Book Review: Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction

Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction. By Fergus M. Bordewich. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Press, 2023. Hardcover, 464 pp. $35.00.

Reviewed by Rich Condon

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, and violent periods in American history are the years following the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, in which many questions regarding our country’s future were posed, some were answered, and many left unresolved. To many in the former slaveholding states the war did not end at Appomattox, but continued in a much more personal, and often violent form. As four million Black Americans navigated newfound freedom, and sought the rights of citizenship and suffrage, they likewise encountered aggressive opposition. The perpetrators of this hostility took a multitude of forms, but the most notorious and familiar to many was the “Invisible Empire” of the Ku Klux Klan.

Fergus M. Bordewich’s comprehensive study of this element of the Reconstruction era, Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction, encompasses the intricacies of Congressional and Presidential policies, as well as the daily occurrences in the South which influenced their decisions in Washington. Bordewich likewise poses some of the same questions asked by millions of Americans during and after the Civil War – “Would Black Americans be permitted to live as citizens in fact, not just in name? Would they be permitted to vote? To hold office? To enjoy social equality? Would former Confederates be willing to cooperate with them to rebuild the South, and on what terms? Could the races live together harmoniously and prosperously? How long would white northerners support military rule to protect the civil rights of southern Blacks?” (xv) Klan War explores the struggles so many endured to arrive at the answers to those questions, from freed African Americans and their allies to the highest forms of government; most notably President Ulysses S. Grant.

Past assessments of Grant have portrayed him in a skewed manner, often as a triumphant military leader, but a poor politician and ineffectual figurehead in the fight for freedmen’s rights during his time as commander-in-chief. Bordewich’s argument asserts, rather, that Grant accomplished more during his presidency than he has previously been given credit for. This work sheds further light on President Grant as a determined champion for equality under the law and advocate for the security of all Americans. While Bordewich asserts that some of Grant’s former allies began to advocate for more conciliatory policies into the1870s, and largely disregarded reports of white supremacist violence filtering in from the former Confederacy, he likewise focuses on decisive steps that the Grant administration took to address the ongoing problem that could not be ignored. (141)

Drawing from numerous primary source accounts Bordewich paints a grotesque picture of atrocities committed by the Klan on Black Americans and their allies; many from those, such as Georgia’s Louis Foy, who experienced acts of violence first-hand and detailed the horrors later in correspondence with President Grant. (139) Descriptions of continued acts of murder, rape, flogging, burning, and intimidation by a force of domestic terrorists drove Grant’s administration and the United States Army to become involved where state and local authorities would not, or worse yet, were the ones acting upon their darkest impulses of violent extremism. In illustrating this point Bordewich provides no shortage of supporting documentation, and likewise organizes his evaluation of Grant’s response, as well as the challenges faced by his administration, in an approachable and chronological fashion; often navigating between the unfolding situation on the ground and the response by government officials, Black Americans, and white allies through the effective end of Reconstruction.

Ultimately, as Bordewich describes, “This book is the story of how the federal government under Ulysses Grant fought and beat the Klan.” (xix) That is not to say, however, that other extremist groups didn’t continue to perpetuate acts of racial terrorism into the waning days of Reconstruction, or that the Klan didn’t see a revival period in the early 20th century with the 1915 release of The Birth of A Nation. Although Bordewich’s work successfully explores the defeat of the 19th century Klan, it likewise acknowledges the victory as one which was incomplete without the full support of Grant’s contemporaries and a northern population ready to move beyond Reconstruction.

While Klan War is unique in its own right, it is a welcome addition to other recent similarly published scholarship on the Reconstruction era such as Elaine Parsons’s Ku Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction, Kidada Williams’s I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction, and William Blair’s The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight Over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction. Those new to the subject of Reconstruction, as well as those long familiar, will find this study as equally significant.

 

Rich Condon is a public historian from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a graduate of West Virginia’s Shepherd University. For over a decade he has worked with a multitude of sites and organizations including The Battle of Franklin Trust, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, and the National Park Service; his most recent station being Beaufort, South Carolina’s Reconstruction Era National Historical Park. He has written for Civil War Times Magazine, The American Battlefield Trust, as well as Emerging Civil War, and operates the Civil War Pittsburgh blog, which focuses on sharing stories related to western Pennsylvania’s role in the Civil War. Rich currently lives in Gettysburg.



10 Responses to Book Review: Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction

  1. Thanks for this review Rich! I just finished his earlier book, Bound for Canaan, and I’m picking up Klan War from the library this weekend — can’t wait to read it.

  2. I remember reading a volume several years ago on the Reconstruction Presidents which noted Grant’s efforts to uphold the rights of black citizens. However, the current “Grant exceptionalism” wave seriously skews the reality of how his Second Administration was viewed at the time. The serious cronyism and corruption charges leveled against many around him fatally undermined his positive efforts in this area. They led to the fracturing of the Republican party, and a dimishment of efforts to enforce democratic reforms. Unlike our post WWII efforts in Europe and Japan, there was no comparable sustained national commitment to effect structural change. Obviously other factors were at play, such as the understandable psychological and emotional exhaustion of most white northerners after the brutality of the Civil War. But Grant had squandered the “Bully Pulpit” in the crass sideshow aspects of his administration, and failed to articulate a vision to motivate the otherwise involved North.

    1. Probably not a bad read, but both Grant and Reconstruction and the two together have gotten WAY too much press the last ten years, and the theme(s) have been exhausted. I guess it is supposed to be an overcompensation for how little the racial dimensions of the CW and Reconstruction era were talked about seventy-or-so years ago. But still.

  3. Probably not a bad read, but both Grant and Reconstruction and the two together have gotten WAY too much press the last ten years, and the theme(s) have been exhausted. I guess it is supposed to be an overcompensation for how little the racial dimensions of the CW and Reconstruction era were talked about seventy-or-so years ago. But still.

    1. When literature about Reconstruction reaches the same level that the battle of Gettysburg alone gets, then we can talk about exhausted themes. The complexities of Reconstruction and its lingering effects have barely even been scratched.

  4. Thanks for the review. Have to add this one to the list. Good to see that it challenges some of the old caricatures of Grant.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!