Have you heard about the efforts of a Raleigh attorney to get a pardon for William Woods Holden, the North Carolina reconstruction governor who was impeached in 1870? You can read more about it here, here, and here.
The newspaper articles all stray a bit in telling their stories. The piece from the Charlotte paper reads “Holden declared Alamance and Caswell counties to be in insurrection and dispatched the state militia. The troops took control of courthouses and arrested more than 100 accused Klan members. As a result, the newly elected Democratic House brought eight impeachment charges against Holden.”
Well, that is not exactly true. It was not the state militia that Holden called out. It was a group of hired guns that Holden recruited for the purpose of going into the counties that Holden believed were in insurrection and quelling the violence. Were the counties of Alamance and Caswell in a state of insurrection, caused by clashes between conservatives and liberals? Yes. Did Holden overstep his constitutional powers by bringing in non-North Carolinians and organizing them into a quasi-military organization to deal with the violence? Yes. And hence, I believe that was the cause of Holden’s impeachment.
The first charge reads: “that William W. Holden did, on the 7th day of March, 1870, ‘proclaim, and declare that the county of Alamance, in said State, was in insurrection; and did, after the days and times last aforesaid, send bodies of armed, desperate, and lawless men, organized and set on foot without authority of law, into said county, and occupy the same by military force and suspend civil authority, and the constitution and law of the State; and did, after the days and times last foresaid, and before the time of impeachment in this behalf, through and by means of such armed, desperate, and lawless men, arrest many peaceable and law-abiding citizens of said county of Alamance, then and there about their lawful business; and did detain, hold, imprison, hand, beat, and otherwise maltreat and injure many of them, when he well knew that such and said proclamation was utterly groundless and false, and that there was no insurrection in said county, and that all civil authorities, both State and county, in said county, were peaceable and regularly in the full, free, and unrestrained exercise, in all respects, of the functions of their offices, and the courts were all open, and the due administration of the law was unimpeded by any resistance whatsoever.”
Article IV of the indictment states that Holden had used the powers of his office to “incite, procure, order, and command one George W. Kirk, and one B. G. Burgen… to assault, seize, detain and imprison and deprived of their liberty and privileges as freeman and citizens of said state…”
Article V read, in part, that Holden had “’unlawfully recruited, armed, and equipped as soldiers, a large number of men, to wit, five hundred men and more, and organized them as an army… [and] placed [them] under the command and control of one George W. Kirk, as colonel, aided by one B. G. Burgen, as lieutenant colonel…”
Articles V and VI detailed some of the problems that Kirk and his band caused. Article VII stated that Holden, as governor of North Carolina, “without any authority of law, but in contravention and subversion of the constitution and laws of said state and the United States, and intending to provoke and stir up civil strife and war, recruit and call together from this state and the state of Tennessee a large number of men, to-wit: Five hundred men and more, many of them of the most reckless, desperate, ruffanly and lawless characters, and did then and there organize, arm and equip them as an army of soldiers, and place the same under the chief command of a notorious desperado from the state of Tennessee, by the name of George W. Kirk… and did send large numbers of such armed desperate men in said counties… and did there and then without warrant or authority, seize, hold, imprison and deprive of their liberties for a long time… of twenty days and more, many of the peaceable and law-abiding citizens of said counties…” and that Kirk “without any lawful authority, made his warrant upon David A. Jenkins, treasurer of state, for large sums of money, to-wit: for the sum of seventy thousand dollars and more, and caused and procure… the treasurer of the state, to… pay out of the treasury such said large sums of money to the agent or paymaster of the said William W. Holden… did then and there and by the means and in the manner aforesaid, commit a high misdemeanor in office, in violation of the constitution and laws of the state, and of the peace and interests and dignity thereof…
Article VIII once again hits upon Kirk and the armed forces, and how Holden’s recruitment of the force was “without the sanction of the constitution and laws of said state…” (taken from Public Laws of the State of North Carolina (1871))
The 1835 Constitution of the state of North Carolina gave the governor permission to call up the militia when the General Assembly was not in session (Section 18). However, according to the Revised Code of North Carolina (1855) the militia had to be “citizens of this State, or of the United States residing in this State…” (398) The Constitution of 1868 further enforced this rule; to be in the militia in North Carolina, one had to be a citizen of the state. George W. Kirk was not. Kirk hailed from Greene County, Tennessee, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, never lived in North Carolina. Kirk served as a captain in the 2nd North Carolina Mounted Infantry and later as colonel of the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry. One local historian considered Kirk’s band “a notorious band of scoundrels and thieves.” Kirk’s tactics in western North Carolina were unconventional, and included using Confederate prisoners as human shields, wanton destruction of private property, robbery, and many other depredations. Western North Carolinians hated Kirk above all other Yankees.
Just how did Holden justify violating North Carolina’s Constitution and bringing in Kirk? In Holden’s memoirs, he writes: “I authorized the formation of two regiments of militia… Col. Kirk was fiercely, and roundly, and unjustly assailed by his enemies, mainly because he was a native man. He had raised three regiments of North Carolineans [sic] and Tennesseans for the federal government and had been a faithful soldier of the Union. He was employed by me in good faith in accordance with the law…. It was stated in some of the evidence (in the impeachment proceedings) that he said that if he were attacked at his place in the Court House at Yanceyville, that he would resist and burn the town and murder the women and children….” However, Holden, in his memoirs, never tells us where he obtained permission, or derived the power from, to appoint Kirk as colonel of a North Carolina state force.
As an aside, both Kirk and his second in command, Lt. Col. George B. Bergen, also from Tennessee, were later arrested for their actions.
Or course, I am not the only one to make this argument: that Holden hired foreign mercenaries to deal with acts of domestic terrorism. Mr. Graham states the same thing, during Holden’s impeachment trial, on March 15, 1871: “From the character of Kirk and his troops, the last instruments that any sane official would have employed to promote peace. Instead of taking for a commander a man of character from among our own citizens, whose name would have inspired confidence in his purpose to do right, with a body of militia composed of respectable and orderly men, and appointing them to the duty of the arresting prisoners and delivering them over to the civil magistrates, the introduction of a stranger with certainly the character of a brigand in this state, with an army composed in great part of foreign mercenaries, and of undisciplined and lawless recruits from the frontier of the state, was an insult and an offence to the pride, manhood and self respect of the people, calculated to provoke the fiercest collision.” And later, “Kirk’s army was an unlawful force, both in view of the constitution of the United States, which forbids any state to “keep troops or ships of war in time of peace,” and of the constitution of the laws of North Carolina.”
The prosecution then lays out the facts against Kirk’s force: 1) 399 of Kirk’s 670 were below the age of 21, the required age to be enrolled in the militia; 2) 64 of the men were over the age of 40, once again in violation of the law; 3) more than 200 of the 670 were from out of state, mostly from Tennessee; 4) all of the field officers were from Tennessee…
These disqualifications go on and on. There are thousands of pages of testimony in the matter, more than I have time to read and digest. While the violence in certain parts of the county was reprehensible, and something needed to be done, Holden overstepped his constitutional boundaries in appointing George W. Kirk to led the men, a third of whom were from out-of-state, to tackle to job.