The Kirk-Holden War of 1870

0 Posted by - September 17, 2021 - Injustices, LATEST POSTS, Racism, RECONSTRUCTION

The Kirk-Holden War came about after prolonged harassment of freed Blacks by the Klan in Caswell and Alamance counties escalated in the lynching of constable and town commissioner Wyatt Outlaw. As a result, North Carolina Governor William W. Holden brought in federal help to reign the Klan in.


Deaths Before The Conflict

Two significant deaths took place in 1870 which serve as the catalyst for Holden to declare war on the Klan in the state. The first was Wyatt Outlaw, a Union veteran who became a pillar of the Black community. He was installed as constable and town commissioner in Graham. On the night of February 26, he was hanged with a message to freed Blacks and white supporters.

John W. Stephens was a white Republican who fought for the Confederacy. He had developed a rapport with the Black people of Caswell county but was eventually killed at the county courthouse on May 21.


The Kirk-Holden War

Perhaps expecting things to escalate, Governor Holden declared Caswell and Alamance in a state of emergency. He then brought in Colonel George Kirk to bring the Klan underfoot. Both counties were placed under martial law and habeas corpus was thrown out so that Kirk could pursue the Klan aggressively.

Yanceyville was the site of heavy Klan activity in 1870 and Colonel Kirk marched in with 300 men. The roundup brings in 100 people that July, among those, were politicians, former politicians, law enforcement, and other influential people in the county.

The Kirk-Holden War is one of those vague county conflicts where battles definitely took place, but very few details remain. Of note is when the Klan decided to retaliate against Kirk-Holden’s forces. Their goal was Pittsboro but they ran into Kirk’s men.

As expected Kirk gave chase and a battle broke out in Chatham County. There are no details about who won the battle and the war saw several battles where the victor wasn’t documented. What is known is that the war was over by September when Holden disbanded the militia. Apparently, the Kirk-Holden forces won since the state of emergency was ended as well.



Kirk was arrested upon the request of the men he arrested and was to be held for trial. The U.S. Marshal for Tennessee took him to Raleigh and released him. In the end, Holden was impeached, tried for his actions, and forced out of office by a state legislature packed with southern Democrats that August.

William Holden has the distinction of being the first governor to be impeached. He was pardoned unanimously by the North Carolina Senate in 2011.



  • Matthew Holden June 20, 2018 - 11:36 am

    As a political scientist, learned a lot about three things. (1) William W. Holden, who is mentioned from time to time, but deep in the weeds for Civil War & Reconstruction history. (2) Impeachment which is different in state politics, (3) How tough North Carolina was, even compared to Mississippi, about which I know more.

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  • […] Swift, M. “The Kirk-Holden War of 1870.” Black Then, June 20, 2018. […]