Murder in Yanceyville Sparks “War”

William H. Holden

William H. Holden

On May 21, 1870, J. W. Stephens, a state senator and Freedman’s Bureau agent, was murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen in the basement of the Caswell County Courthouse in Yanceyville. On that Saturday there was a political rally near the courthouse. One of the people in attendance was J.W. ‘Chicken’ Stephens, despised by the local Ku Klux Klan chapter for his progressive attitudes towards blacks. Governor William W. Holden had tasked Stephens with investigating suspected Klan members, the same Klan members who had marked Stephens for death. Lured into the basement of the courthouse, Stephens was ambushed and stabbed; his body was left on a woodpile.

The murder, along with that of black town commissioner Wyatt Outlaw in Graham earlier that year, led Gov. Holden to declare martial law in Alamance and Caswell Counties. Holden, believing the area to be in a state of insurrection, called up the militia to occupy the area and settle the racial violence. The episode, which has become known as the Kirk-Holden War, led to Holden’s impeachment and removal from office in 1871.

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