President Grant seeks to end Ku Klux Klan violence in South Carolina, ordering them to "disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes"
Manuscript DS as president, one page, 7.75 x 9.75, March 24, 1871. President Grant directs Secretary of State Hamilton Fish to "affix the seal of the United States to the accompanying Proclamation commanding the persons composing certain unlawful combinations in the State of South Carolina to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes." Neatly and boldly signed at the conclusion by President Ulysses S. Grant. In fine condition, with some light, slightly irregular toning. Accompanied by a modern printing of the text of Grant's proclamation, in which he commands 'armed men, unauthorized by law…disturbing the peace and safety of the citizens of the State of South Carolina and committing acts of violence'—members of the Ku Klux Klan—to 'disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes within twenty days,' under threat of force by the United States military.
The document represents President Grant's early response to Klan violence in the state of South Carolina, which had been increasing since the election of Republican Governor Robert Kingston Scott in 1868. Subsequent federal investigations uncovered evidence of hundreds of whippings and dozens of racially motivated murders in South Carolina between 1870 and 1872. Governor Scott pleaded with President Grant for federal intervention, and in March 1871 the president issued this proclamation commanding all Klansmen to retire peaceably from their reign of terror. He also ordered US Army Major Lewis Merrill, commanding Companies B, E, and K of George A. Custer's Seventh U.S. Cavalry, to the state in an effort to quell the violence and keep the peace.
Though Merrill's initial efforts were successful in uncovering and documenting Klan violence, local juries—oftentimes comprised of accessories to or supporters of such heinous acts—were reluctant to prosecute offenders, and the crime wave continued. Finally convinced that Klan activities in South Carolina amounted to warfare, on October 12th, Grant ordered all persons to 'disband and disperse' from the 'unlawful combinations and conspiracies' commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan, and to hand over their weapons and disguises to federal marshals. After receiving no such compliance, on October 17th, Grant issued another proclamation declaring nine counties in active rebellion and suspended habeas corpus.
The suspension of habeas corpus allowed Major Merrill to make mass arrests of Klansmen—he reported 169 arrests in York County alone before January 1872—and led hundreds more to surrender voluntarily and confess. Many of the group's leaders fled the state, leaving the Klan bewildered and disorganized, and the newfound threat of federal prosecution helped to quiet racially motivated violence in South Carolina. In the Klan trials of 1871-72, US District Attorney David Corbin was able to secure 140 convictions. Although well over 1,000 Klan cases remained pending at the close of 1872, they were slowly dropped over the course of the next two years. Nevertheless, these efforts struck a serious blow against the Ku Klux Klan, leaving it effectively dismantled until its revival in 1915.