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The Secret Gangs of Civil War America

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Thursday, March 17, 2022 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1L0451
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$20 - Member
$25 - Non-Member
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Poster, 1856 with the Know Nothing political movement’s slogan

In the years before, during, and after the Civil War, large numbers of Americans joined secret movements, paramilitary clubs, and partisan societies. Some, like the anti-immigrant Know Nothings of the 1850s or the racist Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, wanted to persecute minorities and outsiders. Others opposed slavery and represented young voters for Abe Lincoln, like the paramilitary Wide Awakes clubs of 1860. Still others provided protection to freed slaves fighting for the right to vote after the war. But what compelled such diverse populations to form clubs during this era? What did these organizations offer their members? And how did they shape attitudes toward democracy, race, immigration, slavery, and political violence?

Some of these organizations–like the KKK and the Know Nothings–have cast a shadow on American society. Others–like the Wide Awakes–are making a comeback. In our era of polarization and division, with mass movements like Black Lives Matter and dangerous clubs like the Proud Boys, it’s important to look back at this era and the role of such groups in a democracy devoted to individualism.  

Jon Grinspan, a curator at the National Museum of American History, discusses an earlier time when tribal political identities pushed many to walk the line between the right to assemble and seditious violence. 

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This program is part of our
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