Empire during Reconstruction. Lanham: Rowman, 2007. Print.
  • Onion, Rebecca. “Threats from a Ghost: An 1868 Intimidation Letter Sent by the KKK.” Slate. TheSlateGroup, 8 Apr. 2013. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.
  • Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. 1971. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1995. Print.
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