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The Reconstruction Challenge

[Picture of a ruined city]

Reconstructing was one of the most daunting challenges ever faced by the American people. The Northern economy emerged from the war stronger than ever, poised for an unprecedented expansion. But the South was bankrupt and prostrate, its farms and factories in ruins.

As rebel soldiers headed home along dusty roads, they passed wagons filled with white refugees, old men, women, and children, returning, like the soldiers, to homes and towns ravaged by Yankee armies. When these victims of war arrived home they found things greatly changed.

Nineteen-year-old Hugh Moss, a veteran of the siege of Vicksburg, talked to neighbors in Lake Charles, Louisiana, who claimed to have been, in their words, "humiliated by Negroes" who would no longer take orders from them. The newly freed blacks, Moss wrote in his diary, were "putting themselves on an equality with whites." This, Moss said, made his "blood boil."

To make matters worse, tens of thousands of Confederate veterans returned home as cripples. In 1865, the State of Mississippi spent over one-fifth of its budget for artificial limbs for its veterans. This is how Reconstruction began for Southerners, in a climate of seething passions and deep-felt hatred of Yankees.

Prospects of a New Freedom

[Picture of freed slaves]

But for black people, Reconstruction began on high hopes. At first, freedom meant simply freedom of movement. Long restricted to the plantation or to limited travel with a pass, newly-freed slaves took to the road and traveled from place to place, testing their ability to move about or just searching for family members who had been sold off to other plantations.

Thousands of former slaves shed their slave names; and all over the South, there were mass marriage ceremonies. Even the smallest things mattered, like in Vicksburg, when for the first time dead black people were listed on burial records by their names, and not by the term "person, colored." As they rebuilt their families, newly freed slaves also created their own churches, the first social institutions in America fully controlled by black people. And they went to school.

Northern missionaries and philanthropists funded and staffed black schools and colleges. But to a large extent, it was blacks themselves who created, paid for, and ran their own schools. As Booker T. Washington marveled: "It was a whole race trying to go to school."

Ida B. Wells, who would later lead a national anti-lynching movement, recalled that her illiterate mother went to school with her in Holly Springs, Mississippi, wearing her best dress, so she could learn to read the Bible. Nothing angered white Southerners more than these black schools. As one Mississippi politician declared: "What the North is sending South is not money but dynamite; this education is ruining our Negroes. They're demanding equality."

[Picture of Sherman]

But to have equality, black people felt they must have access to land. The cry went up all over the South: "40 acres and a mule." This expression, ironically, had its origins in the surprising action of a Union general known for his racist views: William Tecumseh Sherman.

In his March to the Sea, Sherman had liberated thousands of Georgia slaves who followed his army; so many slaves, that Sherman feared they would disrupt his army's capacity to make war. So when Sherman reached Savannah, Georgia, he issued Field Order No. 15. It set aside the South Carolina Sea Islands and extensive rice-growing land to the south of Charleston, land abandoned by white planters, for the exclusive use of blacks.

Sherman considered this a temporary war measure. The 40,000 former slaves who settled on what became known as "Sherman's Lands" had different ideas. As one black man said, "I always kept master and me; I guess I can keep me."

This plan to redistribute confiscated land would have revolutionized the South. But within a year, the land was returned to its former owners. And the blacks that had begun to farm it were told to work for the original owners or be evicted.

Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction

This was part of a plan by Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson, to return all land confiscated by the Union Army during the war to its former Confederate owners. Johnson hoped to bring the South back into the Union on lenient terms, with white supremacy intact. But Johnson didn't speak for the entire government.

His reconstruction policies were vigorously opposed in Congress by a group of Republicans led by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Newspapers called them the Radical Republicans. Abolitionists before the war, they wanted to punish the South and provide legal protection, including the vote, for the freedmen.

Thaddeus Stevens was almost alone among them, however, in pushing for a policy of land confiscation and redistribution. Both a "landed aristocracy" and a "landless class" were, he said, dangerous to a democracy. Johnson, a Tennessean of humble background, had been put on the Lincoln ticket in 1864 to get support from pro-war Democrats. In 1861, he was the only Senator from a seceding state that had remained loyal to the Union.

A tailor by trade, Johnson had never gone to school. And like many of his most enthusiastic supporters, the poor whites of Tennessee, he hated the plantation aristocracy. This at first encouraged the Radical Republicans. But they soon learned that he hated blacks even more.

Johnson was willing to officially pardon Confederate leaders by the thousands in order to keep the South white man's country. In an official address to Congress, he declared that Negroes "have less capacity for government than any other race of people," and when left alone, had "a tendency to relapse into barbarism." That might be the most extreme statement ever to appear in an official paper by an American President.

At first, the Radicals had the country behind them and they won back control of Reconstruction from the President in 1866. Now, for a state to be readmitted to the Union, it had to accept the newly- ratified Fourteenth Amendment, which gave blacks the vote and citizenship rights. These rights would be further protected with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. Southern states were put under military rule until they accepted these terms.

When Johnson urged the Southern states to defy Congress, Thaddeus Stevens led a successful effort to impeach him. In March, 1868, Johnson was acquitted by one vote in a Senate trial; but he was a permanently damaged President. In 1868, the Republican Party turned to the most popular man in America, Ulysses Grant, and the great war hero was elected by a huge majority.

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