Who Were the Pale Faces? New Perspectives on the Tennessee Ku Klux

By Harcourt, Edward John | Civil War History, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Who Were the Pale Faces? New Perspectives on the Tennessee Ku Klux


Harcourt, Edward John, Civil War History


On Independence Day 1868, Wesley Alexander banged his drum at the head of a column of colored schoolchildren. He was leading a procession of freedpeople from Columbia, Middle Tennessee, to a grand picnic on the outskirts of the city. Alexander, a Union veteran, surely was aware of the dangers inherent in so bold a demonstration of black civil rights and Yankee loyalty. Middle Tennessee was a region where Confederate sentiment remained strong and where blacks had been terrorized by white gangs loosely styled after the Ku Klux Klan of neighboring Pulaski. Columbia, in fact, had spawned its own white supremacist fraternity, the Order of Pale Faces, which since January 1868 had been chastising freedpeople and white Unionists in a campaign of terror aimed at ending Republican rule. Alexander was undeterred, however, and on the birthday of the nation of which he had recently become a citizen, he marched out in a proud reenactment of the martial pomp he had learned in the Union army. An army encampment nearby provided some security, though Alexander and others were also prepared for their own defense. Earlier that same day, the black men of Columbia were the subject of a manifesto attributed to "the negro Kuklux klan" and published in a local paper, which declared that "the White KKK have come and now the Black KKK is A Coming." Though the picnic went ahead without incident, during the evening of July 4th four to five hundred horsemen, perhaps antagonized by the "negro Klan's" pronouncement, massed on the court square. Some were dressed in white costumes and others in red, as Alexander later testified, "with masks on their faces, and most of their horses covered." They carried white flags, some with the letters KKK embroidered in red. A local correspondent for a Nashville newspaper noted that the gang was led "by some of the oldest and most prominent citizens of this place." After "hallooing and whooping" around the town square, the gang began searching, as Alexander heard it, for "that damned drummer boy that has been drumming for them children belonging to the colored schools." After being shot at "seven or eight times," Alexander went into hiding and eventually took refuge in Nashville, where he told authorities that the Ku Klux "intend to kill every nigger" belonging to the Union League and all black veterans of the Union army. (1)

Stories such as this are legendary in the post-Confederate South. Scholars in recent years have mined a vast documentary archive provided by Freedmen's Bureau records, Union army reports, state and federal judicial and legislative hearings, and reams of newsprint from across the political spectrum, to portray the hopeful assumption of rights and privileges by African Americans in the face of violent opposition. Recent scholarship has also considerably broadened our understanding of the purpose and meaning behind violent acts in the early post-Confederate South. (2) Today, lectures on Reconstruction in U.S. history survey courses emphasize the political, racial, and sexual anxieties behind much of the violence and explore the continuities between antebellum and postwar modes of assaults on the bodies of African Americans. (3) Yet older narratives persist within the new discourse on violence. This is particularly so with accounts of the development of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee, its state of origin, which remain partially captive to the nineteenth-century mythology that surrounded the Klan's genesis. Although textbook authors since the 1960s have stripped any lingering sympathy for the Klan from their potted histories, modern accounts still trot out the traditional version of the Klan's benign origins in Pulaski. Take, for example, the account given by Tindall and Shi in America: A Narrative History:

   The prototype of terrorist groups was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), first
   organized in 1866 by some young men of Pulaski, Tennessee, as a
   social club with the costumes, secret ritual, and mumbo-jumbo common
   to fraternal groups. … 

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