Even before the United States military beat the
Confederate rebels, the nation faced daunting tasks. The Civil War had killed
and hurt over a million people and the survivors were not happy about the
losses. There were severe economic dislocations in the southern United States.
Slavery was ended and would be gone before the last shot was fired. The United
States contended that the Confederacy was an illegal government as were the
state governments of the Confederacy, that those who defied the United States
were simply traitors who had rebelled. This constitutional issue—the status of
the rebellious state—had no easy solution. There was no satisfactory way
to solve these problems; too many people wanted different outcomes.
The death toll from the Civil War was at least over 600,000.
Several times this number were maimed. The casualty toll was well over a
million. Civilian deaths and injuries also occurred but we do not know precisely
how many. Several million casualties out of a national population of 31,443,321
was horrendous. No war before or since fought by the United States wreaked such
human damage. And most of them were in the southern part of the United States,
in the Confederacy, where the war was fought with a few exceptions.
A major reason why white Southerners were so bitter after the war (besides the fact that they had lost)
had to be their acute awareness of the price of war. Beloved husbands, brothers,
fathers, sons, uncle, and grandfathers were dead and missing because of the war.
Others were blinded or deafened or missing a limb or two. One of the largest
state government expenses in Mississippi after the Civil War was for prosthetic
devices. Injuries are a constant reminder.
The social order had changed. Slavery no longer existed. Instead, there were 4,500,000 free
blacks, over 286,000 of whom were in the United States Army. Armed African
Americans alarmed many whites. In Mississippi and South Carolina, blacks were
the majority. In other Southern states they were a sizable minority. In 1865,
what would be the place of blacks in the new social order was uncertain but most
whites in the United States assumed that they would do what they had done before
the war—working as farm laborers in the rural areas.
Social change was not just a matter of accommodating of free
blacks but also of the social dislocations created by the war. Fortunes had been
lost and some made. In the great American tradition, people migrated to the
South in search of economic gain. Some had come to know the region while serving
in the US Army. The women who had operated the family property while their men
folk were fighting were not as docile as they were before the war. Even
those who managed to retain their property and prestige faced the fact that the
labor system they knew and enjoyed was gone and new arrangements had to be made.
Idle farm lands had to become productive again.
The physical destruction from the war was sizable.
Bridges were destroyed, railroad tracks ripped up, buildings burned or damaged,
factories gone, work horses and mules killed or injured, and other physical
assets destroyed or gone. Although things could be rebuilt or replaced, it took
time, once investment capital could be found. Confederate money was virtually
worthless and, with it, investment capital almost disappeared.
Since most adult white Americans1 thought in purely political
terms—who could vote and who could run for office— they did not see the
socio-economic aspects of reconstruction the South—nation building in 21st
century parlance. As they looked at the Constitution for answers, they saw
no easy answers for the writers of the Constitution had never anticipated
secession. Were the states which claimed they seceded actually out of the
United States—the Union—or were they simply in a state of rebellion? If the
former, did that mean the Congressional power to regulate territories and admit
new states came into play? If the latter, did the President's power to pardon
and his power as commander in chief of the military become decisive? A literal
interpretation of the Constitution provided no answers but neither did a
broad interpretation. The decision would be political depending upon who held
most of the power.
The Reconstruction process began before the end of the war. President Abraham Lincoln used the enormous powers he had taken during the war to implement
a reconstruction plan. It was simply political. When 10% of the 1860 electorate gave an oath of loyalty to the United States
and recognized the end of slavery, they could elect state government officials and men to the national House of Representatives and Senate.
Before the end of 1864, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana had met
these terms but Congress refused to seat the people they elected. Lincoln and
Congress were going to fight about reconstruction but then he was murdered by a
Southerner. Another Southerner, Andrew Johnson, became president. He would also
fight with Congress.
There were two Reconstructions—Presidential and
Congressional—but both were complicated by the people who were affected. The
defeated Southern whites looked to the victors to tell them what to do but they
had limits to what they were willing to tolerate. They wanted as little change
as possible and, at first, elected the very people who had led them into the
disastrous war. Those leaders were the only ones they knew. Black southerners
wanted real freedom including the right to own property, vote, hold public
office, education, and move at will. Strong, educated leaders quickly emerged
among black southerners. The victors did not agree on what should be done.
Some wanted the South punished because it had caused the death and injury of so
many. Most wanted the United States preserved. Easily, most whites believed in
the inferiority of blacks and Native Americans and that bigotry influenced
attitudes and, therefore, behavior. Democrats had opposed the war and
emancipation. They received 45% of the presidential vote in 1864 so their views
counted. The Republican Party split over Reconstruction with a powerful
minority wanting to insure that the newly-freed slaves and other
blacks had the means of staying free. They were the group who gave both Lincoln
and Johnson hell.
Presidential Reconstruction was conciliatory in nature.
They wanted to get the country united again as soon as possible. Lincoln had to
pocket veto the Wade-Davis Bill (July, 1864) which demanded that a majority of
white Southerners of a state swear allegiance to the United States before they
could hold a convention to create a new state government. In addition,
Congress was not so forgiving of those who had led the fight against the United
States. Confederate leaders, state government officials, and those who had
volunteered to fight the United States of America would be ineligible to attend
the state conventions, vote, or elected to office. Although Lincoln vetoed this
measure which was so punitive, he did allow as how it was one of several
Andrew Johnson worked under severe disadvantages when he
succeeded Lincoln. He was a Southerner, which made him suspect among many, even
though he had remained loyal to the United States even at personal risk. He was
a poor man from mountainous east Tennessee whose wife taught him to read and
write. He had little affection for the upper class. Perhaps because his life had
been so hard, much harder than that of Lincoln, he lacked Lincoln's political
acumen. He was also a man without a political party. He had left the Democratic
Party to run with Lincoln on the Constitutional Union ticket. He was not a
Johnson proposed amnesty for all those who would swear allegiance
to the United States except important Confederate officials and those persons
who owned more than $20,000 of property.2 No
doubt Johnson intended to exclude his old adversaries, which these requirements
would do. Those who took the oath would elect a constitutional convention which
would repudiate secession and slavery as well as the Confederate national and
state debts. Once that was accomplished, they could elect a state government and
send representatives to Washington.
By the end of 1865, each former Confederate state had been
through either the Lincoln or Johnson plan. Conservatives assumed that
Reconstruction was over. People were getting back to work. Governments did their
jobs. The pre-Civil War order had been largely restored.
That was a problem, for it appeared that the former
Confederate states had learned nothing. functioned. Although slavery had been
abolished, they tried to keep African Americans as close too slavery as
possible. "Black Codes," laws which only applied to blacks, were
passed. In some states, the law restricted the right of blacks to meet. In some
states, the labor of petty offenders could be sold at public auction, clearly
legalized slavery. Some states allowed white to take children from their parents
and apprentice them without their parents' permission.3
States often required that blacks, but not white or Native Americans, have
labor contracts. South Carolina said blacks could only be domestic servants or
farm laborers, fewer occupations than they pursued doing slavery! Not
surprisingly, there were race riots in 1865-66. Blacks and those who supported
them almost always lost.
Johnson grew stubborn. He blamed the race riots on the
"Radical Republicans," those Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens and
Charles Sumner who were trying to insure that the former slaves had real freedom. President Johnson minimized the denial of black rights and began pardoning thousands of Southern
whites. In the 1866 Congressional elections, he campaigned around the country, calling
his opponents traitors. He was bucking national sentiment. In November, 1866,
the Republicans won
two-thirds of both Houses. "Radical Republicans" moved into positions of leadership.
Congress decided to use force and occupation to reform the South believing
that conciliation had not worked. Congress reacted. It passed a Civil Rights
bill in April, 1866 over Johnson's veto a and new Freedmen Bureau law in
July, 1866. It proposed the Fourteenth
Amendment which said, in part,
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the
jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State
wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall
abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor
shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due
process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal
protection of the laws.
The amendment provided other important measures to punish Confederate
leaders and states which denied its adult males the right to vote. Only Tennessee ratified it.
Some state legislatures rejected it unanimously.
The Freedmen's Bureau bill passed over Johnson veto signifying that the former
slaves were to be protected by the national government during their transition,
an unprecedented expansion of federal government power for it meant that the
national government assumed care of
individuals for the first time. Congress passed the Civil Rights bill over Johnson's
veto. In March, 1867, it passed the First Reconstruction Act
which divided the South into 5 military districts headed by a major
general All adult males, including freed slaves, would be able to vote in state
elections. When a state ratified the 14th Amendment and guaranteed adult male
suffrage, it would be readmitted to the Union. Johnson's veto was overridden the same day.
With the passage of the 15th Amendment in February, 1869 which said that
"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or
abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or
previous condition of servitude."
Johnson and most Southern states disliked Congressional
the presence of the US Army and its nation building efforts kept the states in
line. Johnson, although emasculated by Congressional actions, still had some
power such as the power to pardon and the power to appoint people to national
Fearing that Johnson would remove persons
sympathetic to the Congressional program, Congress passed the Tenure of
Office Act in March, 1867 over Johnson's veto. It said that the President could not remove any person whose appointment
the consent of the Senate and could only suspend such an appointee when the Senate was out of session.
In the summer of 1867, Johnson ordered the resignation of Secretary of War Edwin
Stanton, a Lincoln appointee who sided with Congressional leaders and appointed
General Ulysses S. Grant in his place. Stanton refused to budge. When the Senate
reconvened in January, 1868, it voted 35 to 16 to keep Stanton. Johnson believed
the Act was unconstitutional and insisted that his appointee, now another
army general, take the post.6
In February, the House of Representatives impeached Johnson for violating the
Tenure of Office Act and other "high crimes and misdemeanors" by a
vote of 126 to 47. Clearly, it was a partisan political act. Johnson was
acquitted by one vote but he was now ineffective until Grant became president
non March 4, 1869.
Reconstruction proceeded apace in the South. Arkansas, North
Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama and Florida were
readmitted under the Military Reconstruction Act by June 1868. Many of these
states had a combination of blacks, white Southerners, and immigrants from other
parts of the nation running Reconstruction governments. Only in Louisiana and
South Carolina did blacks constitute a majority in the state legislature. Texas,
Mississippi, and Virginia were readmitted by 1870.7
in Mississippi is a representative example of how Reconstruction operated in
practice for it was not at either extreme.
Southern whites, for the most part, did not want change,
especially freedmen participating in politics. Violence got bad enough that
Congress passed an Enforcement Act in 1870 to punish those who tried to deprive
the freedmen of their civil rights. By 1872, however, Congress passed a general amnesty law, pardoning all but 500
Confederate sympathizers. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which
said that all persons had to be treated equally in the use of public
transportation facilities, in hotels and inns, and in theaters, but the law was
not always enforced.
Former Confederate states slowly elected white
Democrats to office. By 1876, only Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina
retained Republican Party governments. That Congressional Reconstruction
governments created public school systems, repaired bridges and other
infrastructure, helped the poor relief, and passed universal adult male suffrage
laws was besides the point. Conservatives often did not want these things and
resented the taxes that were levied to pay for them. The fact that blacks were
involved was enough to anger them. The old order had been overturned. They
worked to restore as much of the status quo ante bellum as they could. To many Southern whites, therefore, life before the War was
idyllic. Of course, the ante bellum South they longed for never existed except
that black people had no power.
The economic devastation and dislocations of the Civil War
made it impossible to restore the economy of the South to what it was in 1860.
There was precious little capital in the region. Land owners needed money to buy
seed and tools, to pay laborers, and to live on until they could harvest a crop
and sell it. Farm workers, black and white, needed employment and they
were the vast majority of Southerners. Farm owners could mortgage their future
crop (the crop lien system) in order to plant, till, and eat. The money loaned
very often came, ultimately, from other parts of the nation, funneled through
local banks or general stores. To enhance the possibility of being repaid,
lenders usually insisted that the farmers plant cash crops. Cotton and tobacco
were the usual cash crops. If a local general store loaned the money, often
extending a line of credit to the farmer, it insisted that the farmer buy
everything through the store even when the item might be cheaper elsewhere. Bad
harvests or low prices or both meant the farmer fell further and further into
debt. Sharecropping grew as farmers hired workers by letting them either share
in the harvest or giving them access to some of the farmer's land. The
sharecropper also thus got the right to buy on credit at the local store.
Sharecropping increased in the South beyond the rest of the 19th
century. It was a kind of economic slavery and affected whites and blacks
In the 1880s, Henry Grady of Atlanta and some other Southern
leaders launched a drive to bring more industry to the South. Birmingham,
Alabama became a steel center. With government subsidies, direct and indirect,
numerous factories were started, especially in the lumber, tobacco, and textile
industries. Parts of the South saw the rise of mill towns. The nation as a whole
was industrializing, however, and the percentage of national industry in the
South did not change between 1860 and 1900.Until the New Deal and World War II,
the South remained poor and agrarian.
The Democrats finally gained power in Louisiana, Florida, and
South Carolina when the Republican Party made a deal to get their man.
Rutherford B. Hayes, an honest and able ex-Civil War general from Ohio where he had attended Kenyon College, thus making him one of the better educated people in the
country, elected to the Presidency. To win by one electoral vote, the Republican Party, backed by the federal government which it controlled, had to get 15 Republican electors instead of Democratic electors elected. They challenged the results in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana on the grounds that African American voters had been intimidated by whites (which was probably true), thus denying the Republican victory. Those state governments were still controlled by the Republicans. If they pulled this off, they still needed another electoral vote, which they found in Oregon where a Democratic elector could be disqualified because he was a US government employee, a postmaster. To settle the dispute, Congress agreed to create a bipartisan Electoral Commission of 15 men evenly split between the two parties and with the 15th member to be a non-partisan judge. Not long before the Commission was to meet, the judge resigned to take a federal job and the Republicans were able to get one of their own appointed. All decisions were made by that partisan 8-7 margin. But the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and did not have to accept the results so the Compromise of 1877 was made by which federal troops would be withdrawn from the South thus allowing the bigots to resume full control and the South would get federal favors including the building of a Southern transcontinental railroad. Conservatives of both parties had joined to prevent a possible civil war.
The abandonment of protection of all citizens continued. In the 1883
Civil Rights Cases, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875
was unconstitutional because, it said, the 14th Amendment did
not prohibit individuals from discriminating on the basis of race and state laws
which were discriminatory were simply instances of individual discrimination.
The logic was twisted but was consistent with the views of most people. In Plessy
v Ferguson in 1896, a case brought first in Louisiana by Homer Plessy who
had been denied the right to sit where he wished on a streetcar, the
Supreme Court ruled that separate facilities were permissible as long as they
were equal. Although some blacks continued to serve in some Southern
legislatures into the early years of the 20th century, these cases
meant the end of the last vestiges of Reconstruction.
One should not be surprised. United States citizens in the 19th
century believed that the best government was that which governed least.
They did not like state governments which did much of anything. In the South,
that's a major reason why the conservative white supremacist politicians
gained power from the Republicans. They promised to cut government spending and
did by passing the costs to the local levels. They saw national government
action as even worse than state government action. Americans believed that there
were natural laws which governed human affairs and, thus, governments should do
almost nothing. White Americans, regardless of locale, had little desire to aid
black Americans. The reform zeal had died. People wanted to go about their
business and to focus on the industrial boom which was occurring.
Like all nation building efforts, Reconstruction of the South
required prolonged military occupation and cooperation by the defeated. That is
what occurred in post-WWII Germany and Japan, nation building exercises much
more severe and thorough than anything that occurred in the South between 1865
and 1877. But the United States was a different country in 1945 than it was
The irony is that Americans see Reconstruction as a horrible
episode in US history, which it was not, and the Civil War, which was, as
heroic. Much of this came about as an effort to reconcile the South to being in
the United States by allowing it to win the battle of historical interpretation.
1. Women, Native Americans, and most African Americans could not vote when Reconstruction began.
2. Since the average working man only earned about $200 year, $20,000 worth of property meant one
3. Kidnapping and slavery are other terms to use for the effects of this law.
4. The period when Congress was doing Reconstruction is called both Congressional Reconstruction and Radical Reconstruction. I find the term
Congressional Reconstruction more informative. Congress would remain the dominant branch of
government for the rest of the century.
5. There was no civil service and appointing people to office was an important political tool in those days.
6. The issue was not resolved until 1926 when the Supreme Court, in the case
of Myers vs. United States, ruled the law unconstitutional.
7. For a perspective on Reconstruction a black man who freed himself
before the Civil War, see Frederick Douglass, "Reconstruction,"
Atlantic Monthly 18 (1866): 761-765.