The Reconstruction Era ran from 1865 to 1877, and it was a period of political and social turbulence that had long-lasting implications for life in America. Questions about the nature of freedom, equality, and opportunity would be asked and answered in this era. A major question that would be asked was: what would be the fate of the African-Americans? What would be their status in this new America
Things in the post-war South were not so good. The Civil War left the South almost permanently changed; property values went through the floor, Confederate bonds were worthless, many railroads had been damaged or completely destroyed, and emancipation wiped out $4 billion that had been invested in slavery and uprooted the labor system. The crops suffered as well—cotton production didn’t amass to the 1860 record harvest until 1879; tobacco production didn’t reach its pre-war level until 1880; sugar production didn’t recover until 1893; and rice production has never recovered. That wasn’t all that the South endured—many people were left destitute and homeless, and families were broken with loss of sons and husbands.
In the South, the newly freed slave suffered; they weren’t slaves anymore, but they weren’t really considered citizens either. In March of 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to deal with the issues of food, clothing, and fuel—many Northerners believed the newly freed African-Americans needed those necessities of life before they needed citizenship. In May of that year, the Freedmen’s Bureau was created to help former slaves find work and better themselves. The Freedmen’ Bureau was sent to the South to negotiate labor contracts, provide medical care, distribute food, and set up schools. Radical prejudice in the South often threw off the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Share cropping became famous/infamous in the South—former slave owners would write contracts and hire back a portion of their former slaves to work on the land (planting, cultivating, and harvesting) and keep a portion of the crop, but if the African-Americans left or tried to quit, they voided the contract and lost everything; share cropping was a way for the planter elites to bring back slavery, as they were determined to continue to control the African-Americans.
Toward the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which stated the terms the South needed to complete to re-enter the Union and be forgiven for the war. The rebel states, at least 10% of each state’s population, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the Union, and must receive a presidential pardon; participants also had to swear support to the laws that dealt with emancipation. However there were many people that were excluded by the pardon: Confederate officers of the army and navy; government officials, judges, Congressmen, and military officers who left their posts to aid the rebellion; and those who failed to treat captured African-American soldiers and officers as proper prisoners of war.
Lincoln was trying to immediately restore the country. Most moderate Republicans supported Lincoln’s program; however, radical Republicans wanted a sweeping transformation of southern society—to dismantle the planter elite and the Democratic Party.
Not everyone was happy with the outcome of the war or the roll-out of Reconstruction. One man in particular took his anger out in a devastating way—by killing President Lincoln.
Lincoln died nine hours after he had been shot, and his Vice President Andrew Johnson had to finish Lincoln’s second term.
Andrew Johnson was an interesting guy. A pro-Union Democrat from Tennessee, he was put on the 1864 election ticket as a gesture of unity. Johnson was short tempered, bigoted, and an alcoholic, but he was loyal to the Union and was a strict Constitutionalist. Johnson’s plan to restore the Union was similar to that of Lincoln; he had an amnesty proclamation that not only had barred the same people that Lincoln did from pardon, but also barred everyone who had taxable property worth $20,000 or more…but those landowners could apply for pardon, and before1865 had ended Johnson pardoned 13,000 people. Johnson’s plan for readmitting the former Confederate states differed from Lincoln’s; the secession ordinances had to be abolished, and each state had to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, bringing an end to slavery.
African-Americans in the post-war South affected the course of Reconstruction. The Reconstruction Era didn’t diminish or even try to hide racial tensions; the Southern whites seemed to not understand that freedom for blacks meant the same freedom they themselves had experienced. The Civil War brought an end to slavery but it didn’t bring an end to the exploitation and abuse of black; whites often use terror, intimidation, and violence to suppress blacks as they were trying to carve out lives of social and economic equality.
In 1868 Ulysses S. Grant, the famed Union general of the Civil War, won the presidency. At this point in our nation’s history, Grant was the youngest to be elected president at 46-years-old. Taking office shortly after the war ended, and being so young, Grant was often blind to what was going on around him politically, instead relying on Congress to lead the way.