By Lucas Somers, Ph.D. , Asst. Prof. of History, Lindsey Wilson College
Every once in a while, when reading through the letters written to U.S. governors in the nineteenth century, you will find a story that nearly jumps off the weathered pages. A story that draws you in all on its own and spurs you to learn more about it. Even in its nascent phase, the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi (CWRGM) project has been fortunate to discover several such stories, not the least of which is the J. J. Gainey letter from July 30, 1870.
Gainey’s letter is quite relevant in the year 2022, when movements for racial justice have regained momentum and when true crime podcasts and documentaries are as popular as ever. His letter can help us observe what is arguably one of the most consequential periods in U.S. history. Historians generally agree that understanding the era of Reconstruction is crucial to our ability to grapple with this country’s complex and present-day issues with race. And my personal favorite aspect of CWRGM is that the collection allows us to better understand the long-term effects of emancipation and Reconstruction in Mississippi.
The events depicted in this document occurred five years after the Civil War ended. During that period, Mississippi experienced significant and potentially revolutionary change. The state witnessed the rise of notorious Black Codes under Presidential Reconstruction that attempted to revert African Americans to a status resembling enslavement. By 1868, the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress had taken control of the Mississippi through the military administration of Adelbert Ames. As a result of this second phase known as Radical Reconstruction, the state witnessed sweeping attacks on the Black Codes, and the formerly enslaved population gained civil and political rights enforced by federal troops in the Fourth Military District. This progress came about largely through the ratification of amendments to the U.S. Constitution that provided an opportunity, a hope, for true racial equality for the first time in American history. Radical Reconstruction, therefore, represented a legitimate opportunity for lasting change in the South within only a few years of slavery’s demise.
Evidence of this rapid progress is demonstrated by the number of African Americans who served in political offices at local, state, and national levels. For example, in 1869, Mississippi elected James D. Lynch Secretary of State, making him the first African American to hold a statewide office. But these advances inspired a backlash from white paramilitary groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, that attacked and threatened formerly enslaved people and their allies. This violent resistance intended to “redeem” the South by reversing all traces of racial equality and reasserting white supremacy.
By the time Mississippi native James Lusk Alcorn became the first elected Republican Governor in Mississippi in March 1870, white vigilante violence had become a serious threat to the Black constituents upon whom his election relied. To address this, Alcorn organized a small group of detectives known as the Mississippi Secret Service Bureau, appointed a man named Lewis M. Hall to serve as its leader, and tasked them with investigating the KKK’s terror campaign throughout the state. Concurrently, the federal government began enacting its own plans for combatting white violence throughout the South with the Enforcement Acts.
Alcorn was a former Unionist slaveholder who had opposed session, though once the war began, he served as a brigadier general of state militia forces. In postwar Mississippi, Alcorn was viewed as a moderate Republican who advocated for African-American civil rights, including suffrage and the right to serve on juries. When his resistance to the Klan concerned more conservative whites, who tolerated brutal racial violence if it re-established their authority, Alcorn insisted that the investigations were meant to prevent further federal involvement in Mississippi. Ultimately, Alcorn’s efforts to counter the KKK amounted to what one historian called a “cautious and irresolute response.”
The author of this letter, a man named John J. Gainey, had begun working for the Mississippi Secret Service by the summer of 1870. His mission was to determine the identities of the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for a series of violent attacks against African Americans in Lafayette County. Prior to this, Gainey, a twenty-two-year-old native of Cork, Ireland, had worked as a tobacconist in St. Louis, Missouri until he enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1866. He served in the military for three years, including a stint in the Fourth Military District. Just before joining the Secret Service, Gainey had worked for a short time as the deputy sheriff of Sunflower County, Mississippi. In January 1870, Gainey, accompanied by a group of federal soldiers, attempted to arrest Tully S. Gibson, a former Confederate soldier. After a firefight that resulted in Gibson’s death, conservative newspapers throughout the state branded Gainey a “murderer” and “a Radical carpet-bagger.” Despite this reputation among native Mississippians, Gainey still successfully passed himself off as a Klan sympathizer only a few months later.
The letter featured here provides a gripping narrative of Gainey’s undercover operation as he attempted to carry out Alcorn’s policy of ending the white terrorism in his state. Though Gainey achieved all his objectives in Lafayette County, the overall impact of that mission in protecting the hard-fought civil rights for Black Mississippians ultimately proved negligible. In part 2 of this blog post, we will examine Gainey’s mission itself and try to understand why local African Americans remained vulnerable to white violence despite his success.
Lucas Somers is Assistant Professor of History at Lindsey Wilson College. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Southern Mississippi in May 2022. His dissertation is entitled Embattled Learning: Education and Emancipation in the Post-Civil War Upper South. In 2018, Lucas served as a Graduate Research Associate for the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition and was a research assistant for the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi project in the summers of 2020 and 2021. He also served as USM’s McCain Graduate Fellow in 2021-2022.
 “Letter from Hon. J. L. Alcorn,” The Clarion-Ledger, May 30, 1872.
 Michael Perman, The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 35.
 Registers of Enlistments in the United States Army, compiled 1798 – 1914, NARA RG 94, Microfilm Series M233, Roll 31.
 William T. Blain, “Challenge to the Lawless: The Mississippi Secret Service, 1870-1871,” The Mississippi Quarterly 3, no. 2 (Spring 1978), 232; Editorial, The Clarion-Ledger, February 3, 1870.