American Violence: The Long Civil War

American Violence: The Long Civil War March 24, 2017

I know the American Civil War happened, but I’m not too sure when, how, or whether it ended.

That question was in my mind recently when I visited Georgetown, Kentucky, with its lovely old main street. Near the courthouse stands a monument to the trial of people accused in a sensational event of the era, the 1900 assassination of Governor William Goebel. Now, political killings happen, and are often the work of deranged loners. On this occasion, though, the assassination was part of a political conflict in Kentucky that was on a near-warfare scale. Goebel was a Democratic leader, who was at deadly odds with local Republicans, and in 1899 a confused election potentially placed two rivals as winners in the gubernatorial contest. One was Goebel, the other was Republican William Taylor. A State Senate committee formed to decide the matter.

I quote Wikipedia:

As it became apparent to Taylor’s supporters that the committee would decide in favor of Goebel, they raised an armed force. On January 19, 1900, more than 1,500 armed civilians took possession of the Capitol. For more than two weeks, the United States watched as the Commonwealth of Kentucky slid towards civil war. The presiding governor declared martial law and activated the official Kentucky militia. On January 30, 1900, Goebel, accompanied by two bodyguards, was shot by a sniper as he approached the Capitol. Though mortally wounded, Goebel was sworn in as Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky the next day. Goebel died from his wounds on February 3, 1900.

Implicated in the killing, Taylor fled the state. The assassination forced people to confront the implications of what they were doing, and really calmed down the violence.

Do note that this affair, with its mass use of private violence and massed gunmen, did not take place in the Wild West – not even in the (fairly) wild West of Kentucky.

I very much doubt that this whole affair is known to anyone who does not actually specialize in Kentucky history, and that is a shame. If we take the years from roughly 1875 through (say) 1915, events very much like this are in progress across many parts of the United States. Some were faction feuds, some are ethnic or racial conflicts. Rarely, though, do we really contextualize them together. If we do, we really see the US in this era – roughly, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era – as a phenomenally violent society, which really was radically different from any other Western society. (The main historical organization on this period is called SHGAPE, Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era). The violence was particularly extreme in the years around 1900.

Violence as such is often discussed in accounts of these years, but it is pretty much always seen as part of a local problem, a response to specific issues and grievances. We know for instance about the violence connected with Reconstruction and the re-establishment of White Supremacy after 1877, with all the riots and massacres, the popular militias and paramilitary organizations, the lynchings and death squad activity. Some four thousand were lynched in these years, around three quarters of whom were black.


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Partisan conflict between Republicans and Democrats was endemic, and sometimes went beyond local struggles like those in Kentucky. In 1876-77, a disputed presidential election brought the country perilously close to a revived Civil War. That election has been in the news recently because then also, the Democrats scored a major victory in the popular vote, while losing the White House.

We know about the industrial violence that swept the country in these years, from the widespread strikes of 1877, the Molly Maguires, to the Pullman strike of 1894 and all the conflicts associated with the activities of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Those battles carried on into the 1920s, especially in the coal fields: you may have seen the classic 1987 film Matewan. The state of Pennsylvania alone had a notorious series of bloody strikes and industrial massacres. These various labor wars across the nation claimed many lives, including the former Idaho governor Frank Steunenburg, assassinated at the behest of the miners’ union in 1905. In 1901, an anarchist assassinated US President William McKinley.


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The industrial struggles were very violent, not least because of the heavy weaponry involved. A society where industry depended on mining had easy access to explosives. In the years leading up to World War One, machine guns were coming into regular use, and by no means only for the armed forces. Chillingly illustrating this point is the Wikipedia catalogue of deaths in US labor disputes. The death toll from the wave of battles and massacres between 1910 and 1916 is very notable.

Between 1892 and 1917 the Rocky Mountain states endured a series of violent clashes, complete with assassinations, massacres, mass deportations and concentration camps. The tone of these years is illustrated by the great strikes of 1892, which in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, led to gun battles of a scale sufficient to cause the governor to declare a state of insurrection and send in the National Guard. In 1899 federal troops in the same state rounded up hundreds of miners and held them for months in bullpens. In 1913–14 the storm center was the coalmines of southern Colorado, where in 1914 the National Guard used machine guns to perpetrate a notorious massacre at a miners’ tent city near Ludlow. About 70 people were killed during the conflict, including many women and children. In Bisbee, Arizona, in 1917 a miners’ strike was ended when vigilantes of a ‘Loyalty League’ rounded up 1,200 workers and forcibly deported them into the desert on cattle trucks.

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And the story can easily be extended, to include the ferocious suppression of Mexican-Americans along the Texas border in the First World War years, which claimed at least several hundred lives. (In the language of the time, Latino victims were not liquidated, but “evaporated”). Not to mention the Indian Wars. Nor does the story told here count the US’s extraordinarily bloody colonial war in progress around 1900, in the Philippines. The massacre at Moro Crater (1906) should properly be commemorated alongside the far better known Wounded Knee (1890).


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That colonial violence had a bad habit of coming home. In 1905, labor unrest in Pennsylvania led to the creation of the State Police, a widely-imitated paramilitary constabulary unit, which applied to Pennsylvania the counter-insurgency lessons learned in the Philippines. The State Police, the “Cossacks” provided organized labor with a litany of martyrs and massacres in which strikers and protesters had been killed by the forces of authority: at Mount Carmel in 1906, McKees Rocks in 1909, Bethlehem in 1910.

It would be tempting to offer some kind of chronology of all the wars, massacres, pogroms, assassinations and risings. The problem is that they are just too abundant. It would be easier, in fact, to try and list years that were relatively tranquil, and were massacre-free.

Take them all together – the partisan conflicts, labor wars, racial conflicts, range wars  – and they produce a level of private violence and vigilantism inconceivable in any part of contemporary Europe. They also made paramilitary forces and private armies a fundamental part of American political life. (Europe in the 1890s did indeed have a wave of assassinations, but these were the work of smallish terrorist groups and lone wolves, rather than an authentic mass movement).

Several thoughts strike me here, but one concerns the role of race. No sane person doubts the significance of racial violence and hatred as a force driving violence in US history, but clearly, that was not the only factor. White Americans in these years lynched several thousand blacks (besides a thousand or so whites), but they also killed many other white people in conflicts not related to racial issues. Obviously, that is no defense of the atrocities, but it does suggest that race should not be singled out as the sole driving force.

Equally, when we look at hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, they have become a convenient symbol for a great many other vigilante and paramilitary groups in the nation’s history, some of which were driven by racial motives, others not. In the late nineteenth century, the white supremacist Red Shirt movements were far more numerous and effective than the Klan, and there were plenty of local militias, like Louisiana’s White League. In 1898, the Red Shirts led ethnic attacks in Wilmington, NC, events that went far beyond a mere race riot, and which are described in terms of an insurrection or coup d’état: some dozens of black residents were slaughtered. Theoretically the Klan vanished from American life between around 1872 and 1915, but that was because so many other private armies were performing the same functions, and achieving so much more. The Klan’s revival following the release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 just marked the adoption of new pageantry and symbolism, not to mention commercial hucksterism, rather than boosting or provoking racial violence as such.

Some years ago, I lost a dear friend, a fine historian named Bill Pencak, who more or less denied the existence of the Civil War. That sounds like revisionism run amok, until you realize his tongue-in-cheek intent. What he argued, provocatively, was that America between (say) 1835 and 1875 was rife with endemic local wars and conflicts, night-riding and massacre, by urban riots and lynchings, by acts of mass community vigilantism and justice, by the mass murder of minorities and ethnic outsiders. Moreover, that was true in all sections of the nation. As a matter of convenience, said Bill Pencak, we happen to take the four bloodiest years of this ongoing carnage and label them “The Civil War.” Those years differed in severity from what went on before or since, but not in kind.

Increasingly, I think he was making an excellent point – but I would extend the period of turmoil well into the twentieth century.

More next time on some of the myths and realities of the “Wild West,” and how they affect this story.




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