American Militias after the Civil War: From Black Codes to the Black Panthers and Beyond
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The Civil War (1861-1865) was nothing less than a revolutionary reorganization of American government, society, and economics. It claimed almost as many lives as every other U.S. conflict combined and, by war's bloody logic, forged the nation which the Founding Fathers could not by settling once and for all lingering national questions about state sovereignty and slavery.
The postwar period, however, was one of arguably greater turmoil than the war itself. This is because many men in the South did not, in fact, lay down their arms at the end of the War. What’s more, freedmen, former slaves that were now American citizens, had to take defensive measures against pro-Democratic Party partisans, the most famous of whom were the Ku Klux Klan.
America's militia has existed for a number of purposes and has exercised a surprising number of roles over the years. But at its core, it’s a bulwark of the power of the country against the power of the state. In Early American Militias: The Forgotten History of Freedmen Militias from 1776 until the Civil War, we covered the historical roots of the milita. Below is the modern history of the militia following the Civil War, and how unforeseen changes which started during Reconstruction have set the stage for the contemporary movement of Constitutional citizens militias.
The Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) is one of the most fascinating – and violent – periods of American history. After the defeat of the Confederate States, the United States Army took direct control of the quelled rebel states. Elections were eventually held and Republicans won every state, with the exception of Virginia. The state governments then organized militias, which were comprised of a majority of black men.
To say that there was racial tension in the former Confederate states would be an understatement. Not only was the South under continued military occupation, but they were also being occupied by their former slaves, now armed by what was until very recently a foreign power. The white population of the South responded to what they considered to be an attack on them and their rights by organizing militias of their own, despite the fact that this was prohibited by law. In fact, postbellum laws on militia organization prohibited drilling, parading, or organizing.
Fears among Southern whites were not unfounded, nor without precedent. The 35th United States Colored Troops went house to house in Charleston confiscating firearms. Black troops were known for looting and rioting during the final days of the war. The 52nd United States Colored Infantry sacked the Vicksburg plantation belonging to Jared and Minerva Cook, where it is believed some of them had been slaves. They confiscated the plantation’s guns at the point of a revolver, shooting both Cooks, killing Minerva and seriously wounding Jared.
A correspondent writing at the time spoke of the palpable fear of the white population: He believed that a massacre of the entire white population was impending. This anxiety is what led to the so-called “Black Codes” of the postwar era, which included tight restrictions on the weapons that could be owned by free blacks – if any at all. Some laws even restricted blacks from owning knives.
It’s worth noting that black veterans of the time were armed quite well. Not only did many keep their service weapons after the war was over, but they were also in possession of weapons claimed as war prizes. The average black citizen of the time, however, wanted only arms for self defense. Indeed, the mutual feeling of uneasiness in the postwar South seems to have a solid foundation for each group. How comfortable would most people feel with an occupying army of hostile former slaves? And how comfortable would most former slaves feel surrounded by recent insurgents?
These independent white militias were effectively a form of guerilla resistance against reasserted Union control in the South. Activity on either side tended to peak around the time of elections, suggesting that each was engaged in a campaign of intimidation against the other.
Some of the first anti-gun control movements in the United States were among freed blacks seeking to keep and bear arms for their own protection against the white independent militias. The names are familiar to most Americans: The Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, The Red Shirts, The White League, The White Brotherhood. These white independent militias have been called by George C. Rable the "military arm of the Democratic Party." Many blacks who had no intention of firing a shot in anger wanted a weapon simply to keep themselves and their families secure in the face of armed terrorist gangs seeking to circumvent the Reconstruction.
However, winners, as they say, write the history books. The Southern side of the argument is that the Union League, a Northern organization dedicated to patriotism, unionism and opposition to “Copperhead” Peace Democrats was, by the end of the war, organizing in the South. While less known than the above-mentioned groups, the Union League (also known as the Loyal League) was certainly not innocent of violent assaults, murder and rape. This made the most innocent of Union League members a target for Southern, pro-Democratic groups.
In the battle between the largely black, pro-Federal and Republican groups and the overwhelmingly (if not exclusively) white, pro-Southern and Democratic groups, the latter ultimately won the day. Reconstruction was ended as part of a bargain to secure Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in 1876. The North in general, and the Republican Party in particular, was tired of dealing with the Southern issue. Northern sympathies for black troubles were tepid to nonexistent a decade after President Andrew Johnson declared a formal end to hostilities.
Beyond the national political loss of will to continue Reconstruction, there are other, more intangible factors in play. White independent organization was stronger than the black, federally backed organizations. What’s more, while the black population was afraid, the white population was mad with desperation. Blacks in government, armed with the backing of federal power seemed to them no less than an inversion of nature and an existential threat to all white Southrons.
With federal troops and backing withdrawn from Reconstruction, the stage was set for Jim Crow and a rollback of many of the social gains blacks enjoyed during this era.
While the popular vision of the post-Reconstruction Era is one of constant terror from pro-Democratic paramilitary groups such as the KKK, this is inaccurate. The Knights of the White Camelia, an upper-crust organization, had largely ceased to exist by 1870. Nathaniel Bedford Forrest ordered the Klan disbanded in 1869, increasingly concerned with their lawless behavior and his inability to control it. President Grant’s Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 were squarely designed toward dismantling what remained of the Original Klan. The White League, perhaps the most militant of the group, disbanded in 1876, seeing their aims as largely accomplished. The Red Shirts lingered on until 1900, but their efforts were primarily around voter intimidation at election time, rather than a constant campaign of harassment, terror and intimidation.
The point is not to soft pedal or minimize the attacks against blameless black civilians during and after the Reconstruction Era. However, the white paramilitary groups were largely inactive for the simple reason that the Democratic Party state governments were accomplishing most of their goals through the rule of law.
Curiously hidden within an otherwise banal defense appropriations bill, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 radically changed the role of the militia in the United States. It prevented the Army from enforcing federal law in the United States. This was later amended to include the Air Force, however, both the United States Marine Corps and the United States Navy are lacking from the law. The Navy has regulations which effectively provide the same prohibitions.
Also missing from the Act is anything preventing the state militias or the National Guard from enforcing relevant laws, provided that they are acting under the command of the governor and the state government. This meant that the state governments, acting largely under the control of the Democratic Party, could still use organized military – while the federal government, still dominated by Republicans, could not. While state militias were rarely, if ever, used in the same manner as the Klan and other white paramilitary organizations, the writing was on the wall – black citizens would no longer receive protection from the federal government against either the Democratic Party state governments or their more militant and rambunctious voters.
Militias under the control of the state largely acted not along racial lines, but economic ones. State militias were increasingly deployed against striking workers in labor disputes. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, known contemporaneously as “the Great Upheaval,” is one such example. The first nationwide strike in American history, railroad workers went out on strike against a third wage cut in the span of a year. Over 100,000 workers walked off the job. Local and state militias played an instrumental role in breaking the strike, which lasted 45 days and left over 100 dead. Militia forces killed striking workers across the nation, including in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Chicago.
The Great Railroad Strike was not the last time that militias were used against striking workers. In Lemont, Illinois, two striking Polish quarry workers were killed by the militia. There was also a racial component to some strikebreaking. For example, in Thibodaux, Louisiana, the Louisiana Militia shot at least 35 unarmed striking black sugar workers.
However, the most violent incident by far was the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. When the dust settled, 20 were dead – including 12 children and one bystander. As with many of the most pitched battles in American labor history, this involved the United Mine Workers. Mine work is dangerous everywhere, but this was particularly true out west. Workers were frequently paid in tonnage, and work that did not involve the digging of resources was unpaid. This meant workers often took chances with their lives, letting important repairs go undone and engaging in risky activities to get valuable minerals out of the ground.
Most of the striking workers in Ludlow, Colorado, had demands most Americans would sympathize with: Increased wages, payment for maintenance work, measures to keep weightmen honest, the right to live, shop and see a doctor at a place of their choosing, and the enforcement of existing state and federal laws.
The Massacre took place on Orthodox Easter, with the militia firing on striking worker camps with a machine gun. Women and children were attacked in an underground shelter with a fire set by the militia. While the United Mine Workers failed to obtain official recognition, the Massacre led to sweeping labor law reforms both in the United States and Canada. A monument erected by the United Mine Workers sits on the land once occupied by the striking workers’ tent camp.
The Militia Act of 1903 was the most sweeping reorganization of the militia before the formation of the modern National Guard. Prior to the enactment of the Militia Act of 1903, the militias were governed both by the Constitution and the Militia Acts of 1792. The latter simply enabled the president to call out and command militias when appropriate and set the parameters for what constituted the militia. It left the question of state versus federal control of militias unresolved.
While the militia as a national defense had been problematic since the days of the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War demonstrated that the militia system in the United States was badly in need of reform. The Militia Act of 1903 repealed the Militia Acts of 1792. It was this new Act which separated the militia into the organized and unorganized components. It also created the National Guard, an organization separate from both the organized militia and the National Guard of the United States, but with significant overlap with each. It has been argued that one of the issues driving the adoption of the Militia Act of 1903 was further disarmament of black Americans, particularly in the South during what is considered to be the nadir of race relations in the United States.
Left without much recourse in the way of self defense, the more militant members of the Civil Rights Movement began organizing what were effectively militias under the auspices of the National Rifle Association.
Robert F. Williams was a Civil Rights activist who believed strongly in the right of blacks to self defense against racist violence. Born in North Carolina, Williams moved to Detroit and served in the segregated Marine Corps during the Second World War. Like many black men of his generation, he was not content to return to a servile status after securing the peace in Europe. Returning to North Carolina, Williams quickly became a target of a revitalized KKK.
Williams eventually fled to Cuba where he attacked the United States government on Radio Free Dixie. He was an intimate of Chinese Communist Party elites who routinely attacked the official Communist Party in the United States. Upon returning to the United States in the 70s, he became an academic, little involved in the newly militant Black Power movement, which saw him as their touchstone.
The Black Panthers started as a similar phenomenon. While their contemporary fans focus on their social programs like free lunches, the Panthers were known to carry, even on the steps of the California State Capitol. This is what prompted then-Governor Ronald Reagan to pass some of the most sweeping gun control laws in modern history.
While this militant wing of the Civil Rights Movement was not an inspiration for the modern Constitutional Militia Movement, it’s hard not to see it as its John the Baptist.
The Constitutional Militia Movement is often derided as a “far-right extremist group” by the usual suspects. Whether this is true or not is largely a matter of perception. However, what is undeniable is that the militia movement is profoundly American, as has been seen throughout our history of the militia.
While we discussed in detail how the militia in the United States has been used to suppress rebellion, it’s worth noting the degree to which the militia – the armed bodies of men who have made up the bulk of the American population until recent history – have also been a force of resistance against the state power which ultimately suppressed them. There are several examples of this, including the Revolution of 1800, the Dorr Rebellion and, more recently, the American Liberty League, to say nothing of the aforementioned black Civil Rights Movement gun clubs. In this sense, a Constitutional Militia Movement is no less American than a Free Speech Movement, and certainly more American than a movement championing the separation of church and state.
The origins of the modern militia movement in the United States are shady. Some date it back to 1958, but this is unfair and imprecise – the date is picked because of a militia formed by the Christian Identity movement. Indeed, much of the information about the history of the Constitutional Militia Movement in the United States is difficult to tease out, because it’s primarily documented by the movement’s enemies at self-styled “hate group” watches like the SPLC and the ADL or left-wing media like Vox and Mother Jones.
One thing is certain: The militia movement really started kicking off after the Ruby Ridge massacre where Randy Weaver’s son, wife and (of course) dog, were all shot down by federal agents on Weaver’s property. While the Weaver case has some nuance, it’s worth noting that the only thing Weaver was ever convicted of was failing to appear in court at a time when he didn’t know he was supposed to appear. Gun-owning patriots were, naturally, put aback by this. Combined with the Waco siege, where 76 men, women and children were burned alive, a new militancy in the nascent militia movement was inspired.
This is when groups such as the Michigan Militia, who allegedly had ties with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, began to crop up. Indeed, there is a veritable rogue’s gallery of militias and militia members who were arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for a litany of crimes. The degree to which these are legitimate charges and to what degree they are entrapment is anyone’s guess.
But there’s a whole other side to the militia movement. Militias such as the Missouri Citizens Militia, the Missouri Militia, the Ohio Defense Force and the Pennsylvania Military Reserve primarily see their mission as supporting the common defense in the event of an emergency. While it’s likely that individual members might be skeptical of, or even hostile toward, federal power, they’re not planning armed insurrections or even waiting for the right moment to do so. They see themselves as the successor of the organized militias of old. And while they might not realize it, this makes them more than a little like the militias raised to put down the Dorr Rebellion and other civil disturbances attacking federal power.
The two largest militia groups active today (though, of course, actual member numbers can be difficult to ascertain for obvious reasons) are probably the Oath Keepers and the 3 Percenters. The former’s membership is restricted to current and former military, peace officers and first responders. The Oath Keepers were involved in patrolling Ferguson, Missouri, during the rioting there in 2014 and 2015. They were positioned on rooftops around the city and ignored a police order to cease and desist. When Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples, the Oath Keepers stated that they would prevent local police from arresting her a second time. Her legal team reached out to politely but firmly decline the offer.
Both groups were present at the Bundy Ranch standoff as well as the Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Bundy Ranch standoff was one episode in a 25-year legal odyssey the Bundys waged against the Bureau of Land Management. The background of this is complicated, but the gist is that the BLM claimed Cliven Bundy owed them over $1 million in grazing fees, while Bundy claimed that he did not. On March 27, 2014, nearly 150,000 acres of land were closed for the collection of trespassing cattle. On April 12, 2014, protesters, some of whom were armed, confronted a BLM official. Sheriff Doug Gillespie negotiated a settlement with Bundy and then-BLM director Neil Kornze.
The standoff is interesting from the perspective of militia history because it features not only the unorganized militia (Bundy and his men), but also several organized militias, albeit not those explicitly under the command of the federal government, the Constitutional status of which would be a grey area anyhow. The Oath Keepers, 3 Percenters, the White Mountain Militia and the Praetorian Guard were all on the scene of the standoff.
Several of these figures showed up not much later in the Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a 40-day standoff (again) over the proper role of the federal government with regard to large tracts of land. The central character this time was Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven. The 3 Percenters also made an appearance, but did not stay for the duration of the standoff.
In each case, while the particulars of what was and was not legal about the Bundy’s relationship to the land and the BLM is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder, what is not is that the Bundy and militia resistance worked, at least temporarily, in favor of the Bundys as a check on federal power.
This harks back to the original, revolutionary origins of the militia. The militia has existed for a number of purposes and has exercised a number of roles over the years. But at its core, it’s a bulwark of the power of the country against the power of the state.