The Reconstruction Challenge
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
Prospects of a New Freedom
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
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
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
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
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.