The Kirk-Holden War was a struggle against the Ku Klux Klan in the state of North Carolina in 1870. The Klan was preventing recently freed slaves from exercising their right to vote by intimidating them. Governor William W. Holden hired Colonel George Washington Kirk, a former Union guerrilla leader, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and imposed martial law in Caswell and Alamance counties to stop the Klan.
Background to the "war"
John W. Stephens, a Republican State Senator, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the Caswell County Courthouse on May 21, 1870. Shortly before that, Wyatt Outlaw, the African American town commissioner of Graham, was lynched in Alamance County by the Klan. On July 8, 1870, Governor Holden declared the counties to be in a state of insurrection. George Kirk was brought in to stop the Klan. Holden suspended the writ of habeas corpus and imposed martial law in Caswell and Alamance counties to help Kirk in his efforts.
The war itself was little more than a police action. Governor Holden ordered Kirk to assemble a force and march on the city of Yanceyville. Kirk gathered some 300 volunteers and marched on the city in early July. Soon thereafter, he began arresting men, including some of the most respected citizens of the county: ex-Congressman John Kerr, lawyers Jacob A. Long and James E. Boyd, Captain Joseph F. Mitchell, Sheriff Jesse C. Griffith, Barzillai Graves, Thomas J. Womack, and Yancey Jones. Kirk made about 100 arrests in a matter of weeks.
Lawyers immediately attempted to free their clients through the courts' writs of habeas corpus. Some requests were granted by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. However, Governor Holden instructed Kirk to ignore these, and the matter was taken to the federal court in Salisbury. The federal judge ordered most of the prisoners released; none were ever tried.
Governor Holden disbanded the militia in September 1870, and in November ended the state of insurrection in both counties. The men Kirk had arrested demanded his arrest and wanted him tried on charges of false imprisonment. The United States Marshall for Tennessee arrested Kirk and took him to Raleigh. However, he was secretly released and returned home to Tennessee.
Governor Holden was impeached, tried, and removed from office in a party-line vote not long after the Democrats took control of the North Carolina Legislature in the August 1870 election. Two additional charges beyond the six that received the 2/3 supermajority required for impeachment only achieved a majority, but Holden nevertheless became the first governor in the US removed from office.
On April 12, 2011, the North Carolina state Senate voted unanimously to pardon Governor Holden. The measure now awaits passage in the NC House.
- "Biography of Senator John W. Stephens". Retrieved 2009-02-09.
- "Kirk-Holden War". Retrieved 2009-02-09.
- "Caswell County Historical Association: Kirk-Holden War". Retrieved 2009-02-09.
- "N.C. state senate pardons governor who stood up to Klan". Reuters. April 12, 2011.