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  • “Two Men in Ku Klux Klan Disguises”: A Photograph from Reconstruction Alabama
  • Frances Osborn Robb (bio)

On the evening of october 31, 1868, as supporters of republican presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant left the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville, Alabama, scores of men on horseback, completely disguised from head to hoof, paraded around the courthouse square. On the building’s lawn, an altercation broke out between W. W. Cox, a white man, and an armed black man named Roper. Someone fired a shot from the lawn; thirty or forty more followed. When the gunfire ended, a black man, Aleck Reed, lay dead, and Silas Thurlow, a white probate judge from Limestone County, was mortally wounded. An “orderly and quiet” meeting had turned into what the December 19, 1868, issue of Harper’s Weekly Magazine called a “riot at Huntsville.”1 The men on horseback were Ku Klux Klan members. Witnesses told Lafayette E. Campbell, the [End Page 222]

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Figure 1.

Robinson & Murphy. “Two Men in Ku Klux Klan Disguises, Huntsville, Alabama.” Carte de visite photograph. 1869. North Alabama Family Collection.

federal investigating officer, that in the Klan’s progress around the square, its members held their firearms fully exposed and never fired a shot.2 Then they held a “watching brief,” observing but not acting, in parade formation on a side street. When the firing ceased, they rode north toward the Huntsville depot. An account notes that General Thomas H. Ruger, the senior officer in charge of the military district [End Page 223] of Alabama, observed the event from his hotel room balcony. From there, he supposedly remarked that there was no state or federal law forbidding “men masquerading . . . upon horse back at night,” and that the men had a right to ride through the town.3

That night, with the presidential election only three days away, the Klan was out in force in hopes of denying Ulysses S. Grant the electoral votes he needed to win the presidency and continue to implement Reconstruction. (The tally would be close: of 149,588 votes cast in Alabama, Grant won a slim majority of 3,746 votes.) Ruger ordered an investigation of the incident, and on November 7, Lafayette E. Campbell of Company H, 33rd U. S. Infantry, submitted his report.4

Campbell, a sixteen-year old college freshman when the Civil War began, left Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, to join the U.S. Army. He would make the army his career. Campbell fought and was wounded in the Missouri Campaign. In 1862, in the Army of the Tennessee, he was captured while on an expedition led by General Ulysses S. Grant. Later, a convalescent Campbell joined the Marine Brigade, a force recruited from Union hospitals to counter Confederate guerrilla activity and ironclad riverboat forays on the Mississippi River and its tributaries; he fought with the brigade in the 1863 Battle at Duck River, Tennessee, and at the Siege of Vicksburg, where he was wounded again.5 Until war’s end, he served in the western U.S. He [End Page 224]

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Table 1.

Known Images of “Two Men in Ku Klux Klan Disguises.” This list includes the original 1868 photograph and twelve later images based on it. Titles listed here are italicized when referenced in the text and footnotes. The number in parentheses after a title indicates a specific print of that variant. All university holdings are in special collections unless noted.

[End Page 225]

rejoined the army in 1866 as second lieutenant in the 15th Infantry, from which he was transferred to the 33rd Infantry. He served in Salt Lake City, Utah, and then in Huntsville, remaining on active duty until his retirement in 1892.

Campbell’s report states that after the October 31, 1868, incident, he received orders to proceed to Huntsville with his company, Company H, a unit of the federal force based there. Company H was to patrol the streets and investigate the occurrence. After 2 a.m., returning to town from the railroad depot, Campbell stopped three suspicious-looking armed men carrying clothing and saddles. They...


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