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Reconstruction (1865-1877), the turbulent era following the Civil War, was the effort to reintegrate Southern states from the Confederacy and 4 million newly-freed people into the United States. Under the administration of President Andrew Johnson in 1865 and 1866, new southern state legislatures passed restrictive “Black Codes” to control the labor and behavior of former enslaved people and other African Americans. Outrage in the North over these codes eroded support for the approach known as Presidential Reconstruction and led to the triumph of the more radical wing of the Republican Party. During Radical Reconstruction, which began with the passage of the Reconstruction Act of 1867, newly enfranchised Black people gained a voice in government for the first time in American history, winning election to southern state legislatures and even to the U.S. Congress. In less than a decade, however, reactionary forces—including the Ku Klux Klan—would reverse the changes wrought by Radical Reconstruction in a violent backlash that restored white supremacy in the South.
Emancipation and Reconstruction
At the outset of the Civil War, to the dismay of the more radical abolitionists in the North, President Abraham Lincoln did not make abolition of slavery a goal of the Union war effort. To do so, he feared, would drive the border slave states still loyal to the Union into the Confederacy and anger more conservative northerners. By the summer of 1862, however, enslaved people, themselves had pushed the issue, heading by the thousands to the Union lines as Lincoln’s troops marched through the South.
Their actions debunked one of the strongest myths underlying Southern devotion to the “peculiar institution”—that many enslaved people were truly content in bondage—and convinced Lincoln that emancipation had become a political and military necessity. In response to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed more than 3 million enslaved people in the Confederate states by January 1, 1863, Black people enlisted in the Union Army in large numbers, reaching some 180,000 by war’s end.
Emancipation changed the stakes of the Civil War, ensuring that a Union victory would mean large-scale social revolution in the South. It was still very unclear, however, what form this revolution would take. Over the next several years, Lincoln considered ideas about how to welcome the devastated South back into the Union, but as the war drew to a close in early 1865, he still had no clear plan. In a speech delivered on April 11, while referring to plans for Reconstruction in Louisiana, Lincoln proposed that some Black people–including free Black people and those who had enlisted in the military–deserved the right to vote. He was assassinated three days later, however, and it would fall to his successor to put plans for Reconstruction in place.
READ MORE: How the Black Codes Limited African American Progress After the Civil War
Andrew Johnson and Presidential Reconstruction
At the end of May 1865, President Andrew Johnson announced his plans for Reconstruction, which reflected both his staunch Unionism and his firm belief in states’ rights. In Johnson’s view, the southern states had never given up their right to govern themselves, and the federal government had no right to determine voting requirements or other questions at the state level. Under Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction, all land that had been confiscated by the Union Army and distributed to the formerly enslaved people by the army or the Freedmen’s Bureau (established by Congress in 1865) reverted to its prewar owners. Apart from being required to uphold the abolition of slavery (in compliance with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution), swear loyalty to the Union and pay off war debt, southern state governments were given free rein to rebuild themselves.
As a result of Johnson’s leniency, many southern states in 1865 and 1866 successfully enacted a series of laws known as the “black codes,” which were designed to restrict freed Black peoples’ activity and ensure their availability as a labor force. These repressive codes enraged many in the North, including numerous members of Congress, which refused to seat congressmen and senators elected from the southern states.
In early 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights Bills and sent them to Johnson for his signature. The first bill extended the life of the bureau, originally established as a temporary organization charged with assisting refugees and formerly enslaved people, while the second defined all persons born in the United States as national citizens who were to enjoy equality before the law. After Johnson vetoed the bills–causing a permanent rupture in his relationship with Congress that would culminate in his impeachment in 1868–the Civil Rights Act became the first major bill to become law over presidential veto.
After northern voters rejected Johnson’s policies in the congressional elections in late 1866, Radical Republicans in Congress took firm hold of Reconstruction in the South. The following March, again over Johnson’s veto, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which temporarily divided the South into five military districts and outlined how governments based on universal (male) suffrage were to be organized. The law also required southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment, which broadened the definition of citizenship, granting “equal protection” of the Constitution to formerly enslaved people, before they could rejoin the Union. In February 1869, Congress approved the 15th Amendment (adopted in 1870), which guaranteed that a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
READ MORE: When Did African Americans Get the Right to Vote?
By 1870, all of the former Confederate states had been admitted to the Union, and the state constitutions during the years of Radical Reconstruction were the most progressive in the region’s history. The participation of African Americans in southern public life after 1867 would be by far the most radical development of Reconstruction, which was essentially a large-scale experiment in interracial democracy unlike that of any other society following the abolition of slavery.
Southern Black people won election to southern state governments and even to the U.S. Congress during this period. Among the other achievements of Reconstruction were the South’s first state-funded public school systems, more equitable taxation legislation, laws against racial discrimination in public transport and accommodations and ambitious economic development programs (including aid to railroads and other enterprises).
READ MORE: The First Black Man Elected to Congress Was Nearly Blocked From Taking His Seat
Reconstruction Comes to an End
After 1867, an increasing number of southern whites turned to violence in response to the revolutionary changes of Radical Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations targeted local Republican leaders, white and Black, and other African Americans who challenged white authority. Though federal legislation passed during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1871 took aim at the Klan and others who attempted to interfere with Black suffrage and other political rights, white supremacy gradually reasserted its hold on the South after the early 1870s as support for Reconstruction waned.
Racism was still a potent force in both South and North, and Republicans became more conservative and less egalitarian as the decade continued. In 1874—after an economic depression plunged much of the South into poverty—the Democratic Party won control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War.
READ MORE: How the 1876 Election Effectively Ended Reconstruction
When Democrats waged a campaign of violence to take control of Mississippi in 1875, Grant refused to send federal troops, marking the end of federal support for Reconstruction-era state governments in the South. By 1876, only Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were still in Republican hands. In the contested presidential election that year, Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes reached a compromise with Democrats in Congress: In exchange for certification of his election, he acknowledged Democratic control of the entire South.
The Compromise of 1876 marked the end of Reconstruction as a distinct period, but the struggle to deal with the revolution ushered in by slavery’s eradication would continue in the South and elsewhere long after that date. A century later, the legacy of Reconstruction would be revived during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as African Americans fought for the political, economic and social equality that had long been denied them.
READ MORE: Black History Milestones: A Timeline
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Reconstruction, in U.S. history, the period (1865–77) that followed the American Civil War and during which attempts were made to redress the inequities of slavery and its political, social, and economic legacy and to solve the problems arising from the readmission to the Union of the 11 states that had seceded at or before the outbreak of war. Long portrayed by many historians as a time when vindictive Radical Republicans fastened Black supremacy upon the defeated Confederacy, Reconstruction has since the late 20th century been viewed more sympathetically as a laudable experiment in interracial democracy. Reconstruction witnessed far-reaching changes in America’s political life. At the national level, new laws and constitutional amendments permanently altered the federal system and the definition of American citizenship. In the South, a politically mobilized Black community joined with white allies to bring the Republican Party to power, and with it a redefinition of the responsibilities of government.
What was the Reconstruction era?
The Reconstruction era was the period after the American Civil War from 1865 to 1877, during which the United States grappled with the challenges of reintegrating into the Union the states that had seceded and determining the legal status of African Americans. Presidential Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1867, required little of the former Confederate states and leaders. Radical Reconstruction attempted to give African Americans full equality.
Why was the Reconstruction era important?
The Reconstruction era redefined U.S. citizenship and expanded the franchise, changed the relationship between the federal government and the governments of the states, and highlighted the differences between political and economic democracy.
What were the Reconstruction era promises?
While U.S. Pres. Andrew Johnson attempted to return the Southern states to essentially the condition they were in before the American Civil War, Republicans in Congress passed laws and amendments that affirmed the “equality of all men before the law” and prohibited racial discrimination, that made African Americans full U.S. citizens, and that forbade laws to prevent African Americans from voting.
Was the Reconstruction era a success or a failure?
During a brief period in the Reconstruction era, African Americans voted in large numbers and held public office at almost every level, including in both houses of Congress. However, this provoked a violent backlash from whites who did not want to relinquish supremacy. The backlash succeeded, and the promises of Reconstruction were mostly unfulfilled. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were unenforced but remained on the books, forming the basis of the mid-20th-century civil rights movement.
Reconstruction and Rights
When the Civil War ended, leaders turned to the question of how to reconstruct the nation. One important issue was the right to vote, and the rights of black American men and former Confederate men to vote were hotly debated.
In the latter half of the 1860s, Congress passed a series of acts designed to address the question of rights, as well as how the Southern states would be governed. These acts included the act creating the Freedmen's Bureau, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and several Reconstruction Acts. The Reconstruction Acts established military rule over Southern states until new governments could be formed. They also limited some former Confederate officials' and military officers' rights to vote and to run for public office. (However, the latter provisions were only temporary and soon rescinded for almost all of those affected by them.) Meanwhile, the Reconstruction acts gave former male slaves the right to vote and hold public office.
Congress also passed two amendments to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment made African-Americans citizens and protected citizens from discriminatory state laws. Southern states were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before being readmitted to the union. The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed African American men the right to vote.
Taking office in April 1865, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson ushered in a two-year-long period known as Presidential Reconstruction. Johnson’s plan for restoring the splintered Union pardoned all Southern White persons except Confederate leaders and wealthy plantation owners and restored all of their constitutional rights and property except enslaved persons.
To be accepted back into the Union, the former Confederate states were required to abolish the practice of slavery, renounce their secession, and compensate the federal government for its Civil War expenses. Once these conditions were met, however, the newly restored Southern states were allowed to manage their governments and legislative affairs. Given this opportunity, the Southern states responded by enacting a series of racially discriminatory laws known as the Black Codes.
Enacted during 1865 and 1866, the Black Codes were laws intended to restrict the freedom of Black Americans in the South and ensure their continued availability as a cheap labor force even after the abolishment of slavery during the Civil War.
All Black persons living in the states that enacted Black Code laws were required to sign yearly labor contracts. Those who refused or were otherwise unable to do so could be arrested, fined, and if unable to pay their fines and private debts, forced to perform unpaid labor. Many Black children—especially those without parental support—were arrested and forced into unpaid labor for white planters.
The restrictive nature and ruthless enforcement of the Black Codes drew the outrage and resistance of Black Americans and seriously reduced Northern support for President Johnson and the Republican Party. Perhaps more significant to the eventual outcome of Reconstruction, the Black Codes gave the more radical arm of the Republican Party renewed influence in Congress.
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Constitution of the National Woman Suffrage Association
Despite the Fifteenth Amendment’s failure to guarantee female suffrage, women did gain the right to vote in western territories, with the Wyoming Territory leading the way in 1869. One reason for this was a belief that giving women the right to vote would provide a moral compass to the otherwise lawless western frontier. Extending the right to vote in western territories also provided an incentive for white women to emigrate to the West, where they were scarce. However, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others believed that immediate action on the national front was required, leading to the organization of the NWSA and its resulting constitution.
ARTICLE 1.—This organization shall be called the National Woman Suffrage Association.
ARTICLE 2.—The object of this Association shall be to secure STATE and NATIONAL protection for women citizens in the exercise of their right to vote.
ARTICLE 3.—All citizens of the United States subscribing to this Constitution, and contributing not less than one dollar annually, shall be considered members of the Association, with the right to participate in its deliberations.
ARTICLE 4.—The officers of this Association shall be a President, Vice-Presidents from each of the States and Territories, Corresponding and Recording Secretaries, a Treasurer, an Executive Committee of not less than five, and an Advisory Committee consisting of one or more persons from each State and Territory.
ARTICLE 5.—All Woman Suffrage Societies throughout the country shall be welcomed as auxiliaries and their accredited officers or duly appointed representatives shall be recognized as members of the National Association.OFFICERS OF THE NATIONAL WOMAN SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION.
SUSAN B. ANTHONY, Rochester, N. Y.
How was the NWSA organized? How would the fact that it operated at the national level, rather than at the state or local level, help it to achieve its goals?
It was in this atmosphere that the Radical Republicans began to exert their power and to limit that of President Johnson. When Congress passed the law extending the Freedmen’s Bureau, Johnson vetoed it. Congress overrode his veto, thus asserting the Radicals’ agenda. In response to the institution of black codes across the South, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended citizenship to the freedmen and women and guaranteed their rights as citizens of the United States. It disqualified any state that denied the right to vote to former slaves from re-admittance into the Union. The amendment also stated that anyone who had previously sworn to support the U. S. Constitution, but then supported the Confederacy, would not be allowed to hold public office. Such a provision, in effect, removed the pre-war political leadership of the southern states from further or future political positions.
The ratification or rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment became the central issue of the state election campaign of 1866. Governor Worth, who opposed the ratification of the amendment, lobbied the legislature to reject it. His main argument alleged the amendment was unfair to former southern leaders and was perhaps illegal, as representatives from North Carolina were not seated in Congress when Congress drafted the amendment. Former governor Holden supported ratification and, in general, the Radical plan for reconstruction. In the 1866 gubernatorial race, Holden and his followers nominated Alfred Dockery for governor against Worth. Worth won easily and those opposed to ratification held the majority in the legislature. Thus, North Carolina rejected the Fourteenth Amendment, which set the state on a long, harsh road to reunion.
Civil War through Reconstruction, 1861 through 1874
In the last years of the 1850s, Arkansas enjoyed an economic boom that was unparalleled in its history. But in the years between 1861 and 1865, the bloody and destructive Civil War destroyed that prosperity. The conflict brought death and destruction to the state on a scale that few could have imagined, and the war and the tumultuous Reconstruction era that followed it left a legacy of bitterness that the passage of many years did little to assuage.
Prelude to War
In the 1850s, Arkansas was a frontier state. Most Arkansans, especially those who lived in the highlands of the north and west, were farmers engaged in subsistence agriculture on small parcels of land. In the fertile lands along the rivers of the state’s southern and eastern lowlands, however, a slave-based, plantation-style system of agriculture had developed. Cotton was the driving force behind the transformation from subsistence to plantation agriculture in this region. By 1850, Arkansas produced more than twenty-six million pounds of cotton, the majority of it in the Delta, and the expansion of cotton production seemed certain to continue throughout the next decade.
The growth of slavery in the state was directly linked to this expansion. By 1860, Arkansas was home to more than 110,000 slaves, and one in five white citizens was a slave owner. The majority of these held only a few slaves. Only twelve percent owned twenty or more slaves, the benchmark of “planter” status. But this small group of slave owners, most of whom lived in the southern and eastern lowlands, possessed a disproportionate share of the state’s wealth and political power.
Spurred by the rising price of cotton, the state prospered in the 1850s. Every region of Arkansas benefited from this economic upsurge, but the economic gains in the plantation regions of the southern and eastern lowlands exceeded those in areas where there were few slaves. Throughout the 1850s, the social, economic, and political dissonance between the highlands and the lowlands increased. This dissonance was muted to some extent by the continuing political dominance of the state’s Democratic Party machine known as “The Family.” Many of these political leaders were strong, outspoken supporters of “Southern rights,” but the majority of Arkansans were not. While the majority supported slavery, most Arkansans remained loyal to the Union and continued to hope for a peaceful solution to the slavery question. As the rest of the nation became increasingly polarized over slavery in the 1850s, Arkansans seemed more concerned with the affairs of daily life.
The election of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, on a platform committed to halting the expansion of slavery, set in motion events that eventually drew Arkansas into the national crisis. Between December 20, 1860, and February 1, 1861, seven Deep South states passed ordinances of secession, declaring that they had severed their bonds with the United States. In February, they formed the Confederate States of America (CSA).
In Arkansas, the reaction to President Lincoln’s election was generally mild, but the state’s voters did vote to hold a convention in March 1861 to consider secession. Despite intense pressure from secessionist elements, including state officials and representatives from the seceded states, a bare majority of the delegates rebuffed every attempt to pass a secession ordinance. The delegates did agree to hold a statewide referendum on the issue on the first Monday in August.
Despite the heated words and animosities that characterized the Secession Convention, many Unionists and secessionists were largely in agreement on one major issue—any attempt to coerce the seceded states back into the Union would be legitimate grounds for Arkansas to secede. Such an action, the delegates declared, would be “resisted by Arkansas to the last extremity.” This was the Achilles heel of the Unionist position, and it put them at the mercy of events over which they had no control. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces in Charleston, South Carolina, opened fire on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Three days later, President Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion, including 780 men from Arkansas. Arkansas was now forced to choose sides. The Secession Convention reassembled in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on May 6, and the delegates voted overwhelmingly (the final vote was 69–1) for secession. At 4:00 p.m. on May 6, 1861, Arkansas declared that it had severed its bond with the United States.
The War in 1861 and 1862
The majority of Arkansans initially supported the decision to secede, but a significant minority opposed the move from the beginning. The most serious challenge to the authority of the new Confederate state government arose in the mountainous regions of the north-central part of the state, where area residents formed a clandestine organization known as the Arkansas Peace Society. Local militias eventually broke up the society, but resistance to Confederate authority continued throughout the course of the war. Despite having the third smallest white population of any Confederate state, Arkansas supplied more troops for the Union army than any other Confederate state except Tennessee.
Outside the northern and northwestern regions of the state, many Arkansans greeted secession with enthusiasm. Historian James Willis has written that no other state had a larger proportion of military-age men fighting for the Confederacy than Arkansas. Many of the young men who rushed to enlist were immediately inducted into the regular Confederate army and sent east of the Mississippi River. Others remained to serve in the state forces.
The state remained free of fighting in 1861, but in February 1862, a Union army of 12,000 men led by Brigadier General Samuel Curtis chased a Confederate army out of southwest Missouri and across the border into Arkansas. The Union army went into camp near Bentonville (Benton County). In early March, Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn moved north with a well-equipped army of 16,000 men, determined to drive the Federal troops back into Missouri or destroy them. Van Dorn succeeded in getting a part of his army behind Yankees, but his force was strung out for miles, and his men were exhausted from the long march in inclement weather. Curtis was initially caught by surprise, but he quickly regrouped and went on the attack. For two days (March 7 and 8), the armies clashed near a broad plateau called Pea Ridge. By the end of the fighting on the second day, the Union army had scored a decisive victory. Following the battle, Van Dorn moved what remained of his army—along with all available animals, equipment, arms, and ammunition—east of the Mississippi River, leaving Arkansas virtually defenseless.
By May, a Union army moving south from Missouri was threatening Little Rock, and an alarmed Governor Henry Massie Rector hurriedly packed up the state archives and fled to Hot Springs (Garland County). But lengthening supply lines and a determined stand by local militia and Texas cavalrymen in White County forced the Federals to abandon their plans to take the capital. Instead, they marched eastward across the state toward the Mississippi River, liberating slaves and destroying property as they went. In July, they entered Helena (Phillips County) on the Mississippi River without opposition, followed by another unofficial “army” of former slaves. Throughout the remainder of the war, wherever the Federal army went, the institution of slavery crumbled.
The late summer and early fall witnessed changes in both the political and military leadership of Confederate Arkansas. The Secession Convention had reduced the governor’s term from four years to two. A disgruntled Rector announced that he would seek another term, but in the ensuing election, he was defeated by Harris Flanagin, an attorney and former Whig from Clark County who was serving in the Confederate army east of the Mississippi River. On November 14, 1862, Flanagin was inaugurated as Arkansas’s seventh governor, but a lack of money and the presence of Federal troops in the state precluded any significant government action. The major decisions in Arkansas would increasingly devolve on military authorities.
In an attempt to improve deteriorating Confederate military fortunes in the state, the Confederate high command sent Thomas Hindman to Arkansas to take command of what was styled the Military District of the Trans-Mississippi. When Hindman arrived in Little Rock in late May, he was shocked at the situation he found there. “I found here almost nothing,” he remarked. “Nearly everything of value was taken away by General Van Dorn.” To meet the crisis, Hindman employed draconian measures. He declared martial law, established factories, strictly enforced the conscription act, executed deserters, and ordered the immediate burning of all cotton that might be seized by the Federals.
Hindman also authorized the use of “partisan rangers,” bands of guerrillas whose purpose was ostensibly to stage hit-and-run raids on detached Federal units and harass the enemy’s lines of supply. Hindman’s order gave legal sanction to a brutal and merciless guerrilla conflict that historian Daniel Sutherland has called “the real war” in Arkansas. Some of the partisan rangers were legitimate guerrilla fighters, strongly dedicated to defending the state against the Northern invaders, but many were little more than armed bandits whose only causes were self-aggrandizement and the settling of personal grudges. They preyed not only on the Yankees but also on civilians of all political persuasions, contributing greatly to the breakdown of law and order in the state.
Hindman’s harsh actions earned him the enmity of many Confederate sympathizers as well as the Yankees and eventually led to his dismissal as overall commander in the region. But combined with his masterful administrative skills, these actions also managed to create a viable fighting force almost out of thin air. In early December, Hindman moved his new army of 12,000 north from Fort Smith (Sebastian County) to attack an isolated Union division. On December 7, at Prairie Grove, about ten miles southwest of Fayetteville (Washington County), the Confederates clashed not only with that division but also with two additional divisions of Union reinforcements who had moved south from Missouri. In some of the most brutal fighting of the war, each side suffered more than 1,350 casualties. Tactically, the battle was a draw, but during the night of December 7, the Confederates withdrew from the field. The battles at Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove helped secure Missouri for the Union, but much remained to be done before Union forces regained control of Arkansas.
The first full year of war seriously disrupted civil society in the state. “Dozens of county and local governments ceased to function as judges, sheriffs, clerks, and other officeholders fled or failed to carry out their duties,” historian William Shea has noted. “Taxes went uncollected, lawsuits went unheard, and complaints went unanswered. With courts closed and jails open, the thin veneer of civilization quickly eroded. Incidents of murder, torture, rape, theft, and wanton destruction increased dramatically.” In southern Arkansas, many items—such as cotton cards, coffee, tea, and salt—had virtually disappeared. For the next two and a half years, many citizens of the state would experience the horrors of civil war to an extent matched by few other Americans, and the struggle for states’ rights and the Southern way of life would quickly be overshadowed by the struggle for mere survival.
The War in 1863
In January 1863, a Union force of more than 50,000 men steamed up the Mississippi River from Vicksburg and overwhelmed the 5,000 Confederate defenders at Arkansas Post (Arkansas County), an earthen bastion on the Arkansas River about 120 miles south of Little Rock. Nearly 4,800 Confederate soldiers were taken prisoner, and the Southerners lost vast quantities of sorely needed arms, ammunition, and supplies.
By summer, it had become apparent that only a decisive victory could reverse the Confederates’ sagging fortunes. Major General Theophilus Holmes, the new supreme Confederate commander in Arkansas, devised a plan for just such a victory. His forces would attack and seize Helena, a busy agricultural and commercial center that had been occupied by Union forces the previous July. The attack, begun in the early morning hours of July 4, was an utter failure. The Confederates suffered more than 1,600 casualties and failed to take the city. The disaster was compounded by the news that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had been repulsed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3 and was retreating with heavy casualties. Even more ominous for Arkansas Confederates was the news that the Confederate Mississippi River stronghold at Vicksburg had surrendered on July 4, freeing up thousands of Union soldiers for service in Arkansas. The significance of that defeat soon became apparent.
In mid-August, a Union army of 6,000 men under the command of Major General Frederick Steele moved west from Helena toward Little Rock. At Clarendon (Monroe County), they were joined by 6,000 cavalry commanded by Brigadier General John Davidson. By the time this force reached the vicinity of Little Rock, it had been reinforced to about 14,000 men. On September 10, the Union cavalry crossed the Arkansas River south of Little Rock and began to move north toward the city along the south bank of the river, while their infantry moved along the north bank. Furious skirmishing took place south of the river, but the Confederates were forced to evacuate the city in the late afternoon. The Rebels also abandoned Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). The state’s Confederate government and the bulk of its military forces withdrew to southwest Arkansas, and the town of Washington (Hempstead County) became the Confederate state capital for the remainder of the war.
In late October, the Confederates tried once again to gain the initiative. Two thousand Confederate cavalry led by Brig. Gen. John Marmaduke moved north from Princeton (Dallas County) to attack Colonel Powell Clayton’s 550-man Union detachment at Pine Bluff. They struck on the morning of October 25, but despite fierce fighting, they were unable to retake the town. The Union garrison was assisted by many former slaves who put up barricades of cotton bales to protect the Federal position.
The Action at Pine Bluff was the last major military action in Arkansas in 1863. During the year, the Union army had secured the Arkansas River from Fort Smith in the west through Little Rock and Pine Bluff to Arkansas Post in the east, and the Mississippi River was securely in its possession. As the Confederate military fortunes declined, discontent with the Confederate government grew. In large areas of Arkansas, food and other necessities were in short supply. Where neither army held sway, the last remnants of civil government and the rule of law disappeared, and guerrilla fighters roamed the countryside.
The War in 1864 and 1865
Shortly after the fall of Little Rock, Gen. Steele began to prepare for the establishment of a loyal state government. Under Lincoln’s lenient policy, the state could form a loyalist government whenever the number of people taking an oath of loyalty to the Union reached ten percent of those who had voted in the election of 1860. This was accomplished in January 1864. That same month, Arkansas Unionists drafted a new state constitution. The new document differed little from the original state constitution, with the exception that it outlawed slavery and repudiated secession. The convention also chose a provisional slate of officers, with Isaac Murphy as governor. In March, loyalist voters approved the constitution and the slate of officials by a wide margin, and they elected a new state legislature.
In late March, Union forces embarked on an ambitious military venture known as the Red River Expedition. The Arkansas phase of this operation (which would come to be known as the Camden Expedition) called for a Union army under Steele’s command to move southwest from Little Rock toward Shreveport, Louisiana, where it would meet another Union army moving north from New Orleans, Louisiana. If successful, the operation would destroy the remaining Confederate forces in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana, reassert Federal authority in Texas, and seize millions of dollars worth of Confederate cotton and other supplies.
The Red River Expedition turned to disaster for Union forces. The Louisiana wing of the operation was defeated at Mansfield, Louisiana, and forced to retreat. Steele fared little better. Dwindling supplies and growing resistance forced him to abandon his advance on Shreveport. He turned east, and on April 15, his troops occupied the Ouachita River town of Camden (Ouachita County), only recently abandoned by the Confederates. Steele sent a foraging party west with a large wagon train to gather corn and other supplies, but it was ambushed by Confederate cavalry at Poison Spring (Ouachita County) as it was returning to Camden on April 18. The Confederates overran the wagon train and captured the wagons. The Rebels shot wounded African-American soldiers of the First Kansas Colored Infantry as they lay helpless on the ground and gunned down others as they tried to surrender. Four days later, a second wagon train was ambushed east of Camden at Marks’ Mill.
On April 26, the Union troops evacuated Camden and began a long retreat back to Little Rock. Rebel forces caught up with them as they attempted to cross the Saline River at Jenkins’ Ferry. After a fierce battle, Steele’s army crossed the river to reach the safety of Little Rock on May 3. With the disastrous failure of the Red River Expedition, Confederate forces across the state went on the offensive. In September, Major General Sterling Price launched a raid into Missouri with 12,000 men. After crossing that state from east to west, the Rebels were soundly defeated at the Battle of Westport near the Kansas border on October 23 and began a long retreat south. By the time they reached Laynesport (Little River County) in southwest Arkansas on December 2, only 3,500 men remained.
With the failure of Price’s Missouri raid, major military operations in Arkansas came to an end. Much of the state descended into what one resident called “a state of perfect anarchy” as the last vestiges of law and social stability evaporated. In November, Abraham Lincoln was elected to second term as president, dashing any hope in the South for a negotiated peace. The war in the Military District of the Trans-Mississippi did not officially end until June 2, 1865, but by that time, the Confederacy in Arkansas had long since ceased to exist.
The Civil War was one of the greatest disasters in Arkansas history. More than 10,000 Arkansans—black and white, Union and Confederate—lost their lives. Thousands of others were wounded. Devastation was widespread, and property losses ran into the millions of dollars. The war left a legacy of bitterness that the passage of many years would not erase.
The Beginning of Reconstruction, 1863 to 1868
The era of Reconstruction was one of the most tumultuous and controversial periods in Arkansas’s history. The process actually began in late 1863, when President Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, often referred to as the Ten Percent Plan. When the president was assassinated on April 14, 1865, the prospects for an easy reunification of the nation were severely dimmed.
In Arkansas, Governor Murphy had worked diligently since his election in early 1864 to promote reconciliation and to prepare the state for its return to the Union. In the elections of 1866, however, a combination of Democrats and former Whigs organized a “Conservative” party that swept away almost the entire Unionist ticket elected in 1864 and returned power to many of the same people who had run the state before the war. Murphy survived only because his term was not up until 1868.
The old planter elites were also engaged in an attempt to restore their prewar economic status. Most had retained control of their land, but with slavery gone, they now had to bargain for the labor of their former slaves. A variety of labor arrangements ensued, but over time, a system called sharecropping emerged as the most popular form. Under this system, a landowner rented a plot of land to an individual to farm independently and furnished everything necessary to grow a crop. The owner would then receive a share of the crop (generally about one half) as rent. The task of supervising these contracts between planters and laborers and of providing food, shelter, education, and justice to the former slaves fell to a federal agency called the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau began operations in Arkansas in June 1865. In the period immediately following the war, Arkansans turned again to cotton as their major money crop. But poor harvests in the two years after the war threatened the economic viability of planters and sharecroppers alike.
Meanwhile, the advent of Congressional or “Radical” Reconstruction in 1867 threatened the political fortunes of the prewar ruling class. The seceded states were divided into five military districts (Arkansas and Mississippi constituted the Fourth Military District), each under the control of a military officer. The states were required to draft new constitutions providing for universal male suffrage and to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Many former Confederates were disqualified from holding office or participating in the process.
In January 1868, seventy delegates assembled in Little Rock to draft the new state constitution. Forty-eight of the delegates could be classified as “Radicals” (sympathetic to Congressional Reconstruction), seventeen as “Conservative” (opposed to Congressional Reconstruction), and five as unaligned. The Radical element was composed of twenty-three Southern white delegates (dubbed “scalawags” by the Conservatives), seventeen white delegates from outside the South (dubbed “carpetbaggers” by the Conservatives), and eight black delegates. Due largely to their greater unity of purpose, the white delegates from outside the South dominated the convention.
The deliberations were often contentious, but the document that emerged from this convention was, in many ways, a progressive charter. It gave black males the right to vote recognized the equality of all persons before the law forbade depriving any citizen of any right, privilege, or immunity “on account of race, color, or previous servitude” and established a system of free public education. A popular vote on ratification and the election of new state officials was scheduled for mid-March.
The major issue in the campaign was the granting of full civil and political rights to black Arkansans. The election was marred by irregularities in voting, but the majority of eligible voters approved the charter. The new state legislature ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Arkansas was officially readmitted to the Union on June 22, 1868.
Republican Reconstruction and the Militia War, 1868 and 1869
The governor elected under the new state constitution of 1868 was thirty-four-year-old Powell Clayton, a former Federal cavalry officer from Kansas who had served with distinction at the battles of Helena and Pine Bluff. Clayton had been a Democrat before the war, but the growing hostility and violence directed against African Americans and Unionists in the immediate postwar period had caused him to turn against his former party. By 1867, he was active in the creation of the Republican Party in Arkansas. Unlike his conciliatory predecessor, Clayton viewed Reconstruction as little more than a continuation of the war (which in many ways it was), and he employed many of the same aggressive tactics he had used in that conflict. He also used the governor’s vastly expanded appointive powers and the Republican-dominated state legislature to build a loyal base of supporters throughout the state.
The ratification of the 1868 constitution and the election of Clayton and other Republicans to positions of power in the state was a devastating setback for Arkansas Democrats. Angered by the disfranchisement provisions of the new charter and frustrated by Republican control of the election machinery, many became convinced that their only hope for regaining control of the state government was through the use of extralegal means. Even as voters were going to the polls in March 1868, an organization was beginning to appear in Arkansas that would serve as a vehicle for the Democrats’ attempt to regain control of the state government—the Ku Klux Klan.
Originally founded as a secret fraternal organization in Tennessee in the spring of 1866, the Klan soon became a paramilitary organization that employed terrorist tactics to intimidate or kill African Americans, Republicans, and other Unionists throughout the South. In Arkansas, the rise of the Klan coincided with the beginning of a massive campaign of terror and violence in all but the northwestern counties of the state in 1868. In August, Clayton began to organize the state militia. He rejected numerous requests for troops from voter registration officials around the state, but when the violence continued unabated, he declared that conditions made voter registration impossible in twelve counties, making it impossible to conduct a legal election.
Despite the violence and intimidation, Clayton managed to ensure that the state’s electoral votes went to the Republican candidate for president in the national election in early November. The day after that election, he declared martial law in ten counties and later extended the proclamation to include four additional counties. The state was divided into four military districts (although little attention was paid to the northwest part of the state, where Klan activity was minimal), and the militiamen were ordered to assemble at designated points.
Over the next five months, the Klan and militia forces clashed in the southwest, southeast, and northeast regions of the state, with both sides accusing the other of harming innocent civilians. The governor agreed to lift martial law for a county only when he was satisfied that law and order had been restored there. Crittenden County was the last in the state to see martial law lifted. When civilian control was finally restored there on March 21, 1869, it marked the official end of what came to be called the Militia War. Historian Allen Trelease has argued that Clayton “accomplished more than any other Southern governor in suppressing the Ku Klux conspiracy.” But the governor’s actions also left a legacy of bitterness with many white Arkansans that severely undermined his attempts to build support for his party and its program in Arkansas.
Republican Schism and the End of Reconstruction, 1869 to 1874
With some degree of order restored, Republican leaders tried to implement measures to bolster and diversify the state’s economy. The plan enjoyed some significant successes, including the establishment of a system of free public schools, the creation of a public university at Fayetteville, and the construction of more than 650 additional miles of railroad track. The program was barely underway, however, when it was beset by problems of inadequate finances, mismanagement, corruption, and intense political partisanship. That partisanship not only pitted Republicans against Democrats but also divided the Republican Party itself.
In the spring of 1869, a group calling itself the Liberal Republicans organized in opposition to the Clayton regime. They advocated an end to corruption, greater economy in government, the curtailing of the governor’s powers, and an immediate end to all restrictions on voting rights for former Confederates. Even after Clayton moved to the U.S. Senate in 1871, the infighting continued. In 1872, the Liberal Republicans nominated Joseph Brooks to run for governor. Brooks was an ordained Methodist minister from Ohio who had served in Arkansas as the chaplain of the Fifty-sixth U.S. Colored Infantry during the war. The Regular (pro-Clayton) Republicans responded by nominating Elisha Baxter, a former state legislator from Batesville (Independence County) whose wartime service included the command of a mounted Federal infantry regiment.
The election was marred by massive fraud, but the Regular Republicans controlled the election machinery, and Baxter was declared the winner. The Brooks forces refused to give in. On April 15, 1874, they persuaded a Pulaski County circuit judge to reopen a complaint that Brooks had filed ten months previously and to declare Brooks the legal governor. Armed Brooks supporters then forced Baxter to vacate the governor’s office. Over the next few days, both sides organized militias, and the so-called “Brooks-Baxter War” began. Little Rock became an armed camp, and fighting between rival factions took place at New Gascony (downriver from Pine Bluff) and on the Arkansas River near Palarm (near the present-day Faulkner-Pulaski county line). Finally on May 15, President Ulysses Grant intervened, declaring his support for Baxter and ordering the Brooks forces to disband.
The following month, in the first statewide election since the end of restrictions on former Confederates, voters overwhelmingly approved the calling of a convention to write yet another new state constitution, and they elected Democrats to more than seventy of the ninety-one delegate positions. The document produced by this convention strictly curtailed the governor’s power and limited the state’s power of taxation. In October, voters overwhelmingly ratified the new charter, elected Democrat Augustus Garland governor, and returned the state legislature to Democratic control by huge majorities in both houses. Reconstruction in Arkansas was effectively over.
The war, emancipation, and Reconstruction had been truly revolutionary experiences for the state and the region. But the return to power of the antebellum leaders ensured that Reconstruction was, in the words of Mississippi planter James Alcorn, a “harnessed revolution.” Economic prosperity remained an elusive goal for most of the state’s citizens, and the black population of Arkansas and throughout the South had to wait for a “second Reconstruction” in the 1950s and 1960s to attain the full civil, political, and educational rights that the first Reconstruction failed to achieve.
For additional information:
Atkinson, J. H., ed. “Clayton and Catterson Rob Columbia County.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 21 (Summer 1962): 153–158.
Bailey, Anna, and Daniel Sutherland, eds. Civil War Arkansas: Beyond Battles and Leaders. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Barnes, Kenneth C. Who Killed John Clayton? Political Violence and the Emergence of the New South, 1861–1893. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.
Baxter, William. Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove: Scenes and Incidents of the War in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Bears, Edwin C. Steele’s Retreat from Camden and the Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry. Little Rock: Eagle Press, 1990.
Blevins, Brooks. “Reconstruction in the Ozarks: Simpson Mason, William Monks, and the War That Refused to End.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 77 (Autumn 2018): 175–207.
Bolton, S. Charles. Arkansas, 1800–1860: Remote and Restless. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
Buxton, Virginia. “Clayton’s Militia in Sevier and Howard Counties.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 20 (Winter 1961): 344–350.
Christ, Mark K. Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle for a State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.
Christ, Mark, ed. Competing Memories: The Legacy of Arkansas’s Civil War. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2016.
———. A Confused and Confusing Affair: Arkansas and Reconstruction. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2018.
———. The Die is Cast: Arkansas Goes to War, 1861. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2010.
———. “The Earth Reeled and Trees Trembled”: Civil War Arkansas, 1863–1864. Little Rock: Old State House Museum, 2007.
———. Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas of Press, 1994.
———.“This Day We Marched Again”: A Union Soldier’s Account of War in Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2014.
Christ, Mark K., and Patrick G. Williams, eds. I Do Wish This Cruel War Was Over: First-Person Accounts of Civil War Arkansas from the Arkansas Historical Quarterly. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2014.
Civil War Sesquicentennial Issue, Arkansas Historical Quarterly 70 (Summer 2011).
Clayton, Powell. The Aftermath of the Civil War in Arkansas. New York: Negro University Press, 1969.
Coffield, Joe E., Jr. “Community Matters: An Empirical Examination into the Causes and Consequences of Factional Allegiance during the American Civil War.” PhD diss., University of Utah, 2012.
Cutrer, Thomas W. Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi, 1861–1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
DeBlack, Thomas A. With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861–1874. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
Dougan, Michael B. Confederate Arkansas: The People and Politics of a Frontier State in Wartime. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
Feistman, Eugene G. “Radical Disfranchisement in Arkansas, 1867–1868.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 12 (Summer 1953): 126–168.
Finley, Randy. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865–1869. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996.
Gigantino, James J. II, ed. Slavery and Secession in Arkansas: A Documentary History. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2015.
Goodrich, Carter. “Public Aid to Railroads in the Reconstruction South.” Political Science Quarterly 71 (September 1956): 407–442.
Harrell, John M. The Brooks and Baxter War: A History of the Reconstruction Period in Arkansas. St. Louis: Slawson Printing Company, 1893.
Huff, Leo H. “Guerrillas, Jayhawkers, and Bushwhackers in Northern Arkansas during the Civil War.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 24 (Summer 1965): 127–148.
Hume, Richard L. “The Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1868: A Case Study in the Politics of Reconstruction.” Journal of Southern History 39 (May 1973): 183–206.
Kennan, Clara B. “Dr. Thomas Smith, Forgotten Man of Arkansas Education.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 20 (Winter 1961): 303–317.
Kennedy, Thomas C. “Southland College: The Society of Friends and Black Education in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 42 (Autumn 1983): 207–238.
Leslie, James W. “Hercules King Cannon White: Hero? or Heel?” Jefferson County Historical Quarterly 25 (1997): 4–20.
Matkin-Rawn, Story. “‘The Great Negro State of the Country’: Arkansas’s Reconstruction and the Other Great Migration.”Arkansas Historical Quarterly 72 (Spring 2013): 1–41.
McNeilly, Donald P. The Old South Frontier: Cotton Plantations and the Formation of Arkansas Society, 1819–1861. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Moneyhon, Carl. The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Arkansas: Persistence in the Midst of Ruin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Neal, Diane, and Thomas W. Kremm. The Lion of the South: General Thomas C. Hindman. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1993.
Nordhoff, Charles. The Cotton States in the Spring and Summer of 1875. New York: Burt Franklin, 1876.
Nunn, Walter. “The Constitutional Convention of 1874.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 27 (Autumn 1968): 177–204.
Pearce, Larry Wesley.“The American Missionary Association and the Freedmen in Arkansas, 1863–1878.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 30 (Summer 1971): 123–144.
———. “The American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1866–1868.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 30 (Autumn 1971): 242–259.
———. “The American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1868-1878.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 31 (Autumn 1972): 246–261.
Phillips, Samuel R., ed. Torn by War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
Richards, Ira D. “The Battle of Poison Spring.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 18 (Winter 1959): 338–349.
———. “The Camden Expedition, March 23–May 3, 1864.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 1958.
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———. “Thomas C. Hindman, Jr.: Secessionist and Confederate General.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 1972.
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———. “Social War: People, Nature, and Irregular Warfare on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier, 1861–1865.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 2010.
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American Civil War
Much of the Southern United States was destroyed during the Civil war. Farms and plantations were burned down and their crops destroyed. Also, many people had Confederate money which was now worthless and the local governments were in disarray. The South needed to be rebuilt.
The rebuilding of the South after the Civil War is called the Reconstruction. The Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877. The purpose of the Reconstruction was to help the South become a part of the Union again. Federal troops occupied much of the South during the Reconstruction to insure that laws were followed and that another uprising did not occur.
Broad Street Charleston, South Carolina
To Punish the South or Not
Many people wanted the South to be punished for trying to leave the Union. Other people, however, wanted to forgive the South and let the healing of the nation begin.
Lincoln's Plan for Reconstruction
Abraham Lincoln wanted to be lenient to the South and make it easy for southern states to rejoin the Union. He said that any southerner who took an oath to the Union would be given a pardon. He also said that if 10% of the voters in a state supported the Union, then a state could be readmitted. Under Lincoln's plan, any state that was readmitted must make slavery illegal as part of their constitution.
President Lincoln was assassinated at the end of the Civil War, however, and never had the chance to implement his Reconstruction plan. When Andrew Johnson became president, he was from the South and wanted to be even more lenient to the Confederate States than Lincoln. Congress, however, disagreed and began to pass harsher laws for the Southern states.
In an effort to get around laws passed by Congress, many southern states began to pass Black Codes. These were laws that prevented black people from voting, going to school, owning land, and even getting jobs. These laws caused a lot of conflict between the North and the South as they tried to reunite after the Civil War.
New Amendments to the Constitution
- 13th Amendment - Outlawed slavery
- 14th Amendment - Said that black people were citizens of the United States and that all people were protected equally by the law.
- 15th Amendment - Gave all male citizens the right to vote regardless of race.
New governments were formed in the South starting in 1865. The first state to be readmitted to the Union was Tennessee in 1866. The last state was Georgia in 1870. As part of being readmitted to the Union, states had to ratify the new amendments to the Constitution.
The Union did a lot to help the South during the Reconstruction. They rebuilt roads, got farms running again, and built schools for poor and black children. Eventually the economy in the South began to recover.
Some northerners moved to the South during the Reconstruction to try and make money off of the rebuilding. They were often called carpetbaggers because they sometimes carried their belongings in luggage called carpetbags. The Southerners didn't like that the Northerners were moving in and trying to get rich off of their troubles.
The End of the Reconstruction
The Reconstruction officially ended under the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. He removed the federal troops from the South and the state governments took over. Unfortunately, many of the changes to equal rights were immediately reversed.
Administering the Oath of Allegiance to Confederate soldiers
The Civil Rights Act became the first major piece of legislation in American history to become law over a president's veto.
Library of Congress Image
Reconstruction (1865-1877), the period that followed the American Civil War, is perhaps the most controversial era in American history. Traditionally portrayed by historians as a sordid time when vindictive Radical Republicans fastened black supremacy upon the defeated Confederacy, Reconstruction has lately been viewed more sympathetically, as a laudable experiment in interracial democracy. It was also a time when the entire nation, but especially the South, was forced to come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the consequences of emancipation.
Reconstruction witnessed far-reaching changes in America's political life. At the national level, new laws and constitutional amendments permanently altered the federal system and the definition of American citizenship. In the South, a politically mobilized black community joined with white allies to bring the Republican party to power, and with it a redefinition of the purposes and responsibilities of government.
The national debate over Reconstruction began during the Civil War. In December 1863, less than a year after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln announced the first comprehensive program for Reconstruction, the Ten Percent Plan. This offered a pardon to all Southerners, except Confederate leaders, who took an oath affirming loyalty to the Union and support for emancipation. When 10 percent of a state's voters had taken such an oath, they could establish a new state government. To Lincoln, the plan was more an attempt to weaken the Confederacy than a blueprint for the postwar South. Although it was put into operation in parts of the Union-occupied South, none of the new governments achieved broad local support or were recognized by Congress. In 1864, Congress enacted and Lincoln pocket vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill, which proposed to delay the formation of new Southern governments until a majority of voters had taken a loyalty oath. Some Republicans were already convinced that equal rights for the former slaves must accompany the South's readmission to the Union. In his last speech, in April 1865, Lincoln himself expressed the view that some Southern blacks -- the "very intelligent" and those who had served in the Union army - ought to enjoy the right to vote.
Upon Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Andrew Johnson became president. In May, he inaugurated the period of Presidential Reconstruction (1865-67). Johnson offered a pardon to all Southern whites except Confederate leaders and wealthy planters (although most of these subsequently received individual pardons), restoring their political rights and all property except for slaves. He also outlined how new state governments would be created. Apart from the requirement that they abolish slavery, repudiate secession, and abrogate the Confederate debt, these governments, elected by whites alone, were granted a free hand in managing their affairs. They responded by enacting the Black Codes, laws that required blacks to sign yearly labor contracts, designated unemployed blacks as vagrants who could be hired out to white landowners, and in other ways sought to reestablish plantation discipline. African-Americans strongly resisted the implementation of these measures. The inability of the white South's leaders to accept emancipation undermined Northern support for Johnson's policies.
When Congress assembled in December 1865, Radical Republicans called for the abrogation of the Johnson governments and the establishment of new ones based on equality before the law and manhood suffrage. But the more numerous moderate Republicans hoped to work with Johnson, while modifying his program. Congress refused to seat the Congressmen and Senators elected from the Southern states, and in early 1866 passed and sent to Johnson the Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights Bills. The first extended the life of an agency Congress had created in 1865 to oversee the transition from slavery to freedom. The second defined all persons born in the United States as national citizens, who were to enjoy equality before the law.
A combination of personal stubbornness, belief in states' rights, and deeply-held racist convictions led Johnson to reject these bills. His vetoes caused a permanent rupture between the president and Congress. The Civil Rights Act became the first major piece of legislation in American history to become law over a president's veto. Shortly thereafter, Congress approved the 14th Amendment, which put the principle of birthright citizenship into the Constitution and forbade states from depriving any citizen of the "equal protection of the laws." It also provided that the South's representation in Congress would be reduced if black men continued to be kept from voting.
The 14th Amendment, the most important addition to the Constitution other than the Bill of Rights, embodied a profound change in federal-state relations. Traditionally, citizens' rights had been delineated and protected by the states. Now, Congress provided that the federal government guarantee all Americans' equality before the law, regardless of race, against state violation. Yet Republican egalitarianism had its limits. Women's rights advocates insisted, without success, that the time had come to eliminate gender as well as race as a ground for legal distinctions among Americans.
In the fall 1866 congressional elections, Northern voters overwhelmingly repudiated Johnson's policies. Nonetheless, the Southern states, except Tennessee, rejected the 14th Amendment. Congress now decided to begin Reconstruction anew. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 divided the South into five military districts, and provided for the establishment of new governments, based on manhood suffrage. Thus began the period of Radical or Congressional Reconstruction, which lasted until 1877.
By 1870, Congress had recognized new governments, controlled by the Republican party, in all the former Confederate states. Three groups made up Southern Republicanism. "Carpetbaggers," or recent arrivals from the North, were former Union soldiers, teachers, Freedmen's Bureau agents, and businessmen. Most had come south before 1867, when the possibility of obtaining office was remote. But they leapt at the opportunity to help remake the "backward" region in the image of the North.
The second large group, "scalawags" or native-born white Republicans, included some businessmen and planters but most were non-slaveholding small farmers from the Southern upcountry. Loyal to the Union during the Civil War, they saw the Republican party as a means of keeping "rebels" from regaining power in the South and were willing to work with blacks toward that end.
In every state, African-Americans formed the overwhelming majority of Southern Republican voters. From the beginning of Reconstruction, black conventions and newspapers throughout the South had called for full civil and political rights. Composed mainly of those who had been free before the Civil War, and slave ministers, artisans, and Civil War veterans, a capable black political leadership emerged during Reconstruction to press for the elimination of the racial caste system and the economic uplifting of the former slaves. Some 16 African-Americans served in Congress during Reconstruction, including Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce in the U. S. Senate, over 600 in state legislatures, and hundreds more in local offices, from sheriffs to justices of the peace. "Black supremacy" never existed, but the advent of African-Americans to positions of political power was among the era's most revolutionary developments. It marked a dramatic break with the nation's traditions and aroused bitter hostility from Reconstruction's opponents.
Serving an expanded citizenry and embracing a new definition of public responsibility, Reconstruction governments established the South's first state-funded public school systems, adopted measures designed to strengthen the bargaining power of plantation laborers, made taxation more equitable, and outlawed racial discrimination in public transportation and accommodations. They also embarked on ambitious programs of economic development, offering lavish aid to railroads and other enterprises in the hope of creating a New South whose economic expansion would benefit black and white alike. But the program of railroad aid spawned corruption and rising taxes, alienating increasing numbers of white voters.
Meanwhile, the social and economic transformation of the South proceeded apace. To blacks, freedom meant independence from white control, as well as autonomy both as individuals and as a community. This aspiration was reflected in the consolidation and expansion of the institutions of black life. Under slavery, most blacks had lived in nuclear family units, although they faced the constant threat of separation from loved ones by sale. Reconstruction provided the opportunity for African-Americans to solidify their family ties. They also created independent religious institutions, which became centers of community life. To blacks, economic freedom rested on ownership of land. But President Johnson in the summer of l865 ordered land in federal hands to be returned to its former owners. The dream of "40 acres and a mule" was stillborn, and most former slaves remained without property and poor.
Nonetheless, the political revolution of Reconstruction spawned increasing opposition from white Southerners. Increasingly, Reconstruction's opponents turned to violence. Terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan targeted local Republican leaders for beatings or assassination, as well as blacks who asserted their rights in dealings with white employers. Teachers, ministers, and others seeking to assist the former slaves also became targets. Sometimes, the violence escalated into wholesale assaults on black communities. At Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873, scores of black militiamen were killed after surrendering to armed whites intent on seizing control of local government. The Klan decimated the Republican organization in many localities. Increasingly, the new Southern governments looked to Washington for assistance.
By 1869, the Republican party was firmly in control of all three branches of the federal government. After attempting to remove Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, in apparent violation of the new Tenure of Office Act, Johnson had been impeached by the House of Representatives in l868. Although the Senate, by a single vote, failed to remove him from office, Johnson's power to obstruct the course of Reconstruction was gone. That fall, Republican Ulysses S. Grant was elected President. Soon afterwards, Congress approved the 15th Amendment, prohibiting states from restricting the franchise because of race. Then it enacted a series of Enforcement Acts authorizing national action to suppress political violence. In 187l, the administration launched a legal and military offensive that destroyed the Klan. Grant was reelected in 1872 in the most peaceful election of the period.
Nonetheless, Reconstruction soon began to wane. During the 1870's, many Republicans retreated from both the racial egalitarianism and the broad definition of federal power spawned by the Civil War. Southern corruption and instability, Reconstruction's critics argued, stemmed from the exclusion of the region's "best men" -- white planters - from power. As the Northern Republican party became more conservative, and northern thought became imbued with Social Darwinism -- the belief that the distribution of power and resources within society reflected a natural process of evolution, which government should not and could not alter -- Reconstruction came to symbolize both misgovernment and a misguided attempt to use national power to uplift the lower classes of society. Reflecting the shifting mood, a series of Supreme Court decisions, beginning with the Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873, severely limited the scope of Reconstruction laws and constitutional amendments.
By 1876, only South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana remained under Republican control the remaining Southern states had been "redeemed" by white Democrats. The outcome of that year's presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden hinged on the disputed returns from these states. Complex negotiations between Southern political leaders and representatives of Hayes resulted in the Bargain of 1877: Hayes would recognize Democratic control of the remaining Southern states and Democrats would not block the certification of his election by Congress. Hayes was inaugurated, federal troops returned to their barracks, and Reconstruction, defined as an era when the federal government accepted the responsibility for protecting the rights of the former slaves, came to an end.
By the turn of the century, a new racial system had been put in place in the South, resting on the disenfranchisement of black voters, a rigid system of racial segregation, the relegation of African-Americans to low-wage agricultural and domestic employment, and legal and extra-legal violence to punish those who challenged the new order. The North acquiesced in the new racial order. Nonetheless, while flagrantly violated, the Reconstruction amendments remained embedded in the Constitution, sleeping giants to be awakened by the efforts of subsequent generations to redeem the promise of genuine freedom for the descendants of slavery. Not until the 1960s, however, during the civil rights revolution, sometimes called the "second Reconstruction," would the nation again attempt to come to terms with the political and social agenda of Reconstruction.
5 President Lincoln issued a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, after the Civil War battle of Antietam. In his message to the Confederacy, the President announced his intention to free the slaves in the rebellious states one hundred days later, he signed the official proclamation. For more on the history of both proclamations, see James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 138–146 James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988): 562–563. See also National Archives and Records Administration, “The Emancipation Proclamation,” accessed 13 May 2008, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_ documents/emancipation_proclamation/.
6 The Confederacy originally included 11 states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee).
7 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988): 230.
8 This includes the 21 formal vetoes and eight pocket vetoes issued by Johnson in the 39th and 40th Congresses (1865–1869). Johnson had the second-highest percentage of vetoes overridden (51.7 percent). Franklin Pierce, who had 55.7 percent of his vetoes overridden, issued nine vetoes only to have five overridden by the 33rd and 34th Congresses (1853–1857). See Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Presidential Vetoes.”
9 An Act to Establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees, 13 Stat. 507 (1865) Civil Rights Act of 1866, 14 Stat. 27 (1866). Tennessee, which had rejoined the Union on July 24, 1866, was exempt from the requirements of the Reconstruction Act.
11 Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993): xi.