My print column this week is about the spitstorm kicked up by the proposal to pardon a Reconstruction-era North Carolina governor who was impeached after some actions that involved events in Alamance and Caswell counties in 1870. I’m not sure I’ve done a very good job of expressing myself in this one. 800 or so words weren’t enough — but it’s also likely that 10,000 wouldn’t do the job either. To be clear, anyone who beat back the Klan is hero in my book — but the other political stuff is murky to say the least. And I dread the Civil War issue whenever it comes up — which will be a lot over the next four years. Here goes.
Managing editor Jay Ashley predicted this would stir up a nest of hornets. And truthfully, I knew it even before he said it.
Unfortunately that doesn’t make me feel any better.
What I’m talking about, of course, is what’s unfolded since a group of state lawmakers decided it would be a good idea to pardon a North Carolina governor impeached during Reconstruction largely for events allegedly involving the Ku Klux Klan that unfolded here in Alamance County and in nearby Caswell County. The lawmakers thought the move would right a horrid political and social wrong. I can’t blame them for thinking so. I would, too.
After all, Gov. William Holden in 1870 sent forces here to quell problems apparently started by the nefarious Klan, if historical accounts can be believed. In retrospect, and taking into account that organization’s well-reported and sourced reign of terror and hatred, Holden’s actions would be considered heroic. That he was removed from office as a result seems like a tone-deaf historical note still vibrating in some land that time forgot.
A pardon, then, seems like a no-brainer.
Today, though, the proposal is in legislative dry dock and may be there for awhile. It was delayed, in part, by what appears to be a high school student at Bartlett Yancey who got the attention of state Sen. Rick Gunn, a Burlington Republican who represents both counties, according to WRAL-TV in Raleigh.
I say in part because what ultimately stalled this measure is not only some differing interpretations of a historic event or even if Holden was affiliated with another group of questionable import known as The Union League. No, it’s about something a whole lot larger. It’s about an inability to deal with our own sad and sometimes shameful history and move on.
BEFORE GOING any further and in the interest of full disclosure let me reveal right here that my great-great grandfather served with the Confederacy in the Civil War. He was a captain who came home to Stokes County after the bloodshed ended and tended to his land and other businesses. He got on with his life. A family member has his sword hanging on a wall in her home. There is a portrait of him in the gray uniform at my mom’s house.
And that’s about all I know. His role in the war is — and never was — a topic of conversation in my lifetime. Largely that’s because it has nothing to do with what’s going on here and now. I never think of the subject, except in times such as this one.
I realize others don’t feel the same way. I can’t say I understand it. I simply know the opposite opinion exists. The war, and particularly the aftermath known as Reconstruction, still drives strong, bitter debate — and emotions.
Gunn heard from a few of them. The Times-News did, too. We published a letter about this subject by Jason Crawford of Elon. I made the decision to print the letter because to simply ignore it would be wrong. It’s an issue in the public domain using documents that cite the view of historians — credible or not — housed at the University of North Carolina. Anyone could look it up.
Sterling Carter, a 17-year-old senior at Bartlett Yancey, sent Gunn an email outlining the Caswell Historical Association’s problems with the bill. The group maintains that Holden exceeded his authority, suspended the rights of citizens and used hired militia from another state to enforce his will. From my perspective, it’s sad that any governor would take such action. It’s sadder still that because of violent events by citizens a governor felt the need to.
Caswell County Historical Association President Karen Oestreicher told WRAL she doesn’t believe the impeachment was racially or politically motivated via pressure from the Klan but punishment for a wrong-headed and dangerous action.
Many state historians disagree.
Gunn thinks the Senate needs to sort out the facts before proceeding further.
Easier said than done. Threading the needle of history means not only finding indisputable facts, but living with them afterward.
AS THE SOUTH plunges into what will be a prolonged 150th anniversary examination of the most tragic segment in the course of American history, it will be helpful to remember that very few unbiased third-party accounts from that time exist. Newspapers throughout the nation had differing opinions about the things that occurred — and some were wildly divergent. The events leading up to the Civil War, actions during and the atrocities that came after are all sorted through a cloudy and highly subjective prism.
No real surprise. Nearly everything in history is open to interpretation anyway — that’s especially so when every man, woman and child in the nation had a stake in the outcome.
Look at it this way: Someone a hundred years or so from now will study what we call current events. They’ll sort through newspaper accounts, Internet screeds, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN archives. What kind of conclusions will be reached?
Five or six different ones would be my guess. How will future generations know which one to choose?