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After the Civil War, much of the South lay in ruins. “It passes my comprehension to tell what became of our railroads,” one South Carolinian told a Northern reporter. “We had passably good roads, on which we could reach almost any part of the State, and the next week they were all gone – not simply broken up, but gone. Some of the material was burned, I know, but miles and miles of iron have actually disappeared, gone out of existence.”1 He might as well have been talking about the entire antebellum way of life. The future of the South was uncertain. How would these states be brought back into the Union? Would they be conquered territories or equal states? How would they rebuild their governments, economies, and social systems? What rights did freedom confer upon formerly enslaved people?
The answers to many of Reconstruction’s questions hinged upon the concepts of citizenship and equality. The era witnessed perhaps the most open and widespread discussions of citizenship since the nation’s founding. It was a moment of revolutionary possibility and violent backlash. African Americans and Radical Republicans pushed the nation to finally realize the Declaration of Independence’s promises that “all men were created equal” and had “certain, unalienable rights.” Conservative white Democrats granted African Americans legal freedom but little more. When black Americans and their radical allies succeeded in securing citizenship for freedpeople, a new fight commenced to determine the legal, political, and social implications of American citizenship. Resistance continued, and Reconstruction eventually collapsed. In the South, limits on human freedom endured and would stand for nearly a century more.
II. Politics of Reconstruction
Reconstruction—the effort to restore southern states to the Union and to redefine African Americans’ place in American society—began before the Civil War ended. President Abraham Lincoln began planning for the reunification of the United States in the fall of 1863. With a sense that Union victory was imminent and that he could turn the tide of the war by stoking Unionist support in the Confederate states, Lincoln issued a proclamation allowing Southerners to take an oath of allegiance. When just ten percent of a state’s voting population had taken such an oath, loyal Unionists could then establish governments. These so-called Lincoln governments sprang up in pockets where Union support existed like Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Unsurprisingly, these were also the places that were exempted from the liberating effects of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Initially proposed as a war aim, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation committed the United States to the abolition of slavery. However, the Proclamation freed only slaves in areas of rebellion and left more than 700,000 in bondage in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri as well as Union-occupied areas of Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia.
To cement the abolition of slavery, however, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865 and legally abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Section Two of the amendment granted Congress the “power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” State ratification followed, and by the end of the year the requisite three-fourths states had approved the amendment, and four million blacks were forever free from the slavery that had existed in North America for 250 years.
Lincoln’s policy was lenient and conservative, but Reconstruction was recast when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865, during a performance of “Our American Cousin” at the Ford Theater. Treated rapidly and with all possible care, Lincoln succumbed to his wounds the following morning, leaving a somber pall over the North and especially among African Americans.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln propelled Vice President Andrew Johnson into the executive office in April 1865. Johnson, a states’ rights, strict-constructionist and unapologetic racist from Tennessee, offered southern states a quick restoration into the Union. His Reconstruction plan required provisional southern governments to void their ordinances of secession, repudiate their Confederate debts, and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. On all other matters, the conventions could do what they wanted with no federal interference. He pardoned all Southerners engaged in the rebellion with the exception of wealthy planters who possessed more than $20,000 in property. The southern aristocracy would have to appeal to Johnson for individual pardons. In the meantime, Johnson hoped that a new class of Southerners would replace the extremely wealthy in leadership positions.
Many southern governments enacted legislation that reestablished antebellum power relationships. South Carolina and Mississippi passed laws known as Black Codes to regulate black behavior and impose social and economic control. These laws granted some rights to African Americans – like the right to own property, to marry or to make contracts – they also denied them fundamental rights. White lawmakers forbade black men from serving on juries or in state militias, refused to recognize black testimony against white people, apprenticed orphan children to their former masters, and established severe vagrancy laws. Mississippi’s vagrant law required all freedmen to carry papers proving they had means of employment.2 If they had no proof, they could be arrested and fined. If they could not pay the fine, the sheriff had the right to hire out his prisoner to anyone who was willing to pay the tax. Similar ambiguous vagrancy laws throughout the South reasserted control over black labor in what one scholar has called “slavery by another name.”3 Black codes effectively criminalized black leisure, limited their mobility, and locked many into exploitative farming contracts. Attempts to restore the antebellum economic order largely succeeded.
These laws and outrageous mob violence against southern blacks led Republicans to call for a more punitive process for southern states to be reinstated to the Union. So when Johnson announced that the southern states had been restored to the Union, Republicans in Congress refused to seat southern delegates from the newly reconstructed states.
Republicans in Congress responded with a spate of legislation aimed at protecting freedmen and restructuring political relations in the South. Many Republicans were keen to grant voting rights for freed men in order to build a new powerful voting bloc. Some Republicans, like United States Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, believed in racial equality, but the majority understood that the only way to protect Republican interests in the South was to give the vote to the hundreds of thousands of black men. Republicans in Congress responded to the codes with the Civil Rights Act of 1866— the first federal attempt to constitutionally define all American-born residents (except Native peoples) as citizens and which prohibited any curtailment of citizens’ “fundamental rights.”
The Fourteenth Amendment developed concurrently with the Civil Rights Act to ensure its constitutionality. The House of Representatives approved the Fourteenth Amendment on June 13, 1866. Section One granted citizenship and repealed the Taney Court’s infamous Dred Scott (1857) decision. Moreover, it ensured that state laws could not deny due process or discriminate against particular groups of people. The Fourteenth Amendment signaled the federal government’s willingness to enforce the Bill of Rights over the authority of the states.
Based on his belief that African Americans did not deserve rights, President Johnson opposed both the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and vetoed the Civil Rights Act, as he believed black Americans did not deserve citizenship. With a two-thirds majority gained in the 1866 midterm elections, Republicans overrode the veto, and in 1867, they passed the first of two Reconstruction Acts, which dissolved state governments and divided the South into five military districts. Before states could rejoin the Union, they would have to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, write new constitutions enfranchising African Americans, and abolish black codes. The Fourteenth Amendment was finally ratified on July 9, 1868.
In the 1868 Presidential election, former Union General Ulysses S. Grant ran on a platform that proclaimed, “Let Us Have Peace” in which he promised to protect the new status quo. On the other hand, the Democratic candidate, Horatio Seymour, promised to repeal Reconstruction. Black Southern voters’ support for Grant helped him win most of the former Confederacy.
Reconstruction brought the first moment of mass participation of African Americans. In 1860, only five states in the North allowed African Americans to vote on equal terms with whites. Yet after 1867, when Congress ordered Southern states to eliminate racial discrimination in voting, African Americans began to win elections across the South. In a short time, the South was transformed from an all-white, pro-slavery, Democratic stronghold to a collection of Republican-led states with African Americans in positions of power for the first time in American history.
Through the provisions of the Congressional Reconstruction Acts, black men voted in large numbers and also served as delegates to the state constitutional conventions in 1868. Black delegates actively participated in revising state constitutions. One of the most significant accomplishments of these conventions was the establishment of a public school system. While public schools were virtually nonexistent in the antebellum period, by the end of Reconstruction, every Southern state had established a public school system. Republican officials opened state institutions like mental asylums, hospitals, orphanages, and prisons to white and black residents, though often on a segregated basis. They actively sought industrial development, northern investment, and internal improvements.
African Americans served at every level of government during Reconstruction. At the federal level, Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce were chosen as United States Senators from Mississippi. Fourteen men served in the House of Representatives. At least two hundred seventy other African American men served in patronage positions as postmasters, customs officials, assessors, and ambassadors. At the state level, more than 1,000 African American men held offices in the South. P. B. S. Pinchback served as Louisiana’s Governor for thirty-four days after the previous governor was suspended during impeachment proceedings and was the only African American state governor until Virginia elected L. Douglass Wilder in 1989. Almost 800 African American men served as state legislators around the South with African Americans at one time making up a majority in the South Carolina House of Representatives.
The African American office holders during Reconstruction came from diverse backgrounds. Many had been born free or had gained their freedom before the Civil War. Many free African Americans, particularly those in South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana, were wealthy and well educated, two facts that distinguished them from much of the white population both before and after the Civil War. Some like Antione Dubuclet of Louisiana and William Breedlove from Virginia owned slaves before the Civil War. Others had helped slaves escape or taught them to read like Georgia’s James D. Porter.
The majority of African American office holders, however, were slaves until sometime during the Civil War. Among them were skilled craftsman like Emanuel Fortune, a shoemaker from Florida, minsters such as James D. Lynch from Mississippi, and teachers like William V. Turner from Alabama. Moving into political office was a natural continuation of the leadership roles they had held in their former slave communities.
By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, more than 2,000 African American men had served in offices ranging from mundane positions such as local Levee Commissioner to United States Senator.4 When the end of Reconstruction returned white Democrats to power in the South, all but a few African American office holders lost their positions. After Reconstruction African Americans did not enter the political arena again in large numbers until well into the twentieth century.
III. The Meaning of Black Freedom
Land was one of the major desires of the freed people. Frustrated by responsibility for the growing numbers of freed people following his troops, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 in which land in Georgia and South Carolina was to be set aside as a homestead for the freedpeople. Sherman lacked the authority to confiscate and distribute land, so this plan never fully took effect. One of the main purposes of the Freedmen’s Bureau, however, was to redistribute to former slaves lands that had been abandoned and confiscated by the federal government. Even these land grants were short lived. In 1866, land that ex-Confederates had left behind was reinstated to them.
Freedpeople’s hopes of land reform were unceremoniously dashed as Freedmen Bureau agents held meetings with the freedmen throughout the South telling them the promise of land was not going to be honored and that instead they should plan to go back to work for their former owners as wage laborers. The policy reversal came as quite a shock. In one instance, Freedmen’s Bureau Commissioner General Oliver O. Howard went to Edisto Island to inform the black population there of the policy change. The black commission’s response was that “we were promised Homesteads by the government . . . You ask us to forgive the land owners of our island . . .The man who tied me to a tree and gave me 39 lashes and who stripped and flogged my mother and my sister . . . that man I cannot well forgive. Does it look as if he has forgiven me, seeing how he tries to keep me in a condition of helplessness?”5
In working to ensure that crops would be harvested, agents sometimes coerced former slaves into signing contracts with their former masters. However, the Bureau also instituted courts where African Americans could seek redress if their employers were abusing them or not paying them. The last ember of hope for land redistribution was extinguished when Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner’s proposed land reform bills were tabled in Congress. Radicalism had its limits, and the Republican Party’s commitment to economic stability eclipsed their interest in racial justice.
Another aspect of the pursuit of freedom was the reconstitution of families. Many freedpeople immediately left plantations in search of family members who had been sold away. Newspaper ads sought information about long lost relatives. People placed these ads until the turn of the 20th century, demonstrating the enduring pursuit of family reunification. Freedpeople sought to gain control over their own children or other children who had been apprenticed to white masters either during the war or as a result of the Black Codes. Above all, freedpeople wanted freedom to control their families.
Many freedpeople rushed to solemnize unions with formal wedding ceremonies. Black people’s desires to marry fit the government’s goal to make free black men responsible for their own households and to prevent black women and children from becoming dependent on the government.
Freedpeople placed a great emphasis on education for their children and themselves. For many, the ability to finally read the Bible for themselves induced work-weary men and women to spend all evening or Sunday attending night school or Sunday school classes. It was not uncommon to find a one-room school with more than 50 students ranging in age from 3 to 80. As Booker T. Washington famously described the situation, “it was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn.”6
Many churches served as schoolhouses and as a result became central to the freedom struggle. Free and freed blacks carried well-formed political and organizational skills into freedom. They developed anti-racist politics and organizational skills through anti-slavery organizations turned church associations. Liberated from white-controlled churches, black Americans remade their religious worlds according to their own social and spiritual desires.
One of the more marked transformations that took place after emancipation was the proliferation of independent black churches and church associations. In the 1930s, nearly 40% of 663 black churches surveyed had their organizational roots in the post-emancipation era.7 Many independent black churches emerged in the rural areas and most of them had never been affiliated with white churches.
Many of these independent churches were quickly organized into regional, state, and even national associations, often by brigades of northern and midwestern free blacks who went to the South to help the freedmen. Through associations like the Virginia Baptist State Convention and the Consolidated American Baptist Missionary Convention, Baptists became the fastest growing post-emancipation denomination, building on their anti-slavery associational roots and carrying on the struggle for black political participation.8
Tensions between Northerners and Southerners over styles of worship and educational requirements strained these associations. Southern, rural black churches preferred worship services with more emphasis on inspired preaching, while northern urban blacks favored more orderly worship and an educated ministry.
Perhaps the most significant internal transformation in churches had to do with the role of women—a situation that eventually would lead to the development of independent women’s conventions in Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal churches. Women like Nannie Helen Burroughs and Virginia Broughton, leaders of the Baptist Woman’s Convention, worked to protect black women from sexual violence from white men, a concern that black representatives articulated in state constitutional conventions early in the Reconstruction era. In churches, women continued to have to fight for equal treatment and access to the pulpit as preachers, even though they were able to vote in church meetings.
Black churches provided centralized leadership and organization in post-emancipation communities. Many political leaders and officeholders were ministers. Churches were often the largest building in town and served as community centers. Access to pulpits and growing congregations, provided a foundation for ministers’ political leadership. Groups like the Union League, militias and fraternal organizations all used the regalia, ritual and even hymns of churches to inform and shape their practice.
Black Churches provided space for conflict over gender roles, cultural values, practices, norms, and political engagement. With the rise of Jim Crow, black churches would enter a new phase of negotiating relationships within the community and the wider world.
IV. Reconstruction and WomenReconstruction involved more than the meaning of emancipation. Women also sought to redefine their roles within the nation and in their local communities. The abolitionist and women’s rights movements simultaneously converged and began to clash. In the South, both black and white women struggled to make sense of a world of death and change. In Reconstruction, leading women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw an unprecedented opportunity for disenfranchised groups—women as well as African Americans, northern and southern—to seize political rights. Stanton formed the Women’s Loyal National League in 1863, which petitioned Congress for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment marked a victory not only for the antislavery cause, but also for the Loyal League, proving women’s political efficacy and the possibility for radical change. Now, as Congress debated the meanings of freedom, equality, and citizenship for former slaves, women’s rights leaders saw an opening to advance transformations in women’s status, too. On the tenth of May 1866, just one year after the war, the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention met in New York City to discuss what many agreed was an extraordinary moment, full of promise for fundamental social change. Elizabeth Cady Stanton presided over the meeting. Also in attendance were prominent abolitionists, with whom Stanton and other women’s rights leaders had joined forces in the years leading up to the war. Addressing this crowd of social reformers, Stanton captured the radical spirit of the hour: “now in the reconstruction,” she declared, “is the opportunity, perhaps for the century, to base our government on the broad principle of equal rights for all.”9 Stanton chose her universal language—“equal rights for all”—with intention, setting an agenda of universal suffrage for the activists. Thus, in 1866, the National Women’s Rights Convention officially merged with the American Antislavery Society to form the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). This union marked the culmination of the longstanding partnership between abolitionist and women’s rights advocates.
The AERA was split over whether black (male) suffrage should take precedence over universal suffrage given the political climate of the South. Some worried that political support for freedmen would be undermined by the pursuit of women’s suffrage. For example, AERA member Frederick Douglas insisted that the ballot was literally a “question of life and death” for southern black men, but not for women.10 Some African-American women challenged white suffragists in other ways; Frances Harper, for example, a free-born black woman living in Ohio, urged them to consider their own privilege as white and middle class. Universal suffrage, she argued, would not so clearly address the complex difficulties posed by racial, economic, and gender inequality.11
These divisions came to a head early in 1867, as the AERA organized a campaign in Kansas to determine the fate of black and woman suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her partner in the movement, Susan B. Anthony, made the journey to advocate universal suffrage. Yet they soon realized that their allies were distancing themselves from women’s suffrage in order to advance black enfranchisement. Disheartened, Stanton and Anthony allied instead with white supremacists that supported women’s equality. Many fellow activists were dismayed by Stanton and Anthony’s willingness to appeal to racism to advance their cause.
These tensions finally erupted over conflicting views of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Women’s rights leaders vigorously protested the Fourteenth Amendment. Although it established national citizenship for all persons born or naturalized in the United States, the amendment also introduced the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time. After the Fifteenth Amendment ignored “sex” as an unlawful barrier to suffrage, an omission that appalled Stanton, the AERA officially dissolved. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), while those suffragists who supported the Fifteenth Amendment, regardless of its limitations, founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).
The NWSA soon rallied around a new strategy: the ‘New Departure’. This new approach interpreted the Constitution as already guaranteeing women the right to vote. They argued that by nationalizing citizenship for all persons, and protecting all rights of citizens— including the right to vote—the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments guaranteed women’s suffrage. Broadcasting the New Departure, the NWSA encouraged women to register to vote, which roughly seven hundred did between 1868 and 1872. Susan B. Anthony was one of them and was arrested but then acquitted in trial. In 1875, the Supreme Court addressed this constitutional argument: acknowledging women’s citizenship, but arguing that suffrage was not a right guaranteed to all citizens. This ruling not only defeated the New Departure, but also coincided with the Court’s generally reactionary interpretation of the Reconstruction Amendments, which significantly limited freedmen’s rights. Following this defeat, many suffragists like Stanton increasingly replaced the ideal of ‘universal suffrage’ with arguments about the virtue that white women would bring to the polls. These new arguments often hinged on racism and declared the necessity of white women voters to keep black men in check.
Advocates for women’s suffrage were largely confined to the North, but southern women were experiencing social transformations as well. The lines between refined white womanhood and degraded enslaved black femaleness were no longer so clearly defined. Moreover, during the war, southern white women had been called upon to do traditional man’s work–chopping wood and managing businesses. While white southern women decided whether and how to return to their prior status, African American women embraced new freedoms and a redefinition of womanhood.
The Civil War showed white women, especially upper-class women, life without their husbands’ protection. Many did not like what they saw, especially in an uncertain future with the possibility of racial equality. Formerly wealthy women hoped to maintain their social status by rebuilding the prewar social hierarchy. Through the Ladies Memorial Association and other civic groups, southern women led the efforts to bury and memorialize the dead, praising and bolstering their men’s masculinity through nationalist speeches and memorials. The Ladies Memorial Association grew out of the Soldiers’ Aid Society and became the precursor and custodian of the Lost Cause narrative, which tried to rewrite the history of the antebellum South and the Confederacy in such a way that deemphasized the brutality of slavery. LMAs and their ceremonies created new holidays where white Southerners could reaffirm their allegiance to the Confederacy and express their opposition to black rights. For instance, some LMAs celebrated on May 10th, the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s death. Through these activities, southern women took on a more political role in the South.
Southern black women also sought to redefine their public and private lives. Their efforts to control their labor met the immediate opposition of southern white women. Gertrude Clanton, a plantation mistress before the war, disliked cooking and washing dishes, so she hired an African American woman to do the washing. A misunderstanding quickly developed. The laundress, nameless in Gertrude’s records, performed her job and returned home. Gertrude believed that her money had purchased a day’s labor, not just the load of washing, and she became quite frustrated. Meanwhile, this washerwoman and others like her set wages and hours for themselves, and in many cases began to take washing into their own homes in order to avoid the surveillance of white women and the sexual threat posed by white men.12
Similar conflicts raged across the South. White Southerners demanded that African American women work in the plantation home and instituted apprenticeship systems to place African American children in unpaid labor positions. African American women combated these attempts by refusing to work at jobs without fair pay or conditions, and by clinging tightly to their children.
Like white LMA members, African American women formed clubs to bury their dead, to celebrate African American masculinity, and to provide aid to their communities. On May 1, 1865, African Americans in Charleston created the precursor to the modern Memorial Day by mourning the Union dead buried hastily on a race track-turned prison.13 Like their white counterparts, the 300 African American women who participated had been members of the local Patriotic Association, which aided freedpeople during the war. African American women continued participating in Federal Decoration Day ceremonies and, later, formed their own club organizations. Racial violence, whether city riots or rural vigilantes, continued to threaten these vulnerable households. Nevertheless, the formation and preservation of the African American households became a paramount goal for African American women.
For all of their differences, white and black Southern women faced a similar challenge during Reconstruction. Southern women celebrated the return of their brothers, husbands, and sons, but couples separated for many years struggled to adjust. To make matters worse, many of these former soldiers returned with physical or mental wounds. For white families, suicide and divorce became more acceptable, while the opposite occurred for black families. Since the entire South suffered from economic devastation, many families were impoverished and sank into debt. Southern women struggled to rebuild stability on unstable ground. All Southern women faced economic devastation, lasting wartime trauma, and enduring racial tensions.
V. Racial Violence in Reconstruction
Violence shattered the dream of biracial democracy. Still steeped in the violence of slavery, white Southerners could scarcely imagine black free labor. Congressional investigator, Carl Schurz, reported that in the summer of 1865, Southerners shared a near unanimous sentiment that “You cannot make the negro work, without physical compulsion.”14 Violence had been used in the antebellum period to enforce slave labor and to define racial difference. In the post-emancipation period it was used to stifle black advancement and return to the old order.
Much of life in the antebellum South had been premised on slavery; the social order rested upon a subjugated underclass and the labor system required unfree laborers. A notion of white supremacy and black inferiority undergirded it all: whites were understood as fit for freedom and citizenship; blacks for chattel slave labor. The Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House and the subsequent adoption by the U.S. Congress of the Thirteenth Amendment destroyed the institution of American slavery and threw the southern society into disarray. The foundation of southern society had been shaken, but southern whites used black codes and racial terrorism to reassert control of former slaves.
Racial violence in the Reconstruction period took three major forms: riots against black political authority, interpersonal fights, and organized vigilante groups. There were riots in southern cities several times during Reconstruction. The most notable were the riots in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866, but other large-scale urban conflicts erupted in places including Laurens, South Carolina in 1870; Colfax, Louisiana in 1873; another in New Orleans in 1874; Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1875; and Hamburg, South Carolina in 1876. Southern cities grew rapidly after the war as migrants from the countryside—particularly freed slaves—flocked to urban centers. Cities became centers of Republican control. But white conservatives chafed at the influx of black residents and the establishment of biracial politics. In nearly every conflict, white conservatives initiated violence in reaction to Republican rallies or conventions or elections in which black men were to vote. The death tolls of these conflicts remain incalculable—and victims were overwhelmingly black.
Even everyday violence between individuals disproportionally targeted African Americans during Reconstruction. Though African Americans gained citizenship rights like the ability to serve on juries as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal constitution, southern white men were rarely successfully prosecuted for violence against black victims. White men beat or shot black men with relative impunity, and did so over minor squabbles, labor disputes, longstanding grudges, and crimes of passion. These incidents sometimes were reported to local federal authorities like the army or the Freedmen’s Bureau, but more often than not such violence was underreported and unprosecuted.
More premeditated was the violence committed by organized vigilante groups, sometimes called nightriders or bushwhackers. Groups of nightriders—called so because they often operated at night, under cover of darkness and wearing disguises—sought to curtail African American political involvement by harassing and killing black candidates and office holders and frightening voters away from the polls. They also aimed to limit black economic mobility by terrorizing freedpeople who tried to purchase land or otherwise become too independent from the white masters they used to rely on. They were terrorists and vigilantes, determined to stop the erosion of the antebellum South, and they were widespread and numerous, operating throughout the South. The Ku Klux Klan emerged in the late 1860s as the most infamous of these groups.
The Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee and had spread to nearly every state of the former Confederacy by 1868. The Klan drew heavily from the antebellum southern elite, but Klan groups sometimes overlapped with criminal gangs or former Confederate guerilla groups. The Klan’s reputation became so potent, and its violence so widespread, that many groups not formally associated with it were called Ku Kluxers, and to “Ku Klux” was used to mean to commit vigilante violence. While it is difficult to differentiate Klan actions from those of similar groups, such as the White Line, Knights of the White Camellia, and the White Brotherhood, the distinctions hardly matter. All such groups were part of a web of terror that spread throughout the South during Reconstruction. In Panola County, Mississippi, between August 1870 and December 1872, twenty-four Klan-style murders occurred. And nearby, in Lafayette County, Klansmen drowned thirty blacks in a single mass murder. Sometimes the violence was aimed at “uppity” blacks who had tried to buy land or dared to be insolent toward a white. Other times, as with the beating of Republican sheriff and tax collector Allen Huggins, the Klan targeted white politicians who supported freedpeople’s civil rights. Numerous, perhaps dozens, of Republican politicians were killed, either while in office or while campaigning. Thousands of individual citizens, men and women, white and black, had their homes raided and were whipped, raped, or murdered.
The federal government responded to southern paramilitary tactics by passing the Enforcement Acts between 1870 and 1871. The acts made it criminal to deprive African Americans of their civil rights. The acts also deemed violent Klan behavior as acts of rebellion against the United States and allowed for the use of U.S. troops to protect freedpeople. For a time, the federal government, its courts, and its troops, sought to put an end to the KKK and related groups. But the violence continued. By 1876, as southern Democrats reestablished “home rule” and “redeemed” the South from Republican rule, federal opposition to the KKK weakened. National attention shifted away from the South and the activities of the Klan, but African Americans remained trapped in a world of white supremacy that restricted their economic, social, and political rights.
White conservatives would assert that Republicans, in denouncing violence, were “waving a bloody shirt” for political opportunity. The violence, according to many white conservatives, was fabricated, or not as bad as it was claimed, or an unavoidable consequence of the enfranchisement of African Americans. On December 22, 1871, R. Latham of Yorkville, South Carolina wrote to the New York Tribune, voicing the beliefs of many white Southerners as he declared that “the same principle that prompted the white men at Boston, disguised as Indians, to board, during the darkness of night, a vessel with tea, and throw her cargo into the Bay, clothed some of our people in Ku Klux gowns, and sent them out on missions technically illegal. Did the Ku Klux do wrong? You are ready to say they did and we will not argue the point with you… Under the peculiar circumstances what could the people of South Carolina do but resort to Ku Kluxing?”15
Victims and witnesses to the violence told a different story. Sallie Adkins of Warren County, Georgia, was traveling with her husband, Joseph, a Georgia state senator, when he was assassinated by Klansmen on May 10, 1869. She wrote President Ulysses S. Grant, asking for both physical protection and justice. “I am no Statesman,” she disclaimed, “I am only a poor woman whose husband has been murdered for his devotion to his country. I may have very foolish ideas of Government, States & Constitutions. But I feel that I have claims upon my country. The Rebels imprisoned my Husband. Pardoned Rebels murdered him. There is no law for the punishment of them who do deeds of this sort… I demand that you, President Grant, keep the pledge you made the nation—make it safe for any man to utter boldly and openly his devotion to the United States.”16
The political and social consequences of the violence were as lasting as the physical and mental trauma suffered by victims and witnesses. Terrorism worked to end federal involvement in Reconstruction and helped to usher in a new era of racial repression.
African Americans actively sought ways to shed the vestiges of slavery. Many discarded the names their former masters had chosen for them and adopted new names like “Freeman” and “Lincoln” that affirmed their new identities as free citizens. Others resettled far from the plantations they had labored on as slaves, hoping to eventually farm their own land or run their own businesses. By the end of Reconstruction, the desire for self-definition, economic independence, and racial pride coalesced in the founding of dozens of black towns across the South. Perhaps the most well-known of these towns was Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a Delta town established in 1887 by Isaiah Montgomery and Ben Green, former slaves of Joseph and Jefferson Davis. Residents of the town took pride in the fact that African Americans owned all of the property in town, including banks, insurance companies, shops, and the surrounding farms, and they celebrated African American cultural and economic achievements during their annual festival, Mound Bayou Days. These tight-knit communities provided African Americans with spaces where they could live free from the indignities segregation and the exploitation of sharecropping on white-owned plantations.
VI. Economic Development during the Civil War and Reconstruction
The Civil War destroyed and the transformed the American economy. In 1859 and 1860, southern planters were flush with prosperity after producing record cotton crops–America’s most valuable export at the time. Southern prosperity relied on over 4 million African American slaves to grow cotton, along with a number of other staple crops across the region. Cotton fed the textile mills of America and Europe and brought great wealth to the region. On the eve of war, the American South enjoyed more per capita wealth than any other slave economy in the New World. To their masters, slaves constituted their most valuable assets, worth roughly three billon dollars. Yet this wealth obscured the gains in infrastructure, industrial production, and financial markets occurring north of the Mason-Dixon line, a fact that the war would unmask for all to see.
In contrast to the slave South, Northerners praised their region as a land of free labor, populated by farmers, merchants, and wage-laborers. It was also home to a robust market economy. By 1860, northerners could buy clothing made in a New England factory, or light their homes with kerosene oil from Pennsylvania. The Midwest produced seas of grain that fed the country, with enough left over for export to Europe. Farther west, mining and agriculture were the mainstays of life. Along with the textile mills, shoe factories and iron foundries, firms like the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, or the Colt Company displayed the technical advances of northern manufacturers. These goods crisscrossed the country on the North’s growing railroad network. Underlying production was an extensive network of banks and financial markets that helped aggregate capital that could be reinvested into further growth.
The Civil War, like all wars, interrupted the rhythms of commercial life by destroying lives and property. This was especially true in the Confederacy. From 1861 onwards, the Confederate government struggled to find the guns, food, and supplies needed to field an army. Southerners did make astonishing gains in industrial production during this time, but it was never enough. The Union’s blockade of the Atlantic prevented the Confederacy from financing the war with cotton sales to Europe. To pay their troops and keep the economy alive, the Confederate Congress turned to printing paper money–which quickly sank in value and led to rapid inflation. In many cases, Confederate officials dispensed with taxes paid in cash and simply impressed the food and materials needed from their citizens. Perhaps most striking of all, in the vast agricultural wealth of the South, many Southerners struggled to find enough to eat.
The war also pushed the US government to take unprecedented steps. Congress raised tariffs, and passed the first national income tax in 1862. After the suspension of specie payments in late 1861, Congress created the US’s first fiat currency called “greenbacks.” At first, the expansion of the currency and the rapid rise in government spending translated into an uptick in business in 1862-1863. As the war dragged on, inflation also hit the North. Workers demanded higher wages to pay rents and buy necessities, while the business community groaned under their growing tax burden. The United States, however, never embarked on a policy of impressment for food and supplies. The factories and farms of the North successfully supplied Union troops, while the federal government, with some adjustments, found the means to pay for war. None of this is to suggest that the North’s superior ability to supply its war machine made the outcome of the war inevitable. Any account of how the war progressed must take account of the tangled web of politics, battles, and economics that occurred between 1861 and 1865.The aftermath of the war left portions of the Confederacy in ruins, and with little or no money to rebuild. State governments were mired in debt, and white planters, who had most of their capital tied up in slaves, lost most of their wealth. Cotton remained the most significant crop, but the war changed how it was grown and sold. Planters broke up large farms into smaller plots tended to by single families in exchange for a portion of the crop, called sharecropping. Once cotton production resumed, Americans found that their cotton now competed with new cotton plantations around the world. For the South as a whole, the war and Reconstruction marked the start of a period of deep poverty that would last until at least the New Deal of the 1930s.Emancipation was the single most important economic, social and political outcome of the war. Freedom empowered African Americans in the South to rebuild families, make contracts, hold property and move freely for the first time. Republican’s in the South attempted to transform the region into a free-labor economy like the North. Yet the transition from slave labor to free labor was never so clear. Well into the 20th century, white Southerners used a combination of legal force and extra-legal violence to maintain systems of bound labor. Vagrancy laws enabled law enforcement to justify arrest of innocent black men and women, and the convict-lease system meant that even an arbitrary arrest could result in decades of forced, uncompensated labor. This new form of slavery continued until World War II.17
Re-enslavement was only the most extreme variety in an array of economic injustice. In the later nineteenth-century, poor whites would form mobs and go “white-capping” to scare away blacks from jobs. ((William Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 23.) Lacking the means to buy their own farms, black famers often turned to sharecropping. Sharecropping often led to cycles of debt that kept families bound to the land.
Victory did not translate into a quick economic boom for the United States. The North would not regain its prewar pace of industrial and commodity output until the 1870s. The war did prove beneficial to northern farmers, who responded to wartime labor shortages with greater use of mechanical reapers, which boosted yields.
Wartime laws also transformed the relationship between the federal government and the American economy. New tariff laws sheltered northern industry from European competition. The Morrill Land Grant helped create colleges such as the University of California, Illinois, and Wisconsin. With the creation of the National Banking System and the greenbacks, Congress replaced hundreds of state bank notes with a system of federal currency that accelerated trade and exchange between regions of the country. This was not to say that Republican policy worked perfectly. The Homestead Act, meant to open the West to small farmers was often frustrated by the actions of Railroad corporations and speculators. The Transcontinental Railroad, also created during the war, failed to produce any economic gains until decades after its creation.
The war years forged a close relationship between government and the business elite, a relationship that sometimes resulted in corruption and catastrophe, as it did when markets crashed on Black Friday September 24, 1869. This new relationship created a political backlash, especially in the West and South against Washington’s perceived eastern and industrial bias. Conflicts over emancipation and civil rights quickly gave way to long political conflict over the direction of American economic development.
VII. The End of Reconstruction
Reconstruction concluded when national attention turned away from the integration of former slaves as equal citizens enabling white Democrats to recapture southern politics. Between 1868 and 1877, and accelerating after the Depression of 1873, national interest in Reconstruction dwindled as economic issues moved to the foreground. The biggest threat to Republican power in the South was violence and intimidation by white conservatives, staved off by the presence of federal troops in key southern cities. But the United States never committed the manpower required to restore order, if such a task was even possible. Reconstruction finally ended with the contested Presidential election of 1876, which put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in office in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. But by 1876, the vast majority of federal troops had already left.
Republicans and Democrats responded to the economic declines by shifting attention from Reconstruction to economic recovery. War weary from nearly a decade of bloody military and political strife, so-called Stalwart Republicans turned from idealism, focusing their efforts on economics and party politics. They grew to particular influence during Ulysses S. Grant’s first term (1868-1872). After the death of Thaddeus Stevens in 1868 and the political alienation of Charles Sumner by 1870, Stalwart Republicans assumed primacy in Republican Party politics, putting Reconstruction on the defensive within the very party leading it.
Meanwhile, New Departure Democrats gained strength by distancing themselves from pro-slavery Democrats and Copperheads. They focused on business, economics, political corruption, and trade, instead of Reconstruction. In the South, New Departure Democrats were called Redeemers, and were initially opposed by Southerners who clung tightly to white supremacy and the Confederacy. But between 1869 and 1871, their home rule platform, asserting that good government was run by locals—meaning white Democrats, rather than black or white Republicans—helped end Reconstruction in three important states: Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia.
In September 1873, Jay Cooke and Company declared bankruptcy, resulting in a bank run that spiraled into a six-year depression. The Depression of 1873 destroyed the nation’s fledgling labor movement, and helped quell northerners remaining idealism about Reconstruction. In the South, many farms were capitalized entirely through loans. After 1873, most sources of credit vanished, forcing many landowners to default, driving them into an over-saturated labor market. Wages plummeted, contributing to the growing system of debt peonage in the South that trapped workers in endless cycles of poverty. The economic turmoil enabled the Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives after the 1874 elections.
On the eve of the 1876 Presidential election, the nation still reeling from depression, the Grant administration found itself no longer able to intervene in the South due to growing national hostility to interference in southern affairs. Scandalous corruption in the Grant Administration had sapped the national trust. By 1875, Democrats in Mississippi hatched the Mississippi Plan, a wave of violence designed to suppress black voters. The state’s Republican governor urged federal involvement, but national Republicans ignored the plea. Meanwhile, the Republican candidate for governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes, won big without mentioning Reconstruction, focusing instead on avoiding corruption, recovering the economy, and discouraging alcohol use. His success entered him into the running as a potential Presidential candidate. The stage was set for an election that would end Reconstruction as a national issue.
Republicans chose Rutherford B. Hayes as their nominee while Democrats chose Samuel J. Tilden, who ran on honest politics and home rule in the South. Allegations of voter fraud and intimidation emerged in the three states in which Reconstruction held strong and whose outcome would decide the result: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Indeed, those elections were fraught with violence and fraud because of the impunity with which white conservatives felt they could operate in their efforts to deter Republican voters. A special electoral commission voted along party lines—eight Republicans for, seven Democrats against—in favor of Hayes.
Democrats threatened to boycott Hayes’ inauguration. Rival governments arose claiming to recognize Tilden as the rightfully elected President. Republicans, fearing another sectional crisis, reached out to Democrats. In the Compromise of 1877 Democrats conceded the presidency to Hayes on the promise that all remaining troops would be removed from the South. In March 1877, Hayes was inaugurated; in April, the remaining troops were ordered out of the South. The Compromise allowed southern Democrats to return to power, no longer fearing reprisal from federal troops or northern politicians for their flagrant violence and intimidation of black voters.
After 1877, Republicans no longer had the political capital to intervene in the South in cases of violence and electoral fraud, resulting in fewer chances for freedpeople to hold state office. In certain locations with large populations of African Americans like South Carolina, freedpeople continued to hold some local offices for several years. Yet, with its most revolutionary aims thwarted by 1868, and economic depression and political turmoil taking even its most modest promises off the table by the early 1870s, most of the promises of Reconstruction were unmet.
|Military District||State||Readmission||Conservative Takeover|
|District 2||North Carolina||1868||1870|
Table. This table shows the military districts of the seceded states of the South, the date the state was readmitted into the Union, and the date when conservatives recaptured the state house.
Reconstruction in the United States achieved Abraham Lincoln’s paramount concern: the restoration of the Union. The war and its aftermath forever ended legal slavery in the United States, but African Americans remained second-class citizens and women still struggled for full participation in the public life of the United States. The closing of Reconstruction saw North and South reunited behind the imperatives economic growth and territorial expansion, if not the full rights of its citizens. From the ashes of civil war, a new nation was born, a nation rich with fresh possibilities but beset by old problems.
IX. Reference Material
This chapter was edited by Nicole Turner, with content contributions by Christopher Abernathy, Jeremiah Bauer, Michael T. Caires, Mari Crabtree, Chris Hayadisha-Knight, Krista Kinslow, Ashley Mays, Keith McCall, Ryan Poe, Bradley Proctor, Emma Teitelman, Nicole Turner, and Caitlin Verboon.
Recommended citation: Christopher Abernathy et al., “Reconstruction,” Nicole Turner, ed., in The American Yawp, Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, eds., last modified August 1, 2016, http://www.AmericanYawp.com.
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- Steven Hahn, et al. eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Series 3, Volume 1: Land and Labor, 1865 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 008), 442-444. [↩]
- Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (New York: 1900), 30. [↩]
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- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Perennial Books, 1988), 92. [↩]
- Proceedings of the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention, Held at the Church of the Puritans, New York, May 10, 1866 (New York: 1866). [↩]
- Frederick Douglass, “We Welcome the Fifteenth Amendment: Addresses Delivered in New York, on 12–13 May 1869,” The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One, Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 213-219. [↩]
- Faye E. Dudden, Fighting Chance: The Struggle Over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). [↩]
- Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848-1889, Virginia Ingraham Burr, ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 272-273. [↩]
- David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 65-71. [↩]
- Carl Schurz, Report on the Condition of the South, ed. Michael Burlingame (1865; rpt. New York: 1969), iii. [↩]
- “A Defense of the Ku Klux,” The Chester Reporter, January 11, 1872. [↩]
- Sallie Adkins to Ulysses S. Grant, May 20, 1869. Letters Received, Source Chronological File, Container #7, 1868-1870: President’s Letters, Folder: May-December 1869, Record Group 60, General Records of the Department of Justice, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. [↩]
- Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name. [↩]