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Albion Winegar Tourgée - A Fool's Errand: By One Of The Fools (1880)

(United States, 1838–1905)

The power of this book—dated 1880, but really appearing in the late autumn of 1879—was promptly recognized by an Ohio paper, which declared: "If it does not thrill the American people, nothing ever will." The author, whose personal experiences and observations were the basis of the book, had been seventeen years in North Carolina, where his sturdy patriotism, his influence in the Constitutional Convention, his experience as a lawyer and a judge of the Superior Court, and his codification of the State laws, had given him high place. He had already published a romance of Southern life before, during, and after the war, entitled Toinette (since enlarged and renamed A Royal Gentleman), and he was negotiating with his publishers a Northern story of the same period, entitled Figs and Thistles. While talking of his Southern experiences he re-counted some of the facts in this book, and said that he meant to write them out some time and call the tale of useless Northern emigration A Fool's Errand, by One of the Fools. The publisher urged him to do this immediately, and in six weeks the Fool was ready and the two books were issued together—Figs and Thistles under the author's name, and A Fool's Errand anonymously. Both sold largely, but A Fool's Errand took a deep hold on the public interest, and had a marked effect in 1880 in the election of Garfield to the presidency. The public voracity for "best sellers" in fiction was then undeveloped, but A Fool's Errand far outstripped all other books of that day; and, while its truth-fulness to facts was unimpeachable, judge Tourgée within a year or two of its issue put forth a supplement entitled The Invisible Empire, giving a mass of specifications concerning the Kuklux outrages, compiled from the Congressional Reports on that matter, which has since then been incorporated with A Fool's Errand proper.

GOMFORT SERVOSSE was a young lawyer in Peru, Michigan, with a pretty wife, a fair business, and good prospects. In his twenty-seventh year occurred the battle of Bull Run, at the opening of the Civil War. Despite his wife's tears, even in face of an expected little one, he entered the army. During the four years he took his share of toil, march, battle, imprisonment, and wounds; and after that, with impaired health, he determined to go South and in that genial clime seek renewed strength.

With slavery ended, and the liberal treatment of the defeated Southern soldiers by Grant, he supposed good feeling would grow, emigration would bring Northern capital and energy, manufactures would arise, and the South would be the pleasantest part of the country.

But he committed the folly of forgetting that the habits and thoughts of centuries could not be changed by physical con-quest, and that mental differences that had ripened into war could not be eradicated by military defeat. He took his North-ern ideas, his money and his family to the South, near a pretty village in North Carolina, purchased the beautiful but dilapidated Warrington place, and there settled, with his wife and their little daughter Lily. They arrived in mid-October, and with repairs to the old mansion, newly ordering the grounds, riding over the picturesque country, and getting generally acquainted, the first winter of Colonel Servosse, his wife Metta and little Lily, was delightful. They found in Verdenton, a neighboring town, one of those colored schools that had sprung up in the South, fostered by a missionary association of the North, and six earnest, cultivated young women as teachers. Naturally, they invited the girls—a merry, cheerful group—to dine with them on Thanksgiving Day. They had already made some agreeable acquaintances among their Southern neighbors, and their first experience of differences of view came from the friendly visit of Squire Hyman shortly after the Thanksgiving dinner. The old fellow in some embarrassment explained that it was not considered respectable to associate with "niggers" or with "nigger-teachers." And another neighbor came on the same kindly errand. To both the Fool expressed his mind distinctly, claiming the right to choose his friends; and, while glad to be friendly with his neighbors, resenting their right to dictate as to his associates.

He not only asserted the fine quality of those young ladies in their noble work, but soon established a colored Sunday-school in a grove near his home; he sold all of Warrington but a hundred acres, in little lots, to colored men, erecting log cabins for them and selling on easy time. Hoping to do some good, to set an example, and to see prejudice wear away, he helped the negroes to purchase horses and aroused their enthusiasm for the new opportunities. Meantime, during the winter and spring he got Warrington into tidiness. He was straightforward about all this, and little was said at the time.

In midsummer he attended a political meeting near Verdenton; although no politician, he was curious to see and hear, for general conditions were likely to be discussed, especially the future status of the freedmen. The question agitated was, whether the freedman should testify in courts of justice, especially where white people were involved. This was violently opposed by all the speakers. Servosse was called on to speak, and this he unwillingly did, protesting that if they heard what they did not llke it was their own fault.

He assumed that all the questions discussed were already decided; and that, while negro suffrage was also inevitable, they still had power to enfranchise the freedmen gradually, by classifications of intelligence, property, or whatever; but that if they hesitated to do this voluntarily he felt sure the General Government would enfranchise all the freedmen at once : this, not as what he thought should be, but what he was convinced would be.

As the crowd separated, and the Fool rode homeward, he was warned by Uncle Jerry, a crippled old negro, that on the road down to the ford his horse was to be stopped by a grape-vine strung across the road in the woods, and he was to be whipped with hickories. He thanked the old negro, and getting to the top of the hill before the horseman that was detailed to watch his route, he cut a hickory sapling and waited in the woods till the horseman appeared. Spurring after him, the Fool thrashed the man and his horse till the frightened animal ran wildly down the steep road, tripped over the grape-vine set for Servosse, and plunged headlong down the bank. The conspirators decamped, while Servosse descended, found the horse dead, and the man, luckily thrown on a clay-bank, badly hurt, but alive. Uncle Jerry and other negroes came along in a wagon—anxious about "de Kunnel"—and removed poor Tom Savage to Warrington, where he was nursed to wholeness and became the Fool's fast friend.

Servosse was now a marked man. The neighbors met him civilly, but coolly; he was regarded as an incendiary. When his negro settlers began harvesting their crops and owning horses and houses, ruffians attacked the settlement, beat some of the men, took some horses and mangled others. And the Fool found a notice, wrapped in black cloth on which were traced in white paint a skull and cross-bones, declaring that "no nigger could own no hoss nor run no crop on his own account," and advising him to leave for the North.

He promptly published the notice (as an advertisement) in the Verdenton Gazette, with a short answer, saying that he was minding his own business and expected other people to mind theirs. Then he built a stockade for the horses and gave the colored men arms. Soon after this he received many letters, some of respectful yet earnest warning, but others as earnestly commending him. One of the former was from Thomas Den-ton, a lawyer, who explained that while the fact of slavery was destroyed, the right to enslave was believed in as firmly as ever by Southerners; while he was encouraging the negroes in two things more sacred than any others to the Southern mind—to buy and hold land and to ride their own horses. "You cannot understand this," he said, "because you were never submitted to the same influences; yet your surprise is incredible to them and pitiable to me." He offered to aid in punishing the offenders, but as they were unknown this was only a friendly proffer.

Two letters from Southern women to Metta begged her to urge her husband to depart, before outrage should be visited on them. But the Fool remained, and Metta sustained him.

About this time Servosse was invited to a meeting of the Union League—an organization during and since the war for mutual helpfulness among the negroes and Union men, both Southern and Northern. Here he met many of his own negro tenants and friends and a few white men. Among the latter was John Walters, a slender, wiry-looking man, who had been an outspoken Unionist during the war and a member of the "Red Strings"—rather a set of signals than a society, among Union men. He had joined the League because its meetings helped educate the negroes in citizenship, and he remained among his threatening neighbors because of the Northern men who had come in.

The war had stripped the South, and the double gloom of defeat and poverty oppressed the people. The freedmen, inured to deprivation, suffered less than their former owners. The problem of restoring the South to prosperity without losing the proper results of the war was difficult. There were several plans. One, which the Fool heartily approved, was to reorganize the States as territories, under National control, until time had healed the scars and passions of war, new agriculture and commerce had arisen, and the freedmen had been trained to civil rights and self-protection, being advanced to voting power on showing fitness. Another, which the wise men of Congress put into effect, was a compromise, born of opposition to President Johnson and consolidation of the power of the ruling party. Recognizing the political results of the war, it ignored the feeling of the Southerners toward the recent slaves and the unfitness of the blacks for civil administration. It enfranchised the four million negroes, under the superstition that "the ballot" would protect and educate them amid the five or six million whites who appreciated them as servants but scorned them as equals, while the Reconstruction of the States shut them out from Federal protection or interference. Since the whites were practically united in resenting this, regarded as an intentional insult and degradation, the small proportion likely to cooperate with the colored people were those willing to be martyrs in a good cause —always few; self-seekers ready to do anything for gain—more plentiful; and such knaves or fools from the North as disregarded human nature.

Thus, on one side were the ante-bellum rulers and leaders, with those who had followed them into the war; on the other were the "niggers," the "scalawags" (native whites accepting the situation), and the "carpetbaggers" (Northern residents in the South who favored the "Reconstruction"). Even of the Union men in the South, there were few who accepted the new order of "the bottom rail on top," especially as many had lost their slaves without compensation, despite their brave sufferings in the Union cause.

The Fool did not approve, but, in his situation as a loyal man in the South, his only possible course was cooperation. Under the Reconstruction Act, delegates were elected to a Constitutional Convention, one of whom was Servosse. He issued a circular, declaring what he should favor, and, since the first item was "Equal civil and political rights to all men," he became thenceforward a social outlaw. The Convention did its work. The State was admitted with others; new officers were chosen; representatives were sent to Congress; the presidential election had taken place, and the Republican party had achieved a great success. Now all was over; Reconstruction was secured. The slave had been freed and armed with the ballot; the Nation could now leave him to care for and protect himself.

There had been in the air for some months rumors of a mysterious organization spreading over the Southern States called the "Kuklux Klan," originated to frighten the superstitious negroes from political activity and undue industrial success. Bands of ghostly horsemen, in horrible disguise, appeared on moonlight nights, and with warnings and threats alarmed the simple "darkies." One day in the winter of 1868–1869 some colored men inquired of the Fool about this. He made light of it until Bob Martin, an industrious and skilful black-smith, stripped off his shirt and showed the horrified Colonel his back, gashed from the neck to a point below the waist by livid crisscross furrows made with a whip, scientifically laid on. The man had been a slave forty-three years, and never had been whipped before; but now, having earned his own shop and the best trade in the neighborhood, he had been called out at night, his baby crushed in the bed by their staving in the door, his wife and daughters stripped and abused, and he bound and frightfully whipped—because he had refused to do more work for men who systematically refused to pay him. Bob had escaped in the war, had fought in the Federal army, was an industrious and thriving citizen; but he was a "nigger," and must not do better than his indolent white neighbors. As there was no way of identifying the aggressors, nothing could be done.

Soon Servosse began getting letters from friends in various counties telling of similar Kuklux doings. Moreover, he received warnings that his own life was in danger; but these he sturdily disregarded, except to put his home in condition for effective defense.

The next marked occurrence was the murder of John Walters, the radical politician, who was decoyed into an empty room in the court-house after a political meeting, and actually in sight of his own house, in front of which he saw two of his children playing, was strangled and had his throat cut, the body being stuffed into a woodbox. Walters had been the effective political organizer in a county that had a decided colored majority.

The murderers were publicly named by old Uncle Jerry Hunt, the crippled negro, who in one of their Saturday night prayer-meetings went into a trance condition, to which he was subject under excitement, and gave a vivid depiction of the murder of Walters, naming the men who had taken part. The following Saturday night the town was held in terror by a visitation of martial horsemen in ghostly habiliments, who sentineled every corner; and next morning the crippled limbs and lifeless body of Uncle Jerry swung in the Sabbath-morning breeze, as the respectable folk of the town passed it to the worship of some deity in a so-called Christian church.

The Fool at last wrote to one of the wise men, declaring that more than a thousand such occurrences had taken place in his district, while not one of them ever had been punished. The answer coolly said that now the State must protect its citizens, the Nation had done all it could; and the Fool's private letter was published by the wise men in the newspapers. The reading of this by his neighbors exasperated them intensely; a public meeting denounced him, and he was formally called upon to affirm or deny the letter. He replied, affirming it explicitly, and giving a far stronger statement of the unrebuked outrages than before, while saying that he did it in expectation of the fate of John Walters.

But cries became so clamorous and from so many sources that the wise men of Congress at last appointed a committee of investigation. The thirteen octavo volumes in small type give sworn testimony of tens of thousands slain, whipped, mangled., mutilated—men despoiled of manhood, women gravid with dead children, bleeding backs, broken limbs, .dwellings and churches burned—always the poor, the weak, being the victims, always the same intangible power the doer of the deed--w-ell named "The Invisible Empire"! And this new Rebellion was successful. Before the Government had acted these operations had practically nullified the negro-enfranchisement of the Reconstruction acts, and, the point being gained, began to slacken and subside.

Meantime the years went on, and Lily Servosse had become a young woman. Anxious living had matured her quickly, and, with careful home training of mind, Lily now possessed an at-tractive personality, a wealth of golden hair, fine, fearless skill in riding and the use of firearms, and was a piquant and charming maiden. Despite their social ostracism, the family retained some Southern friends, among them a lady in Pultowa County, whom Lily visited and at whose home she met Melville Gurney, son of General Marion Gurney, a noted Confederate soldier. General Gurney respected Servosse, though deprecating his politics, while young Melville became fascinated with Lily.

Mr. Thomas Denton had been elected a judge of the State courts and had been active against the Kuklux, thus incurring their hostility. He one day telegraphed Servosse to meet him at Verdenton and accompany him to his home, seven miles from Glenville, the nearest railroad station, and beyond a river crossed by a long wooden bridge.

Metta drove to Verdenton with her husband, who there took the train for Glenville, while she returned. Meantime, Lily was the "only white person on the lot." At sunset a lad rode a fine gray horse up to the gate, with a letter for her father, marked "Read at once." Lily knew neither the lad nor the horse; but the letter was an anonymous warning to Servosse not to meet judge Denton, as a raid of K. K. had been decreed, to tie the judge in the middle of the river-bridge and fire it at both ends. "If possible," it said, "give him warning." At first paralyzed with horror, Lily soon awoke. She ordered out Young Lollard, a high-spirited thoroughbred of her father's, scrawled a note for her mother, put a revolver in the belt of her riding-habit, and spurred across country for Glenville, hoping to prevent judge Denton and her father from leaving the station.

The powerful horse carried Lily fast and far. Arrived at about three quarters of the distance to be traversed, where the road forked into four, she stopped in the edge of the woods to consider, when a shrill whistle sounded from the left, another in front, another on the right. She was at the rendezvous of the troops. From the shadow she heard their talk and the question argued whether Servosse, not in the decree, should be included in the execution. She learned the true road, and, during the excited discussion among the leaders, cautiously made her way out, while a branch pulled off her hat, letting her hair down over her shoulders. Before she reached the road, a horseman halted her. Instantly she gave Young Lollard the spur and dashed out into the moonlight, her hair streaming behind her.

"My God!" cried the astounded sentinel. She fired, his horse swerved, and she dashed toward Glenville. She heard shouts, shots, and hoof-beats behind her; but now she laughed, and as she crossed the last hilltop saw the horseman returning.

When the sentinel reached the troop he said that a rabbit crossed the road and frightened his mare, so that his pistol went off, grazing his arm. And he left the company to have the wound attended to.

The train had left Glenville when the foam-flecked horse dashed up and the young girl shrieked: "Judge Denton?" The agent waved his hand toward a carriage just disappearing. "Papa! Papa!" she called as she swept on. Servosse heard, and in an instant was standing in the road. "Ho, Lollard!" he shouted. The horse veered to one side and stopped, while Lily sank insensible into her father's arms.

He soon gathered from her the facts, and they returned to the hotel at Glenville. In the morning a countryman brought in Lily's hat. John Burleson, the young man who had boldly op-posed the inclusion of Servosse, and indeed the killing of any-body, had accompanied the wounded sentinel; they had come to the same hotel. When Burleson saw the hat he laughed aloud, and said :

"Well, now, Mel Gurney, I understand the rabbit-story," and he praised the girl's wonderful pluck. As he talked he got ex-cited over the increasingly evil doings of the Kuklux; for like all the rest he had joined the raid not knowing what was to be done until told by the leaders. He finally declared that, while he would not betray others, he should clear his own skirts, publish the raid and its failure, and glorify the girl. And he did. He went down, saw judge Denton., and amid the crowd of loungers loudly congratulated him, said he should answer for his part in the raid, and should make every effort toward its being the last.

The rumor spread that Burleson had "gone back on the Klan," and the little town was almost deserted in an hour.

Convinced of Burleson's sincerity, and rather expecting a night attack, Servosse took him and judge Denton with Lily back to Warrington, but not till the story of the sentinel and the hat had been told, and Servosse had allowed Gurney to return the hat to Lily, while amazed that both Melville and General Gurney had been members of the Klan.

The word about Burleson spread rapidly, and in the evening at Warrington a man came in and made full confession to judge Denton of his own participation in the Klan. Then other alarmed men came, and before morning Denton and Servosse had recorded testimony concerning all the ramifications of the Klan in that and adjoining counties. In truth, "the bottom had fallen out." The next day Denton set the law in motion, and many confessions, arrests, and sudden emigrations followed.

Yet the pulpit kept silent and the press excused; the State Legislature promptly passed acts of amnesty for all who had committed violence in obedience to orders from societies; in-deed, they pardoned not only members of the Kuklux Klan, The Invisible Empire and similar organizations, but also those of Union Leagues, Red Strings, and other secret societies—pardoned the victims as well as the perpetrators of the outrages!

As time passed the relations between the Fool and his neighbors improved. True, they said, he was a "Radical," but not so bad a man after all; while he saw something of his own folly in believing that the leopard might change his spots while the Ethiopian retained his dusky skin. So there was peace at Warrington. One day Melville Gurney asked Colonel Servosse for permission to pay his addresses to Miss Lily. His parents in-deed objected, but he was of age and determined to win the girl. Upon consideration, Servosse granted his request. Overtaking Lily in the woods on horseback, the young man approached, when she noticed the gray horse he rode and learned that it was his father's favorite, ridden only by General Gurney, Melville, and his younger brother. This told Lily that General Gurney had sent by his son the warning that saved her father's life.

Melville's love-story was told and sweetly received; but Lily refused to marry him while his father was opposed, and that, because she loved her father. He could get no other explanation, although she willingly promised to marry no other man.

Soon after this Lily, riding Young Lollard, came upon a pack of hounds on a hot trail and gave the eager horse his head. They made a splendid run, and as the chase ended a tall, haughty-faced man on a powerful gray horse dashed in, rescued the dead fox from the dogs, and hung it at Lily's saddle-bow as her trophy for a gallant ride. He complimented her and her horse, and this led to mutual recognition of General Gurney and the daughter of Colonel Servosse. They talked of Melville too, and she told why she had declined to marry him without his father's consent.

Within a few days the Servosse family left Warrington, to be gone a year; Lily to study in New York, her mother with her, the Colonel attending to business affairs. Young Gurney went to New York soon afterward. He did not approach Lily but she soon knew of his presence; and they patiently waited.

In a talk with his old college president, Dr. Enos Martin, Servosse summed up his whole Southern experience thus: "We presumed that, by the suppression of rebellion, the Southern white had become like the Northern man in thought and sentiment, and that the slave by emancipation had become a saint and a Solomon. So we tried to build Northern communities at the South. It was a fool's errand."

The year had nearly passed. Servosse had returned to Warrington before his family, when he was smitten with yellow fever and died before his wife and daughter could arrive with Melville Gurney. The Fool's funeral was attended by a great con-course of whites and colored people, and many kindly words were spoken of him. His tombstone bore the inscription he himself dictated in his last illness, the letters "C. B." meaning " Carpet-Bagger."


C. B.

He followed the counsel of the Wise,
And became a Fool thereby.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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