The Civil War was a catastrophe for the South with no parallel in America’s experience as a nation.
Towns had been gutted, plantations burned, fields neglected, bridges and railroads destroyed.
Many white Southerners, stripped of their slaves through emancipation and stripped of the capital they had invested in now-worthless Confederate bonds and currency, had almost no personal property.
Many families had to rebuild their fortunes without the help of adult males, massive numbers of whom had died in the war.
Some white Southerners faced starvation and homelessness.
The more than 258,000 Confederate soldiers who had died in the war constituted over 20 percent of the adult white male population of the region; thousands more returned home wounded or sick.
Almost all surviving white Southerners had lost people close to them in the fighting
If conditions were bad for many Southern whites, they were worse for most Southern blacks— the 4 million men and women emerging from bondage.
Some of them had also seen service during the war—as servants to Confederate officers or as teamsters and laborers for the Southern armies.
Nearly 200,000 had fought for the Union, and 38,000 had died.
Others had worked as spies or scouts for Union forces in the South.
Many more had flocked to the Union lines to escape slavery.
Even before Emancipation, thousands of slaves in many parts of the South had taken advantage of wartime disruptions to leave their owners and move off in search of freedom.
As soon as the war ended, hundreds of thousands more former slaves—young and old, healthy and sick—left their plantations.
Some went in search of family members who had been sold by their former masters. But many others had nowhere to go.
For both blacks and whites, Reconstruction became a struggle to define the meaning of freedom
For African Americans, freedom meant above all an end to slavery and to all the injustices and humiliation they associated with it.
But it also meant the acquisition of rights and protections that would allow them to live as free men and women in the same way white people did.
“If I cannot do like a white man,” one African American man told his former master, “I am not free.”
African Americans differed with one another on how to achieve that freedom.
Some demanded a redistribution of economic resources, especially land,
Virtually all former slaves were united in their desire for independence from white control.
Freed from slavery, blacks throughout the South began almost immediately to create autonomous African American communities.
They pulled out of white-controlled churches and established their own.
Many white planters continued a kind of slavery in an altered form by keeping black workers legally tied to the plantations.
When many white Southerners fought for what they considered freedom, they were fighting above all to preserve local and regional autonomy and white supremacy.
The federal government kept troops in the South after the war to preserve order and protect the freedmen.
In March 1865, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency of the army directed by General Oliver O. Howard.
The Freedmen’s Bureau distributed food to millions of former slaves
The Freedmen’s Bureau was not a permanent solution.
It had authority to operate for only one year; and in any case it was far too small to deal effectively with the enormous problems facing Southern society.
By the time the war ended, other proposals for reconstructing the defeated South were emerging.
Reconstruction was determined not just by social realities or ideals.
It was also determined by partisan politics.
The terms by which the Southern states rejoined the Union had important implications for both major political parties.
Many Northerners believed the South should be punished in some way for the suffering and sacrifice its rebellion had caused.
Many Northerners believed, too, that the South should be transformed, made over in the North’s urbanized image—its supposedly backward, feudal, undemocratic society civilized and modernized.
Even among the Republicans in Congress, there was considerable disagreement about the proper approach to Reconstruction—disagreement that reflected the same factional divisions that had created disputes over emancipation during the war.
Conservatives insisted that the South accept the abolition of slavery, but proposed few other conditions for the readmission of the seceded states.
Some Radicals favored granting suffrage to the former slaves.
Others hesitated, since few Northern states permitted blacks to vote.
Between the Radicals and the Conservatives stood a faction of uncommitted Republicans, the Moderates, who rejected the punitive goals of the Radicals but supported extracting at least some concessions from the South on African American rights.
President Lincoln’s sympathies lay with the Moderates and Conservatives of his party.
He believed that a lenient Reconstruction policy would encourage Southern unionists and other former Whigs to join the Republican Party and would thus prevent the readmission of the South from strengthening the Democrats.
Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan, which he announced in December 1863, offered a general amnesty to white Southerners—other than high offi cials of the Confederacy— who would pledge loyalty to the government and accept the elimination of slavery
The Radical Republicans were astonished at the mildness of Lincoln’s program.
They persuaded Congress to deny seats to representatives from the three “reconstructed” states and refused to count the electoral vote of those states in the election of 1864.
But for the moment, the Radicals were uncertain about what form their own Reconstruction plan should take.
When a majority (not Lincoln’s 10 percent) of the white males of the state pledged their allegiance to the Union, the governor could summon a state constitutional convention, whose delegates were to be elected by those who would swear (through the so-called Ironclad Oath) that they had never borne arms against the United States—another departure from Lincoln’s plan.
The new state constitutions would have to abolish slavery, disenfranchise Confederate civil and military leaders, and repudiate debts accumulated by the state governments during the war.
After a state had met these conditions, Congress would readmit it to the Union.
What plan Lincoln might have produced no one can say.
On the night of April 14, 1865, the president and his wife attended a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington.
As they sat in the presidential box, John Wilkes Booth, a member of a distinguished family of actors and a zealous advocate of the Southern cause, entered the box from the rear and shot Lincoln in the head.
The president was carried unconscious to a house across the street, where early the next morning, surrounded by family, friends, and political associates (among them a tearful Charles Sumner), he died.
The circumstances of Lincoln’s death earned him immediate martyrdom.
It also produced something close to hysteria throughout the North.
There were accusations that Booth had acted as part of a great conspiracy
Booth did indeed have associates, one of whom stabbed and wounded Secretary of State Seward the night of the assassination, another of whom abandoned at the last moment a plan to murder Vice President Johnson. Booth himself escaped on horseback into the Virginia countryside, where, on April 26, he was cornered by Union troops and shot
Leadership of the Moderates and Conservatives fell to Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who was not well suited, by either circumstance or personality, for the task.
A Democrat until he had joined the Union ticket with Lincoln in 1864, he became a Republican president at a moment when partisan passions were growing.
Johnson himself was an intemperate and tactless man, filled with resentments and insecurities.
He was also openly hostile to the freed slaves and unwilling to support any plans that guaranteed them civil equality or enfranchisement.
He once declared, “White men alone must manage the South.” Johnson revealed his plan for Reconstruction—or “Restoration,” as he preferred to call it
Like Lincoln, he offered amnesty to those Southerners who would take an oath of allegiance.
Johnson helped white southerners to return to their land, he did little in support of the former slaves.
Although freedmen had been given their liberty, holding on to it proved difficult.
Many freedmen who returned to work for white planters found themselves almost like slaves again
By the end of 1865, all the seceded states had formed new governments—some under Lincoln’s plan, some under Johnson’s—and were prepared to rejoin the Union as soon as Congress recognized them.
But Radical Republicans vowed not to recognize the Johnson governments, just as they had previously refused to recognize the Lincoln regimes; for by now, Northern opinion had hardened and become more hostile toward the South than it had been a year earlier when Congress passed the Wade-Davis Bill.
Meanwhile, events in the South were driving Northern opinion in more-radical directions.
Throughout the South in 1865 and early 1866, state legislatures were enacting sets of laws known as the “Black Codes,” designed to give whites substantial control over former slaves.
The codes authorized local offi - cials to apprehend unemployed African Americans, fine them for vagrancy, and hire them out to private employers to satisfy the fi ne.
Some of the codes forbade blacks to own or lease farms or to take any jobs other than as plantation workers or domestic servants. Congress first responded to the Black Codes by passing an act extending the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau and widening its powers so that it could nullify work agreements forced on freedmen under the Black Codes.
Then, in April 1866, Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act, which declared African Americans to be citizens of the United States and gave the federal government power to intervene in state affairs to protect the rights of citizens.
Johnson vetoed both bills, but Congress overrode him on each of them.
The Fourteenth Amendment offered the first constitutional definition of American citizenship: everyone born in the United States, and everyone naturalized, was automatically a citizen and entitled to all the “privileges and immunities” guaranteed by the Constitution, including equal protection of the laws by both the state and national governments.
There could be no other requirements (for example, being white) for citizenship.
Congressional Radicals offered to readmit to the Union any state whose legislature ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.
Only Tennessee did so. All the other former Confederate states, along with Delaware and Kentucky, refused, leaving the amendment temporarily without the necessary approval of three-fourths of the states
Radicals were growing more confident and determined.
Bloody race riots in New Orleans and other Southern cities—riots in which African Americans were the principal victims—were among the events that strengthened their hand
The Radicals passed three Reconstruction bills early in 1867 and overrode Johnson’s vetoes of all of them.
Under the congressional plan, Tennessee, which had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, was promptly readmitted.
But Congress rejected the Lincoln-Johnson governments of the other ten Confederate states and, instead, combined those states into five military districts.
A military commander governed each district and had orders to register qualified voters
Once voters ratified the new constitutions, they could elect state governments.
Congress had to approve a state’s constitution, and the state legislature had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.
Once that happened, and once enough states ratified the amendment to make it part of the Constitution, then the former Confederate states could be restored to the Union
Ratification of another constitutional amendment, the Fifteenth, which forbade the states and the federal government to deny suffrage to any citizen on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
To stop the president from interfering with their plans, the congressional Radicals passed two remarkable laws of dubious constitutionality in 1867
President Johnson had long since ceased to be a serious obstacle to the passage of Radical legislation, but he was still the official charged with administering the Reconstruction programs.
As such, the Radicals believed, he remained a serious impediment to their plans.
Early in 1867, they began looking for a way to impeach him and remove him from office.
The trial before the Senate lasted throughout April and May 1868.
The Radicals put heavy pressure on all the Republican senators, but the Moderates (who were losing faith in the Radical program) vacillated.
On the first three charges to come to a vote, seven Republicans joined the Democrats and independents to support acquittal.
The vote was 35 to 19, one short of the constitutionally required two-thirds majority.
After that, the Radicals dropped the impeachment effort.
Perhaps the most important of those accomplishments was a dramatic improvement in the education of African Americans and white Southerners with scant learning.
In the first years of Reconstruction, much of the impetus for educational reform in the South came from outside groups—from the Freedmen’s Bureau, from Northern private philanthropic organizations, from many Northern women, black and white, who traveled to the South to teach in freedmen’s schools—and from black Southerners themselves.
Over the opposition of many Southern whites, who feared that education would give African Americans “false notions of equality,” these reformers established a large network of schools for former slaves
Gradually, these academies grew into an important network of black colleges and universities, which included such distinguished schools as Fisk and Atlanta Universities and Morehouse College
Already, however, Southern education was becoming divided into two separate systems, one black and one white.
Early efforts to integrate the schools of the region were a dismal failure.
The Freedmen’s Bureau schools, for example, were open to students of all races, but almost no whites attended them.
New Orleans set up an integrated school system under the Reconstruction government; again, whites almost universally stayed away.
The one federal effort to mandate school integration—the Civil Rights Act of 1875—had its provisions for educational desegregation removed before it was passed.
As soon as the Republican governments of Reconstruction were replaced, the new Southern Democratic regimes quickly abandoned all efforts to promote integration.
The most ambitious goal of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and of some Radical Republicans in Congress, was to make Reconstruction the vehicle for fundamental reform of landownership in the South.
The effort failed.
In the last years of the war and the first years of Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau did oversee the redistribution of substantial amounts of land to freedmen in a few areas
By June 1865, the bureau had settled nearly 10,000 black families on their own land—most of it drawn from abandoned plantations
Among whites, there was a significant decline in land ownership, from 80 percent before the war to 67 percent by the end of Reconstruction.
Some whites lost their land because of unpaid debt or increased taxes; some left the marginal lands they had owned to move to more-fertile areas, where they rented.
During the same period, the number of African Americans who owned land rose from virtually none to more than 20 percent.
Many black landowners acquired their property through hard work or luck or both.
But some relied unwisely on assistance from white-dominated financial or philanthropic institutions.
One of them was the Freedman’s Bank, established in 1865 by antislavery whites in an effort to promote land ownership among African Americans.
Still, most blacks, and a growing minority of whites, did not own their own land during Reconstruction; and some who acquired land in the 1860s had lost it by the 1890s.
These people worked for others in one form or another. Many African American agricultural laborers—perhaps 25 percent of the total—simply worked for wages.
Most, however, became tenants of white landowners— working their own plots of land and paying their landlords either a fixed rent or a share of their crop
The new system was a repudiation of former slaves of the gang-labor system of the antebellum plantation, in which slaves had lived and worked together under the direction of a master.
As tenants and sharecroppers, African Americans enjoyed at least a physical independence from their landlords and had the sense of working their own land, even if in most cases they could never hope to buy it.
But tenantry also benefited landlords in some ways, relieving them of any responsibility for the physical well-being of their workers.
In some respects, the postwar years were a period of remarkable economic progress for African Americans.
If the material benefits they had received under slavery are calculated as income, then prewar blacks had earned about a 22 percent share of the profits of the plantation system.
By the end of Reconstruction, they were earning 56 percent
While the black share of profits was increasing, the total profits of Southern agriculture were declining
In addition, while African Americans were earning a greater return on each hour of labor than they had under slavery, they were working fewer hours.
Women and children were less likely to labor in the fields than in the past.
Adult men tended to work shorter days.
In all, the black labor force worked about one-third fewer hours during Reconstruction than slaves had been compelled to work under slavery—a reduction that brought the working schedule of blacks roughly into line with that of white farm laborers
For blacks and poor whites alike, whatever gains there might have been as a result of land and income redistribution were often overshadowed by the ravages of the crop-line system.
Few of the traditional institutions of credit in the South—the “factors” and banks—returned after the war.