At the end of the civil war in 1865, the government of the United States had to solve some delicate problems. How should the former confederate states be treated after their defeat? What should happen with the freedmen, the former slaves that were supposed to live as citizens now? Should the southern states be punished, should they reenter the Union and which conditions would they have to fulfill therefore? The way to manage these problems is known as “Reconstruction”. There were three main Reconstruction plans: Lincoln`s Presidential Reconstruction, Johnson`s Presidential Reconstruction and the Radical Reconstruction. A main different between these three plans were the terms the southern states would have to meet to reenter the Union. While Lincoln’s plan required only high ranked military leaders to request a presidential pardon, Johnsons plan also included rich southerners to those who had to ask for a pardon.
Nevertheless, the main goals of Johnson’s reconstruction plan were similar to those of Lincoln’s plan: forming a new society without slavery but with equal rights for all rights regardless of their race and developing the southern economy since the economic mainstay, the slaves were no longer supposed to be property of their slaveholders. To achieve these goals, African Americans would receive education. Many white southerners feared the thought that African Americans would ‘take over’ their country both through politics and violence. W. Gilmore Simms, a southern novelist who explained his fears to a friend in a letter even expected a ‘war of race’ in which freedmen would be ‘plundering & burning towns & villages’ (Simms, 1868) .
Because many white southerners thought in the way that Simms thought, they founded groups and organizations that started terrorizing African Americans and those who tried to support them. There were many reasons for white southerners to think and act this way. In my opinion the main reasons were fear and ignorance; fear of the huge changes and the unknown future and ignorance about African Americans.
Why were so many southerners opposed to Reconstruction?
Almost every time when radical or racist thoughts spread out, the reason for so many people believing and following this idea is dissatisfaction in combination with ignorance because if these two circumstances come together it is easy to make somebody the scapegoat. In case of the post-civil war era this scapegoat was the African Americans. Southerners had been educated in a way that clearly ranked African Americans in a lower class than white people and grew up in a world in which it was natural that there were citizens and slaves. They never learned to respect African Americans as human beings with feelings and intellectual abilities. The northern journalist John Richard Dennett summed up what he heard on his tour through the south: “it wasn’t in his [the Negros] nature ever to become fit to vote […]”
This statement was not only one southerner’s belief but the attitude of a nation. To defend this attitude they had gone to war, causing about a quarter million deaths (civilwarhome.com). The loss of fathers, brothers, sons or friends supported the hate against the Union but also the hate against the freedmen, who were seen as the cause of most of the problems that occurred after the civil war by many southerners. Another reason for white southerners to be opposed to Reconstruction was the fact that they were afraid of the new way politics and economy developed.
Many northern businessmen came to the south, hoping to be part of the economic rebirth. Northern politicians took control over numerous offices as southerners were not allowed to run for office in many places. The fear that freedmen could take over control in politics feared many white southerners as they never had to worry about anything like this before. The equality or even the possible ascendancy of African Americans was completely new for them.
How did white southerners resist Reconstruction plans for equality? To keep freedmen under control, southern leaders passed laws that kept the former slaves in a dependent position by having them sign unbreakable one year work contracts for example. These laws were called ‘Black Codes’ enforced by veterans or sheriffs. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, short KKK were founded by war veterans to terrorize and fight freedmen. As shown in an illustration published in Harpers Weekly (Getting out the Negro Vote, 1868) white southerners deny African Americans their right to vote by intimidating them. They put pressure on the freedmen not to vote or to vote in a way the veterans appreciate.
What is shown in this illustration was not an isolated case but happened all over the south. In addition to this, racist organizations committed crimes and violated teacher that taught at colored schools. The number of crimes of this type increased when military started leaving smaller places and colored schools had to remain without protection. Major General Philip H. Sheridan reports these matters to congress on October 31, 1866. He criticizes the bad finances of the school department and how four colored churches which were also used as school buildings were burned in New Orleans in just one month. He furthermore reports how teachers of colored schools are refused a home, which often forced these teachers to give up their schools. (Sheridan, 1866)
Colored schools were a main target of fires, vandalism and violence because they represented the goal to give education to African Americans, to make them able to vote and live in equality with whites. This was exactly what organizations like the KKK wanted to prevent. In fact a majority of white southern citizens shared this opinion, but not everybody was going the extreme way, committing crimes to support their opinion. But those who did commit crimes did this in a terrible intensity and brutality. A committee of African American citizens from Frankfort, Kentucky describes the activity of the Ku Klux Klan in a petition to Congress as an organization “riding nightly over the country going from County to County and […] spreading terror wherever they go, by robbing whipping ravishing and killing our people without provocation […]” (Petition to Congress, 1871)