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A NEW YORKER BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR • A stunning history of the first national anti-terrorist campaign waged on American soil—when Ulysses S. Grant wielded the power of the federal government to dismantle the KKK
The Ku Klux Klan, which celebrated historian Fergus Bordewich defines as “the first organized terrorist movement in American history,” rose from the ashes of the Civil War. At its peak in the early 1870s, the Klan boasted many tens of thousands of members, no small number of them landowners, lawmen, doctors, journalists, and churchmen, as well as future governors and congressmen. And their mission was to obliterate the muscular democratic power of newly emancipated Black Americans and their white allies, often by the most horrifying means imaginable.
To repel the virulent tidal wave of violence, President Ulysses S. Grant waged a two-term battle against both armed Southern enemies of Reconstruction and Northern politicians seduced by visions of postwar conciliation, testing the limits of the federal government in determining the extent of states’ rights. In this book, Bordewich transports us to the front lines, in the hamlets of the former Confederate States and in the marble corridors of Congress, reviving an unsung generation of grassroots Black leaders and key figures such as crusading Missouri senator Carl Schurz, who sacrificed the rights of Black Americans in the name of political “reform,” and the ruthless former slave trader and Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Klan War is a bold and bracing record of America’s past that reveals the bloody, Reconstruction-era roots of present-day battles to protect the ballot box and stamp out resurgent white supremacist ideologies.
About the Author
FERGUS M. BORDEWICH is the author of eight previous nonfiction books, including Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America; The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (winner of the 2016 D.B. Hardeman Prize in American History); and America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union (named best history book of 2012 by the Los Angeles Times). He lives in Washington, DC with his wife.
"Best Books of 2023" - The New Yorker
"Editor's Choice, 2023" - Booklist
"A vivid and sobering account of Grant’s efforts to crush the Klan in the South [that] gestures toward the fractured political landscape of the present day . . . Bordewich focuses on Grant’s antiterror policies, conveying the panoply of factors that led to their initial success and, later, to their tragic demise, [and] includes some heart-rending testimony from freedmen who were too terrified to go to the ballot box." —Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
"[A] compelling chronicle [detailing] the astonishing brutality of the Klan . . . Bordewich is especially good on the origins of the Klan . . . [He] presents a convincing case that, left to their own devices, Southern whites were not about to confer real freedom on the freedmen. He is equally persuasive that by the end of Grant’s second term, Northerners were unwilling to commit the guns to police the South, much less the butter to rebuild it." —Roger Lowenstein, The Wall Street Journal
"This essential history details Ulysses S. Grant’s fight to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan during the course of his Presidency . . . Though his efforts were later gutted by a series of disastrous Supreme Court decisions, Grant’s victory, Bordewich argues, serves as a potent reminder that 'forceful political action can prevail over violent extremism.'" —The New Yorker
"The first large-scale attempt to restore Grant’s presidency to a position of nobility for his campaign to suppress the Klan. It joins the shelf of Bordewich’s political histories, which have made him one of the outstanding independent scholars of American history. But Klan War outdoes them all, in terms of both the depth of its research and the passionate pace of its vivid storytelling . . . Bordewich’s Grant is determined, idealistic, and generous, and on those terms, it would not be too much to describe him as the first civil rights president." —Washington Monthly, Allen C. Guelzo
"Klan War is deftly written, and its pages are alight with rich details drawn from original sources. The book tells a heroic American story and reminds us, as Bordewich observes, that 'barbarism may lie only a small distance beneath the skin of a civilization.'" —Kevin R. Kosar, National Review
“[A] gripping account . . . Bordewich’s book should serve as a cautionary tale to keep us alert to the modern incarnation of the KKK, which has traded its bed sheets and hoods for coats and ties.” —Mark I. Pinsky, New York Journal of Books
“By documenting what really happened in the bloody and vicious post–Civil War South and how it nullified official government policy, this history resonates on many levels . . . Bordewich introduces readers to Black leaders and white supremacist ideologues, sparing no fact, however grim, in his devastating history of how domestic terrorism tore apart the social, political, and other promises of emancipation.” —Mark Knoblauch, Booklist (starred review)
"A critically important revisionist history . . . A penetrating examination of the rise of the KKK . . . For Bordewich, Grant's decisive move proved that 'forceful political action can prevail over violent extremism.' Yet, as he makes clear in this significant work of scholarship, it did not stop the future systematic stripping away of Blacks' civil rights." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Riveting . . . An astute assessment of an often overlooked episode in American history.” —Publishers Weekly
“A gripping, haunting story of how America’s original white supremacist movement used terrorism to crush multiracial democracy—and how, for a time, progressive elected officials in Washington allied with grassroots African Americans and their white allies to rout the reactionaries. This is history we need to vanquish violent intimidation in our own time, this time without quitting before the work is done.” —Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains and Behind the Mask of Chivalry
"An urgent history, in which the conception and spawning of the Klan, its anti-Black atrocities and crimes against humanity, the evolution of a General and President, and the possibilities and limits of political power all come roaring to life. As searing as it is suspenseful, Klan War delivers an incisive angle into a horrific chapter in American history, one that requires knowing today." —Ilyon Woo, author of Master Slave Husband Wife
"Fergus Bordewich is an expert at turning momentous questions in American history into absorbing narratives. With insight and telling details, he reveals how Grant—by nature no crusader—directed federal resources against Klan attacks on African Americans, only to be undercut by political attempts to appease the hostile Liberal Republicans. A fascinating and foreboding book." —T.J. Stiles, author of Custer's Trials (winner of the Pulitzer Prize)
"Grippingly tells the essential story of the unsung heroes who throttled the Ku Klux Klan's murderous domestic terrorism after the Civil War, only to watch helplessly as a tragic loss of political will frittered away much of that triumph. The lessons for meeting today's challenges are unmistakable and chilling." —David O. Stewart, author of Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy
"Bordewich has done it again—this time, resurrecting an incredible American story of one man’s determination to secure civil rights, equality, and justice for millions of African Americans. Deeply researched and delivered through magnificent and gripping prose, Klan Wars reclaims Grant’s historic battle to build a unified nation in the face of a pernicious, hate-filled movement that waged a vicious grassroots campaign to reassert white supremacy. A must read!" —Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land
"One of the most talented historians of our times tells the riveting story of Civil War hero President Ulysses Grant's forgotten war on the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction in this marvelous book. The ultimate failure to curb domestic terrorism in the post-war south carries an important lesson for our fraught times when some appeal to political violence to overthrow the US experiment in interracial democracy. This book should be required reading for all American citizens." —Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition
"Klan War takes readers into the courageous struggle of the Grant administration to defeat an American domestic terrorist campaign to overthrow the achievements of Radical Reconstruction. Bordewich’s compelling narrative, by turns, frightening, bracing, and timely, will remind readers that today’s battle between white supremacy and human justice has a long history." —Don H. Doyle, author of The Cause of All Nations and Viva Lincoln