Reconstruction after the Civil War
1865 - 1877
Reconstruction was the period of time after the Civil War, beginning in 1865. There were three main philosophies during this time:
1) Reconciliation; singularly focused on reintegrating the two halves of the country after the
devastation of the Civil War,
2) White supremacy; intent on racial segregation and preservation of white political and
cultural domination in the South, and
3) Emancipation; full freedom, citizenship, voting rights, and equality for Black Americans.
Lincoln was intent on reconciliation, but also supported suffrage for all (male) Americans. He was assassinated in 1865, a few months after the passage of the 13th Amendment which officially outlawed slavery, and Vice President Andrew Johnson stepped up to the plate. To highlight one of the many absurdities in American politics, the arbitrary names of the political parties we have today were attached to very different platforms 150 years ago. Johnson was an enslaver from Tennessee and a conservative Democrat. Lincoln was a Republican. The Republican party was comprised of 4 million newly freed Black people (at least many of the men who could vote) and their white allies, Northern "carpetbaggers" and Southern "scalawags." The radical progressive Republicans in Congress wanted to improve the situation of the newly freed Black Americans with a series of laws, including the 14th Amendment, while President Johnson and the Democratic Party opposed true emancipation. Johnson's primary focus was the rapid reconciliation and reintegration of the Southern states, which he felt could best be accomplished by letting individual states retain the authority to determine and legislate what rights free Black Americans would have.
In learning about colonial and antebellum American history, we discussed in general terms various laws that limited freedom and movement, prevented education, assembly, and voting among free and enslaved Black people. Many laws of these laws, known as “slave codes,” were still in place in Southern states at the end of the Civil War. After the war, a new set of laws known as Black Codes were passed to replace them. The first set of Black Codes were implemented by the Union Army. Soldiers and militiamen could legally round up Black “vagrants” and bring them to plantations for contract work. The contracts were unbreakable one-year terms paying $10/month, meaning it was legal to force a Black person into indentured servitude. Nine Southern states had strict vagrancy laws, which defined not working an “acceptable” job and paying enough taxes as vagrancy and made them arrestable offenses. To prove their job was good enough, Black men had to complete and carry around annual labor contracts, and if they didn’t it was considered vagrancy and they were arrested. Eight of these vagrancy-strict states allowed prison inmates to be rented out for labor. Together these laws incentivized capturing Black men because they could be forced to work for free (sound familiar?).
Black Codes also restricted Black people’s right to own property, conduct business, buy and lease land, and move freely through public spaces. 21 states across the nation passing laws that forbade intermarriage or miscegenation between white and Black citizens.
A law passed in 1863 that allowed citizens in Georgia to arrest each other. This citizen's arrest still affects people today, as it was invoked in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020. Arbery was an unarmed 25 year-old Black man and out for a jog when a father and son team, Gregory and Travis McMichael, chased Arbery down and shot him. They stated they suspected Arbery of burglarizing homes in the neighborhood. Their lawyer argued that because of this suspicion the 1863 citizen's arrest law protected the pair and they should not be held accountable for Arbery's death. The judge agreed, and it took 74 days for the McMichaels to be arrested and charged with murder, and it was only then because a video of Arbery's death emerged.
In 1865, despite promises made by politicians and Union generals to give or sell Southern land to Black families, President Johnson issued an order that all occupied federal land be returned to its former owners. This meant the plantations were returned to the former enslavers, and Black families had little recourse but to work on them. For decades after the Civil War, most Southern Black families remained poor and landless.
The population of Memphis Tennessee exploded with both Black and Irish residents during the Civil War and Reconstruction period. The racial tension was compounded by having to scrap for limited land and resources. The Memphis Massacre of 1866 occurred when a white officer accidentally shot himself and blamed it on some Black Union soldiers who were partying nearby. After the soldiers settled down and dispersed, a white mob gathered and started attacking the town’s Black residents and burning their homes and businesses. Some people were killed by being forced to stay in their houses as they burned. In total, 46 Black people were killed, 75 were injured, 100 were robbed, and 5 Black women later testified in court about their rapes. 2 white people were also killed- one fatally injured himself and the other was apparently killed by the mob on accident. 91 homes, 4 churches, and 12 Black schools were burned.
The New Orleans Massacre of 1866 occurred at the end of a peaceful convention of the Republican Party. The convention was meant to discuss the inhumane and unconstitutional Black Codes, and was attended mostly by Black Freedmen. As the people were leaving the convention hall, they were attacked by conservative Democrats, mostly ex-Confederate soldiers. Survivors gave accounts of the soldiers stabbing and beating convention goers past the point of death, smashing the windows of the hall and emptying their revolvers into it. 34 of the 38 deaths were Black people, as were 119 of the 146 wounded.
The tragic massacres, Johnson's dickishness, and the general public reaction to the Black Codes galvanized voters for the election of 1866. The Republican Party gained a majority in Congress due to heavily engaged Northern voters. In 1867 this radically progressive, Northern-endorsed Congress decided to retry Reconstruction from scratch. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 divided the south into five districts and specifically dictated how their new state governments should be created. Every man, regardless of race, would be allowed to vote. This led to the reconstruction governments being largely run by Republicans. In every Southern state, Black Americans made up the overwhelming majority of Republican voters. Sixteen Black men served in Congress during the reconstruction period, over 600 were in state legislatures, and hundreds more served in local offices as sheriffs or judges. They established the South's first state-funded public school systems, passed laws to make taxation more equitable, and racial discrimination in public transit and hotels became illegal. Railroads were offered major economic incentives to expand in the South with the hope that economic expansion would follow, however these deals were quickly corrupted and caused tax spikes, alienating an increasing number of white voters.
In 1866, a group of Confederate veterans started a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee. The Greek word for "circle," kyklos, was combined with the alliterative klan, and the Ku Klux Klan was born. The organization was a response to Radical Reconstruction. The members sought restoration of white supremacy and used intimidation and violence to accomplish their goals. They dressed in robes and sheets designed to frighten their victims, and usually terrorized, tortured, and killed Black people and their white supporters under the cover of night. They targeted Republican leaders for assassination. The first grand wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest, tried to disband the group in 1869 due to its excessive violence. This group was largely responsible for reinstating white rule in Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina.
President Johnson was impeached in 1868 for illegally trying to kick out his Secretary of War, a Republican named Edwin Stanton. The Senate failed by one vote to remove him. However, he was already unpopular and combined with the impeachment, he lost the election of 1868 and Ulysses S. Grant became the next President.
The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. It is one of the most important and most litigated parts of the Constitution, being cited in the Supreme Court decisions of several major cases: Brown v. Board of Education (segregation), Roe v. Wade (abortion), Bush v. Gore (presidential election), and Obergefell v. Hodges (same-sex marriage). It contains five major clauses that include provisions for citizenship for all born *or naturalized* people living in the U.S., due process, and equal protection. The Equal Protection Clause was meant to be a response to Black Codes. As discussed, in some states they had laws that restricted Black Americans from suing or giving evidence in court. Under the 14th Amendment, no one could be deprived of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." It also nullified the 3/5 compromise and indicated representation should be based on counting whole persons.
The 15th Amendment was adopted in 1870. It guaranteed the right to vote to all (male) citizens regardless of race. It was not until the 1960s when these "sleeping giant" amendments would be fully awakened however, and over the next hundred years they would be repeatedly misinterpreted and legislated against.
By 1870, all of the former Confederate states had been readmitted to the Union. Congress passed the first Force Act in 1870, which allowed the federal government to penalize anyone who interfered with the registration, voting, or officeholding of Black men; created federal election supervisors; and allowed the President to use the military to arrest those who violated the law. Congress also passed the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871, which imposed heavy penalties on terrorist organizations and allowed suppression by military force. President Grant did not frequently use these powers, but he did place some federal soldiers in the Southern states. Although the Klan had largely dissolved by this time, in United States v. Harris the Supreme Court declared the Ku Klux Klan Act unconstitutional, paving the way for the group to reemerge in the 1920s.
During the 1870s, attitudes began to shift. Northern Republicans became more conservative and backed away from radical egalitarianism. A series of Supreme Court decisions, such as the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873, weakened the scope of Reconstruction laws and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. By 1876, the only Republican Southern states left were South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. The presidential election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden was hotly contested. Southern Democrats made a secret deal with Hayes, if he pulled federal troops from their states and stopped federal enforcement of laws protecting Black Americans, they would endorse his presidency. Hayes was inaugurated in 1877, and Reconstruction came to an end.
The system that arose in the South after Reconstruction was based on Black voter disenfranchisement, racial segregation, and legal violence to punish resisters.