After Slavery: Educator Resources

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10. A Spartanburg Republican Offers President Grant Advice on How to Suppress Paramilitary Violence

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Nine: Coercion, Paramilitary Terror, and Resistance in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Although in some ways the federal government's intervention in South Carolina was more effective than anywhere else in the former Confederacy, critics at the time asserted that President Ulysses S. Grant fell short in his efforts to extinguish the Ku Klux Klan. After a much-publicized series of trials in 1871 and 1872, violence faded for a while but revived sharply as the 1874 election approached. News from Louisiana and elsewhere in the South brought renewed confidence to whites seeking the overthrow of Reconstruction, and by the summer of 1874, as the following communication suggests, white conservatives were on the march again and looking for a fight. This letter, from Dr. John Winnsmith, a planter-physician and a moderate white Republican from the South Carolina upcountry, offers an important critique of the policy pursued by Grant, and suggests that even at this late date there were possibilities for thwarting the revival of white supremacy.

A Spartanburg Republican Offers President Grant Advice on How to Suppress Paramilitary Violence

Spartanburg, So. Ca.
Oct. 5, 1874...

Mr. President:
When I addressed you on the 4th of February last, I desired that you would give me an appointment to office. I do not now desire any civil appointment from the General Government. The State of South Carolina is now passing through a bloody ordeal, and as a citizen and as a Republican, I cannot think of absenting myself from my post of duty.

During the reign of terror here under the Ku Klux rule, I thought proper to communicate to your Excellency the extent and power of that infamous organization; and I even went so far as to respectfully suggest to you the propriety of sending General Sheridan to South Carolina to crush the hideous monsterKu Kluxism. You, however, did not think proper to send him. The result has been [an ineffective campaign to suppress the Klan]; a few trials and convictions in the U. S. Courts; and then the pardoning of the criminals. I believed then, as I believe now, that if you had sent Genl. Sheridan here, under your proclamation of martial law, and directed him to try the Chiefs of the Ku Klux Klans by military commission, and if found guilty, to forthwith execute them, the world would not have heard of a third rebellion [in] La. and S. C. It was necessary not only to cut off, but to sear, the hydra head of Secession, Rebellion and Murder...

A third rebellion now raises its hideous front before us in the upper and eastern [sic] counties of S. C. The pardoned Ku Klux, and the murderers, who for a while fled the State, have returned. Now it is a "war of races" they are inaugurating... [T]here are men in all [these] counties...who are engaged solely in preparing for another butchery of the white and colored Republicans: They have organized white leagues, rifle clubs, and a secret police, not only in the towns but also in country places. There is a fixed determination, on the part of these bad men, never to acknowledge the results of the war. You are aware, Mr. President, that the negroes were held in the Southern States, by a tenure of force, and that it required force to make them free. I will here add: it will yet require force to secure their rights to them.

... In the 8 counties composing the 4th [Congressional] Dist.a...there is a clear Republican majority of 2,500 voters. This majority will be easily overcome, unless some proper precaution is adopted, as the Ku Klux is organized to murder, and the Republicans are not... There is no doubt but on the 3d day of Novr-Election day-Georgians and North Carolinians, will be passed over the Air Line R. R. and together with the rifle clubs and white leagues, take possession of the polling places.

aGreenville, Spartanburg, Union, York, Chester, Lancaster, Fairfield and Kershaw counties.

Source: J. C. Winnsmith [Spartanburg] to President U. S. Grant, in Letters Received by the Attorney General, South Carolina; Reel 24.


Questions to Consider

  1. According to the Winnsmith, President Grant declined his earlier advice to adopt a firmer policy in regard to the Klan. Why might Grant have reasoned that it was best to pursue a more conciliatory policy toward paramilitaries? Did developments afterwards prove the President wrong?

  2. What are the risks involved in proceeding along the lines suggested by Winnsmith? Do you think such an approach would be more effective?

  3. What is Winnsmith's assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Republicans and the white Conservatives? Is there any grounds for optimism?

  4. How free are freedpeople in South Carolina in 1874, nine years after the end of the war? What will need to be done to ensure their freedom?

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