The Reconstruction Era is the time period that occurred immediately after the Civil War in 1865 to 1877. This era was focused on the rights African-Americans would have since the 13th through 15th amendments to the constitution freed them and granted them citizenship. Lincoln and Andrew Johnson both wanted to take a moderate approach and slowly acclimate the African-Americans into society. However, Radical Republicans were pushing to speed this process along. Unfortunately, the Democrats, who had the opposite opinion, took control and the acclimation was drastically slowed after 1877.
But before I do that, let’s review some of the most important dates of the Civil War. When studying history, it’s absolutely crucial that you consider the context and events that surround whatever particular thing you’re looking at. If you haven’t seen it already, you should check out our video about the Civil War.
Alright, we begin in 1860, with Abraham Lincoln’s election as president of the United States. Tension had already been brewing between the Republican and Democrat political parties, and the southern and northern states. For some, this was the final straw. At the end of 1860, and in the beginning of 1861, southern states began seceding from the United States of America, and soon formed the Confederate States of America. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces attacked the US Fort Sumter, located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. With this, the civil war began.
Fast forward several years: The war was in full swing, and President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863, in a tactical maneuver to win the war. On December 8th, 1863, in a bid to end the bloodbath, Lincoln put forth his “Ten Percent” plan. This plan allowed for a Confederate state to rejoin the Union provided that at least 10% of its voting population took an oath of loyalty to the Constitution and Union. His desire was for a moderate reconstruction, but the Radical Republicans (a faction within the Republican party) thought this was too lenient on the South, whom they viewed as responsible for the war. They also feared that without significantly restructuring the South’s economy and way of life, blacks would again be enslaved under the same planter system. The Radicals put forth the Wade-Davis plan, which required a majority (not just 10%) of voters in ex-Confederate states to sign the so-called “Ironclad Oath.” However, Lincoln refused to sign it.
On April 9th, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia. At this point, the Civil War was essentially over. But this is where Reconstruction begins and we pick up our story.
At the end of the war, the South was in shambles. Infrastructure had been systematically destroyed by Union forces, several cities had been razed or heavily damaged, and some 40% of livestock was dead. The Confederate dollar had inflated to the point of being useless. With the Emancipation Proclamation, the workforce had changed drastically. In 1867, whites comprised 41% to 69% percent of the Southern state populations. The 1860 census indicated that the percent of the population held as slaves was as high as 57% in South Carolina, and averaged 34% across all slave-holding states. This meant that in states where slavery had been legal, one in three persons was held as a slave, on average, and was now a freeman, technically. I say technically because the transition process, as we’ll see, was not smooth. The entire population of the United States, both slave and free, numbered 8.3 million. There were 434,000 free people of color in 1860, 238,000 of whom owned slaves, according to the US Census.
As a result of the civil war, an estimated 761,000 soldiers died, while some tens of thousands of slaves died. Some put the total death toll at over a million, meaning that 1 in every 8 or 9 persons in the entire United States died as a result of the Civil War.
By 1865, Southern states have repealed secession and accepted the 13th amendment (abolition of slavery). The rocky process of healing and reconciliation begins.
On March 3, 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau was created by Lincoln and administered under the US Army. This was a federal bureau designed to give support and assistance, including advising on labor contracts between freedmen and their former masters. It also was heavily involved in education, a crucial element of reconstruction since many (if not most) slaves were actively prohibited from learning how to read and write. Literacy was a crucial element of political and societal integration.
On April 14th, 1865, President Lincoln was shot, and died the next day. His vice president, Andrew Johnson, became president. Johnson took a softer (some could argue a less effective) approach to reconstruction than Lincoln did, which upset the Radical Republicans. Led by Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, the Radicals in Congress decided to take things into their own hands, blocking the reincorporation of former Confederate states to Congress. Johnson also vetoed the renewal of the Freedman’s Bureau because he was opposed to federal support of such programs.
Racism in the South had not gone away with Emancipation and the end of the Confederacy. States began passing “black codes” which limited black freedoms. Fortunately, the federal Congress quickly noticed this and passed a Civil Rights bill, which Johnson promptly vetoed, stating that because eleven out of the thirty-six states had no federal representation (because they had not yet been fully re-integrated into the Union yet), it was a usurpation of state authority and did not belong in the Constitution. Then Congress passed a watered-down version of the Freedman’s Bureau, which Johnson again vetoed. But Congress was able to override his veto this time.
Not only had the southern workforce changed radically, but there was conflict and disagreement over how to incorporate newly freed blacks into the political arena, and how (or if) to reincorporate former Confederates.
Remember that this was a period of time when America was still a constitutional republic, and less of a direct democracy. The three-fifths compromise of the 1787 Constitutional Convention meant that three out of every five slaves were to be counted for representation purposes. Essentially, every slave was considered 60% of a person. Slave-holders wanted slaves to be considered a full person in the population census, because then their states would have more congressmen, which meant more power over the North. The abolitionists (the Northern states) opposed slaves being counted as a full person, because then it would later be impossible to make laws against slavery, since Southern states would control the House of Representatives. Therefore, it was a compromise at 3/5ths. This compromise was repealed by the 14th Amendment (although the 13th amendment had already banned slavery).
Here’s why this matters: after the 1870 census all of the free persons would count towards determining the number of representatives a state sent to the House of Representatives. But assuming that vast numbers of slaves did not leave the south, Radical Republicans were afraid that this increased representation of Southern states would be used against newly-freed blacks.
Republicans were able to pass laws allowing all male freedmen to vote. But in the late 1800s some southern states passed laws that indirectly barred blacks from voting via literacy requirements. Ironically, these laws also happened to disenfranchise poor whites, but they were grandfathered in via really manipulative clauses.
At this point, the fighting had moved from the battlefields and into the halls of government, often between members of the same side who disagreed on the degree to which something should be done.
Eventually, the former Confederate states held constitutional conventions and gave black males the right to vote. But some former Confederates were prevented from voting as punishment for their deeds. But this created a tension because those who argued that government ought to be based on the consent of the governed also argued that blacks should be able to vote, and some argued that former Confederates should not be allowed to vote. After a time, this simultaneous giving and taking away stance seemed contradictory and unrepublican.
The presidential election of 1868 was between Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Johnson. The Republicans ensured that Grant was elected, fearing that Johnson believed that reconstruction was finished, while they did not believe it was. Grant’s administration took a tougher line on civil rights, using federal troops regularly to protect voters and put down Ku Klux Klan violence. With new voting rights and the ability to hold office, blacks slowly began to hold political office, though still at less-than-proportional rates.
Sadly, segregation extended into the church as well. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, remarked that “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.” A president of the South Carolina Baptist Association, Richard Furman, believed that “… the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” At the same time, many Christians were heavily involved in abolition. Some denominations had already split over the issue of slavery, and in some cases this continued after reconstruction and emancipation.
With emancipation, former slaves were no longer forbidden by their masters to learn, and so public schools began to crop up. Again though, these schools were almost exclusively segregated, and due to Jim Crow laws, black institutions were poorly-funded. But black colleges began during this time, several of which remain to this day and are highly-regarded.
Due to the change in economic structure and new government education, taxes had to be increased, which incensed plantation owners, who had been used to low taxes and self-sufficiency.
After a time, policies had been set, and the wheels of reform had begun to move. But they moved extremely slowly, and not always in a forward direction. Violence accompanied most elections, and racial tensions were rife throughout the south. Blacks and some whites were intimidated as Republicans and Democrats, fought (literally) over the black vote and control of the South. In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, won the contested presidential election. President Grant before him had begun to remove federal troops from former Confederate states, and Hayes finished the process. This meant that the Federal Government no longer had any enforcement mechanism in the South, which ended the formal Reconstruction Era.
Racial violence and black intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations happened all over the South in the late 1860s and 1870s. In 1866 a number of people died when black soldiers, white civilians, and Irish policemen clashed in Memphis. Dozens of blacks were killed in New Orleans in riots in 1866. There were more riots in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1867, which was the birthplace of the Ku Klux klan. In 1870, the KKK apparently lynched Wyatt Outlaw, the first black man to be elected Town Commissioner and Constable of Graham, NC, along with white state senator John Stephens. And more KKK mob violence and lynchings happened in York County, South Carolina, in 1871.
Many believe that Reconstruction failed. Ultimately, President Lincoln accomplished the one thing he desired out of the Civil War: Keeping all of the states in the Union. Emancipation was a tactical wartime maneuver that had a tremendously good effect on hundreds of thousands of people. But that technical, legal, status change did not alter the hearts and minds of millions of people who would wrestle for years over racial integration and equality under the law.
W.E.B. DuBois, a prominent black historian, summed up Reconstruction: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
I hope this brief overview of the Reconstruction Era has been a good reminder about how difficult but absolutely crucial it is to love our fellow man. If you found this beneficial, hit that like button below and subscribe to be notified of new educational videos.
See you next time!