Kirk–Holden war

The Kirk–Holden War was a struggle against the Ku Klux Klan in the state of North Carolina in 1870. The Klan was using murder and intimidation to prevent recently-freed slaves from exercising their right to vote. Republican Governor William W. Holden hired Colonel George Washington Kirk to handle the matter. He also suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and imposed martial law in Caswell and Alamance counties in response.

Kirk–Holden war
Part of the Reconstruction Era
  • Insurrection ends
  • Democratic Party gains control of state legislature and overturns laws that led to war
  • Governor William Holden impeached and removed by party-line vote in state legislature
  • Col. George Kirk arrested
  • Felony indictments against klansmen that were not successfully prosecuted
Ku Klux Klan

North Carolina State Government

  • Kirk's Militia
Commanders and leaders
Unknown William Woods Holden
George Washington Kirk
Unknown 300 volunteers
Casualties and losses
16 12


On February 26, 1870, Wyatt Outlaw, the African-American town commissioner and constable of Graham, was lynched in Alamance County by the Klan.[1] On May 21, 1870 John W. Stephens, a white, Confederate, Republican state senator was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the Caswell County Courthouse.[2][3]

On July 8, 1870, Governor Holden declared the two counties to be in a state of insurrection. Colonel George Kirk was brought in to restore order. Holden suspended the writ of habeas corpus and imposed martial law in Caswell and Alamance counties to help Kirk in his efforts.[3]

The war

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 Alson Long and James E. Boyd, Captain Joseph F. Mitchell, Sheriff Jesse C. Griffith, Barzillai Graves, Thomas J. Womack, and Yancey Jones.[3] Kirk made about 100 arrests in a matter of weeks.[1]

The Klan retaliated and thirty of its members marched on the small town of Pittsboro, intent on taking it over. Kirk's forces gathered and the Klan pulled back, with Kirk in pursuit. In the forests of Chatham County a bloody battle ensued, though few details are known. After several similar skirmishes the war was over.


Governor Holden disbanded Colonel Kirk's militia in September 1870, and in November ended the state of insurrection in both counties. The men Kirk had arrested demanded his own arrest, and wanted him tried on charges of false imprisonment. The United States Marshal for Tennessee arrested Colonel Kirk and took him to Raleigh. However, he was secretly released and returned home to Tennessee.[3]

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.[3]

On April 12, 2011, the North Carolina Senate voted unanimously to make amends for Holden's removal from office by pardoning him,[4] although as Holden himself pointed out, you can't be pardoned for a crime you didn't commit.[5]

See also


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