Reconstruction — the process of rebuilding the war-torn South — began shortly after the fall of the Confederacy and continued for approximately 12 years. The many policies enacted during this period by the U.S. Congress and Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant were designed to bring the seceded states back into the Union and aid displaced individuals, especially freed slaves, but many of the policies were also punitive. The Radical Republicans in Congress wanted to make sure the rebellious South was sufficiently penalized for putting the nation through four years of war and to ensure that such a thing would never happen again.

Lincoln was eager to extend a compassionate hand to the South, despite the trials and tribulations it had wrought, and a December 1863 policy was one of his first endeavors in that direction. This policy offered a full pardon to any recanting Confederate who took an oath of allegiance to the United States and all of its laws and proclamations regarding the institution of slavery. The only exemptions to this offer of amnesty were Confederate government officials and high-ranking military officers.

Civil rights for freed slaves was not an easy accomplishment. Many Southerners did all they could to keep blacks down following the war, often resorting to mayhem. And not all violence against blacks was at the hands of civilians. In New Orleans, 48 African Americans were killed when police viciously put down a peaceful demonstration promoting black suffrage.

In addition, the proclamation provided for the formation of a state government that would be recognized by the president when the number of persons taking the oath of allegiance reached 10 percent of the number of voters in 1860. Congress retained the right to decide whether to seat the senators and representatives elected from such states.

Lincoln based the proclamation on his unwavering belief that secession was illegal and thus all of the Southern states had remained in the Union. According to this view, the governments of the Southern states had temporarily been taken over by rebels, and the key role of Reconstruction was to return loyal officials to power. It was Lincoln's hope that the offer of amnesty would result in a snowball effect by which the leaders of the South would defect back to the Union and the seceded states would return one by one.

Congress Adds Its Weight

Many in Congress were fearful that Lincoln's early program, which was quite moderate, would leave intact the political and economic framework that made slavery a driving force in the South. Even though slaves had become free citizens as a result of the war, there was nothing to help them establish themselves as self-sufficient individuals.

Rather than slaves in chains, they would simply become landless serfs forced to labor under nearly the same conditions. Many Congressmen believed Reconstruction should be more of a revolution in which the South was dismantled and rebuilt with more Northern sensibilities. Only then could freed slaves enjoy all of the benefits of citizenship, including the right to vote.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” — Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, March 4, 1865

The first response to Lincoln's plan came from Radical Republicans in the form of the Wade-Davis Bill, which offered more stringent criteria for rejoining the Union. Lincoln killed the bill with a pocket veto, meaning he didn't sign or return the bill to Congress before it adjourned for the year.

By the end of the war, Congress had passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the Union and gave Congress the power and authority to enforce abolition with the proper legislation. Shortly after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Congress established the Freedman's Bureau, which was a federally funded agency designed to distribute food, clothing, and other provisions to impoverished freedmen and to oversee “all subjects” relating to their condition and treatment in the South.

President Andrew Johnson tried to continue Lincoln's moderate Reconstruction policies following Lincoln's assassination in April 1865. In May of that year, he granted amnesty and pardons, including the restoration of all property rights, except for slaves, to all former Confederates who took an oath of loyalty to the Union and accepted emancipation. Johnson also appointed provisional governors to lead the Southern states in drafting new constitutions that would allow them to rejoin the Union.

Johnson Limits Civil Rights

Johnson did not provide for the millions of slaves who suddenly found themselves free men and women. Johnson believed the Southern states should decide for themselves the future of freedmen, a shortsighted position that led to the institution of numerous Black Codes — state laws designed to keep African Americans out of politics.

Johnson tried to make the restoration of the Union as painless as possible by appointing men loyal to the Union to lead the readmitted states; however, Radical Republicans took a different tack. They felt that since the seceded states had been defeated in the war, they no longer had any rights and should be treated as conquered territories. In their eyes, black suffrage and equal rights were the most important goals of Reconstruction, followed by the rebuilding of the ravaged South.

Many Southern whites felt extreme anger and frustration at the abolition of slavery and often expressed their hatred for blacks with violence. Between 1865 and 1866, more than 5,000 African Americans were killed or severely beaten because of the color of their skin. So vehement was this racial hatred that the federal government quickly realized military control was needed to bring Southern blacks into the national mainstream.

1867: Harsher Reconstruction Policies

Johnson faced other problems as well. Many in Congress felt Reconstruction should be the responsibility of the legislative branch of government and Johnson had overstepped his authority as president in instituting certain Reconstruction policies. In order to maintain control, Congress enacted three Reconstruction Acts in 1867, which dramatically affected Johnson's moderate plans for the rebuilding of the war-ravaged South.

The 11 Confederate states were divided into five military districts under commanders who had the authority to use the army to protect the lives and property of all citizens — especially blacks. New state constitutions were required to include a promise to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to newly freed slaves and directed the federal government to protect citizens from arbitrary state actions, including Black Codes. Other conditions included a loyalty oath swearing allegiance to the Union and a ban that prohibited former Confederate leaders from holding political office.

“Now, therefore, I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, do hereby proclaim and declare that the insurrection which heretofore existed in the States of Georgia, South Carolina … and Florida is at an end and is henceforth to be so regarded.” — President Johnson, announcing the end of the Civil War on April 2, 1866

Reconstructionist policies enacted by Congress achieved quite a bit, including the first public, tax-supported school systems in most Southern states. There were also strong attempts to broaden and strengthen the Southern economy through aid to railroads and other industries. Most important of all, blacks were finally given a voice in local, state, and federal government.


Carpetbaggers were Northerners who moved to the South following the war to take advantage of the ensuing social and political turmoil. The disparaging name came from the luggage they typically carried, called carpetbags.

Carpetbaggers were feared and unwelcome by most Southerners because of the way they twisted issues and situations for personal financial gain. One common tactic was to use the chaos of Reconstruction to secure political positions, primarily on the shoulders of easily manipulated black voters. Once they were in office, carpetbaggers lined their pockets through graft and bribery with seldom a glance toward their constituencies.

But not all Northerners who moved to the South were immoral. Many kindhearted Northerners were eager to help the region get back on its feet. These included teachers, doctors, industrialists, clergymen, and agents of the Freedman's Bureau. In addition, a large number of Union soldiers who had been sent to the South during the war decided to settle there afterward because they fell in love with the natural beauty of the region. But even these innocent men and women were viewed with skepticism by Southerners of both races, and the term “carpetbagger” was used as a pejorative term for any Northerner for generations after the war.

African-American Contributions to Reconstruction

African Americans were not passive watchers during Reconstruction. Long denied the opportunity to learn how to read and write, old and young alike took advantage of teachers who set up schools to teach former slaves. Both the teachers and the pupils helped to set up schools of higher learning, colleges, and universities.

Many African Americans ran for and won public office. Two served in the U.S. Senate; 20 served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Both chambers worked to enact laws that guided Reconstruction. Others won seats at the state conventions that rewrote the state constitutions, ensuring civil rights for all citizens. Here and in state legislatures, African Americans helped write laws setting up tax-supported schools for both races, property rights for women, and more equitable taxation policies. The new laws also forbade imprisonment for debt and like measures.

  1. Home
  2. American Civil War
  3. Reconstruction and Remembrance
  4. Reconstruction
Visit other sites: