It was 1862, and North Carolina was a state divided within a country divided. War raged on distant battlefields. Extreme times required extreme measures. A group of citizens devoted to union and peace or, some simply to maintaining a status quo that war threatened to upend, banded together to form a secret organization to oppose the Confederacy from within. They called themselves the Heroes of America. They marked themselves by wearing a red string sewn into their lapels and became known as the Red String Order.
Formed in secret with a membership that included lawyers, judges, doctors, dock workers, Quakers, abolitionists, free Blacks, slaveholders, and even some Confederate generals, the Order was a ragtag assembly of opposing views and values, held together solely by an allegiance to the Union. They had secret codes and signs and swore an oath to their mission, “lest they be shot through the head.” The Order guided deserters and runaways overland to the Union army, relayed inside information through back channels to Union generals, produced anti-Confederate propaganda, and committed acts of sabotage to force Jefferson Davis to take troops away from the front. In secret ceremonies, they went masked, and it was said that for protection any single member only knew one other member.
The membership of the group remains largely secret, but one likely member was a prominent attorney from Rutherfordton named George Washington Logan. A native son of Rutherfordton from back when gold made Rutherfordton the most prominent town in Western North Carolina, G.W. Logan had long been a staunch Unionist. Inspired by his Revolutionary War hero grandfather, Francis Logan, he had opposed secession from the outset. After North Carolina just barely voted to secede from the Union, he continued his opposition. It is believed that he was a leading member of the Red String Order in western North Carolina during the Civil War. Eventually, he was elected to the Confederate Congress, where he pushed for an end to the war.
Whether the Order had any effect on the outcome of the war is unclear. In 1864, pro-Confederate press exposed the Order, and many prominent citizens were accused of membership and put on trial. Most were acquitted. George Logan was accused, but not charged.
After the war ended, other organizations emerged among prominent and not-so-prominent southerners, modeling themselves on the Heroes of America’s secrecy and ceremony. The White Brotherhood and the Constitutional Union Guard were two of them, but the most famous was the Ku Klux Klan.
G.W. Logan remained committed to the Union cause. He ran a Republican newspaper called the Rutherford Star, owned a tavern in Rutherfordton and ran a farm outside of it. Eventually he became Superior Court Judge in the Ninth Circuit. He was not an impartial judge. He used his authority to ferret out members of the secret White supremacist organizations and bring them to justice. The Klan in particular, had become active in Cleveland and Rutherford counties. They perpetrated acts of violence and intimidation toward Black families exercising their right to vote and White allies supporting reconstruction.
Judge Logan went after the White supremacists. After a large group of masked men attacked Aaron Biggerstaff, a former member of the Red String Order, Logan brought charges against dozens of men and successfully had the venue moved to federal court. Those who were found guilty, many of them prominent in their communities, were sentenced to time in a penitentiary in New York. For his work against the Klan, Judge Logan was called a scalawag and accused of corruption.
The state legislature that had just impeached Governor Holden for exceeding his authority in pursuit of the Klan during the Kirk-Holden war, launched an impeachment inquiry into the judge, citing his incompetence and partiality. In a brazen display of gaslighting, White witnesses testified that Logan’s encouragement of the Black population to exercise their rights was the true cause of violence in their communities.
In the end, Judge Logan was not impeached, but the accusations were enough to sully his reputation. He lost in the following election to David Schenck, a white conservative and likely member of the Klan. Following his loss, the judge retired to run an inn near Chimney Rock. The inn, known as Pine Gables, still stands.
Though he died in 1889, G.W. Logan lives on in spirit as does the spirit of his enemies, who continue to use impeachment as political tool. He lives on in fiction as well. You can see him as a minor character in my novel, Hemlock Hollow, and as a not-so-minor character in my work-in-progress, tentatively called, Heroes of America.