The Reconstruction Era: Integrating the American South After the Civil War

The Reconstruction Era was a period that followed the Civil War and aimed to provide the South with means to re-enter the Union.

Dec 25, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor
reconstruction era south post civil war
Significant Election Scene at Washington, June 3, 1867 by A.W. M’Callum, in Harper’s Weekly (June 22, 1867), via The National Park Service


Immediately following the Civil War, the era of Reconstruction began. This period between 1866 and 1877 provided restructuring to the Southern states, which needed guidelines for re-entering the Union. Reconstruction also served to help incorporate Black Americans into Southern society and aimed to build an economy that did not require slave labor. Reconstruction brought about great change in all aspects of Southern life. This article will explore how Reconstruction was implemented, how it affected the South, and how it ended.


The Beginnings of Reconstruction: Presidential Reconstruction

lincoln at wars end
Lincoln in Richmond by Lambert Hollis, 1865, via the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


On April 11, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln called for a reconstruction of the South following the destruction wrought by the Civil War. He called on the Union to begin the process of reincorporating Southern states into the Union, and he called on the South to implement emancipation.


Three days after the speech, the president was assassinated, and his successor, Andrew Johnson, was now responsible for the mammoth task of rebuilding the South.


By May of 1865, Johnson had proclaimed a soft stance on Reconstruction. Despite previously calling for the execution of Confederates, only two Confederate military leaders were ever executed, and the former President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was only imprisoned for two years.


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Thus, Johnson’s stance as of 1865 was a lenient one. In his eyes, the federal government had no right to encroach on voting protocols at the state level and even less right to take more land and resources away from the already war-torn South.


andrew johnson portrait
Portrait of President Andrew Johnson, via the Library of Congress


Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction did little to help anyone in the South except the wealthy landowners who had ruled over it during the war. Johnson’s plan gave all confiscated land back to the prewar owners and only required that the former Confederate states do two things: pay off their war debts and enforce the 13th amendment (emancipation of enslaved people) however the state saw fit.


The leniency of Presidential Reconstruction gave way to Southern states’ Black Codes, which subverted the 13th amendment and ensured that Black Southerners would remain second-class citizens, below their former masters in perpetuity.


The outrage in the North over Black Codes was immediate. Congressional Republicans were appalled at the inaction on the president’s part. The Freedmen’s Bureau, which had been established in early 1865 to assist freedmen and white refugees from the South in rebuilding their lives, was made a fool of, as Johnson simply ignored their redistribution of land and property, allowing wealthy planters a clear path to hegemony once again.


sherman reception congress 1866
General Sherman’s reception in the United States House of Representatives, January 29, 1866 by A. M’Callum, via Dickinson College


With Congressional outrage reaching a fever pitch, Radical Republicans proposed two bills: the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill. The former simply extended the tenure of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the second redefined rights that were previously only enjoyed by white males to all males in the United States without “distinction of race or color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.”


President Johnson vetoed both bills, which led to his permanent ostracization from Congress and his impeachment in 1868. Congress, however, ratified the Civil Rights Bill into law over Johnson’s veto with a two-thirds majority, thus beginning the process of Radical Reconstruction.


Radical Reconstruction 

radical reconstruction begins
Reconstruction by Horatio Bateman, 1867, via the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


In the autumn of 1866, disillusioned northern voters sided overwhelmingly with the Radical Republicans of Congress, ensuring that any proposed legislation could override President Johnson’s veto.


Congress answered the president’s lenient policies with Radical Reconstruction, a series of laws pushed through both legislative houses and ratified by a two-thirds majority. These laws caused a stricter view of rebuilding the South by splitting the region into five military districts and sending troops to enforce the laws in each district.


The first district was the state of Virginia, the second was composed of both North and South Carolina, the third combined Alabama, Georgia, and Florida into one group, the fourth comprised Arkansas and Mississippi, and the fifth was Louisiana and Texas. By the beginning of 1867, Tennessee had already rejoined the Union.


military districts reconstruction
A map of the five military districts of the South, along with their governing generals, dates of readmission to the Union, and dates of regained Conservative majority, via NCpedia


The five military districts were required to draft new state constitutions, introduce Black suffrage, and ratify the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment had been proposed as a redefinition of United States citizenship, stating that anyone born or naturalized in the country could be considered a citizen. The amendment also extended the power of the federal government to guarantee those rights.


Radical Reconstruction was enforced by the United States Army, which Congress had given the power to be solely commanded by its general, Ulysses S. Grant. In this way, Congress limited the president’s power and allowed the South to begin progressing toward reunification.


Politics During Reconstruction

grant seymour campaign propoganda
God grant us peace. We shall see more Rads “bottled up” in November 1868, a campaign poster for Grant and Seymour, via the Library of Congress


The politics of the Reconstruction era were, in the simplest of terms, chaotic. The chaos was both beneficial and detrimental to the United States in various ways. On the state level, political change was rapid and an extreme foil to the governments of the former Confederate states. On the federal level, politics were an ongoing battle between radical Republicans and Southern Democrats.


Federally, Congress and the president were pitted against one another. This came to a head in 1868 when the House of Representatives impeached President Johnson for his violation of the recently enforced Tenure of Office Act.


Johnson had violated the act by removing his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. However, this violation was a convenient cover because Johnson’s policies were not up to snuff with the majority Republican Congress. Johnson came within one vote of being removed from office by a two-thirds majority and was ultimately not nominated as a candidate in the presidential election of the same year.


Instead, Republicans nominated Ulysses S. Grant for president, who won the presidency in a resounding victory over Democrat Horatio Seymour. Grant was seen as a champion of radical Republicanism, and the executive and legislative branches of the federal government were once again working side by side.


Grant was a staunch advocate of civil rights, which he made apparent almost as soon as he was inaugurated in 1869. In March of that year, he signed a bill into law that allowed African Americans to serve on juries and hold office.


uncle sams thanksgiving dinner
Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner by Thomas Nast, as it appeared in Harper’s Weekly on November 20, 1869, via the Bill of Rights Institute


Grant opened a pathway to foreign-born Black citizenship in 1870 with the Naturalization Act and appointed officials in offices such as the postal system and the US Circuit Courts who integrated and maintained civil rights in their respective areas of expertise.


By 1870, all of the former Confederate states had been readmitted into the Union, and Grant had created federal programs and acts that ensured the enforcement of Reconstruction in the South. One such program was the Department of Justice, as well as three civil rights acts in 1870-1871 that enforced equality and allowed federal oversight in states’ enforcement of Reconstruction.


On the back of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, the last of which prohibited states’ disenfranchisement based on race, Grant’s last act of Reconstruction was the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which protected Americans from discrimination based on race in public accommodations, such as education and transportation. This act, however, was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883.


reconstruction black congress members
Left to right, Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi with some of the first Black members of Congress: Benjamin Turner, Robert De Large, Josiah Walls, Jefferson Long, Joseph Rainey, and Robert Brown Elliot, circa 1870, via Yes Magazine


On a state level, under the Reconstruction Act of 1867, Republican governments were elected throughout the South. For the first time in American history, African Americans were permitted to hold office, and 17 members of the 41st and 42nd Congresses were Black.


Black officeholders accounted for 15% of elected positions in the South by the early 1870s, which was due to the ability of Black Americans to enact change through suffrage.


Strides were made towards African Americans holding office in America, but these offices were most often at the local level. Additionally, the representation of African Americans in government was disproportionate to the population of African Americans in Southern states, which, in the cases of Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, was almost half the population.


Changing the Culture of the South

thomas nast cartoon emancipation
Emancipation of Negroes, The Past and the Future by Thomas Nast, 1863, via PBS


With the passage of Reconstruction came the idea of a “New South.” This saw the solidification of liberation being used as a means for Black Americans to express their culture in ways that were heretofore illegal to them. Several Black churches, schools, and organizations cropped up during Reconstruction, lasting even into the modern day.


Black participation in government allowed access to public schools, fairer taxation, and power of negotiation regarding labor. African American literacy was expanded exponentially, and the hope of Black and white Republicans alike was to create a more economically equitable society.


However, those opposed to Reconstruction were also grasping to keep a hold of the ideal (i.e., the racial hierarchy) of the Old South. During this time, several hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, were formed to promote white supremacy and terrorize Black people and Republicans.


The culture of the South took on a nuanced character, one that was both positive and negative in turn. Black culture thrived on liberation, as African Americans were finally free to express themselves in all aspects of culture–religion, education, traditions–there was a distinct change in having a culture based on bondage and one based on liberation.


The culture of the New South also fostered cultural devolution, the ideals of the Confederacy were not gone because the war had been lost. The white Southern elite attempted to maintain their status and, in doing so, furthered white supremacy and inequality throughout the country.


The End of Reconstruction & the Aftermath

compromise with the south thomas nast
Compromise with the South by Thomas Nast, 1864, via the Library of Congress


The end of Reconstruction came on gradually, as waning national interest allowed for a sweeping Democratic takeover in the late 1870s and into the 20th century. This began with the Compromise of 1877, in which Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency by agreeing with Southern delegates to remove federal Reconstruction enforcement from the South.


In exchange for their support, Hayes made good on the deal and ended Reconstruction after his inauguration in January 1877 by removing US troops from the South. The end of Reconstruction brought about the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, which codified segregation and discrimination in the South. These discriminatory policies, which disallowed minorities from using the same public facilities and enjoying the same rights as white people, continued until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Meanwhile, Republican policy shifted toward industry and economic growth and focused less on racial equality. This age, often referred to as the Gilded Age, saw the emergence of our modern understanding of American political parties, with Republicans focused on privatized economic growth.


kkk white league end of reconstruction
The Union as it was the lost cause, worse than slavery by Thomas Nast, 1874, via the Library of Congress


By the time Reconstruction ended, governments across the South had already been reconquered by the Democratic Party, and Black politicians were forced out of their roles. Black culture grew in segregation, especially concerning food and music, but African Americans were continually and systemically disadvantaged in the South. This led to the Great Migration, the early 20th-century mass migration of Black Americans to the North.


The lasting impact of Reconstruction was felt throughout American history and is arguably still felt today. The white supremacy hate groups and Southern sympathizers that grew out of the ideals of the Old South continue into today, as can be seen by the systemic racism in American society, which is continuing to be identified. Reconstruction also, however, provided a glimmer of hope in the push for equality that inspired Civil Rights leaders throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. It is an era that should not be forgotten, both for its positive and negative impact.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.