Appeared as a two part story by William Pate in the Old Gold & Black (January 17; February 7, 1955)
Caught In the throes of post Civil War South, little Wake Forest College drifted very nearly aimlessly on the stormy waves of bitterness and disappointment.
At times the effort to do any- thing at all seemed apparently hopeless. Some of the wisest and most hopeful of the trustees talked, as did the faculty at times, of abandoning their work. Their occasional despair was a reflection of the turmoils existing in the state of North Carolina.
Following the South’s surrender the State fell into the same plight as her sister states. Its best citizens were not allowed to vote while adventurers from other states filled her legislatures with former slaves, “scalawags and carpetbaggers.”
Conditions were especially heavy to Eastern North Carolina from which Wake Forest for a dozen years drew about two-thirds of its students, and reconstruction was a depressingly slow affair.
One contribution to the alarmed and disturbed condition of the peoples of the state was the rise of the Klux Klan. And many initiates of the “Invisible Empire” were young men of the oppressed South reacting to evils they could not combat openly.
Such a young man was David S. Ramseur, age 18, who, in the middle of a debate In the “Euzelian Society Hall, was arrested on the charge of murder one December evening In 1871.
In later years, young Ramseur wrote an article in the Wake Forest Student describing his experiences. Ramseur wrote under an assumed name and named the central figure of his article “David Summey.” In the article Ramseur describes his arrest, conviction, and imprisonment, and later release on pardon. Though Ramseur’s article reflected his bitterness and Southern hatred for his captors, and added a romantic (element which may have been based, partially on fact) to the narrative, official records substantiate basically his dramatic story.
Ramseur had left “home and sweetheart” sadly in the fall of 1871 and bound for Wake Forest College. He stood on the rear platform of his train and as he watched the station of his home recede he realized that he was serving with the “old world” of his youth.
The following morning found him leaving Raleigh on the north-bound express. Just 45 minutes later the familiar conductor, “Capt. Bear,” sang out the words “Wake Forest.” Ramseur picked up his valise and jumped from the train.
Immediately he was greeted by the well-known freshman title of “newish.” surrounded by jovial, shouting young men and “escorted” to the campus only 300 yards, away. The rest of the new student’s day was spent in retrieving his luggage and settling himself amid the mischievous “assistance” of his schoolmates.
But the high spirits of his new friends failed to prevent an attack of homesickness that night. One of the reasons for his despondency was the small size of the little Baptist College. Sharpest pangs of lonesomeness, however, were for his family which seemed to have been accentuated by apprehensions of leaving them in the uncertain times.
That first night, in a “dry, philosophic humor,” David took down his Bible and read the entire book of Job.
His homesickness did not last long, Ramseur relates. He quickly entered into College affairs and his account pictures himself as an ambitious young man whose “career in college is destined to be a brilliant one.”
For the next few months he followed debating activity, joining finally with the Euzelian Society. He won a gold medal for “improvement in debating” and continued to reach out for success.
The following year he was again at College and at debating. But this year, according to Ramseur’s account, a shadow fell over his life, He received communication from his mother that United States troops in “Chessville,” (his fictional home), were arresting hundreds of Ku Klux members. One of the members, a certain “Alvin Duncane,” had turned “traitor” and informed on his fellow members, The mother was apprehensive that Duncane “will, I am almost sure, involve you.”
Deviated From Fact
Here, it appears, Ramseur deviated slightly from the fact, Dr. George W. Paschal, in his “History of Wake Forest College,” placed Ramseur’s matriculation at Wake Forest and his arrest all in the same year.
Dr. C. E. Taylor, in a letter published in the Richmond, Virginia “Religious Herald” in 1872, corroborated Dr. Paschal’s account and added that the young man came to his room at “about Christmas of 1871″ and informed him that there was a warrant out for his arrest on the charge of conspiracy of murder.”
“With much feeling and youthful ingeniousness,” wrote Dr, Taylor, “he told me that some time before, while at his home in Cleveland county, N. C. he had, with a few companions, ridden a few miles in the night and returned without molesting anyone.”
Spirit of Frolic
Dr. Taylor described the earlier incident as being done “in that spirit of frolic, or desire for adventure, which would lead any boy of his age to do the same.”
Ramseur’s account continues with the relation of his arrest and confinement in Raleigh:
“The shades of night were settling over the quiet little village of Wake Forest as a rickety old ambulance drawn by two stacks on bones once honored with the name of ‘horse’ halted before the south campus gate.
“In the Eu Hall the debate had already opened, and was growing warm. David Summey is on the floor defending, in his earnest and impulsive style, the character of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Rap On Door
“A loud rap is heard at the door. The doorkeeper announces to a startled Society, “A United states Marshall wishes to see officially the gentleman from Chessville.’”
“Half the boys leaped to their feet with excitement at this announcement, but a rap of the gavel brought them all to their seats:
“I move We adjourn!” cried a member.
“Second the motion,” echoed a dozen voices.
The motion was carried and in a moment the members had collected around Summey, who had not yet left his position in the floor.
“Well, fellows, my hour has come,” said he, in a half laughing way as he gathered his hat from the center-table.
“We’ll see about that, old chum,” said a strong voice at his side. ‘There are only six soldiers out there. We can lick that crowd so quick there will be no fun in it. They are cowardly wretches anyway who have been mustered into Kirk’s service. Dave, we’ll rescue you in a twinkling, if you . .
“That we will!” shouted every boy in the Hall.
“‘Boys, with your help I could, escape, but I will not accept It. Your kindness will not be forgotten soon. I don’t propose to run.”
“In spite of all their protests he delivered himself up to the Marshall, who at once arrested him.
“With a heavy heart he bade adieu to his schoolmates, and, casting a lingering look at the old college building, signified to the soldiers his readiness to depart.”
Ramseur was carried first to Raleigh. There he spent the “bitter cold” night on the “bare floor of the guardhouse.” In the morning, the U. S. Commissioner in Raleigh informed him that he was charged ,with murder. “Who dares prefer such a charge?”, Ramseur demanded indignantly. He related in his later article in the Wake Forest student magazine that he suspected an “enemy at work” behind the charge.
He was then carried by train to Columbia, S. C. Ramseur declared that he could have escaped several times from the marshall accompanying him, but did not.
New Year’s Day Ramseur was sitting in Columbia prison. He tells of having had his meals served in an “old wash-pan so dirty that one could not tell of what it was made.” He ate his meals with his back to the pan, feeling for his food because the sight of it was more than he could stomach.
Another of Ramseur’s privations was the constant cursing and jeering “at a safe distance behind strong bars” of the jailor who was a bitter Radical.
The young man remained in prisons for two months awaiting trial. During that time, his condition improved slightly when he was removed to a Yorkville jail 30 miles from his home. There sympathetic young ladies brought delicacies to break the monotony already beginning to tell on the delicate young southerner.
Traitor Visits Ramseur
Ramseur also relates that during this period of confinement he was visited by the “traitor” who had been responsible for his arrest and confinement.
He names his tormentor as the “Alvin Duncane” of his mother’s previous letter. Duncane, said Ramseur, offered to “manage the murder charge if he would turn state’s evidence against the Ku Klux Klan and pay him the sum of $500.
Young Ramseur, bursting with fury, condemned Duncane as a blackguard, coward, traitor, and other vehemently expressed names and prophesied that when the traitor’s black soul was finally condemned to the lower regions the Devil “will have to soak you in petroleum to make you burn”
Orders Duncane Out
He ordered Duncane out of his cell within 10 seconds. The other young man took only five, cursing as he escaped.
Ceaseless efforts on the part of Ramseur’s father had failed and in April. 1872 he was taken to Charleston and arraigned before Judge Hugh L. Bond in Federal Court. Judge Bond was notorious for his “Star Chamber” convictions of Klansmen. Randolph Abbott Shotwell, who had been tried and convicted under circumstances similar to those of Ramseur, states in his private papers , that 20 other citizens of South Carolina were “convicted for political purposes” by Judge Bond.
In reality, David Ramseur had been arrested because of his membership in the Klan, and it was on the technical charge of conspirator that he was tried. Ramseur’s own story in The Student is a vivid account of the trial:
“He was arraigned before Judge Bond and tried as a simple conspirator, since there was not the shadow of any evidence to sustain the-charge of murder. The jury consisted of eleven coal-black-negroes (so slick they looked like they had been greased with meat skins) and another motley animal of uncertain color who tried to pass for a white man.
“They retired for about five minutes and returned. There was silence in court as the dusky foreman, who was a sort of preacher, arose to render the verdict: “May hit pleas yer onug, we fin’s dat pris’ner guilty-wurl widout en.”
Gets 8 Years
“Even the Judge could not repress a smile at the solemn flourish attached to the decision, as he turned to the accused and slowly pronounced the sentence: Mr. Summey, (Ramseur called himself David Summey in the student article) by authority in me vested, I sentence you to eight years confinement at hard labor in the U. S. Prison at Albany.”
“The condemned man listened to these eventful words without. moving a muscle, and resumed his seat.”
A fine was also placed on the young man. Dr. Paschal put the figure at $1,000, but Dr. Taylor’s letter to the “Herald” refers to “one hundred dollars fine.” But the amount of money assessed him did not concern young Ramseur.
The state of his mind is partially reflected by an incident on the steamer that carried him to the Albany prison. When questioned as to his choice of prison professions he chose that of coffin-making and worked at that until he was released.
Cell Depresses Youth
The years before him must have seemed frightening to the well brought up and previously sheltered young southerner when he first saw the interior of the cell he was to make his home for possibly as much as eight years.
The cell was “six feet wide, eight feet long, with granite walls. The floor was solid rock.” A crude bed in one corner and one wooden stool comprised the cell’s only furniture. Ramseur recounts the long days and nights spent in the gloomy depressing cells during which his mind went back often to his childhood and college days.
Conditions at the Albany prison were much better than many northern prisons, and it had a reputation for cleanliness. Nevertheless Ramseur spent much time “manly battling” the vermin that infested the place.
Particularly impressive on his mind was the prison garb he was required to wear. He was given a prison suit “made up of a short, close cut black coat, a neat blue cap with a flat top, and pantaloons of coarse gray material built on the ‘barn door’ style.”
From the moment David Ramseur entered the prison, his friends began working for his release. Ramseur himself mentions a “Mrs. Griggs,” who became a valuable friend while he was in prison and who worked on his behalf.
Among his other supporters seems to have been former Governor W. W. Holden who incidentally, had been impeached and convicted in 1870 because of his ill advised violence during the height of the Ku Klux Klan turmoil.
Taylor Writes Letter
But the most ardent worker in Ramseur’s behalf was Dr. Taylor. Warning in the public letter to the “‘Herald” that if Ramseur was left to serve his entire sentence, “A whole life will be blasted,” and condemning the boy’s trial as a “mere farce,” Dr. Taylor carried his measures even further. It was perhaps his personal appeal to President Ulysses S. Grant that ultimately secured Ramseur’s release after almost one year in the Albany prison.
Meanwhile poor Ramsaur sat by for months and watched each of his fellow former Klansmen walk out with pardons while his own showed no indication of coming. Ramseur later credited the delay to the presence of his old enemy Alvin Duncane in Washington where he was apparently interesting himself in the case.
Ramseur himself was unable to describe the emotions that gripped him when he walked out of the Albany prison January 18, 1873, a free man. He returned to Wake Forest College but did not obtain a degree, leaving in 1874.
Almost three years later he walked out of Townsend Medical College in Kentucky with the degree of Doctor of Medicine and became a practicing physician in Blacksburg, S. C.
In his “Student” article, Ramseur also suggests his later marriage to “May Burton,” daughter of a northern judge.
But though this and the account of “Alvin Duncane” may be based on actual fact. it may have been mainly Ramseur’s invention to give his story a romantic turn.
The story of David S. Ramseur’s tragic experiences during the turbulent days of Reconstruction reveals much of the attitudes of the South. Ramseur was not at all “reconstructed” by his prison experience. In his 1883 article he stated that he joined the Klan “with his eyes open,” and that if he had the whole thing to do all over again, he would join the Ku Klux Klan again.