Life of a Klansman

This is a tough read. Reconstruction, the period after the American Civil War, is a period no one likes to think about. Whole libraries have been written about campaigns in the Civil War. About Reconstruction, not so much. Of course not. Because that period ended in a shameful, dishonorable defeat, and no one likes to think about losing.

From John Dolan, I learned to think of the Civil War as really being two phases: the famous, official one filled with generals and huge battles and gruesome butchery. We won that one, and Lincoln freed the slaves. But then the second phase came — a guerrilla insurrection, using attempted coups, subversion, terrorism and the deliberate slaughter of innocents. 

We lost that one. It would take a massive civil rights struggle, the gifted leadership of Martin Luther King and all of LBJ’s dark arts to strike a balance one hundred years later.

The Klansman of the title is Constant Lecorgne, the great-great grandfather of author Edward Ball. Lecorgne fought in both wars on the side of white supremacy. His life is the spine of the book, one that unites subjects that’d make for important books on their own: Creole society, race theory of the 1850s. the beginnings of jazz, the role of blackface. Heroes appear in the story, but Lecorgne, almost comically inept, isn’t one.

He belonged to a social tier you don’t read about much. White, but not rich. A slave owner, but not a land holder. He inherited a few slaves, the way you or I might a grandparent’s condo. His slaves lived out back in a house and did chores for his family. One was a young mulatto woman, who was worth nearly double the price of the others. You wonder what her chores might have included.

Constant Lecorgne was, essentially, a loser. He seems to have excelled at nothing except for reproduction, resentment and violence. His long slide down the social ladder ended up with his widow doing menial chores for a few pennies — the same ones his slaves used to perform. 

He joined the Klan to get back what he’d lost. In his case, it meant spilled blood and terror for black people, but no change in his grubby life.

Ball writes well. He uses a wide range of sources to show the horrors and banality of slavery in the South and the subsequent imposition of white supremacy.  I learned a great deal about ante bellum New Orleans and even more about the horrors and massacres of Reconstruction.

Evil, we think, has glamor. That’s what novels and movies tell us; all the best roles are villains. But you can be cruel and boring. Evil and dull. Lecorgne was a failing carpenter, a useful idiot for powerful white men.

Just as Ivan was another mouth breather until he got the gig with the Party and got to put a revolver up against the head of a kulak. Or the way Klaus was machinist until he became a guard at Bergen Belsen, or how even old Adolph himself was just a lazy house painter who farted too much.

They’re all little people, these bullies, small and mean, and Ball’s book reminds of us of how vicious a loser can be. And how disastrous the consequences are when those thugs serve racists, ideologues and cheap hustlers who are just a few notches smarter and richer than they are.