Lewis Merrill and the 7th Cavalry’s fight against terror in the post–Civil War South.
In March 1871, U.S. Army Major Lewis Merrill received orders to leave the plains of Kansas with Company K of the 7th Cavalry and head for Yorkville, a small town in the northwestern part of South Carolina. It was nearly six years since the end of the Civil War, and Merrill’s instructions were vague but urgent. He was ordered to exert all “moral influence” possible to put a halt to the wave of terror that had been unleashed against the state’s African-American population and white Republican officeholders. He could use the troops under his command to assist civil authorities in making arrests, but beyond that he could not employ force on his own except as a last resort, and then only to protect from mob violence civilians who had already taken shelter within his camp.
On his way east Merrill stopped in Louisville to see his commander, Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry. Merrill told him frankly that all he knew about outrages by the Ku Klux, today commonly referred to as the Klan, was what he had read in the newspapers. The stories, he said, seemed incredible on their face. There had been accounts of midnight beatings and hangings; of black schoolhouses and churches burned; of a thousand disguised men silently taking over an entire town, seizing eight African-American males from the jail and stringing them up; there was the story of an African-American state senator pulled off a train in broad daylight and shot repeatedly by a Ku Klux Klan gang—which then rode off, with no one trying to stop them. Although those men were not disguised, all the witnesses claimed they had either not seen the men or had not recognized them. There were revelations of a state of intimidation so complete in some counties that every elected Republican official, white and black, had resigned his office under threat of death.
Surely, Merrill said to General Terry, such stories must be enormous exaggerations. Terry replied, “When you get to South Carolina you will find that the half has not been told you.” That was Merrill’s introduction to the six years he would spend waging one of the U.S. Army’s first wars of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.
From 1867 to 1877, more than 3,000 African Americans and their white Republican allies would be killed in terrorist violence in the South. Among them were at least 60 state officeholders and political leaders, assassinated in carefully planned killings—senators, state representatives, county supervisors, judges, prosecutors, justices of the peace, sheriffs, constables and mayors. Several Southern governors and members of Congress barely escaped assassination as well.
To those who fought the ultimately losing struggle against this tide of violence, there was little doubt as to its political significance at the time. “The war still exists, in a very important phase here,” Adelbert Ames, the military governor of Mississippi, reported to General William T. Sherman in 1869. The murders taking place were not “the usual events of ordinary times,” Ames wrote; they were nothing less than an attempt by white Southerners to regain through terror and guerrilla warfare what had been lost at Appomattox.
The political aims of this terrorist insurgency would become all the more manifest by the end of this turbulent decade; by the time of the state elections of 1874 in Louisiana, 1875 in Mississippi and 1876 in South Carolina, white paramilitary forces—by then well mounted, heavily armed (typically with the latest model of 16- shot Winchester repeating rifles, which could fire one shot per second), thoroughly drilled, sometimes uniformed, commanded by ex-Confederate officers—played a decisive role in ousting the Reconstruction governments, effectively ending black suffrage and securing conservative white home rule to the South for a century to come. During the South Carolina election in 1876, to cite the most notorious case, white rifle clubs instigated several premeditated massacres in which probably several hundred African Americans were killed, and which would prove a decisive factor in intimidating voters and carrying the election that fall.
Yet for a variety of reasons the military dimension of the struggle for Reconstruction has generally been relegated to little more than a footnote in the history of this epoch. The first accounts of Reconstruction, dominated by the Southern viewpoint and eager to portray the South as the virtuous victim of vindictive Northern oppression, tended to ignore the violence altogether, or at least minimize its political significance. Later historians corrected these distortions, but still tended to emphasize the political and economic dimensions of Reconstruction while ignoring the significance of the violence that took place—often casting it as an expression of primitive racist anger or of traditional Southern patriarchal notions of honor.
But the fight for Reconstruction was every bit a military struggle. The political fortunes of the Reconstruction program—protecting the freedman from violence and economic exploitation, breaking the political monopoly of the old planter aristocracy and modernizing the Southern states’ educational, legal and tax systems—rose and fell according to the success or failure of the struggle on this unconventional battlefield. When supported by mobile tactics, good intelligence and a shrewd application of psychological warfare, the U.S. Army achieved some significant initial victories that were instrumental in advancing the political goals of Reconstruction around 1871 and 1872. Likewise, when hampered by hesitant generalship, a lack of cavalry for mobility and a loss of the military initiative, the counterterrorism effort foundered, and white conservative paramilitaries unleashed the resurgent wave of murder and intimidation that ultimately brought the fight to its decisive end by 1877.
Lewis Merrill was arguably one of the most successful and clear-sighted of the officers who fought this counterinsurgency war. From a modern perspective it is striking how many of the issues Merrill faced, and the solutions he conceived, would anticipate the insurgency and counterinsurgency wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Perhaps most striking about Merrill’s approach to the situation once he arrived in Yorkville in March 1871 was how well he grasped the political and psychological dimensions of the military challenge he faced. He quickly discovered that, as General Terry had predicted, the reality was far worse than he could have imagined. He began compiling meticulous files, and soon accumulated evidence of 400 beatings and six murders in Yorkville and surrounding York County. He discovered that most of the leading whites of the county were participants and ringleaders in the Klan outrages. And he realized that any action he took not only had to be militarily effective, but must be seen as legitimate.
Merrill’s unusual background helped prepare him for this unconventional level of political-military war fare. During the Civil War he had raised his own volunteer cavalry regiment, “Merrill’s Horse,” in Missouri. Early in the war he was brevetted a brigadier general, and ordered to clear Rebel guerrillas out of the northeastern part of the state. The guerrillas operated behind Union lines, robbing, kidnapping and murdering pro-Union civilians and often killing the Union prisoners they captured. Merrill tried arresting Confederate sympathizers— 1,500 of them—and releasing them once they had sworn an oath of loyalty. “I cannot point to one single in – stance in which they have faithfully kept their promise,” he reported.
So, in September 1862, he convened a military commission and tried 22 Rebel guerrillas who had committed particularly gruesome murders, all after having been arrested at least once before and released on their oath. They were convicted and sentenced to death. When a 70-year-old pro-Union civilian was kidnapped from the area, notice was given that unless the man was released unharmed, 10 of the condemned guerrillas would be executed at once. The abducted man was murdered; the 10 prisoners were then shot by firing squads.
The men of the surrounding communities whom Merrill believed to be the secret leaders of the guerrilla bands—the “haven’t done nothing” men, as he called them, who always managed to escape arrest and punishment—were summarily banished from the region. After that, northeast Missouri became considerably more tranquil. The necessity of penetrating the surface of the insurgency and finding the power behind it was a key lesson Merrill would take away with him.
In this kind of war, Merrill learned to use spies and subterfuge as well as the more orthodox cavalry tactics he had learned as a cadet and a second lieutenant at West Point and then Fort Riley in Kansas. He learned to doubt supposed “deserters” who came into his own lines with tales to tell. One time he had the officers of his staff befriend a Confederate prisoner and get him drunk to ensure he was speaking the truth.
When Merrill arrived in Yorkville in 1871, one of his first endeavors was to start quietly spending money to recruit informers. He then summoned the leading citizens of the town to a meeting, where he described in minute detail recent Ku Klux raids, making it clear that they could do nothing without him learning of it. He implied strongly that there were informers in their own ranks, and that they could trust no one among themselves.
Merrill expressed gentle amusement when one of the men asked for the names of the guilty parties so that they might see them brought to justice. The major responded that he was sure the names were as well known to them as they were to him. He added that he could have them arrested within the hour, if given the authority. This would prove to be an important psychological gam bit.
Merrill had been impressive in seizing the initiative and quickly altering the dynamic of the situation through the use of good intelligence and adroit psychological warfare, all without resorting to military force. It is one of those intangible but terribly important factors in military success—forcing the enemy to react to you rather than reacting to the enemy.
Merrill spent several subsequent months patiently laying the groundwork to demonstrate that the local courts, still controlled by white conservatives, were totally unwilling and incapable of acting to halt the violence. He would turn over evidence, swear out affidavits himself and publicize the subsequent attempts by the prosecutor and judge to secretly pressure him to let the cases quietly drop.
He also faced new challenges, notably a large number of desertions from his own ranks—all but openly encouraged and abetted by the local white population, which would hide and assist deserters, and was always happy to keep the troops well supplied with whiskey. The poor quality of available troops and the lack of training for a delicate mission is a constant theme that runs through Merrill’s reports during this period.
The decisive action came at the end of the year, and here again Merrill shrewdly played the psychological and propaganda angles. When presidential authority to make the arrests finally came in November 1871, Merrill used his cavalry to ensure not only that scores of arrests could be made nearly simultaneously the same day, before word could spread, but also that it could be done in broad daylight, seizing the wanted men in town or at their businesses—thus preempting any accusations of men being torn from their families with a knock on the door in the middle of the night, standard bugbears of American notions of despotic regimes.
The arrests were, to be sure, far from a complete success, and subsequent policies of leniency and pardons and the swift withdrawal of troops from the area undermined gains that had been achieved. But they did have a temporary calming effect, and moreover the show of resolve and military force in breaking the Ku Klux gave strong moral encouragement to the larger fight for Reconstruction.
In 1871 eight companies from the 7th Cavalry had ultimately been sent to South Carolina, totaling about 400 men; they joined some 500 infantry troops already in the state. The contrast with 1876, when the South Carolina state government faced a resurgent white terrorist threat, would be painfully evident. In the fall of 1876, there were again approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in the state, but none of them cavalry. That in itself resulted in a huge loss of initiative, for even when there was the will to intervene to halt violence, the U.S. troops had to march on foot, often against well-mounted white rifle clubs. In the case of the Ellenton massacre in October 1876, a detachment of the 18th Infantry did arrive in time to prevent what would have certainly been the slaughter of several hundred black state militiamen who had been surrounded by armed members of white rifle clubs. But many other blacks had already been killed in the preceding days, before the U.S. troops could intervene.
Moreover, there was no one with Merrill’s initiative on the scene at that point. Local commanders interpreted their orders narrowly, to mean that they could only act to halt bloodshed once it had begun, not preempt it. That placed the Army in the position of passively allowing the rifle clubs to strike when and where they chose. No attempt was made to infiltrate the clubs or disarm them. This lack of initiative was probably the most crippling blow to any hopes for quelling the insurgency. Propaganda about “federal bayonets” “interfering” in the elections so cowed the commanders that they mostly ordered their troops to stay away from polling places altogether on election day. In places like Edgefield County, many of the polls were actually commandeered by armed white rifle clubs, which turned away black voters. As even one conservative white historian conceded in the 1920s, South Carolina’s election of 1876 “was little more than a ratification of the seizure of power by the rifle clubs in the previous months.”
Lewis Merrill had found himself fighting a similar losing battle against the so-called White Leagues in Louisiana in 1874, hamstrung by restrictive rules of engagement, vastly outnumbered and forced on the defensive, unable to regain the initiative because he was continually reacting to attacks by the White Leaguers. Time and again it would be his reaction to a provocation that would get the attention and outcry, while the provocation would be forgotten—which was one of the perils of having to react.
None of this, of course, was warfare as most military men, or most historians, understood it. The violence used by Southern white conservatives in Reconstruction was sporadic and circumscribed, almost always stopping short of anything resembling open warfare. Most Army officers would rather have been fighting the Indians than engaging in what they derisively termed “constabulary duty,” and the Army itself was eager to put the entire episode behind it once Reconstruction came to an end. One is hard pressed even today to find more than the most cursory reference in unit histories and official Army histories to the role played in Reconstruction by units such as the 7th Cavalry.
Only with the benefit of more recent historical analysis is it possible for us to grasp what a few farsighted men like Merrill grasped at the time: This was war, but one fought with very different rules—and the ways in which the violence was disguised or played down by its perpetrators was a calculated part of its political purpose and effectiveness. As recent insurgency studies have pointed out, a key characteristic is that warfare of this kind is inevitably conditioned by both negative and positive objectives. Negative objectives, by definition, can be achieved only by restraining or limiting the use of military force. The principal negative goal of white Southern conservatives was to avoid any steps that would cross the line of provoking, and politically justifying in the eyes of the nation, an overwhelming military response by the federal government. They knew they could not win an open traditional military confrontation.
The positive objectives pursued by the Southern white terrorist groups likewise correspond to what, from a modern perspective, are easily recognized as classic terrorist objectives, in which the response that it sought to provoke was as important as the act itself. One basic aim of the Southern white terrorists was simply to demoralize their opponents and undermine their confidence in the ability of their own political leaders to offer them protection at the most basic level— their lives and property.
At an equally basic level, random and sporadic acts of brutal terror were a form of blackmail that could be used to effectively pressure a more humane opponent to capitulate. Republican Governor Daniel Chamberlain all but gave up attempting to conduct his campaign for reelection in South Carolina in 1876 after hundreds of Democrats repeatedly showed up at Republican political meetings openly and heavily armed, demanding “equal time” to speak. “I yielded to them simply because I was not willing to take the responsibility of a massacre,” Chamberlain later explained.
By provoking Republican governors to call for federal troops for protection—but by avoiding acts so provocative that they would trigger a truly crushing response, or which would swing national sympathies decisively against them—the instigators of terrorism achieved several purposes. They could portray the Republican governments as clinging to power only by being propped up by “federal bayonets”—the phrase that appeared probably a thousand times in the Southern Democratic newspapers of the day; they were able to increase a sense of victimization in the South and tap into deeply felt American uneasiness over military involvement in domestic civilian affairs; and they increased the color-line identity of the political parties, adding to the considerable social pressure already exerted on white Republicans to place racial loyalty ahead of political loyalty.
If Reconstruction became a for- gotten chapter in the U.S. Army’s history of counterinsurgency warfare, it was only one among several from this early era. The same attitude of disdainful forgetfulness was evident toward the lessons learned from both the Mexican War of 1846-48 and the military government that briefly administered California prior to state hood in 1850—instances in which the Army was also called on to perform “civilian” duties. In neither case were occupying commanders asked to prepare manuals from their experiences, and their invaluable innovations in occupation and military government largely vanished from the Army’s history.
Some of the lessons they learned would have to be reinvented in the Philippines, and again in World War II—and arguably again even today.
Stephen Budiansky is the author of The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War (2008).
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.