The Ku Klux Klan was formed in 1865, the very year that the Civil War, aka The War Between the States, ended. That war began in 1861, a month after Abraham Lincoln took office as 16th president of the United States. Lincoln had been elected in November 1860 and he was the first Republican president and for the first time, a representative of a party that opposed the spread of slavery. The southern state of South Carolina had seceded from the Union in December, before the president-elect even took office. In January, six more southern states seceded. In February, the southern states that had seceded created the Confederate States of America. They advocated their right to perpetual slavery and its expansion to the west. These people believed that slavery existed because it was God’s will, and it was not for them to go against God’s will. A man named Jefferson Davis was appointed the first president of this new republic. Abraham Lincoln only took office in the first week of March. The federal government’s official stance was to not recognize the new republic.
In mid-April, the newly formed Confederates attacked a federal fort, called Fort Sumter, in South Carolina. The fort surrendered 34 hours later and it took the Union, which was what the northern federal government was called, almost 4 years to get it back. President Lincoln publically declared that the taking of the fort was an act of insurrection, and called for volunteers to form a militia to put down the rebellion. He expanded the army with volunteers, but at the same time four more southern states seceded the Union and joined the Confederates.
In April, the Union took over the home of General Robert E. Lee. He’s the general whose statue provoked protests and tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 when it was scheduled to be removed. General Lee was a complicated person, as are most successful people. He had distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and was promoted to a major. After the war, he was appointed superintendent of West Point. He was not cut out for administrative duties, and was relieved when he was sent to Texas for combat against the Apache and Comanche Indians, who were attacking the pioneers.
Lee was a southerner, brought up in a society that depended on slaves, and a letter that he sent to his wife in 1856 still survives. He wrote, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” It has been reported that he was overly severe with the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law. This seems to be common human characteristic: good intentions until faced with the reality of a difficult situation. He had no idea how the future war would bring him still more difficulties.
When the war between the states did break out, the commanding general of the Union Army asked President Lincoln for Lee, the experienced major. Lincoln agreed, and Lee accepted a promotion to colonel in March 1865. But at the same time, the Confederate Army offered him a command. He refused, but at the same time worried about his home state, Virginia, in the south. The Union offered Lee a promotion to major general in charge of defending Washington, D.C. And this is how he refused; “If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”
He didn’t delay his decision. He resigned from the Union Army on April 20th and assumed command of the Virginia State forces on April 23rd. And that’s how the first 4 months of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency went. And the war went on and on, devastating the country and especially the south, where the war had started and was mostly fought. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died during this war.
In January 1865, Lee was promoted to general-in-chief of the Confederate Army. In March 1865 he surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army. He said, “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South.” All those who fought in the war were sent home. The southerners didn’t have much in the way of homes or land waiting for them. Both the time and the place were fertile for the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.
Five days after General Lee surrendered, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a theater in Washington, D.C. Vice President Andrew Johnson was bumped up to president of the United States. The new president was a Southern slave owner and a racist, although he had been against succession during the war. Johnson was also a self-made man, and this caused him to dislike the elite southern plantation owners. He had an abrasive personality, and was not eloquent as Lincoln had been. Southerners disliked him because he had stayed loyal to the Union during succession. Some Northerners disliked him because they thought he was too much like Lincoln and too moderate in his treatment of the South, and others thought he should be punishing the South. There is no end to the list of people and groups he alienated himself from and in 1868 Congress voted to impeach him. He was the first president to undergo an impeachment trial. However, when his impeachment went to trial in the Senate, he escaped removal from office by just one vote. He finished out his term as a nonentity with no influence. Today, historians consider him the most ineffective president ever to have held office.
As for General Robert E. Lee, he lost his right to vote and some of his property after the war. His prewar home had been seized by the Union Army during the war and turned into the Arlington National Cemetery, the military cemetery we often see on TV. (In 1874, Lee’s grandson sued the United States, claiming ownership of the property, and the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and returned the estate to him. A few years later, he sold it back to the government for $150,000. Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Todd, who was Secretary of War, presided over the signing ceremony.) The new president issued fourteen different categories of amnesty and pardon applications and Robert E. Lee applied. President Johnson signed it, but he did not restore Lee’s citizenship or give him an official pardon. That only came 3 years later under a second presidential amnesty.
Robert E. Lee became the president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He was a good president and much improved the academic part of the university. However, a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan formed on campus during his presidency and he did not oppose it. The KKK committed at least 2 attempted lynchings and a couple of rapes against black girls during his tenure, but Lee mostly overlooked them. He was in favor of free public schools for blacks, but strongly against giving blacks the right to vote. Some saw him as an icon of reconciliation between the North and the South, and others saw him as a Christ-like icon for the ex-Confederates. He was probably a little of both. He died of a stroke 5 years after becoming president of Washington College, and the school’s name was quickly changed to Washington and Lee University.
During the war, the Confederacy adopted their own flag through trial and error. The flag we see on tee shirts today and car decals were actually adopted the month the south surrendered. They are supposed to represent Southern honor. But they have come to be associated with white supremacy, racism and segregation. They have become very contentious. The Klu Klux Klan uses the flag, as do other white supremacist groups. Not all southerners believe the flag should be flown, and not all southerners who fly it are racists. But all racists use this flag as one of their symbols. A 2017 reported that there are at least 1,503 symbols of the Confederacy displayed in public places across the USA. Most of these are statues of Robert E. Lee or the Confederate flag, and most are used by white supremacists to further their cause.
Tattoos have been around for more than 5,000 years. Egyptians, for example, used tattoos to differentiate between peasants and slaves, a kind of social branding. But ink art, which is what some fans like to call tattooing, has really exploded in the past 25 years. But not all of us have succumbed to this fad. And many of us who don’t have a tattoo have a favorite mug. Having a tattoo or becoming attached to a mug are not dissimilar. According to research, 60% of Americans say they have an emotional attachment to a favorite mug. And about 40% said their special mug was irreplaceable, and about 1/3 of those said they would be devastated if it broke. Personally, I think that most of these people don’t have tattoos. Mugs and tattoos are both an extension of our personalities, and both express the way we would like the world to perceive us. That is not to mention, of course, that those of us who have tattoos or mugs are often irrationally attached to them.