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Kirk-Holden War (1870)

Caswell County Courthouse Historical Marker
  • Occurred 1870 in Alamance and Caswell Counties
  • Government Forces Led by Col. George W. Kirk
  • Many Caswell Citizens Arrested
  • Governor Holden Impeached

Historical Sketch

First, the Kirk-Holden War was not a military war in the traditional sense. No battle was fought. Second, whatever it was, it was of brief duration, lasting only from July to December of 1870. However, while not a war and not lasting long, the Kirk-Holden War was characteristic of the political and social divisions that existed in many parts of the South after the Civil War. It saw martial law imposed by North Carolina Governor William W. Holden, the occupation of much of Yanceyville by Colonel George W. Kirk (including the recently constructed Caswell County Courthouse), and the eventual impeachment and removal from office of Governor Holden. While not a shooting war, it nevertheless was an important event in the history of Caswell County and the State of North Carolina.

The atmosphere in Caswell County at the time was highly charged. The more benign Presidential Reconstruction of President Andrew Johnson had been replaced by the Radical Construction imposed by the Republican Congress. The elections of 1868 saw the white Democratic politicians lose their seats; and the Ku Klux Klan had come into existence and was active in Alamance and Caswell Counties. Republican State Senator John W. Stephens had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan May 21, 1870, in the Caswell County Courthouse. Wyatt Outlaw, a respected black Town Commissioner of Graham in Alamance County had been lynched by the Ku Klux Klan.

Governor William W. Holden viewed Alamance and Caswell counties to be in a state of rebellion. Moreover, on July 8, 1870, he declared Caswell County to be in a state of insurrection. Whether Governor Holden actually saw the situation as one of rebellion and insurrection or whether he saw an opportunity to quash the Ku Klux Klan and keep the area in the Republican fold continues to be debated. After obtaining advice from members of the Republican Party, Governor Holden decided to declare martial law, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and sent in troops to restore order. The regular state militia would not have been effective as many would sympathize with the white citizens of Caswell County. A regiment of black militia would have made the situation worse. And, for some reason the use of federal troops was ruled out.

Governor Holden obtained military supplies from President Grant and Secretary of War William T. Sherman. Holden then needed someone to assemble a militia for deployment in Alamance and Caswell counties. For this job he made the odd choice of former Colonel of the United States Army and Confederate Army deserter, George W. Kirk of Jonesboro, Tennessee. Colonel Kirk assembled his force of around 300 men (enlisted from western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee) and in early July 1870 marched on Yanceyville. Much confusion resulted, especially in and around the Caswell County Courthouse. A shot was fired, but no one was injured. Fortunately, a detachment of United States soldiers was camped beside the Presbyterian Church. The officer in command was told of the situation at the Courthouse, deployed his troops, and order was restored. Merely the sight of the U.S. Army forces was sufficient to cause the activities of Kirk to cease and to end the tumult and confusion.

Kirk did, however, continue with instructions from Governor Holden to arrest many men in Caswell County. Several were roughly treated. Some were held at Kirk's camp in Yanceyville, some sent to Graham in Alamance County, and others transported to Raleigh. Included were the most highly 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. Around one hundred men were arrested.

Lawyers for many arrested sought from the courts writs of habeas corpus. Essentially, a writ of habeas corpus is a court order to a jail or prison official instructing that a prisoner be brought to court in order to determine whether the prisoner is being held lawfully and whether he should be released. Some of these requests were made to the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, which were granted. Governor Holden instructed Colonel Kirk to ignore the orders of the North Carolina Supreme Court, a critical political mistake. The matter was taken to federal court in Salisbury, where a federal judge ordered most of the prisoners released. The few not immediately released were never tried.

Governor Holden disbanded the militia in September 1870. In November, he declared the insurrection in Alamance and Caswell counties ended. During this period, Colonel Kirk was hounded by sheriffs and process servers as many arrested by him sought to have him arrested and tried on charges of false imprisonment. While Kirk was protected by his troops, he realized the situation was bad. He had himself arrested by a United States marshall and transported to Raleigh, from where he secretely made his way back to Tennessee.

But how quickly the political landscape changed. The August 1870 election was carried by the Conservative Democrats, resulting in Republicans losing control of the North Carolina Legislature. Governor Holden was impeached, tried, and removed from office. While he was the second governor of a state of the United States to be impeached (charged with wrongdoing), he was the first to be convicted and removed from office. Governor Holden was convicted largely on the basis of his illegal activities in Caswell and Alamance counties.

Thus, while the Kirk-Holden War was not a shooting war, it certainly was a political one.

This historical sketch of the Kirk-Holden War places substantial reliance on When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County North Carolina 1777-1977, William S. Powell (1977), which can be purchased from the CCHA. See Publications for Sale.



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