Reconstruction after the Civil War

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Reconstruction after the Civil War

Black political activity during the Reconstruction after the Civil War came from the experience of after war slavery or what was called servitude. A strong sense of community grew out of shared racial oppression and contributed to the formation of a political stand for the black freedman. Even though this formation was important it really did not become very strong after the Civil War. Emancipation was confusing to most blacks and the wartime disorder didn’t help the uncertain situation. Freedmen moved very cautiously to explore what changes were happening in their lives.

They were more interested in individual measures to enhance their freedom and avoided becoming politically active. One of the freedmen’s first desires was to leave anything having to do with slavery behind. They wanted to define their new status different than the slavery they had known. What many blacks did first after becoming free was to leave the plantation that had enslaved them. Some looked for family and other headed for towns and cities, but most wanted to leave. Autonomy was a key issue that arose out of emancipation.

At first the freedmen hoped their needs would be met by the federal government. Inspired by wartime confiscation of planters land, and the promise of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the former slaves waited for their “forty acres and a mule”. The Freedmen’s Bureau was a temporary agency set up to aid the former slaves by providing relief, education, legal help, and assistance in gaining land or employment and came from the Reconstruction period. The problem of how to reconstruct the Union after the South’s military defeat was won of the most difficult challenges faced by American policymakers.

The Constitution didn’t provide any guidelines. The farmers had not anticipated a division of the country into warring sections. Emancipation was a major force for the Northern war aims, but the problem became larger when questions arose on how far the federal government should go to secure freedom and civil rights for former slaves. The debate that followed led to a major political crisis. Advocates of a minimal Reconstruction policy favored quick restoration of the Union with no protection for the freed slaves beyond the prohibition of slavery.

Proponents of a more radical policy wanted readmission of the southern states to be dependent on guarantees that loyal men would displace the Confederate higher ups in position of power and that blacks would gain some of the basic rights of American citizenship. The White House wanted the lesser approach and congress endorsed the more radical approach of Reconstruction (Divine, Breen, Fredrickson & Williams, 1987, p. 457). The tension between the President and Congress on how to reconstruct the Union began during the war.

Lincoln never had a plan for bringing the states back together, but he did take some initiatives that indicated a more lenient and forgiving policy towards Southerners who gave up the struggle and denounced slavery. Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in 1863 that offered a full pardon to all Southerners, except certain classes of Confederate leaders, who would take an oath of allegiance to the union and acknowledge the legality of emancipation (Fitzgerald, 1989, p. 11). This policy was meant to shorten the war.

The President hoped that granting pardon and political recognition to oath-taking minorities would weaken the southern cause by making it easy for disillusioned confederates to switch sides. But Congress was unhappy with the President’s reconstruction experiments and in 1864 refused to seat the Unionists elected to the House and Senate from Louisiana and Arkansas. A minority of congressional Republicans, who were strong anti-slavery radicals, wanted protection for black rights as a precondition for the readmission of the southern states.

These Republican militants were upset because Lincoln had not insisted that the constitution creators provide for black suffrage. The dominate view in Congress was that the southern states had definitely forfeited their place in the Union and that it was up to Congress to decide when and how they would be readmitted. Congress passed a Reconstruction bill of its own in 1864. The Wade-Davis bill which required that fifty percent of the voters must take an oath of future loyalty before the restoration process could begin (Divine Breen, Fredrickson & Williams, 1987 p.

452). Those who would swear that they had never willingly supported the Confederacy could vote in an election for delegates to a constitutional convention. The bill did not require black suffrage, but it did give federal courts the power to enforce emancipation, but Lincoln used a pocket veto and refused to sign. Congress and the President remained stalled on the Reconstruction issue for the rest of the war. But during the last months in office Lincoln showed some desire to compromise.

He showed much interest in getting the governments in Louisiana and Arkansas that he started, with the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in 1863, to gaining full recognition but Lincoln was warming up to the ideal of including black suffrage in all of this. Sadly Mr. Lincoln died before anyone knew the outcome of the struggle between congress and this man. Andrew Johnson’s attempt at reconstruction also put him on the defensive with Congress creating the most serious crisis in the history of relations between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

During the war Johnson endorsed Lincoln’s emancipation policy and carried it into effect. He viewed it primarily as a means of destroying the power of the planter class rather than as recognition of black humanity (Divine Breen, Fredrickson & Williams, 1987). Johnson’s presidency was a huge surprise and really wasn’t suppose to happen considering that he was a southern Democrat and a fervent white supremacist. But the root of the problem was that he disagreed with the majority of Congress on what Reconstruction was supposed to accomplish.

A believer of the Democratic states’ rights he wanted to restore the prewar feral system as quickly as possible, with the only changes being that states would no longer have the right to legalize slavery or to secede. Many Republican’s believed that if the old southern ruling class were to gain power they would devise a plan to subjugate blacks. Emancipation had removed the three-fifths clause of the constitution that counted slaves as only three-fifth of a person now they were to be counted in determining representation.

Congress favored a Reconstruction policy that would give the federal government authority to limit the role of ex-confederates and provide protection for black citizenship (Fitzgerald, 1989, p. 48). The disagreement between the President and Congress became irreconcilable in early 1866 when Johnson vetoed two bills that had passed with overwhelming Republican support (Fitzgerald, 1989, 81). The first was to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the second was a civil rights bill meant to nullify the black codes and guarantee to the freedmen full and equal benefit of all laws and security of self and property as the white had.

Johnson was successful at blocking the Freedmen’s bureau bill but later a modified version did pass. The Civil Rights Act won the two-thirds majority needed to override the president’s veto. The main fact was that recovery would not happen or even begin until a new labor system replaced slavery. It was widely assumed in both the North and South that southern prosperity would continue to depend on cotton and that the plantation was the most efficient way for producing the crop.

But rebuilding the plantation economy was hindered by lack of capital, the belief of southern whites that blacks would work only if forced, and by the freedmen’s resistance to labor conditions that were still basically slavery (Divine, Breen, Fitzgerald & Williams, 1987). Blacks wanted to be small independent farmers rather than plantation laborers and they believed that the federal government would help them to attain their dreams.

General Sherman, who had huge numbers of black fugitives follow his army on a famous march, issued an order in 1865 that set aside the islands and coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina for only black occupancy on forty acre plots. The Freedmen’s Bureau was given control of hundreds of thousands of acres of abandoned or confiscated land and authorized to make forty acre grants to black settlers for a three year period. After that they would have the option to buy at low prices. Over forty thousand black farmers worked on three hundred thousand acres of land they thought were going to be theirs (Berlin, 1976, p.

141). But the dream of forty acres and a mule the government promised was not going to happen. President Johnson pardoned the owners of most of the land assigned to the ex-slaves by Sherman and the Freedmen’s Bureau and along with the failure of congress to propose an effective program of land confiscation and redistribution the land blacks could not gain title to the land they had been working. The ex-slaves even without land and in poverty still were reluctant to settle down and commit their selves to wage labor for their former masters.

They were hoping for something better and some still expecting grants of land while others were just trying to increase their bargaining power. The most common form of agricultural employment in 1866 was contract labor. Under this system workers would commit themselves for a year in return for fixed wages that the bulk of would be paid after harvest. Many planters were inclined to make hard bargains, abuse their workers or cheat them at the end of the year. The Freedmen’s Bureau took the role of reviewing the contracts and enforcing them.

Buy the bureau officials had differing notions of what it meant to protect blacks from exploitation. Some stood up strongly for the rights of the freedmen; others served as allies of the planters, rounding up available workers, coercing them to sign contracts for low wages, and keeping them in line (Fitzgerald, 1989, p. 138). After 1867 the bureau’s influence was fading and a new arrangement come from direct negotiations between planters and freedmen. Unhappy with gang labor and constant white supervision, blacks demanded sharecropper’s status.

This meant that they wanted the right to work a small piece of land independently in return for a fixed share of the crop produced on it and that was usually half. With the shortage of labor this gave the freedmen enough leverage to force this arrangement on those planters who were unwilling. But many landowners found it to their advantage because it did not require much capital and forced the tenants to share the risks of crop failure or a fall in cotton prices. Blacks at first viewed sharecropping as a step up from wage labor and a direction towards land ownership, but in reality it was just a new kind of slavery (Fitzgerald, 1989, p.

140). Croppers had to live on credit until their cotton was sold, and planters or merchants seized the chance to give them at high prices and huge rates of interest. Creditors were entitled to deduct what was owned to them out of the tenant’s share of the crop and this left most sharecroppers with no net profit at the end of the year, some with debt that had to be worked off the next year (Fitzgerald, 1989, p. 141). Blacks moving to cities and towns found themselves living in an increasingly segregated society.

The Black Codes of 1865 attempted to require separation of the races in public places but most of the codes were set aside by federal authorities as violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, but that was defeated by private initiatives and community pressures. In some cities blacks successfully resisted forced separation on streetcars by appealing to the military during the brief period when it exercised authority or by organizing boycotts. But they found it almost impossible to gain admittance to most hotels, restaurants, and other privately owned establishments that catered to whites.

When black supported Republican governments came to power in 1868, some of them passed civil rights acts requiring equal access to public facilities, but little efforts were made to enforce the legislation (Berlin, 1976, p. 249). Some forms of racial separation were not openly discriminatory and blacks accepted or even endorsed them. Freedmen who had belonged to white churches as slaves welcomed the chance to join all black denominations which gave freedom from white dominance and a more congenial style of worship.

The first schools for ex-slaves were all black institutions established by the Freedmen’s Bureau and various northern missionary societies (Berlin, 1976, p. 285). Blacks had been denied any education at all after the war and blacks viewed separate schooling as an opportunity rather than as a form of discrimination. The Freedmen’s Bureau was a government agency that was to give assistance and protection to the Southern ex-slave after the Civil war. It gave assistance to the relief of the needy of both white and black. Its main job was to improve labor relations, administering justice and developing a black educational system.

The Bureau influence though suffered in the North and was mortally damaged in the South by corruption, especially those that were connected with promising Republican control of the black vote. These excesses strengthened resistance to black suffrage and encouraged secret organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (Sehat, 2007). The bureau was established under the War Department and was suppose to exist for one year after the war. It was strengthened and its life extended in 1866 when Johnson attempted to veto. Its Director was a Christian general by the name of Oliver O.

Howard and functioned through ten districts. Each had an assistant commissioner with the power to control all individuals that were refugees and freedmen. The Freedmen’s Bureau became the strongest single instrument of Reconstruction. Even though it was ended in 1869 its educational activities were extended to 1872 and its soldiers’ bounty payments till 1872 and had an expenditure of about $20,000,000 (Divine Breen Fredrickson & Williams, 1987). Reconstruction failed because it was inadequately motivated, conceived and enforced.

But the causes of this failure remain in shadow. Some explain it in terms of an underlying racism that prevented white Republicans from identifying fully with the cause of the black equality. Others use the clash between the class interests of those in charge of implementing and managing Reconstruction and the poor people of the South who were supposed to benefit. But the basic issue raised by Reconstruction was how to achieve racial equality in America and that was not resolved during that era and is still in conflict even today.


Berlin, I. (1976). Slaves without masters. New York: Vintage Books Divine, R. A. , Breen, T. H. , Fredrickson, G. M. and Williams, R. H. (1987). America past and present, 2nd. Ed. Illinois: Scott , Foresman and Company. Fitzgerald, M. W. (1989). The union league movement in the deep south. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Gibson, G. J. (1957). Lincoln’s League: The league movement during the Civil War. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Illinois. Sehat, D. ( 2007, May). The civilizing mission of Booker T. Washington. Journal of Southern History, 73(2), 323-362.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 2 December 2016

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