Limestone County After Appomattox 1865-1870


1865 - 1870

Published Fall, 1985 by historian and genealogist Faye Acton Axford of Athens, Limestone Co. AL. A copy can be secured from the McClung Collection, Knoxville, Tennessee or the Limestone County Alabama Archives.

"When you return to your homes, you will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed", said Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. And afterwards, hundreds of weary, dirty, often vermin-ridden men marched homeward, heads bowed in sorrow over their dead comrades lost in a cause for which they had given everything. That the bowed heads did not signify defeat was often reiterated by those who had been there-at Shiloh, Bull Run, Salem Church, Gettysburg and many other never- to- be forgotten places of which they had never heard before being caught up in war.

The confederates reached Limestone County in that summer and fall of 1865, unprepared for the scenes which met them-the courthouse and many buildings around the square lying in gutted ruins, homes pilfered of all vestiges of former beauty and /or comfort, hunger rampart, and fields stripped bare by the occupying forces. Corn, when it could be found, was almost their only means of sustenance.

Unfortunately, they couldn't eat cotton, for five million bales of that commodity were stored in the South, which would have been many millions in Liverpool, but much of it was seized, and a heavy tax was levied on the remainder. Before a law was passed to exempt the tax in 1868, Alabamians paid almost $10.3 millions in tax. The New York Chamber of Commerce had its influence in this exemption law, perhaps, for they reported that they deplored this tax, on the grounds that "taxation without representation is tyranny," and the cotton tax was a violation of the U. S. Constitution.

Other problems arose as the veterans settled in to recoup their losses. Lands that had been cleared in the early part of the century by pioneer antecedents and mastered with pride and prosperity before 1861, began to slip away through the chancery courts and bankrupt proceedings because of high taxes imposed upon them. Freedmen, who had been good workers under the slave system, now bided their time, waiting for the "forty acres and a mule" promised them by the Freedman's Bureau from their former masters' lands. The former President of the Confederacy was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe; the government to which they had pledged allegiance was in shambles, and loyal Confederates considered it treason to identify with the Federal Government. State and local governments had little or no jurisdiction over the citizens. Perhaps the most serious problem lay in the lawless bands of black and white soldiers and agitators who seeking power and revenge for real or imagined insults. It was not long before it was apparent that some kind of protection against these outrages was imperative.

In her book, the Authentic History of the Ku Klux Klan: 1865-1877, printed in New York in 1924, Susan Lawrence Davis gives an account of these troubled times. We herewith wish to give a condensed version of her findings, made through her personal memories, interviews, and documents dealing with the period of activity of this group which began in Pulaski, Tennessee as a secret social organization on Christmas Eve, 1865. Their first ride through town, dressed in their strange garb, produced fear among the superstitious, and this fear became the weapon used by the Ku Klux Klan after it became more than merely a social lark, but dedicated itself to the protection of the innocent.

In February, 1866, Captain John C. Lester of Pulaski, visited Lawrence Ripley Davis, father of Susan Davis, in Athens. There was a rumor that white children would be forced by bayonet to attend a school in the Baptist church in Athens which had been opened for Negroes by J. W. Alvord of the Freedmen's Bureau. Mrs. Jane Hamilton Childs, who had saved the Female Institute from the torch by her Northern sentiments, persuaded the commanding officer not to carry out this threat. She had lived among the Southern people long enough to know that they were far from being ready for such a drastic departure from tradition.

Following this favorable talk between Lester and Davis, Editor Frank McCord of the Pulaski Citizen and Grand Cyclops of the Pulaski organization, met with a group of leading citizens at "The Cove," three miles from Athens. Charter members attending were: Dr. Nicholas Davis Richardson (elected Grand Cyclops of the Athens den), R. A. McClellan, Robert Donnell, Fortunatus Wood, Paul L. Jones, John B. Floyd, T. J. Cox, R. B. Mason, William Richardson, James B. Richardson, W. R. Pryor, William Cass Nichols, Thomas Carter, Henry J. Pepin, and Edwin R. Richardson.

Edwin Tanner, son of Peterson Tanner and ex-Confederate soldier living three miles from Athens, was called out of his house, dragged into the road and shot by Negro soldiers in August 1866. It so happened that Tanner's wife had just given birth to a son and Dr. N. D. Richardson, the attending physician, was there. The doctor sent a faithful ex-salve of his to Athens to notify the Ku Klux Klan members to come and capture the murderers. Plantation bells, signal of danger among the Klan, started ringing over the county. Sue Davis recalled that she was awakened by the bell at their home in the east end of the county, and saw her father, dressed in Klan regalia, kissing her mother goodbye. The Klan members pursued the murderers to the Tennessee River, where members of the guilty party tried to cross the railroad bridge by foot, met an oncoming train and jumped into the river. Some escaped and some were drowned. Edwin Tanner's will was probated by Samuel Tanner, Jr., on 29 August 1866.

Many other outrages were perpetrated by members of the Union League and the Loyal League, which was a branch of the parent organization. The Union League was founded in Ohio in 1862 to bolster the morale of the Union Army, which suffered several defeats during that time. The League sent agents into the South to distribute leaflets to Negroes with orders to molest women and children to the point that their Confederate soldiers would leave the army to protect them. Sue Davis recorded that a faithful slave, Alex, brought such a paper to her mother to read it to him. After he heard it, Alex declared that he would die before harming her or the children. Alex asked for a shotgun belonging to Davis, and sat at the front of the Davis house with the gun and an axe to guard the house during Davis' absence. Scenes like this were enacted all over the South.

After the post-war marriage of Federal General Jesse Phillips and Sue Davis's sister,

Virginia Davis Harris, they were often in Washington, D. C. Once they were invited to attend a meeting of the Loyal League. At this meeting, it was decided that the name of "Loyal League" should be changed to "Ku Klux Klan," and they would send more men South to spread terror. Mrs. Phillips decided to go to President Johnson, whom she had known during his short residence in Limestone County as a young man, to apprise him of the situation. Johnson later reported that it was after her visit to him that he changed his tactics of abuse of the South, and determined that that section should be fully restored to the Union. Virginia Phillips then hurried South to inform her brother and the other Ku Klux Klan members of the false Klan's plans. General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by now the Grand Wizard, called a meeting in Athens, and stationed men to patrol the roads and arrest those who could not give the very secret and authentic Ku Klux grip and pass word. President of the Loyal League around Athens, according to testimony given by Captain William Richardson, was D. H. Bingham, who is mentioned several times in the newspaper accounts. Richardson stated that the League met in an old drug store building on the corner of the Athens square.

Although the Ku Klux Klan spread rapidly throughout Alabama, the headquarters for the State were always in Athens. General James H. Clanton, brother-in-law of L. R. Davis, was the first Grand Dragon of the Realm of Alabama. Clanton was killed in 1871 as the result of a railroad dispute in Chattanooga. General John T. Morgan served from that time until 1876, when the Klan was instrumental in his election to the U. S. Senate; and General Edmund W. Pettus, a native of Limestone and later U. S. Senator, served from that time until the actual disbanding of the Klan in 1877. Bishop Hooker Wilmer, close friend of Morgan, went to England to see Judah P. Benjamin, ex-Confederate Cabinet member who became one of the most noted of English barristers. Benjamin, a Jew, was so impressed with the work of the Klan that he borrowed money to assist them in their efforts. Bishop Wilmer became the chaplain of the Alabama Klan and Father Abram Ryan, the noted southern poet, became the Chaplain for the Invisible Empire. Ryan attended at least one meeting of the Klan at the Athens home of Henry J. Pepin.

In 1871, when the health of Dr. N. D. Richardson made it impossible to continue as Grand Cyclops of the Athens den, Major R. A. McClellan took over. McClellan, who had served in Company C, 7th Alabama Cavalry under Colonel James c. Malone, later married Autora Pryor, daughter of Senator Luke Pryor. He was succeeded as Grand Cyclops by Major Robert Donnell, a veteran of company E, 50th Albama Regiment and the 22nd Alabama Infantry. When Sue Davis and her sisters attended Miss Sally Malone's school in Athens, either their father or Major Donnell would accompany them. Sue later learned that Donnell was one of the guards set up by the Klan to protect the school children.

Prior to the first convention of the Klan, held in Nashville during May 1867, Captain william Richardson, Captain John B. Floyd, and Bishop Hooker Wilmer joined Tennessee delegates in visiting General Robert E. Lee in the hopes that he would join and head the movement. Lee would not actively join, but stated that he would support it, so long as it remained a protective organization, in an invisible way. Thus, at the convention, which was held in Room Number 10 of the Maxwell House Hotel, the term "Invisible Empire" was adopted. Captain Richardson asked for, and received, Lee's approval to invite General Nathan Bedford Forrest to be the Klan leader. L. r. Davis and William Richardson traveled to Memphis before the convention to see Forrest. Richardson wished, in addition to asking Forrest to be the leader, to thank the general for rescuing him from being hanged as a spy (which he was not) in Murfreesboro during the war. J. W. Morton, once commander of artillery in Forrest's company and now Grand Cyclops of the Nashville den, administered the oath to Forrest as Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire.

The Wizard had ten assistants called "Genii." The Empire was divided into Realms, the Realms into Divisions along the line of Congressional Districts, the Divisions into Provinces, and Provinces into Dens. At the convention, principles were adopted, stating that: "We recognize our relation to the United States government, the supremacy of the Constitutional laws thereof, and the Union of the States hereafter." They pledged to protect the weak, innocent and defenseless from the indignities of the lawless; and relieve the injured and oppressed and the suffering, especially the widows and children of confederate officers.

Forrest issued an order for a 4 July 1867 parade in all the provinces. He himself paraded with the Klan at Pulaski, then they came to Athens, not arriving at the latter place until about midnight. It was here that Forrest reenacted the tactics employed in the battle of Athens in September 1864, when by a skillful movement of his forces which bolstered their number manyfold, he tricked the defending Colonel Wallace Campbell into surrendering the Federal fort west of town. On this July 4th night in 1867, the Klan members came and went "like a wraith in the night," doing nothing to change the belief that they were the spirits of dead Confederate soldiers.

The worst period for the south came with the end of Johnson's administration. State and local offices were filled by Radical "carpet baggers," and military districts were set up. One instance of this action was in the replacement of John B. McClellan by Silas Thurlow as probate judge of Limestone County in 1868. Klan members and other citizens were incensed. At a meeting in Huntsville in November 1868, Thurlow was killed, and the Klan was blamed for it. Substantial evidence was given later, however, to clear the Klan of guilt. A Federal officer testified at hearings that the Klan was not on the side of the square where Thurlow was shot, and eye witnesses stated that he was killed by Negro soldiers stationed at the Court House.

Riots such as this furnished Washington with further reasons to tighten its control over the south. Every killing or whipping or disturbance was credited to the Ku Klux Klan. South Carolina was declared a military state after riots there, and Louisiana and Arkansas were particularly hard pressed.

When General U. S. Grant was elected to the Presidency in 1869, the South was hopeful that it would then be rid of carpet bag rule, but they were disappointed. The first Anti-Ku Klux Act was passed in 1871, and the second in 1872. Trials were held in Huntsville in May 1872, in which much evidence was brought forth, showing that the Klan was innocent of many charges against it. The trials made many in the northern states realize the serious situation in which the South found itself. A number of Federal officers spoke in favor of the assistance which the Klan had offered to them in the pursuance of law and order.

One such case in which the Klan proved of value was in the arrest of the desperado, Tom Clark, who left a wake of violence in North Alabama and Tennessee. When Forrest heard of the atrocities committed by Clark and his band of Tories, which northern papers called the work of the Ku Klux Klan, he went at once to Florence and held a meeting at the plantation George S. Houston near Muscle Shoals. Two of Clark's men were captured by Klansmen and taken to military authorities at Florence, under command of Captain DeFord, who had the men shot.

In 1868, the Radical governor of Tennessee, William P. "Parson" Brownlow, issued an order that Ku Klux Klansmen be shot on sight. During a speech in New York about this time, Brownlow was quoted as saying that he would like to see every Rebel man, woman ,and child exterminated south of the Mason and Dixon line. Such statements, of course, kept the hatred and bitterness alive in all geographical sections of the country.

Brownlow's order, coupled with the fact that atrocities were being committed far beyond the geographical range of the Klan, but attributed to them, caused Forrest to issue his only write order to the Klan on 20 October 1869. He demanded that all true members of the Klan destroy their masks and costumes. Any one refusing to do so would be "deemed an enemy of the Order, and shall be treated accordingly." It was stated that the Klan had never been the enemy of Negroes as long as they were peaceful, and indeed that they had come to their assistance in many instances. The Klan, it was stated, stood for order and peace, it was not a military or political organization, but a protective one. This order led to the popular belief, as it evidently was intended, that the Ku Klux Klan had officially disbanded, but this was, in fact, not a reality until the death of Forrest in 1877.

By that time, the difficult situation had been greatly alleviated. The "new day" that had long been dreamed of, was dawning. It was during the meeting at Houston's plantation , as described above, that Houston expressed his fervent desire that Alabama be rescued from radical rule. His old friend, Lawrence Ripley Davis, said that Houston was the only man who could defeat the Republican candidate, and that he would "stump" the state for him. Houston would win his campaign in 1874, and become the first Democratic governor to bring home rule back to the state. Davis went with him to Montgomery as his private secretary, and helped to bring about the reforms which would eventually put the State on a firm footing.

It cannot be denied that Susan Davis was highly prejudiced in her Authentic History, but it does present a clearer picture of events in those dark days. We get a glimpse of these conditions in the novel Gone With the wind, by Margaret Mitchell. It is interesting to note that Susan Davis sued Margaret Mitchell, stating that the latter had plagiarized whole pages from her Authentic History of the Ku Klux Klan in her novel. The suit was eventually dropped.

Invaluable information can be derived from the newspapers of the day, and we have endeavored to disseminate a better understanding of the times, sans magnolias, in this work. The whole story, however, cannot be gleaned from the yellowed newspaper journals, for much of the history could not be printed one hundred and twenty-odd years ago.

Following this introduction, Faye Acton Axford and Eulalia Yancey Wellden listed a collection of local excerpts from the Newspapers of the Day which tell the story of the citizens struggle. For example: Athens Weekly Post 1867;

Real Estate Sales - B. Sanders, trustee for J.W.S. Donnell, advertised for sale on 4 November 1867, the "magnificent residence in the town of Athens, situated near enough to the public square for the owner to enjoy all the facilities of town, and remote enough to have all the quietude of a country life, etc. I will also proceed to sell for cash, in the county of Lawrence, State of Alabama, on Tuesday 12 November 1867, the plantation known as the Seclusion Place, containing 2000 acres more or less.

Churches - The world-renowned Southern pianist, L. P. Wheat, gave a concert at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church…Rev. G. W. Mitchell who through the long night of war kept its fires burning and his flock together…for two years he was the only clergyman in the place. His church was used by the Federal military, for occasional barracks and hospital. When the carpets, books and furniture were mostly taken, then for quartermaster and commissary stores, until the floors and gallery were broken down, after which almost every piece of timber was destroyed - pulpit, seats, floors, windows, blinds, sills -all consumed, leaving the bare walls.

The Memphis Avalance paid tribute to the memory of Capt. Thomas Hubbard Hobbs, who died in July 1862 as a result of wounds received in the battle of Gaines Mill. "No better man, or braver soldier, fought with the Army of Northern Virginia - He gave his life for the country he loved so well, and for the development and improvement of which, he had done so much. In every sense of the word, he was a true man-as near faultless as it is possible for a man to become in a world so full of wickedness and deception as ours. There was never but one Tom Hobbs in this county"

George Donnell, a faithful and honest old servant died in October.

"For four years the souls of many of us had never wafted higher than the range of a cannon ball; our thought never reached deeper than a soldier's shallow grave; our calculations were of the comparative strength of armies, and the power of guns…but there was a little flock among the faithless-Dr. Petway, was sent to fill this station and under him and Smith a revival of religion had returned…

Last Updated: 15 Jan 1997
Document transcribed by Josephine Lindsay Bass E-Mail Address: [email protected]

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