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Guilty as Charged

The Ku Klux Klan wasn't the only enemy Governor William Woods Holden had to fight. Conservative newspapers, in particular The Daily Sentinel edited by former Whig politician Josiah Turner Jr., exaggerated or fabricated stories about alleged outrages committed by Holden's soldiers. In one such story, Turner's Sentinel accused Colonel George B. Bergen of repeatedly hanging a man named William B. Patton to coerce a confession of Klan affiliations. Though Patton did confess to being a Klan member, he later denied the allegation of being tortured by Bergen.

In addition to the media, Governor Holden had to deal with an occasional lack of discipline from his own militia. In one such case in July of 1870, one of Colonel George W. Kirk's lieutenants was patrolling past the Mansion House hotel in Salisbury when his pistol accidentally discharged. Confused by the sudden gunfire, the men under his command opened fire on the hotel and pointed their weapons at patrons who were just eating breakfast. No one was injured, but the episode, alongside the propaganda war waged by Conservative press, began to incite public animus for Holden's anti-Klan campaign.  

However, the arrest of Josiah Turner by Holden's men served to turn the governor's allies, and the state, against him. Some debate about who was ultimately responsible for the decision to arrest Turner remains to this day. Though Holden's contemporaneous critics placed the blame squarely on him, Holden staunchly denied it, accusing Colonel Bergen of having gone rogue in the act. And there is some evidence to support this assertion. In a November 1870 letter addressed to Holden, Militia general Richard T. Berry recounted a conversation he had with Bergen shortly after Turner's apprehension:

Soon after my arrival that afternoon at the Co. [Company] Shops I went to see Bergin and asked him if you ordered the arrest of Turner. His reply was [']By God No I did it myself. I knew Holden wanted it done, and didn't have the nerve to say so. So I ordered Lt. Hunnycut & several men to go and do it...['].

Regardless of the order's origination, Turner's arrest marked a turning point for Governor Holden's relationship with the Federal government, as court and government officials began to lose faith in his tactics. A Federal judge issued writs of habeas corpus in early August and ordered the more than 100 alleged Klan members that had been arrested by Kirk's men turned over to the courts. Governor Holden appealed to President Ulysses S. Grant to rescind the writs, but Grant declined.

Releasing the suspected Klan members to the civilian court system largely marked the end of Holden's anti-Klan campaign, but Conservative backlash continued. In a shocking upset, Conservative candidates swept the election held in August, assuming the majority in the General Assembly. The new Conservative majority wasted no time in introducing articles of impeachment against Holden, which, in part, accused him of attempting to "stir up a civil war."

In total, eight articles of impeachment passed the state house of representatives. The articles charged Governor Holden with illegally declaring the counties of Alamance and Caswell to be in states of insurrection; the unlawful apprehension of 102 men, including Josiah Turner Jr.; the suspension of habeas corpus and refusing the accused proper trials; and the improper use of state funds in the recruitment and compensation of Kirk's militia.

Governor Holden's trial convened in the state senate chambers on January 23, 1871, and remained civil though hardly unbiased. The trial concluded with Holden's conviction on six out of eight counts on March 22. The senate then quickly voted to remove Holden from office and barred him from holding any other public office in the state. Holden's political career was over. 

Conservatives likewise targeted Colonel Kirk, burying him under a mountain of civil suits alleging false arrest. To protect himself from vigilantes, Kirk arranged his own arrest by a U.S. marshal, who carried him under guard to Raleigh. Kirk remained in the state capital until December when a Federal judge threw out the case against him. He originally returned home to Tennessee but quickly relocated to Washington, D.C., to accept a job as an officer with the police force. 

Photograph of Josiah Turner Jr. Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.