William Woods Holden might be said to have been the governor of postwar “Vichy” North Carolina, installed by President Andrew Johnson in 1865. Most contemporaries of Holden characterized him as “a bitter, unscrupulous and arrogant demagogue who frequently changed his political stripes to advance his own ambition.”
Holden also became head of the infamous Union League in North Carolina, allying himself with notorious carpetbagger Milton Littlefield, a former Union general, and scalawag George Swepson. Their railroad bond frauds which impoverished an already bankrupt State are breathtaking. Holden regularly pardoned criminal members of the League and warned opponents of his personal army of eighty thousand men to enforce his dictates. Author J. DeR. Hamilton wrote that “It became increasingly difficult and dangerous to arrest a member of the League, and once arrested, to hold him.”
Holden’s election as governor in 1868 was achieved by a solid bloc of freedmen, carpetbag and scalawag votes; many white voters had been disenfranchised or roughly intimidated to discourage voting. Some eight years ago, the North Carolina Senate pardoned Holden for crimes against his native State.
North Carolina’s First Legendary Klan
“Immediately after the March convention Holden and his allies went to work to organize the Republican party on the local level. Holden himself spoke at Republican organizational meetings in Wake County [Raleigh], and he was joined by representatives of all three elements in the new party – carpetbaggers, blacks and scalawags.
The local Republican rallies were frequently large, especially in predominantly black counties in the East. In the overwhelmingly white western counties the meetings were fairly small and attended mainly by whites.
Simultaneously with the regular organization of the party, secretive, oath-bound Union Leagues sprang up like mushrooms where the black population was relatively large. The main purpose of these legendary Republican auxiliaries was the formation of the blacks into an unintimidated phalanx of voters that would support the Republican party during Reconstruction.
The Union League, or Loyal League of America, appeared in the State in 1866, but it had made little progress until after the passage of the reconstruction acts in March, 1867. Holden himself had served as president of the League’s Grand Council for North Carolina and, with his customary energy and forcefulness, provided the leadership for the thorough organization of the League in the State. [He] demanded that the officers submit reports on membership to him, insist on voter registration of all their members, and “guard well the passwords and signs of the order.” Probably in no other State were the Republicans as successful in providing central direction for the Union Leagues as in North Carolina.”
(William Woods Holden: Firebrand of North Carolina Politics, William C. Harris, LSU Press, 1987, excerpts pg. 223)