William Holden’s Infamy: First Governor Impeached
The 12 years following the Civil War, known as the Reconstruction Era (1865-77), was a turbulent, disordered period in American history as the nation tried to heal itself from the scars of a terrible war, rebuild destroyed infrastructure and institutions, extend civil and political rights to freed slaves, and rehabilitate former Confederate states for readmission into the Union. It was during this time and in the troubled South that the first U.S. governor was removed from office by impeachment: William Woods Holden of North Carolina. His case reveals some of the antagonistic forces at work in the South during Reconstruction, especially the secret white supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan.
As a Republican governor, from the party of Lincoln, Holden was viewed with suspicion by many white North Carolinians. When he hired detectives to begin hunting down Klan members in 1869, resentment rose against him. The final straw came in 1870, when he declared martial law in two counties and called out the militia to suppress Klan activity. The two men he placed in charge of this campaign, Colonel Kirk and Lieut. Col. Bergen, were ruthless in their persecution of suspected Klan members, and they and their undisciplined militia troops committed many atrocities. The state government rebelled against Holden, and he was impeached by the North Carolina House of Representatives on Dec. 14, 1870. The North Carolina Senate convicted him of six of the eight charges and removed him from office on March 22, 1871.
Newspaper accounts of Holden’s impeachment show how bitterly divided the nation was during Reconstruction. To some Holden was a stalwart defender of the rights of freedmen and a brave warrior against the outrages of the Ku Klux Klan. To others, he was part of the loathsome “Radical Republican” plan to suppress white Southerners, a corrupt and criminal politician whose removal from office was a blessing.
On the day his governorship ended, the Daily Columbus Enquirer (Columbus, Georgia) blasted Holden in this article, printed on the front page of its March 22, 1871, issue:
The evidence given in the impeachment trial of Governor Holden, of North Carolina, indicated an enormity of cruelty which is a disgrace to civilization. The tying, knocking down, shooting at, imprisoning, hanging by the neck, pulling up and pulling down, and then pulling up again, the fainting of the victims, give to this trail the air and interest of the deepest tragedy. One Lucien M. Murray testified to having suffered this sort of treatment, inflicted by Bergen, who said, as testified by all the witnesses, that he was acting under the orders of Governor Holden. Wm. Patton testified to having been hung up by the neck. A pistol was put to his head and threats made to shoot him if he did not tell who killed Outlaw. He was brought to Raleigh, and made a confession that he might be relieved. George Rogers, a young man, was next called. He testified that he was hung up [three] several times by the neck. The above facts are gathered from the testimony of two days’ proceedings.
On March 29, 1871, the New Hampshire Patriot (Concord, New Hampshire) reprinted two articles condemning Holden:
The Conviction of Holden
The Washington Patriot says of the conviction of Holden that the State of North Carolina has vindicated the supremacy of law. “The usurper, who, while entrusted by the constitution of the Commonwealth with the machinery of the protection of the life, liberty, and property of its people, abdicated his gubernatorial functions, arrogated the powers of a revolutionary chief, pronounced hostility to his fellow citizens except those willing to support his tyranny, imported a corps of sanguinary ruffians, armed them, commissioned them for miscellaneous plunder, capture, and torture against political opponents—this oppressor was not seized by a mob excited to fury by outrage and lynched without trial, but has been solemnly arraigned, ably defended, prosecuted with every scruple of ancient judicial right, and condemned to dishonor and loss of office.
This bad man Holden has earned a detestation from his own State that a hundred lives, if he had them to give, could not satisfy, if his wronged people were the implacable avengers they are slanderously represented to be. Years before the war he labored, with conspicuous diabolism, to canker every young heart in the South with hate toward the North; then, when humiliation fell upon them, turning agent of Radical revenge upon their helpless victims, once his followers; then the organizer of leagues of negroes, in breach of all the goodwill so essential to humane relations and mutual wellbeing; then seized the State as his spoils, plundered its treasury, policed it with a hired brigandage, and exposed the whole people to indignity, outrage, and oppression.”
The ‘Martyr’ Holden
The Radicals grieve over the impeachment of the “loyal” Gov. Holden of North Carolina, and represent him to be a “martyr to Ku-Klux malice.” To show what manner of man and officer he was, we quote the following first-rate notice of him from the N.Y. Sun:
“At the breaking out of the rebellion Mr. Holden was an editor in Raleigh, and a strong secessionist. Afterward he became an extreme radical Republican, and was at the head of the Loyal League in North Carolina. The Government under his administration was of the most corrupt and extravagant of the reconstructed State Governments of the South. His Legislature voted $36,000,000 of appropriations, and issued their bonds for that amount; but $10,000,000 of these were declared unconstitutional. The profligacy of the Legislature and other State officials was so glaring that Republicans in great numbers announced their intention of voting against the Holden party at the last election, in order to keep the State from bankruptcy. To prevent this, troops were raised to overawe the people, and outrages committed which must be within the recollection of every newspaper reader. It was sworn before the Senate Investigating Committee by Mr. J. B. Smith, who has charge of the State Normal School for colored teachers, and who voted for Gen. Grant, that Governor Holden at the time of these troubles threatened to arm the colored people, if the United States Government would not send him troops, and expressed the opinion that Gen. Grant would hold the Government of the United States, no matter what the election was in 1872; and that he desired Gen. Grant to be Emperor, and that his son should succeed him on the imperial throne.
This is the man who, by regular constitutional process, has been deposed from the chief magistracy of North Carolina, peacefully, but effectually. It is to be hoped, and it cannot be doubted, that this action will have a good effect, not only by serving as a warning to other corrupt officials, but also as an encouragement for the subjects of carpet-bag rule in other States to look for better days.”
Far from praising Holden as a crusader against the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, some papers blamed him for causing the violence. This article was printed by the Daily Columbus Enquirer (Columbus, Georgia) on March 31, 1871:
Says the New York World: “A fitting commentary on the Ku-Klux legislation of the Senate comes to us this morning from North Carolina. It is in that State that the majority of the outrage investigation committee pretend that “loyal” men have been murdered or maltreated, and that protection is required for those who remain. Yesterday the Senate of North Carolina, after a long and patient trial, convicted the Radical Governor, William W. Holden, of fomenting the very troubles about which the country has heard so much. It has put the responsibility where it belongs—on Grant’s agent, who, through his lieutenant, Kirk, and others, has striven to goad the suffering people of North Carolina into resistance, and thereby furnish capital for political purposes at the North.”
The World might have added that all the proved disorders and outrages in North Carolina occurred while Holden was Governor. It is a significant fact that here has never been much lawlessness and violence in any Southern State after it had gotten rid of the Radical rule imposed by the “Reconstructionists.” Tennessee was the first state in which Ku-Klux acts and other measures of organized violence were witnessed; and these disturbances ceased in Tennessee as soon as the Conservatives obtained control of the State Government. So it has been in Alabama and North Carolina. But South Carolina and Mississippi, still entirely under Radical rule, are now the States in which most disorders are reported, and in which, if in any, the State authorities are unable to maintain order. These facts suffice to show that bad governments, and not bad population, are the cause of troubles at the South, and that the people here will remedy all evils as soon as they have a free and fair chance to make good governments for themselves.
Other newspaper accounts made it clear that it was the Ku Klux Klan, and not Governor Holden, who were ultimately to blame for the violence, though the following article does note that the governor should have done a better job controlling the excesses of Kirk and Bergen. This article was printed by the Houston Daily Union (Houston, Texas) on March 31, 1871:
Gov. Holden in Washington—His Future Course Undecided—The Legislative Proceedings Said to Be Illegal
Washington, March 22.—Gov. Holden, who is in the city, received early intelligence, today, of the close of the impeachment trial at Raleigh, by his removal from the Governorship. He has not fully determined on the course to be pursued, and will consult with friends; but, as he claims that the two-thirds vote by which the act was consummated is not a legal one, it is probable that some steps will be taken to get the matter before the United States Supreme Court. Seven of the Senators who voted for Gov. Holden’s impeachment are said to be disqualified under the XIVth Amendment…The seven ineligible Senators are necessary to make the two-thirds to convict on articles of impeachment. The Lieutenant-Governor, Mr. Caldwell, who has become the acting Executive, is a native of the State, a moderate Republican, but of considerable decision of character, and the Ku-Klux will not gain anything by the change from Holden to him.
Testimony as to the Ku-Klux Outrages and the Means Taken to Repress Them
That bands of men in disguise have from time to time committed outrages on individuals in different parts of North Carolina has never been denied. The victims were generally, but not always, negroes, and the punishment was in some instances not undeserved. But these cases were made a cover to the real designs of the Ku-Klux Klan, and led to the impression that its acts were but a species of wild justice not altogether to be regretted. Many persons of both parties believed them to be committed for private revenge, and not by an organized association. Even when it was proved, by the preliminary examination, in August 1869, of the Lenoir county prisoners for conspiracy and arson, that there really was a regularly organized secret association, known as the Ku-Klux Klan, it was generally believed to be a merely local combination of the whites, in that portion of the State where the negroes largely predominated, for the protection of the farmers and country people against bands of negroes, who were known to be roving about committing depredations, and in some instances murder and arson. But, although five of these prisoners turned State’s evidence, and exposed the secrets of the Ku-Klux, and the crimes they had committed, no one was convicted.
Gov. Holden, finding that these murders and outrages, by bands of persons in disguise, continued to increase, and that, although large rewards were offered for the arrest of the perpetrators, no arrests were made, or, if made, that the prisoners were invariably released on the testimony of men who were believed to be members of the Ku-Klux Klan, issued a proclamation in March 1870, declaring the county of Alamance in a state of insurrection. In a letter to President Grant, informing him of this proclamation, he said: “I cannot rely on the militia to repress these outrages, for the reason that, in the localities in which they occur, white militia of the proper character cannot be obtained, and it would but aggravate the evil to employ colored militia.” In a subsequent letter to the Senators and Representatives of North Carolina in Congress, the Governor stated, “I have called on the President for aid, but he is restricted by the right of the writ of habeas corpus.” Matters continued to grow worse, not only in Alamance county, but in the adjoining counties, and every mail brought accounts, either of outrages committed by the Ku-Klux, or retaliation for such outrages on the part of others, principally negroes, who burned barns, stables, mills and dwelling houses. The Governor, in July 1870, issued a proclamation declaring the county of Caswell also in a state of insurrection, and proceeded to call out detailed militia selected from the State at large. Had he been judicious in the selection of the officers of that battalion of militia which was sent to the infected counties, nothing probably would have been heard of his impeachment. There appears to be no doubt that both Colonel Kirk and his Lieut. Col. Bergen made unnecessary arrests, treated their prisoners with brutality, and enforced no discipline among their troops.
These acts led to the impeachment of Gov. Holden by the House of Representatives of North Carolina. The trial commenced on the 30th of last January, before the Senate of the State, Mr. Chief Justice Pearson presiding. The trial has elicited some very important facts, establishing among other things, beyond a doubt, the existence of the Ku-Klux Klan as a secret political association for the subversion of the Reconstruction acts and the extermination of Republicanism in the Southern States.