The conclusion of the Civil War did not end all of the issues that led up to it. In fact, it created more. How were the Confederate States to be treated? As conquered provinces? Forgiven prodigal sons? Or as traitors to the United States? The time period the South would now enter is known as Reconstruction. In many instances, the Civil War was a final blow to the industrial-agrarian conflict that for so long had divided North and South. Now the North, with its industrial might, had gained control of Congress and would no longer be at the mercy of the South. The South now had to rebuild its society to conform to the victorious Union’s demands. The Emancipation Proclamation had abolished slavery in the South and had freed over $4 billion worth of slaves. The South had to rebuild, but its railroads, its land, and its manpower had been severely decimated by the war. What money was still available was inadequate to meet the needs of the devastated South.
The Confederate Army was beaten, but in many areas the southern people were still unbowed. Many planters now found themselves destitute, as they were unable to manage their lands without their slaves. As the Union soldiers were dispatched to take control of the former Rebel provinces, they were viewed with hatred as the conquerors they were. Although they found themselves freed from slavery, very few northerners were willing to elevate the freedmen to the same status as whites. Many argued that land should be provided for them to work, but nothing came of this plan.
In order to help the freedmen adapt to their new lives, Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau, which aimed to provide them with the basic necessities as they adjusted.
In 1863, Lincoln issued his plan to return the Rebels to the Union. Once 10 percent of those who voted in 1860 took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution they would be allowed to return to the Union. This plan was viewed by Congress as being too lenient to the Rebels. When Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana met these guidelines, Congress refused to accept them, stating that Reconstruction was a legislative, not an executive, function. The Wade-Davis Bill, which called for even more stringent demands on the South, was vetoed by Lincoln. In retaliation, the Wade-Davis Manifesto was issued, which accused Lincoln of violating his constitutional authority.
Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a southerner sympathizer, on April 14, 1865. Other members of Lincoln’s cabinet were targeted, but all escaped without loss of life. Booth and the other conspirators were convicted and hanged.
Lincoln’s assassination changed the face of Reconstruction. His successor, Andrew Johnson, would not be strong enough to counteract the demands of the Radical Republicans in Congress. Johnson would continue with Lincoln’s plan to “restore” the southern states, in the belief that they had never left the Union. An addition to Lincoln’s plan made by Johnson was that every state must adopt the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, to regain its full rights. Once they were allowed to send representatives, the South returned many Confederates to Congress, angering the Republicans, who demanded reform-minded legislators. Many southern states had enacted black codes designed to limit African Americans in their new freedom.
The actions of the South following the Civil War would swell the ranks of the Radical Republicans, as moderates flocked to their camp. The battle over Reconstruction would consume all of 1865, and by the time it ended, the Radical Republicans found themselves in the majority in Congress, but fell short of the two-thirds vote necessary to override a presidential veto. Johnson would use the veto to kill an extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1866, stating that it violated the Constitution. In March of that year Congress would pass the Civil Rights Act, which would be vetoed as well. However, because of his actions, Johnson had alienated more Republicans, and his veto was overridden.
Added to the Constitution as a way to insure the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, the Fourteenth Amendment applied, for the first time, the same guarantees that citizens receive from the Bill of Rights as federal citizens, improving their status as state citizens as well.
Johnson received a devastating defeat in the 1866 midterm election for Congress as the Radical Republicans were returned with over a two-thirds majority. Congress would then embark on a new program designed to limit the power of the president and to exert control over Reconstruction. First, it declared that any state that had met previous guidelines to return to the Union was still in rebellion; second, it denied the power of the president to remove members of his cabinet; and third, it made Grant independent of Johnson. In order to return to the Union, states had to craft new constitutions, provide universal male suffrage, and adopt the Fourteenth Amendment, after which Congress would consider allowing them to return. Until then, all of the South would be divided into five military districts controlled by governors.
Johnson and his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, who had been appointed by Lincoln, did not get along. In 1867, Johnson removed Stanton from that position and tried to appoint Grant. The Radical Republicans impeached Johnson on the grounds that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act, which they had passed in 1866. He would be impeached but would fall short of being removed from office by one vote. Johnson would seek the Democrat nomination in 1868 for his own term as president but would not receive it, and Grant would win the election as a Republican. By the end of 1870, all of the former Confederate states had met the conditions for being readmitted, including ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave all men the right to vote.
The freedmen would not achieve equality now that they were no longer bound to their masters. In some ways, their situation was worse. The church became the center of freedmen society, as by 1890, over 13 African Americans in the South proclaimed themselves to be Baptist, due to that denomination’s decentralized structure. Marriage, which under slavery had been illegal, exploded, with the majority of former slave families living in a two-parent home by 1870. Communities would also work to establish schools to educate the freedmen. This effort would face pressure from the whites in the South, who feared that educating them would cause them to seek better social and economic opportunities elsewhere. The constitutional conventions demanded of the states by Congress were populated by several hundred freedmen. A power struggle between rural and urban freedmen would develop over issues pertaining to the redistribution of land. And many urban African American elites argued against the leveling of the social classes to allow the uneducated to be on par with the educated in society.
During Reconstruction, any person who had held a role in aiding the Confederacy was barred from holding a position in government. Therefore, those who held positions were of two categories, southerners who “betrayed” their roots and sided with the Union during the war, known as Scalawags, or northerners who immigrated to the South to take a position southerners could not hold, called Carpetbaggers. Many of the constitutions that were forced on the South during Reconstruction would remain after that era ended, and many of the provisions found therein would be adopted into new ones.
Religion played a large role in the failure of Reconstruction to level society and abolish racism. Many of the denominations prior to the Civil War had split into northern and southern factions, and after the war, they struggled to consolidate their members. For most freedmen, the Civil War was a gift from God, veritable proof that He cared for them and was looking after their best interests.
Although he had never held elected office before, Grant would be elected president of the United States in 1868, based mainly on his victory in the Civil War. He was the youngest president at the time and was often blind to the forces of politics once in office and was awestruck by the wealth of some of his supporters. Following the war, the United States had $432 million worth of greenbacks that were to be paid back with hard money. Once done, paper money would be abolished and a return to specie would occur. Democrats advocated printing more to pay the debt off. This was known as the “Ohio Idea.”
Grant’s administration would face a series of scandals, many due to the quality of the people he put in office. Scandals during this time included a plot to corner the gold market, the Crédit Mobilier scandal, and the Whiskey Ring. All of these would be traced back to either Grant’s family or workers close to him, damaging his presidency. Groups opposed to Reconstruction of the South and the elevation of freedmen would appear soon after the war ended. The most infamous of these groups was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacist group dedicated to wiping out those they viewed as dangerous to the South, be it freedmen, carpetbaggers, or scalawags. To counteract these groups, Congress would pass three Enforcement Acts designed to protect black voters.
The heavy-handedness of Radical Republicans and the scandals of the Grant administration had spawned the creation by 1872 of a new faction in the Republican Party, that of the Liberal Republicans. The Democrats would support the Liberal Republicans’ nominee, Horace Greely, for president in 1872. Grant would win the election. In the Deep South, the KKK would play an instrumental role in determining the outcome of elections. As events outside of the South drew the attention of northerners away from that area, the freedmen found themselves drifting away from their civil rights. Republican control of the former Confederacy dwindled as Democrats began to reclaim their offices and their governments.
The withdrawal of the greenbacks from circulation, the overextension of railway lines beyond profitable means, and the failure of Jay Cooke’s bank caused a loss of confidence in the economy and started a panic. The depression that followed lasted six years. The Republicans, being the party in power, took the blame for the depression, and in 1874, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. At the time, some greenbacks were still in circulation and were traded lower than gold, but when Grant demanded that greenbacks be redeemed for the same value in gold, parity shook the economy again and the depression continued. In 1876, the Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes for president and the Democrats nominated Samuel Tilden. When the electoral returns were announced, rival returns from the same state posed a quandary. Which to chose? Finally, Congress established an electoral commission to canvass the results and declared Hayes the winner. A secret deal with Democrats was later revealed in which they had agreed they would go along with Hayes as president if he withdrew every Federal soldier from the South.
Hayes would honor the Compromise of 1877 and remove all remaining Federal soldiers from the South. In these areas, the Republican governments that existed would soon fall.