The Civil War and Reconstruction in America

Collecting the Dead. Cold Harbor, Virginia. April, 1865. Via Library of Congress.


By Dr. Thomas Balcerski and Christopher Abernathy / 08.01.2016
Balcerski: Assistant Professor of History, Eastern Connecticut State University
Abernathy: PhD Candidate in American History, The University of Oklahoma

The American Yawp

The Civil War


The American Civil War, the bloodiest in the nation’s history, resulted in approximately 750,000 deaths.1 The war touched the life of nearly every American as military mobilization reached levels never seen before or since. The vast majority of northerners went to war to preserve the Union, but the war ultimately transformed into a struggle to eradicate slavery. African Americans, both enslaved and free pressed the issue of emancipation and nurtured this transformation. Simultaneously, women thrust themselves into critical wartime roles while navigating a world without many men of military age. The Civil War was a defining event in the history of the United States and, for the Americans thrust into it, a wrenching one.

The Election of 1860 and Secession

As the fall of 1860 approached, a four-way race for the Presidency—and the future of America—emerged. In April, the Democratic Party convened in Charleston, South Carolina, the bastion of secessionist thought in the South. The goal was to nominate a candidate for the party ticket, but the party was deeply divided. Northern Democrats pulled for Senator Stephen Douglas, a pro-slavery moderate championing popular sovereignty, while Southern Democrats were intent on endorsing someone other than Douglas. The parties leaders refusal to include a pro-slavery platform resulted in Southern delegates walking out of the convention, preventing Douglas from gaining the two-thirds majority required for a nomination. A subsequent convention in Baltimore nominated Douglas for the Democratic ticket, while southerners nominated current Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their presidential candidate. The nation’s oldest party had split over differences in policy toward slavery.

Initially, the Republicans were hardly unified around a single candidate themselves. Several leading Republican men vied for their party’s nomination. A consensus emerged at the May 1860 convention that the party’s nominee would need to carry all the free states—for only in that situation could a Republican nominee potentially win. New York Senator William Seward, a leading contender, was passed over. Seward’s pro-immigrant position posed a potential obstacle, particularly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, as a relatively unknown but likable politician, rose from a pool of potential candidates and was selected by the delegates on the third ballot. The electoral landscape was further complicated through the emergence of a fourth candidate, Tennessee’s John Bell, heading the Constitutional Union Party. The Constitutional Unionists, comprised of former Whigs who teamed up with some southern Democrats, made it their mission to avoid the specter of secession while doing little else to address the issues tearing the country apart.

Abraham Lincoln’s nomination proved a great windfall for the Republican Party. Lincoln carried all free states with the exception of New Jersey (which he split with Douglas). 81.2% of the voting electorate came out to vote—at that point the highest ever for a presidential election. Lincoln’s received fewer than 40% of the popular vote, but with the field so split, that percentage turned into a winning 180 electoral votes. Lincoln was trailed by Breckinridge with his 72 electoral votes, carrying 11 of the 15 slave states, Bell came in third with 39 electoral votes, with Douglas coming in last, only able to garner twelve electoral votes despite carrying almost 30% of the popular vote. Since the Republican platform prohibited the expansion of slavery in future western states, all future Confederate states, with the exception of Virginia, excluded Lincoln’s name from their ballots.2

Abraham Lincoln, August 13, 1860, via Library of Congress.

The election of Lincoln and the perceived threat to the institution of slavery proved too much for the deep Southern states. South Carolina acted almost immediately, calling a convention to declare secession. On December 20, 1860, the South Carolina convention voted unanimously 169-0 to dissolve their Union with the United States. The other states across the Deep South quickly followed suit. Mississippi adopted their own resolution on January 9, 1861, Florida followed on January 10, Alabama January 11, Georgia on January 19, Louisiana on January 26, and Texas on February 1. Texas was the only state to put the issue up for a popular vote, but secession was widely popular throughout the South.

Confederates quickly shed their American identity and adopted a new Confederate nationalism. Confederate nationalism was based on several ideals, foremost among these being slavery. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens stated in his “Cornerstone Speech,” the Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery… is his natural and normal condition.”3 The election of Lincoln in 1860 demonstrated that the South was politically overwhelmed. Slavery was omnipresent in the pre-war South, and it served as the most common frame of reference for unequal power. To a Southern man, there was no fate more terrifying than the thought of being reduced to the level of a slave. Religion likewise shaped Confederate nationalism and identity, as southerners believed that the Confederacy was fulfilling God’s will. The Confederacy even veered from the American constitution by explicitly invoking Christianity in their founding document. Yet in every case, all rationale for secession could be thoroughly tied to slavery. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world”, proclaimed the Mississippi statement of secession.4 Thus for the original seven Confederate states (and those who would subsequently join), slavery’s existence was the sine qua non for the fledgling Confederacy.

The emblems of nationalism on this currency reveal much about the ideology underpinning the Confederacy: George Washington standing stately in a Roman toga indicates the belief in the South’s honorable and aristocratic past; John C. Calhoun’s portrait emphasizes the Confederate argument of the importance of states’ rights; and, most importantly, the image of African Americans working in fields demonstrates slavery’s position as foundational to the Confederacy. A five and one hundred dollar Confederate States of America interest bearing banknote, c. 1861 and 1862. Wikimedia.

Not all southerners participated in Confederate nationalism. Unionist southerners, most common in the upcountry where slavery was weakest, retained their loyalty to the Union, joining the Union army and working to defeat the Confederacy. Black southerners, most of whom were slaves, overwhelmingly supported the Union, often running away from plantations and forcing the Union army to reckon with slavery.

President James Buchanan would not directly address the issue of secession prior to his term’s end in early March. Any effort to try and solve the issue therefore fell upon Congress, specifically a “Committee of Thirteen” including prominent men such as Stephen Douglas, William Seward, Robert Toombs, and John Crittenden. In what became known as “Crittenden’s Compromise,” Senator Crittenden proposed a series of Constitutional Amendments that guaranteed slavery in southern states states/territories, denied the Federal Government interstate slave trade regulatory power, and offered to compensate slave owners of unrecovered fugitive slaves. The Committee of Thirteen ultimately voted down the measure and it likewise failed in the full Senate vote (25-23). Reconciliation appeared impossible.

The seven seceding states met in Montgomery, Alabama on February 4th to organize a new nation. The delegates selected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president and established a capital in Montgomery, Alabama (it would move to Richmond in May). Whether other states of the Upper South would join the Confederacy remained uncertain. By the early spring of 1861, North Carolina and Tennessee had not held secession conventions, while voters in Virginia, Missouri, and Arkansas initially voted down secession. Despite this temporary boost to the Union, it became abundantly clear that these acts of loyalty in the Upper South were highly conditional and relied on a clear lack of intervention on the part of the Federal government. This was the precarious political situation facing Abraham Lincoln following his inauguration on March 4, 1861.

A War for Union, 1861-1863

In his inaugural address, Lincoln declared secession “legally void.”5 While he did not intend to invade Southern states, he would use force to maintain possession of federal property within seceded states. Attention quickly shifted to the federal installation of Fort Sumter. Union forces, under the command of Major Robert Anderson, held Charleston, South Carolina’s Ft. Sumter in April 1861. The fort was in need of supplies, and Lincoln intended to resupply it. South Carolina called for U.S. soldiers to evacuate the fort and Major Anderson refused. After decades of sectional tension, official hostilities erupted on April 12, 1861, when Confederate Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard fired on the fort. Anderson surrendered on April 13th and the Union troops evacuated. In response to the attack, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to serve three months to suppress the rebellion. The American Civil War had begun.

Sent to then Secretary of War Simon Cameron on April 13, 1861, this telegraph announced that after “thirty hours of defending Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson had accepted the evacuation offered by Confederate General Beauregard. The Union had surrendered Fort Sumter, and the Civil War had officially begun. “Telegram from Maj. Robert Anderson to Hon. Simon Cameron, Secretary, announcing his withdrawal from Fort Sumter,” April 18, 1861; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s-1917; Record Group 94; National Archives

The assault on Fort Sumter, and subsequent call for troops, provoked several Upper South states to join the Confederacy. In total, eleven states renounced their allegiance to the United States of America. The new Confederate nation was predicated on the institution of slavery and the promotion of any and all interests that reinforced that objective. Some southerners couched their defense of slavery as a preservation of states rights. But in order to protect slavery, the Confederate nation created a central government that ruled over the states even more than what the constitution called for—an irony not lost on many.

Shortly after Lincoln’s call for troops, the Union adopted General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan to suppress the rebellion. This strategy intended to strangle the Confederacy by cutting off access to coastal ports and inland waterways via a naval blockade, while ground troops entered the interior. Like an anaconda snake, they planned to surround and squeeze the Confederacy.

Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan meant to slowly squeeze the South dry of its resources, blocking all coastal ports and inland waterways to prevent the importation of goods or the export of cotton. This print, while poorly drawn, does a great job of making clear the Union’s plan. J.B. Elliott, “Scott’s great snake. Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1861,” 1861. Library of Congress.

The Border States of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky maintained geographic, social, political, and economic connections to both the North and the South. All five were immediately critical to the outcome of the conflict. Abraham Lincoln famously quipped “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”6 Lincoln and his military advisors realized that the loss of the Border States could mean a significant decrease in Union resources and threaten the capital in Washington. Consequently, Lincoln hoped to foster loyalty among their citizens, so that Union forces could minimize their occupation in the regions and deploy soldiers everywhere. In spite of terrible guerrilla warfare in Missouri and Kentucky, the four Border States remained loyal to the Union throughout the war.

Foreign countries, primarily in Europe, also watched the unfolding war with deep interest. The United States represented the greatest example of democratic thought and ideals at the time, and individuals from as far afield as Britain, France, Spain, Russia and beyond closely followed events across the Atlantic Ocean. If the democratic experiment within the United States failed, many democratic activists in Europe wondered what hope might exist for such experiments elsewhere. Conversely, those with close ties to the cotton industry earnestly watched in the spring of 1861. War meant the possibility of disruption to their cotton produced on the backs of slave labor, and disruption could have catastrophic ramifications in commercial and financial markets abroad.

While Lincoln, his cabinet, and the War Department devised strategies to defeat the rebel insurrection, black Americans quickly forced the issue of slavery as a primary issue in the debate. As early as 1861, black Americans implored the Lincoln administration to serve in the army and navy. Lincoln, who initially waged a conservative, limited war, believed that the presence of African American troops would threaten the loyalty of slaveholding border states, and white volunteers who might refuse to serve alongside black men. However, army commanders could not ignore the growing populations of formerly enslaved people who escaped to freedom behind Union army lines. These former enslaved people took a proactive stance early in the war and forced the federal government to act. As the number of refugees ballooned, Lincoln and Congress found it harder to avoid the issue.

In May 1861, General Benjamin F. Butler went over his superiors’ heads and began accepting fugitive slaves who came to Fortress Monroe in Virginia. In order to avoid the issue of the slaves’ freedom, Butler reasoned that runaway slaves were “contraband of war,” and he had as much a right to seize them as he did to seize enemy horses or cannons. Later that summer Congress affirmed Butler’s policy in the First Confiscation Act. The act left “contrabands,” as these runaways were called, in a state of limbo. Once a slave escaped to Union lines, her master’s claim was nullified. She was not, however, a free citizen of the United States. Runaways lived in “contraband camps,” where disease and malnutrition were rampant. The men were required to perform the drudgework of war: raising fortifications, cooking meals, and laying railroad tracks. Still, life as a contraband offered a potential path to freedom, and thousands of slaves seized the opportunity.

Enslaved African Americans who took freedom into their own hands and ran to Union lines congregated in what were called contraband camps, which existed alongside Union army camps. As is evident in the photograph, these were crude, disorganized, and dirty places. But they were still centers of freedom for those fleeing slavery. Contraband camp, Richmond, Va, 1865. The Camp of the Contrabands on the Banks of the Mississippi, Fort Pickering, Memphis, Tenn, 1862. American Antiquarian Society.

Fugitive slaves posed a dilemma for the Union military. Soldiers were forbidden to interfere with slavery or assist runaways, but many soldiers found such a policy unchristian. Even those indifferent to slavery were reluctant to turn away potential laborers or help the enemy by returning his property. Also, fugitive slaves could provide useful information on the local terrain and the movements of Confederate troops. Union officers became particularly reluctant to turn away fugitive slaves when Confederate commanders began forcing slaves to work on fortifications. Every slave who escaped to Union lines was a loss to the Confederate war effort.

Any hopes for a brief conflict were eradicated three months after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter when Union and Confederate forces met at the Battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia. While not particularly deadly, the Confederate victory proved that the Civil War would be long and costly. Furthermore, in response to the embarrassing Union rout, Lincoln removed Brigadier General Irvin McDowell of command and promoted Major General George B. McClellan to commander of the newly formed Army of the Potomac. For nearly a year after the First Battle of Bull Run, the Eastern Theater remained relatively silent. Smaller engagements only resulted in a bloody stalemate.

Photography captured the horrors of war as never before. Some Civil War photographers arranged the actors in their frames to capture the best picture, even repositioning bodies of dead soldiers for battlefield photos. Alexander Gardner, “[Antietam, Md. Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road],” September 1862. Library of Congress.

But while the military remained quiet, the same could not be said of Republicans in Washington. The absence of fractious, stalling Southerners in Congress allowed Republicans to finally pass the Whig economic package, including the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant College Act (a.k.a. Morrill Act), and the Pacific Railroad Act. The federal government also began moving toward a more nationally controlled currency system (the greenback) and the creation of banks with national characteristics. Such acts proved instrumental in the expansion and evolution of the federal government, industry, and political parties moving into the post-war period.

New and more destructive warfare technology emerged during this time that utilized discoveries and innovations in other areas of life, like transportation. This photograph shows Robert E. Lee’s railroad gun and crew used in the main eastern theater of war at the siege of Petersburg, June 1864-April 1865. “Petersburg, Va. Railroad gun and crew,” between 1864 and 1865. Library of Congress.

The Democratic Party, absent its southern leaders, divided into two camps. War Democrats largely stood behind President Lincoln. “Peace Democrats”—also known as “Copperheads”—clashed frequently with both War Democrats and Republicans. Copperheads were sympathetic to the Confederacy; they exploited public anti-war sentiment (often the result of a lost battle or mounting casualties) and tried to push President Lincoln to negotiate an immediate peace, regardless of political leverage or bargaining power. Had the Copperheads succeeded in bringing about immediate peace, the Union would have been forced to recognize the Confederacy as a separate and legitimate government and the institution of slavery would have remained intact.

While Washington buzzed with political activity, military life filled with relative monotony punctuated by brief periods of horror. Daily life for a Civil War soldier was one of routine. A typical day began around 6am and involved drill, marching, lunch break, and more drilling followed by policing the camp. Weapon inspection and cleaning followed, perhaps one final drill, dinner, and taps around 9 or 9:30 pm. Soldiers in both armies grew weary of the routine. Picketing or foraging afforded welcome distractions to the monotony.

Soldiers devised clever ways of dealing with the boredom of camp life. The most common activity was writing. These were highly literate armies; nine out of every ten Federals and eight out of every ten Confederates could read and write.7 Letters home served as a tether linking soldiers to their loved ones. Soldiers also read; newspapers were in high demand. News from other theatres of war, events in Europe, politics in Washington and Richmond, and local concerns were voraciously sought and traded.

While there were nurses, camp followers, and some women who disguised themselves as men, camp life was overwhelmingly male. Soldiers drank liquor, smoked tobacco, gambled, and swore. Social commentators feared that when these men returned home, with their hard-drinking and irreligious ways, all decency, faith, and temperance would depart. But not all methods of distraction were detrimental. Soldiers also organized debate societies, composed music, sang songs, wrestled, raced horses, boxed, and played sports.

Neither side could consistently provide supplies for their soldiers, so it was not uncommon, though officially forbidden, for common soldiers to trade with the enemy. Confederate soldiers prized northern newspapers and coffee. Northerners were glad to exchange these for southern tobacco. Supply shortages and poor sanitation were synonymous with Civil War armies. The close proximity of thousands of men bred disease. Lice were soldiers’ daily companions.

Music was popular among the soldiers of both armies, creating a diversion from the boredom and horror of the war. As a result, soldiers often sang on fatigue duty and while in camp. Favorite songs, including “Lorena,” “Home, Sweet Home,” and “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” often reminded the soldiers of home. Dances held in camp offered another way to enjoy music. Since there were often very few women nearby, soldiers would dance with one another.

When the Civil War broke out, one of the most popular songs among soldiers and civilians was “John Brown’s Body” which began “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.”  Started as a Union anthem praising John Brown’s actions at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, then used by Confederates to vilify Brown, both sides’ version of the song stressed that they were on the right side. Eventually the words to Julia Ward Howe’s poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” were set to the melody, further implying Union success. The themes of popular songs changed over the course of the war, as feelings of inevitable success alternated with feelings of terror and despair.

After an extensive delay on the part of Union commander George McClellan, his 120,000 man Army of the Potomac moved via ship to the peninsula between the York and James Rivers in Virginia. Rather than crossing overland via the former battlefield at Manassas Junction, McClellan attempted to swing around the Rebel forces and enter the capital of Richmond before they knew what hit them. McClellan, however, was an overly cautious man who consistently overestimated his adversaries’ numbers to his detriment. This cautious approach played into the Confederate favor on the outskirts of Richmond. Recently appointed commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, forced McClellan to retreat from Richmond and his “Peninsular Campaign” became a tremendous failure.

Union forces met with little success in the East, but the Western Theater provided hope for the United States. In February 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson along the Tennessee River marked the opening of the Western Theater. Fighting in the West greatly differed from that in the East. At the First Battle of Bull Run, for example, two large armies fought for control of the nations’ capitals; while in the West, Union and Confederate forces fought for control of the rivers, since the Mississippi River and its tributaries were a key tenet of the Union’s Anaconda Plan. One of the deadliest of these clashes occurred along the Tennessee River at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862. This battle, lasting only two days, was the costliest single battle in American history up to that time. The Union victory shocked both the Union and the Confederacy with approximately 23,000 casualties, a number that exceeded casualties from all of the United States’ previous wars combined. The subsequent capture of New Orleans by Union forces proved a decisive blow to the Confederacy and capped a Western Theater spring of success in 1862.

The Union and Confederate navies helped or hindered army movements around the many marine environments of the southern United States. And each navy employed the latest technology to outmatch the other. The Confederate Navy, led by Stephen Russell Mallory, had the unenviable task of constructing a fleet from scratch and trying to fend off a vastly better equipped Union Navy. Led by Gideon Welles of Connecticut, the Union Navy successfully implemented General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. The future of naval warfare also emerged in the spring of 1862 as two “ironclad” warships fought to a duel at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The age of the wooden sail was gone and naval warfare would be fundamentally altered. Despite these advances in naval technology, African Americans on the ground were complicating Union war aims to an even greater degree.

The creation of black regiments was another kind of innovation during the Civil War. Northern free blacks and newly freed slaves joined together under the leadership of white officers to fight for the Union cause. This novelty was not only beneficial for the Union war effort; it also showed the Confederacy that the Union sought to destroy the foundational institution (slavery) upon which their nation was built. William Morris Smith, “[District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln],” between 1863 and 1866. Library of Congress.

By the summer of 1862, the actions of black Americans were pushing the Union towards a full-blown war of emancipation. Following up on the First Confiscation Act, in April 1862, Congress abolished the institution of slavery in the District of Columbia. In July 1862, Congress passed the 2nd Confiscation Act, effectively emancipating slaves that came under Union control. Such legislation led to even more blacks making their way into Union lines and putting further pressure on the Lincoln administration to contend with the future of slavery. For his part, Abraham Lincoln evolved in his thinking on the issue. By the summer of 1862, Lincoln first floated the idea of an Emancipation Proclamation to members of his Cabinet. By August 1862, he proposed the first iteration of the Emancipation Proclamation. While his cabinet supported such an idea, Secretary of State William Seward insisted that Lincoln wait for a “decisive” Union victory so as not to appear too desperate a measure on the part of a failing government.

This African American family dressed in their finest clothes (including a USCT uniform) for this photograph, projecting respectability and dignity that was at odds with the southern perception of black Americans. “[Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters],” between 1863 and 1865. Library of Congress.

This decisive moment that prompted the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation would occur in the fall of 1862 along Antietam creek in Maryland. Emboldened by their success in the previous spring and summer, Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis planned to win a decisive victory in Union territory and end the war. On September 17, 1862, McClellan and Lee’s forces collided at the Battle of Antietam near the town of Sharpsburg. This battle was the first major battle of the Civil War to occur on Union soil and it remains the bloodiest single day in American history with over 20,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in just twelve hours.

Despite the Confederate withdrawal and the high death toll, the Battle of Antietam was not a decisive Union victory. It did, however, result in enough of a victory for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in areas under Confederate control. Furthermore, there were significant exemptions to the Emancipation Proclamation including the border states, and parts of other states in the Confederacy. A far cry from a universal end to slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation nevertheless proved vital in solidifying the Union’s shift in war aims from one of Union to Emancipation. Framing it as a war measure, Lincoln and his Cabinet hoped that stripping the Confederacy of their labor force would not only debilitate the Southern economy, but also weaken Confederate morale. Furthermore, the Battle of Antietam and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation all but ensured that the Confederacy would not be recognized by European powers. Nevertheless, Confederates continued fighting; and Union and Confederate forces clashed again at Fredericksburg, Virginia in December 1862. The Battle of Fredericksburg was a Confederate victory that resulted in staggering Union casualties.

War for Emancipation, 1863-1865

As United States armies penetrated deeper into the Confederacy, requiring increased numbers of troops to occupy the South and battle rebel armies, politicians and the Union high command came to understand the necessity, and benefit, of enlisting African American men into the army and navy. Although a few commanders began forming black units in 1862, such as Massachusetts abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s First South Carolina Volunteers (the first regiment of black soldiers), widespread enlistment did not occur until the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. “And I further declare and make known,” Lincoln’s Proclamation read, “that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”8

The language describing black enlistment indicated Lincoln’s implicit desire to segregate African American troops from the main campaigning armies of white soldiers. “I believe it is a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest. It works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us,” Lincoln remarked in August 1863 about black soldiering.9 Although more than 180,000 black men (ten percent of the Union army) served during the war, the majority of United States Colored Troops (USCT) remained stationed behind the lines as garrison forces, often laboring and performing non-combat roles.

African American soldiers in the Union army endured rampant discrimination and earned less pay than white soldiers, while also facing the possibility of being murdered or sold into slavery if captured by Confederate forces. James Henry Gooding, a black corporal in the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, wrote to Abraham Lincoln in September 1863, questioning why he and his fellow volunteers were paid less than white men. Gooding argued that, because he and his brethren were born in the United States and selflessly left their private lives and to enter the army, they should be treated “as American SOLDIERS, not as menial hirelings.”10

African American soldiers defied the inequality of military service and used their positions in the army to reshape society, North and South. The majority of USCT (United States Colored Troops) had once been enslaved, and their presence as armed, blue-clad soldiers sent shockwaves throughout the Confederacy. To their friends and families, African American soldiers symbolized the embodiment of liberation and the destruction of slavery. To white southerners, they represented the utter disruption of the Old South’s racial and social hierarchy. As members of armies of occupation, black soldiers wielded martial authority in towns and plantations. At the end of the war, as a black soldier marched by a cluster of Confederate prisoners, he noticed his former master among the group. “Hello, massa,” the soldier exclaimed, “bottom rail on top dis time!”11

“Two Brothers in Arms.” The Library of Congress.

In addition to a majority of USCT garrisoning and occupying the South, other African American soldiers performed admirably on the battlefield, shattering white myths that docile, cowardly black men would fold in the maelstrom of war. Black troops fought in more than 400 battles and skirmishes, including Milliken’s Bend and Port Hudson, Louisiana; Fort Wagner, South Carolina; Nashville; and the final campaigns to capture Richmond, Virginia. Fifteen black soldiers received the Medal of Honor, the highest honor bestowed for military heroism. Through their voluntarism, service, battlefield contributions, and even death, African American soldiers laid their claims for citizenship. “Once let a black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.”  Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, proclaimed, “and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”12

Many slaves accompanied their masters in the Confederate army. They served their masters as “camp servants,” cooking their meals, raising their tents, and carrying their supplies. The Confederacy also impressed slaves to perform manual labor. There are three important points to make about these “Confederate” slaves. First, their labor was almost always coerced. Second, people are complicated and have varying, often contradictory loyalties. A slave could hope in general that the Confederacy would lose but at the same time be concerned for the safety of his master and the Confederate soldiers he saw on a daily basis.

Finally, white Confederates did not see African Americans as their equals, much less as soldiers. There was never any doubt that black laborers and camp servants were property. Though historians disagree on the matter, it is a stretch to claim that not a single African American ever fired a gun for the Confederacy; a camp servant whose master died in battle might well pick up his dead master’s gun and continue firing, if for no other reason than to protect himself. But this was always on an informal basis. The Confederate government did, in an act of desperation, pass a law in March 1865 allowing for the enlistment of black soldiers, but only a few dozen African Americans (mostly Richmond hospital workers) had enlisted by the war’s end.

As 1863 dawned, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia continued its offensive strategy in the East. One of the war’s major battles occurred near the village of Chancellorsville, Virginia between April 30 and May 6, 1863. While the Battle of Chancellorsville was an outstanding Confederate victory against Union Major General Joseph Hooker (who replaced Ambrose Burnside as the commander of the Army of the Potomac after his defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg), it also resulted in heavy casualties and the mortal wounding of Confederate Major General “Stonewall” Jackson.

In spite of Jackson’s death, Lee continued his offensive against Federal forces and invaded Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. During the three-day battle (July 1-3) at Gettysburg, heavy casualties crippled both sides. Yet, the devastating July 3 infantry assault on the Union center, also known as Pickett’s Charge, caused Lee to retreat from Pennsylvania. The Gettysburg Campaign was Lee’s final northern incursion and the Battle of Gettysburg remains the bloodiest battle of the war, and in American history, with 51,000 casualties.

Concurrently in the West, Union forces continued their movement along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Grant launched his campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi in the winter of 1862. Known as the “Gibraltar of the West,” Vicksburg was the last holdout in the West, and its seizure would enable uninhibited travel for Union forces along the Mississippi River. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, which lasted until July 4, 1863, ended with the city’s surrender. The fall of Vicksburg split the Confederacy in two.

Despite Union success in the summer of 1863, discontent over the war ran throughout the North. This was particularly true in the wake of the Enrollment Act—the first effort at a draft among the northern populace during the Civil War. The working class citizens of New York felt especially angered as wealthy New Yorkers paid $300 for substitutes, sparing themselves from the hardships of war. “A rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight,” became a popular refrain. The Emancipation Proclamation convinced many immigrants in northern cities that freed people would soon take their jobs. This frustration culminated in the New York City Draft Riots in July 1863. Over the span of four days, the white populace killed some 120 citizens including the lynching of at least eleven black New Yorkers. Property damage was in the millions, including the complete destruction of more than fifty properties—most notably that of the Colored Orphan Asylum. In an ultimate irony, the largest civil disturbance to date in the United States (aside from the war itself) was only stopped by the deployment of Union soldiers, some of whom came directly from Gettysburg.

Elsewhere, the North produced widespread displays of unity. Sanitary fairs originated in the old northwest and raised millions of dollars for Union soldiers. Indeed, many women rose to take pivotal leadership roles in the sanitary fairs—a clear contribution to the northern war effort. The fairs also encouraged national unity within the North—something that became more important as the war entered its second half and casualties continued to mount. The northern homefront was complicated: overt displays of loyalty contrasted with violent dissent.

Thomas Nast, “Our Heroines, United States Sanitary Commission,” in Harper’s Weekly, April 9, 1864, via Cushing/Whitney Medical Library at Yale University.

A similar situation played out in the Confederacy. The Confederate Congress passed its first conscription act in the spring of 1862, a full year before their northern counterparts. Military service was required from all able-bodied males between 18 and 35 (eventually extended to 45.) Notable exemptions likewise existed in the Confederacy, especially for those who owned twenty or more slaves. Discontent on the present state of affairs in the Confederacy reached a boiling point in 1863. Through the spring of 1863 consistent food shortages led to “bread riots” in several Confederate cities, most notably Richmond, Virginia and the Georgia cities of Augusta, Macon, and Columbus. Confederate women led these mobs to protest food shortages and rampant inflation within the Confederate South. Exerting their own political control, women dramatically impacted the war through their violent actions in these cases, as well as constant petitions to Governors for aid and the release of husbands from military service. One of these women wrote a letter to North Carolina Governor, Zebulon Vance, saying “Especially for the sake of suffering women and children, do try and stop this cruel war.”13 Confederates waged a multi-front struggle against Union incursion and internal dissent.

For some women, the best way to support their cause was spying on the enemy. When the war broke out, Rose O’Neal Greenhow was living in Washington D.C., where she travelled in high social circles, gathering information for her Confederate contact. Suspecting Greenhow of espionage, Allan Pinkerton placed her under surveillance, instigated a raid on her house to gather evidence, and then placed her under house arrest, after which she was incarcerated in Old Capitol prison. Upon her release, she was sent, under guard, to Baltimore, Maryland. From there Greenhow went to Europe to attempt to bring support to the Confederacy. Failing in her efforts, Greenhow decided to return to America, boarding the blockade runner Condor, which ran aground near Wilmington, North Carolina. Subsequently, she drowned after her lifeboat capsized in a storm. Greenhow gave her life for the Confederate cause, while Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” Van Lew sacrificed her social standing for the Union. Van Lew was from a very prominent Richmond, Virginia family and spied on the Confederacy, leading to her being “held in contempt & scorn by the narrow minded men and women of my city for my loyalty.”14 Indeed, when General Ulysses Grant took control of Richmond, he placed a special guard on Van Lew. In addition to her espionage activities, Van Lew also acted as a nurse to Union prisoners in Libby Prison. For pro-Confederate Southern women, there were more opportunities to show their scorn for the enemy. Some women in New Orleans took these demonstrations to the level of dumping their chamber pots onto the heads of unsuspecting Federal soldiers who stood underneath their balconies, leading to Benjamin Butler’s infamous General Order Number 28, which arrested all rebellious women as prostitutes.

Pauline Cushman was an American actress and a wartime spy. Using her guile to fraternize with Confederate officers, Cushman snuck military plans and drawings to Union officials in her shoes. She was caught, tried, and sentenced to death, but was apparently saved days before her execution by the occupation of her native New Orleans by Union forces. Whether as spies, nurses, or textile workers, women were essential to the Union war effort. “Pauline Cushman,” between 1855 and 1865. Library of Congress.

Amidst these social upheavals, more elaborate military operations predicated on the strategy of hard war defined the war in 1864. The new tactics of hard war evolved slowly, as restraint towards southern civilians and property ultimately gave way to a concerted effort to demoralize southern civilians and destroy the southern economy. Grant’s successes at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Tennessee (November 1863) and Meade’s cautious pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg prompted Lincoln to promote Grant to general-in-chief of the Union Army in early 1864. This change in command resulted in some of the bloodiest battles of the Eastern Theater. Grant’s Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Cold Harbor, and the siege of Petersburg, demonstrated Grant’s willingness to tirelessly attack the ever-dwindling Army of Northern Virginia. By June 1864, Grant’s army surrounded the Confederate city of Petersburg, Virginia, and slowly began siege operations to cut off Confederate forces and supplies from the capital of Richmond. Meanwhile out west, Union armies under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman implemented hard war strategies and slowly made their way through central Tennessee and north Georgia capturing the vital rail hub of Atlanta in September 1864.

Action in both theaters during 1864 caused even more casualties and furthered the devastation of disease. Disease haunted both armies, and accounted for over half of all Civil War casualties. Sometimes as many as half of the men in a company could be sick. The overwhelming majority of Civil War soldiers came from rural areas, where less exposure to diseases, meant soldiers lacked immunities. Vaccines for diseases such as smallpox were largely unavailable to those outside of cities or towns. Despite the common nineteenth-century tendency to see city-men as weak or soft, soldiers from urban environments tended to succumb to fewer diseases than their rural counterparts. Tuberculosis, measles, rheumatism, typhoid, malaria, and smallpox spread almost unchecked among the armies.

Pennsylvania Light Artillery, Battery B, Petersburg, Virginia. Photograph by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1864. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Civil War medicine focused almost exclusively on curing the patient rather than preventing disease. Many soldiers attempted to cure themselves by concocting elixirs and medicines themselves. These ineffective “home-remedies” were often made from various plants the men found in woods or fields. There was no understanding of germ theory so many soldiers did things that we would consider unsanitary today. They ate food that was improperly cooked and handled, and practiced what we would consider poor personal hygiene. They did not take appropriate steps to ensure that the water they drank was free from bacteria. Diarrhea and dysentery were common. These diseases were especially dangerous, as Civil War soldiers did not understand the value of replacing fluids as they were lost. As such, men affected by these conditions would weaken, and become unable to fight or march, and as they became dehydrated their immune system became less effective, inviting other infections to attack the body. Through trial and error soldiers began to protect themselves from some of the more preventable sources of infection. Around 1862 both armies began to dig latrines rather than rely upon the local waterways. Burying human and animal waste also cut down on exposure to diseases considerably.

Medical surgery was limited and brutal. If a soldier was wounded in the torso, throat, or head there was little surgeons could do. Invasive procedures to repair damaged organs or stem blood loss invariably resulted in death. Luckily for soldiers, only approximately one-in-six combat wounds were to one of those parts. The remaining were to limbs, which was treatable by amputation. Soldiers had the highest chance of survival if the limb was removed within 48 hours of injury. A skilled surgeon could amputate a limb around three to five minutes from start to finish. While the lack of germ theory again caused several unsafe practices, such as using the same tools on multiple patients, wiping hands on filthy gowns, or placing hands in communal buckets of water, there is evidence that amputation offered the best chance of survival.

Amputations were a common form of treatment during the war. While it saved the lives of some soldiers, it was extremely painful and resulted in death in many cases. It also produced the first community of war veterans without limbs in American history. “Amputation being performed in a hospital tent, Gettysburg,” July 1863. National Archives and Records Administration.

It is a common misconception that amputation was accompanied without anesthesia and against a patient’s wishes. Since the 1830s Americans understood the benefits of Nitrous Oxide and Ether on easing pain. Chloroform and opium were also used to either render patients unconscious or to dull pain during the procedure. Also, surgeons would not amputate without the patient’s consent.

In the Union army alone, 2.8 million ounces of opium and over 5.2 million opium pills were administered. In 1862 William Alexander Hammon was appointed Surgeon General for the US. He sought to regulate dosages and manage supplies of available medicines, both to prevent overdosing and to ensure that an ample supply remained for the next engagement.  However, his guidelines tended to apply only to the regular federal army. The majority of Union soldiers were in volunteer units and organized at the state level. Their surgeons often ignored posted limits on medicines, or worse experimented with their own concoctions made from local flora.

In the North, the conditions in hospitals were somewhat superior. This was partly due to the organizational skills of women like Dorothea Dix, who was the Union’s Superintendent for Army Nurses. Additionally, many women were members of the United States Sanitary Commission and helped to staff and supply hospitals in the North, helping to prevent supply shortages more often than in southern hospitals.

Women took on key roles within hospitals both North and South. The publisher’s notice for Nurse and Spy in the Union Army states, “In the opinion of many, it is the privilege of woman to minister to the sick and soothe the sorrowing – and in the present crisis of our country’s history, to aid our brothers to the extent of her capacity.”15 Mary Chesnut wrote, “Every woman in the house is ready to rush into the Florence Nightingale business.”16 However, she indicated that after she visited the hospital “I can never again shut out of view the sights that I saw there of human misery. I sit thinking, shut my eyes, and see it all.”17 Hospital conditions were often so bad that many volunteer nurses quit soon after beginning.  Kate Cumming volunteered as a nurse shortly after the war began. She, and other volunteers, travelled with the Army of Tennessee. However, all but one of the women who volunteered with Cumming quit within a week.

Death came in many forms—disease, prisons, bullets, even lightning and bee stings, took men slowly or suddenly. Their deaths, however, affected more than their regiments. Before the war, a wife expected to sit at her husband’s bed, holding his hand, and ministering to him after a long, fulfilling life. This type of death, the Good Death, changed during the Civil War as men died often far from home among strangers. Casualty reporting was inconsistent, so women were often at the mercy of the men who fought alongside her husband to learn not only the details of his death, but even that the death had occurred.

“Now I’m a widow. Ah! That mournful word. Little the world think of the agony it contains!” wrote Sally Randle Perry in her diary.18 After her husband’s death at Sharpsburg, Sally received the label of she would share with more than 200,000 other white women. The death of a husband and loss of financial, physical, and emotional support could shatter lives. It also had the perverse power to free women from bad marriages and open doors to financial and psychological independence.

Widows had an important role to play in the conflict. The ideal widow wore black, mourned for a minimum of two and a half years, resigned herself to God’s will, focused on her children, devoted herself to her husband’s memory, and brought his body home for burial. Many tried, but not all widows were able to live up to the ideal. Many were unable to purchase proper mourning garb. Silk black dresses, heavy veils, and other features of antebellum mourning were expensive and in short supply. Because most of these women were in their childbearing years, the war created an unprecedented number of widows who were pregnant or still nursing infants. In a time when the average woman gave birth to eight to ten children in her lifetime, it is perhaps not surprising that the Civil War created so many widows who were also young mothers with little free time for formal mourning. Widowhood permeated American society. But in the end, it was up to each widow to navigate her own mourning. She joined the ranks of sisters, mothers, cousins, girlfriends, and communities in mourning men.

By the fall of 1864, military and social events played against the backdrop of the presidential election of 1864. While the war raged on, the presidential contest featured a transformed electorate. Three new states (West Virginia, Nevada, and Kansas) had been added since 1860 while the eleven states of the Confederacy did not participate. Lincoln and his Vice Presidential nominee, Andrew Johnson (Tennessee), ran on the National Union Party ticket. The main competition came from his former commander, General George B. McClellan. Though McClellan himself was a “War Democrat,” the official platform of the Democratic Party in 1864 revolved around negotiating an immediate end to the Civil War. McClellan’s Vice Presidential nominee was George H. Pendleton of Ohio—a well-known “Peace Democrat.”

On Election Day—November 8, 1864—Lincoln and McClellan each needed 117 electoral votes (out of a possible 233) to win the presidency. For much of the ’64 campaign season, Lincoln downplayed his chances of reelection and McClellan assumed that large numbers of Union soldiers would grant him support. However, thanks in great part to William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, and overwhelming support from Union troops, Lincoln won the election easily. Additionally, Lincoln received support from more radical Republican factions (such as John C. Fremont) and members of the Radical Democracy Party that demanded the end of slavery.

In the popular vote, Lincoln crushed McClellan by a margin of 55.1% to 44.9%. In the Electoral College, Lincoln’s victory was even more pronounced at a margin of 212 to 21. Lincoln won twenty-two states, and McClellan only managed to carry three: New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky.19

With crowds of people filling every inch of ground around the U.S. Capitol, President Lincoln delivered his inaugural address on March 4, 1865. Alexander Gardner, “Lincoln’s Second Inaugural,” between 1910 and 1920 from a photograph taken in 1865. Wikimedia.

In the wake of reelection, Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 5, 1865, in which he concluded:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.20

1864 and 1865 was the very definition of hard war. Incredibly deadly for both sides, these Union campaigns in both the West and the East destroyed Confederate infrastructure and demonstrated the efficacy of the Union’s strategy. Following up on the successful capture of Atlanta, William Sherman conducted his infamous March to the Sea in the fall of 1864 arriving in Savannah with time to capture it and deliver it as a Christmas present for Abraham Lincoln. Sherman’s path of destruction took on an even more destructive tone as he moved into the heart of the Confederacy in South Carolina in early 1865. The burning of Columbia, South Carolina, and subsequent capture of Charleston brought the hard hand of war to the Magnolia state. In addition, with Grant’s dogged pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, effectively ending major Confederate military operations.

Unions soldiers pose in front of the Appomattox Court House after Lee’s surrender in April 1865. Wikimedia.

To ensure the permanent legal end of slavery, Republicans drafted the Thirteenth Amendment during the war. Yet the end of legal slavery did not mean the end of racial injustice. During the war, ex-slaves were often segregated into disease-ridden contraband camps. After the war, the Republican Reconstruction program of guaranteeing black rights succumbed to persistent racism and southern white violence. Long after 1865, most black southerners continued to labor on plantations, albeit as nominally free tenants or sharecroppers, while facing public segregation and voting discrimination. The effects of slavery endured long after emancipation.


As battlefields fell silent in 1865, the question of secession had been answered, slavery had been eradicated, and America was once again territorially united. But, in many ways, the conclusion of the Civil War created more questions than answers. How would the nation become one again? Who was responsible for rebuilding the South? What role would African Americans occupy in this society? Northern and southern soldiers returned home with broken bodies, broken spirits, and broken minds. Plantation owners had land but not labor. Recently freed African Americans had their labor but no land. Former slaves faced a world of possibilities—legal marriage, reunited family members, employment, and fresh starts—but also a racist world of bitterness, violence, and limited opportunity. The war may have been over, but the battles for the peace were just beginning.


“Contrabands,” Cumberland Landing, Virginia, 1862, via Library of Congress.


After the Civil War, much of the South lay in ruins. “It passes my comprehension to tell what became of our railroads,” one South Carolinian told a Northern reporter. “We had passably good roads, on which we could reach almost any part of the State, and the next week they were all gone – not simply broken up, but gone. Some of the material was burned, I know, but miles and miles of iron have actually disappeared, gone out of existence.”1 He might as well have been talking about the entire antebellum way of life. The future of the South was uncertain. How would these states be brought back into the Union? Would they be conquered territories or equal states? How would they rebuild their governments, economies, and social systems? What rights did freedom confer upon formerly enslaved people?

The answers to many of Reconstruction’s questions hinged upon the concepts of citizenship and equality. The era witnessed perhaps the most open and widespread discussions of citizenship since the nation’s founding. It was a moment of revolutionary possibility and violent backlash. African Americans and Radical Republicans pushed the nation to finally realize the Declaration of Independence’s promises that “all men were created equal” and had “certain, unalienable rights.” Conservative white Democrats granted African Americans legal freedom but little more. When black Americans and their radical allies succeeded in securing citizenship for freedpeople, a new fight commenced to determine the legal, political, and social implications of American citizenship. Resistance continued, and Reconstruction eventually collapsed. In the South, limits on human freedom endured and would stand for nearly a century more.

Politics of Reconstruction

With the war coming to an end, the question of how to reunite the former Confederate states with the Union was a divisive one. Lincoln’s Presidential Reconstruction plans were seen by many, including Radical Republicans in Congress, to be too tolerant towards what they considered to be traitors. This political cartoon reflects this viewpoint, showing Lincoln and Johnson happily stitching the Union back together with little anger towards the South. Joseph E. Baker, “The ‘Rail Splitter’ at Work Repairing the Union,” 1865. Library of Congress.

Reconstruction—the effort to restore southern states to the Union and to redefine African Americans’ place in American society—began before the Civil War ended. President Abraham Lincoln began planning for the reunification of the United States in the fall of 1863. With a sense that Union victory was imminent and that he could turn the tide of the war by stoking Unionist support in the Confederate states, Lincoln issued a proclamation allowing Southerners to take an oath of allegiance. When just ten percent of a state’s voting population had taken such an oath, loyal Unionists could then establish governments. These so-called Lincoln governments sprang up in pockets where Union support existed like Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Unsurprisingly, these were also the places that were exempted from the liberating effects of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Initially proposed as a war aim, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation committed the United States to the abolition of slavery. However, the Proclamation freed only slaves in areas of rebellion and left more than 700,000 in bondage in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri as well as Union-occupied areas of Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia.

To cement the abolition of slavery, however, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865 and legally abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Section Two of the amendment granted Congress the “power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” State ratification followed, and by the end of the year the requisite three-fourths states had approved the amendment, and four million blacks were forever free from the slavery that had existed in North America for 250 years.

Lincoln’s policy was lenient and conservative, but Reconstruction was recast when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865, during a performance of “Our American Cousin” at the Ford Theater. Treated rapidly and with all possible care, Lincoln succumbed to his wounds the following morning, leaving a somber pall over the North and especially among African Americans.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln propelled Vice President Andrew Johnson into the executive office in April 1865. Johnson, a states’ rights, strict-constructionist and unapologetic racist from Tennessee, offered southern states a quick restoration into the Union. His Reconstruction plan required provisional southern governments to void their ordinances of secession, repudiate their Confederate debts, and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. On all other matters, the conventions could do what they wanted with no federal interference. He pardoned all Southerners engaged in the rebellion with the exception of wealthy planters who possessed more than $20,000 in property. The southern aristocracy would have to appeal to Johnson for individual pardons. In the meantime, Johnson hoped that a new class of Southerners would replace the extremely wealthy in leadership positions.

Many southern governments enacted legislation that reestablished antebellum power relationships. South Carolina and Mississippi passed laws known as Black Codes to regulate black behavior and impose social and economic control. These laws granted some rights to African Americans – like the right to own property, to marry or to make contracts – they also denied them fundamental rights. White lawmakers forbade black men from serving on juries or in state militias, refused to recognize black testimony against white people, apprenticed orphan children to their former masters, and established severe vagrancy laws. Mississippi’s vagrant law required all freedmen to carry papers proving they had means of employment.2 If they had no proof, they could be arrested and fined. If they could not pay the fine, the sheriff had the right to hire out his prisoner to anyone who was willing to pay the tax. Similar ambiguous vagrancy laws throughout the South reasserted control over black labor in what one scholar has called “slavery by another name.”3 Black codes effectively criminalized black leisure, limited their mobility, and locked many into exploitative farming contracts. Attempts to restore the antebellum economic order largely succeeded.

These laws and outrageous mob violence against southern blacks led Republicans to call for a more punitive process for southern states to be reinstated to the Union. So when Johnson announced that the southern states had been restored to the Union, Republicans in Congress refused to seat southern delegates from the newly reconstructed states.

Republicans in Congress responded with a spate of legislation aimed at protecting freedmen and restructuring political relations in the South. Many Republicans were keen to grant voting rights for freed men in order to build a new powerful voting bloc. Some Republicans, like United States Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, believed in racial equality, but the majority understood that the only way to protect Republican interests in the South was to give the vote to the hundreds of thousands of black men. Republicans in Congress responded to the codes with the Civil Rights Act of 1866— the first federal attempt to constitutionally define all American-born residents (except Native peoples) as citizens and which prohibited any curtailment of citizens’ “fundamental rights.”

While no one could agree on what the best plan for reconstructing the nation would be, Americans understood the moment as critical and perhaps revolutionary. In this magnificent visual metaphor for the reconciliation of the North and South, John Lawrence postulates what might result from reunion. Reconstruction, the print seems to argue, will form a more perfect Union that upholds the ideals of the American Revolution, most importantly (as seen on a streaming banner near the top) that “All men are born free and equal.” John Giles Lawrence, “Reconstruction,” 1867. Library of Congress.

The Fourteenth Amendment developed concurrently with the Civil Rights Act to ensure its constitutionality. The House of Representatives approved the Fourteenth Amendment on June 13, 1866. Section One granted citizenship and repealed the Taney Court’s infamous Dred Scott (1857) decision. Moreover, it ensured that state laws could not deny due process or discriminate against particular groups of people. The Fourteenth Amendment signaled the federal government’s willingness to enforce the Bill of Rights over the authority of the states.

Based on his belief that African Americans did not deserve rights, President Johnson opposed both the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and vetoed the Civil Rights Act, as he believed black Americans did not deserve citizenship. With a two-thirds majority gained in the 1866 midterm elections, Republicans overrode the veto, and in 1867, they passed the first of two Reconstruction Acts, which dissolved state governments and divided the South into five military districts. Before states could rejoin the Union, they would have to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, write new constitutions enfranchising African Americans, and abolish black codes. The Fourteenth Amendment was finally ratified on July 9, 1868.

In the 1868 Presidential election, former Union General Ulysses S. Grant ran on a platform that proclaimed, “Let Us Have Peace” in which he promised to protect the new status quo. On the other hand, the Democratic candidate, Horatio Seymour, promised to repeal Reconstruction. Black Southern voters’ support for Grant helped him win most of the former Confederacy.

With the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, droves of African American men went to the polls to exercise their newly recognized right to vote. In this Harper’s Weekly print, black men of various occupations wait patiently for their turn as the first voter submits his ballot. Unlike other contemporary images that depicted African Americans as ignorant, unkempt, and lazy, this print shows these black men as active citizens. Alfred R. Waud, “The First Vote,” November 1867. Library of Congress.

Reconstruction brought the first moment of mass participation of African Americans. In 1860, only five states in the North allowed African Americans to vote on equal terms with whites. Yet after 1867, when Congress ordered Southern states to eliminate racial discrimination in voting, African Americans began to win elections across the South. In a short time, the South was transformed from an all-white, pro-slavery, Democratic stronghold to a collection of Republican-led states with African Americans in positions of power for the first time in American history.

Through the provisions of the Congressional Reconstruction Acts, black men voted in large numbers and also served as delegates to the state constitutional conventions in 1868. Black delegates actively participated in revising state constitutions. One of the most significant accomplishments of these conventions was the establishment of a public school system. While public schools were virtually nonexistent in the antebellum period, by the end of Reconstruction, every Southern state had established a public school system. Republican officials opened state institutions like mental asylums, hospitals, orphanages, and prisons to white and black residents, though often on a segregated basis. They actively sought industrial development, northern investment, and internal improvements.

African Americans served at every level of government during Reconstruction. At the federal level, Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce were chosen as United States Senators from Mississippi. Fourteen men served in the House of Representatives. At least two hundred seventy other African American men served in patronage positions as postmasters, customs officials, assessors, and ambassadors. At the state level, more than 1,000 African American men held offices in the South. P. B. S. Pinchback served as Louisiana’s Governor for thirty-four days after the previous governor was suspended during impeachment proceedings and was the only African American state governor until Virginia elected L. Douglass Wilder in 1989. Almost 800 African American men served as state legislators around the South with African Americans at one time making up a majority in the South Carolina House of Representatives.

The era of Reconstruction witnessed a few moments of true progress. One of those was the election of African Americans to local, state, and national offices, including both houses of Congress. Pictured here are Hiram Revels (the first African American Senator) alongside six black representatives, all from the former Confederate states. Currier & Ives, “First Colored Senator and Representatives in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States,” 1872. Library of Congress.

The African American office holders during Reconstruction came from diverse backgrounds. Many had been born free or had gained their freedom before the Civil War. Many free African Americans, particularly those in South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana, were wealthy and well educated, two facts that distinguished them from much of the white population both before and after the Civil War. Some like Antione Dubuclet of Louisiana and William Breedlove from Virginia owned slaves before the Civil War. Others had helped slaves escape or taught them to read like Georgia’s James D. Porter.

The majority of African American office holders, however, were slaves until sometime during the Civil War. Among them were skilled craftsman like Emanuel Fortune, a shoemaker from Florida, minsters such as James D. Lynch from Mississippi, and teachers like William V. Turner from Alabama. Moving into political office was a natural continuation of the leadership roles they had held in their former slave communities.

By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, more than 2,000 African American men had served in offices ranging from mundane positions such as local Levee Commissioner to United States Senator.4 When the end of Reconstruction returned white Democrats to power in the South, all but a few African American office holders lost their positions. After Reconstruction African Americans did not enter the political arena again in large numbers until well into the twentieth century.

The Meaning of Black Freedom

Land was one of the major desires of the freed people. Frustrated by responsibility for the growing numbers of freed people following his troops, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 in which land in Georgia and South Carolina was to be set aside as a homestead for the freedpeople. Sherman lacked the authority to confiscate and distribute land, so this plan never fully took effect. One of the main purposes of the Freedmen’s Bureau, however, was to redistribute to former slaves lands that had been abandoned and confiscated by the federal government. Even these land grants were short lived. In 1866, land that ex-Confederates had left behind was reinstated to them.

Freedpeople’s hopes of land reform were unceremoniously dashed as Freedmen Bureau agents held meetings with the freedmen throughout the South telling them the promise of land was not going to be honored and that instead they should plan to go back to work for their former owners as wage laborers. The policy reversal came as quite a shock. In one instance, Freedmen’s Bureau Commissioner General Oliver O. Howard went to Edisto Island to inform the black population there of the policy change. The black commission’s response was that “we were promised Homesteads by the government . . . You ask us to forgive the land owners of our island . . .The man who tied me to a tree and gave me 39 lashes and who stripped and flogged my mother and my sister . . . that man I cannot well forgive. Does it look as if he has forgiven me, seeing how he tries to keep me in a condition of helplessness?”5

In working to ensure that crops would be harvested, agents sometimes coerced former slaves into signing contracts with their former masters. However, the Bureau also instituted courts where African Americans could seek redress if their employers were abusing them or not paying them. The last ember of hope for land redistribution was extinguished when Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner’s proposed land reform bills were tabled in Congress. Radicalism had its limits, and the Republican Party’s commitment to economic stability eclipsed their interest in racial justice.

Another aspect of the pursuit of freedom was the reconstitution of families. Many freedpeople immediately left plantations in search of family members who had been sold away. Newspaper ads sought information about long lost relatives. People placed these ads until the turn of the 20th century, demonstrating the enduring pursuit of family reunification. Freedpeople sought to gain control over their own children or other children who had been apprenticed to white masters either during the war or as a result of the Black Codes. Above all, freedpeople wanted freedom to control their families.

Many freedpeople rushed to solemnize unions with formal wedding ceremonies. Black people’s desires to marry fit the government’s goal to make free black men responsible for their own households and to prevent black women and children from becoming dependent on the government.

Freedpeople placed a great emphasis on education for their children and themselves. For many, the ability to finally read the Bible for themselves induced work-weary men and women to spend all evening or Sunday attending night school or Sunday school classes. It was not uncommon to find a one-room school with more than 50 students ranging in age from 3 to 80. As Booker T. Washington famously described the situation, “it was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn.”6

Many churches served as schoolhouses and as a result became central to the freedom struggle. Free and freed blacks carried well-formed political and organizational skills into freedom. They developed anti-racist politics and organizational skills through anti-slavery organizations turned church associations. Liberated from white-controlled churches, black Americans remade their religious worlds according to their own social and spiritual desires.

One of the more marked transformations that took place after emancipation was the proliferation of independent black churches and church associations. In the 1930s, nearly 40% of 663 black churches surveyed had their organizational roots in the post-emancipation era.7 Many independent black churches emerged in the rural areas and most of them had never been affiliated with white churches.

Many of these independent churches were quickly organized into regional, state, and even national associations, often by brigades of northern and midwestern free blacks who went to the South to help the freedmen. Through associations like the Virginia Baptist State Convention and the Consolidated American Baptist Missionary Convention, Baptists became the fastest growing post-emancipation denomination, building on their anti-slavery associational roots and carrying on the struggle for black political participation.8

Tensions between Northerners and Southerners over styles of worship and educational requirements strained these associations. Southern, rural black churches preferred worship services with more emphasis on inspired preaching, while northern urban blacks favored more orderly worship and an educated ministry.

Perhaps the most significant internal transformation in churches had to do with the role of women—a situation that eventually would lead to the development of independent women’s conventions in Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal churches. Women like Nannie Helen Burroughs and Virginia Broughton, leaders of the Baptist Woman’s Convention, worked to protect black women from sexual violence from white men, a concern that black representatives articulated in state constitutional conventions early in the Reconstruction era. In churches, women continued to have to fight for equal treatment and access to the pulpit as preachers, even though they were able to vote in church meetings.

Black churches provided centralized leadership and organization in post-emancipation communities. Many political leaders and officeholders were ministers. Churches were often the largest building in town and served as community centers. Access to pulpits and growing congregations, provided a foundation for ministers’ political leadership. Groups like the Union League, militias and fraternal organizations all used the regalia, ritual and even hymns of churches to inform and shape their practice.

Black Churches provided space for conflict over gender roles, cultural values, practices, norms, and political engagement. With the rise of Jim Crow, black churches would enter a new phase of negotiating relationships within the community and the wider world.

Reconstruction and Women

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton maintained a strong and productive relationship for nearly half a century as they sought to secure political rights for women. While the fight for women’s rights stalled during the war, it sprung back to life as Anthony, Stanton, and others formed the American Equal Rights Association. “[Elizabeth Cady Stanton, seated, and Susan B. Anthony, standing, three-quarter length portrait],” between 1880 and 1902. Library of Congress.

Reconstruction involved more than the meaning of emancipation. Women also sought to redefine their roles within the nation and in their local communities. The abolitionist and women’s rights movements simultaneously converged and began to clash. In the South, both black and white women struggled to make sense of a world of death and change. In Reconstruction, leading women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw an unprecedented opportunity for disenfranchised groups—women as well as African Americans, northern and southern—to seize political rights. Stanton formed the Women’s Loyal National League in 1863, which petitioned Congress for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment marked a victory not only for the antislavery cause, but also for the Loyal League, proving women’s political efficacy and the possibility for radical change. Now, as Congress debated the meanings of freedom, equality, and citizenship for former slaves, women’s rights leaders saw an opening to advance transformations in women’s status, too. On the tenth of May 1866, just one year after the war, the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention met in New York City to discuss what many agreed was an extraordinary moment, full of promise for fundamental social change. Elizabeth Cady Stanton presided over the meeting. Also in attendance were prominent abolitionists, with whom Stanton and other women’s rights leaders had joined forces in the years leading up to the war. Addressing this crowd of social reformers, Stanton captured the radical spirit of the hour: “now in the reconstruction,” she declared, “is the opportunity, perhaps for the century, to base our government on the broad principle of equal rights for all.”9 Stanton chose her universal language—“equal rights for all”—with intention, setting an agenda of universal suffrage for the activists. Thus, in 1866, the National Women’s Rights Convention officially merged with the American Antislavery Society to form the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). This union marked the culmination of the longstanding partnership between abolitionist and women’s rights advocates.

The AERA was split over whether black (male) suffrage should take precedence over universal suffrage given the political climate of the South. Some worried that political support for freedmen would be undermined by the pursuit of women’s suffrage. For example, AERA member Frederick Douglas insisted that the ballot was literally a “question of life and death” for southern black men, but not for women.10 Some African-American women challenged white suffragists in other ways; Frances Harper, for example, a free-born black woman living in Ohio, urged them to consider their own privilege as white and middle class. Universal suffrage, she argued, would not so clearly address the complex difficulties posed by racial, economic, and gender inequality.11

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the great women’s rights and abolition activist, was one of the strongest forces in the universal suffrage movement. Her name can be seen at the top of this petition to extend suffrage to all regardless of sex, which was present to Congress on January 29, 1866. It did not pass, and women would not gain the vote for more than half a decade after Stanton and others signed this petition. “Petition of E. Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, and Others Asking for an Amendment of the Constitution that Shall Prohibit the Several States from Disfranchising Any of Their Citizens on the Ground of Sex,” 1865. National Archives and Records Administration. 

These divisions came to a head early in 1867, as the AERA organized a campaign in Kansas to determine the fate of black and woman suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her partner in the movement, Susan B. Anthony, made the journey to advocate universal suffrage. Yet they soon realized that their allies were distancing themselves from women’s suffrage in order to advance black enfranchisement. Disheartened, Stanton and Anthony allied instead with white supremacists that supported women’s equality. Many fellow activists were dismayed by Stanton and Anthony’s willingness to appeal to racism to advance their cause.

These tensions finally erupted over conflicting views of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Women’s rights leaders vigorously protested the Fourteenth Amendment. Although it established national citizenship for all persons born or naturalized in the United States, the amendment also introduced the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time. After the Fifteenth Amendment ignored “sex” as an unlawful barrier to suffrage, an omission that appalled Stanton, the AERA officially dissolved. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), while those suffragists who supported the Fifteenth Amendment, regardless of its limitations, founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).

The NWSA soon rallied around a new strategy: the ‘New Departure’. This new approach interpreted the Constitution as already guaranteeing women the right to vote. They argued that by nationalizing citizenship for all persons, and protecting all rights of citizens— including the right to vote—the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments guaranteed women’s suffrage. Broadcasting the New Departure, the NWSA encouraged women to register to vote, which roughly seven hundred did between 1868 and 1872. Susan B. Anthony was one of them and was arrested but then acquitted in trial. In 1875, the Supreme Court addressed this constitutional argument: acknowledging women’s citizenship, but arguing that suffrage was not a right guaranteed to all citizens. This ruling not only defeated the New Departure, but also coincided with the Court’s generally reactionary interpretation of the Reconstruction Amendments, which significantly limited freedmen’s rights. Following this defeat, many suffragists like Stanton increasingly replaced the ideal of ‘universal suffrage’ with arguments about the virtue that white women would bring to the polls. These new arguments often hinged on racism and declared the necessity of white women voters to keep black men in check.

Advocates for women’s suffrage were largely confined to the North, but southern women were experiencing social transformations as well. The lines between refined white womanhood and degraded enslaved black femaleness were no longer so clearly defined. Moreover, during the war, southern white women had been called upon to do traditional man’s work–chopping wood and managing businesses. While white southern women decided whether and how to return to their prior status, African American women embraced new freedoms and a redefinition of womanhood.

The Fifteenth Amendment prohibited discrimination in voting rights on the basis of race, color, or previous status (i.e. slavery). While the amendment was not all encompassing in that women were not included, it was an extremely significant ruling in affirming the liberties of African American men. This print depicts a huge parade held in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 19, 1870, surrounded by portraits of abolitionists and scenes of African Americans exercising their rights. Thomas Kelly after James C. Beard, “The 15th Amendment. Celebrated May 19th 1870,” 1870. Library of Congress.

The Civil War showed white women, especially upper-class women, life without their husbands’ protection. Many did not like what they saw, especially in an uncertain future with the possibility of racial equality. Formerly wealthy women hoped to maintain their social status by rebuilding the prewar social hierarchy. Through the Ladies Memorial Association and other civic groups, southern women led the efforts to bury and memorialize the dead, praising and bolstering their men’s masculinity through nationalist speeches and memorials. The Ladies Memorial Association grew out of the Soldiers’ Aid Society and became the precursor and custodian of the Lost Cause narrative, which tried to rewrite the history of the antebellum South and the Confederacy in such a way that deemphasized the brutality of slavery. LMAs and their ceremonies created new holidays where white Southerners could reaffirm their allegiance to the Confederacy and express their opposition to black rights. For instance, some LMAs celebrated on May 10th, the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s death. Through these activities, southern women took on a more political role in the South.

Southern black women also sought to redefine their public and private lives. Their efforts to control their labor met the immediate opposition of southern white women. Gertrude Clanton, a plantation mistress before the war, disliked cooking and washing dishes, so she hired an African American woman to do the washing. A misunderstanding quickly developed. The laundress, nameless in Gertrude’s records, performed her job and returned home. Gertrude believed that her money had purchased a day’s labor, not just the load of washing, and she became quite frustrated. Meanwhile, this washerwoman and others like her set wages and hours for themselves, and in many cases began to take washing into their own homes in order to avoid the surveillance of white women and the sexual threat posed by white men.12

Similar conflicts raged across the South. White Southerners demanded that African American women work in the plantation home and instituted apprenticeship systems to place African American children in unpaid labor positions. African American women combated these attempts by refusing to work at jobs without fair pay or conditions, and by clinging tightly to their children.

Like white LMA members, African American women formed clubs to bury their dead, to celebrate African American masculinity, and to provide aid to their communities. On May 1, 1865, African Americans in Charleston created the precursor to the modern Memorial Day by mourning the Union dead buried hastily on a race track-turned prison.13 Like their white counterparts, the 300 African American women who participated had been members of the local Patriotic Association, which aided freedpeople during the war. African American women continued participating in Federal Decoration Day ceremonies and, later, formed their own club organizations. Racial violence, whether city riots or rural vigilantes, continued to threaten these vulnerable households. Nevertheless, the formation and preservation of the African American households became a paramount goal for African American women.

For all of their differences, white and black Southern women faced a similar challenge during Reconstruction. Southern women celebrated the return of their brothers, husbands, and sons, but couples separated for many years struggled to adjust. To make matters worse, many of these former soldiers returned with physical or mental wounds. For white families, suicide and divorce became more acceptable, while the opposite occurred for black families. Since the entire South suffered from economic devastation, many families were impoverished and sank into debt. Southern women struggled to rebuild stability on unstable ground. All Southern women faced economic devastation, lasting wartime trauma, and enduring racial tensions.

Racial Violence in Reconstruction

Violence shattered the dream of biracial democracy. Still steeped in the violence of slavery, white Southerners could scarcely imagine black free labor. Congressional investigator, Carl Schurz, reported that in the summer of 1865, Southerners shared a near unanimous sentiment that “You cannot make the negro work, without physical compulsion.”14 Violence had been used in the antebellum period to enforce slave labor and to define racial difference. In the post-emancipation period it was used to stifle black advancement and return to the old order.

Much of life in the antebellum South had been premised on slavery; the social order rested upon a subjugated underclass and the labor system required unfree laborers. A notion of white supremacy and black inferiority undergirded it all: whites were understood as fit for freedom and citizenship; blacks for chattel slave labor. The Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House and the subsequent adoption by the U.S. Congress of the Thirteenth Amendment destroyed the institution of American slavery and threw the southern society into disarray. The foundation of southern society had been shaken, but southern whites used black codes and racial terrorism to reassert control of former slaves.

The Ku Klux Klan was just one of a number of vigilante groups that arose after the war to terrorize African Americans and Republicans throughout the South. The KKK brought violence into the voting polls, the workplace, and — as seen in this Harper’s Weekly print — the homes of black Americans. Frank Bellew, “Visit of the Ku-Klux,” 1872. Wikimedia.

Racial violence in the Reconstruction period took three major forms: riots against black political authority, interpersonal fights, and organized vigilante groups. There were riots in southern cities several times during Reconstruction. The most notable were the riots in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866, but other large-scale urban conflicts erupted in places including Laurens, South Carolina in 1870; Colfax, Louisiana in 1873; another in New Orleans in 1874; Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1875; and Hamburg, South Carolina in 1876. Southern cities grew rapidly after the war as migrants from the countryside—particularly freed slaves—flocked to urban centers. Cities became centers of Republican control. But white conservatives chafed at the influx of black residents and the establishment of biracial politics. In nearly every conflict, white conservatives initiated violence in reaction to Republican rallies or conventions or elections in which black men were to vote. The death tolls of these conflicts remain incalculable—and victims were overwhelmingly black.

Even everyday violence between individuals disproportionally targeted African Americans during Reconstruction. Though African Americans gained citizenship rights like the ability to serve on juries as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal constitution, southern white men were rarely successfully prosecuted for violence against black victims. White men beat or shot black men with relative impunity, and did so over minor squabbles, labor disputes, longstanding grudges, and crimes of passion. These incidents sometimes were reported to local federal authorities like the army or the Freedmen’s Bureau, but more often than not such violence was underreported and unprosecuted.

More premeditated was the violence committed by organized vigilante groups, sometimes called nightriders or bushwhackers. Groups of nightriders—called so because they often operated at night, under cover of darkness and wearing disguises—sought to curtail African American political involvement by harassing and killing black candidates and office holders and frightening voters away from the polls. They also aimed to limit black economic mobility by terrorizing freedpeople who tried to purchase land or otherwise become too independent from the white masters they used to rely on. They were terrorists and vigilantes, determined to stop the erosion of the antebellum South, and they were widespread and numerous, operating throughout the South. The Ku Klux Klan emerged in the late 1860s as the most infamous of these groups.

The Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee and had spread to nearly every state of the former Confederacy by 1868. The Klan drew heavily from the antebellum southern elite, but Klan groups sometimes overlapped with criminal gangs or former Confederate guerilla groups. The Klan’s reputation became so potent, and its violence so widespread, that many groups not formally associated with it were called Ku Kluxers, and to “Ku Klux” was used to mean to commit vigilante violence. While it is difficult to differentiate Klan actions from those of similar groups, such as the White Line, Knights of the White Camellia, and the White Brotherhood, the distinctions hardly matter. All such groups were part of a web of terror that spread throughout the South during Reconstruction. In Panola County, Mississippi, between August 1870 and December 1872, twenty-four Klan-style murders occurred. And nearby, in Lafayette County, Klansmen drowned thirty blacks in a single mass murder. Sometimes the violence was aimed at “uppity” blacks who had tried to buy land or dared to be insolent toward a white. Other times, as with the beating of Republican sheriff and tax collector Allen Huggins, the Klan targeted white politicians who supported freedpeople’s civil rights. Numerous, perhaps dozens, of Republican politicians were killed, either while in office or while campaigning. Thousands of individual citizens, men and women, white and black, had their homes raided and were whipped, raped, or murdered.

The federal government responded to southern paramilitary tactics by passing the Enforcement Acts between 1870 and 1871. The acts made it criminal to deprive African Americans of their civil rights. The acts also deemed violent Klan behavior as acts of rebellion against the United States and allowed for the use of U.S. troops to protect freedpeople. For a time, the federal government, its courts, and its troops, sought to put an end to the KKK and related groups. But the violence continued. By 1876, as southern Democrats reestablished “home rule” and “redeemed” the South from Republican rule, federal opposition to the KKK weakened. National attention shifted away from the South and the activities of the Klan, but African Americans remained trapped in a world of white supremacy that restricted their economic, social, and political rights.

The federal government created the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist freed people in securing their rights and their livelihoods. In this Harper’s Weekly print, The Freedmen’s Bureau official protecting the black men and women from the angry and riotous mob of white Americans stood as a representation of the entire Bureau. Soon the Bureau and the federal government would recognize that they could not accomplish a fraction of what they set out to do, including keeping African Americans safe and free in the South. Alfred R. Waud, “The Freedmen’s Bureau,” 1868. Library of Congress.

White conservatives would assert that Republicans, in denouncing violence, were “waving a bloody shirt” for political opportunity. The violence, according to many white conservatives, was fabricated, or not as bad as it was claimed, or an unavoidable consequence of the enfranchisement of African Americans. On December 22, 1871, R. Latham of Yorkville, South Carolina wrote to the New York Tribune, voicing the beliefs of many white Southerners as he declared that “the same principle that prompted the white men at Boston, disguised as Indians, to board, during the darkness of night, a vessel with tea, and throw her cargo into the Bay, clothed some of our people in Ku Klux gowns, and sent them out on missions technically illegal. Did the Ku Klux do wrong? You are ready to say they did and we will not argue the point with you… Under the peculiar circumstances what could the people of South Carolina do but resort to Ku Kluxing?”15

Victims and witnesses to the violence told a different story. Sallie Adkins of Warren County, Georgia, was traveling with her husband, Joseph, a Georgia state senator, when he was assassinated by Klansmen on May 10, 1869. She wrote President Ulysses S. Grant, asking for both physical protection and justice. “I am no Statesman,” she disclaimed, “I am only a poor woman whose husband has been murdered for his devotion to his country. I may have very foolish ideas of Government, States & Constitutions. But I feel that I have claims upon my country. The Rebels imprisoned my Husband. Pardoned Rebels murdered him. There is no law for the punishment of them who do deeds of this sort… I demand that you, President Grant, keep the pledge you made the nation—make it safe for any man to utter boldly and openly his devotion to the United States.”16

The political and social consequences of the violence were as lasting as the physical and mental trauma suffered by victims and witnesses. Terrorism worked to end federal involvement in Reconstruction and helped to usher in a new era of racial repression.

African Americans actively sought ways to shed the vestiges of slavery. Many discarded the names their former masters had chosen for them and adopted new names like “Freeman” and “Lincoln” that affirmed their new identities as free citizens. Others resettled far from the plantations they had labored on as slaves, hoping to eventually farm their own land or run their own businesses. By the end of Reconstruction, the desire for self-definition, economic independence, and racial pride coalesced in the founding of dozens of black towns across the South. Perhaps the most well-known of these towns was Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a Delta town established in 1887 by Isaiah Montgomery and Ben Green, former slaves of Joseph and Jefferson Davis. Residents of the town took pride in the fact that African Americans owned all of the property in town, including banks, insurance companies, shops, and the surrounding farms, and they celebrated African American cultural and economic achievements during their annual festival, Mound Bayou Days. These tight-knit communities provided African Americans with spaces where they could live free from the indignities segregation and the exploitation of sharecropping on white-owned plantations.

Economic Development during the Civil War and Reconstruction

George N. Barnard, “City of Atlanta, Ga., no. 1,” c. 1866. Library of Congress.

The Civil War destroyed and the transformed the American economy. In 1859 and 1860, southern planters were flush with prosperity after producing record cotton crops–America’s most valuable export at the time. Southern prosperity relied on over 4 million African American slaves to grow cotton, along with a number of other staple crops across the region. Cotton fed the textile mills of America and Europe and brought great wealth to the region. On the eve of war, the American South enjoyed more per capita wealth than any other slave economy in the New World. To their masters, slaves constituted their most valuable assets, worth roughly three billon dollars. Yet this wealth obscured the gains in infrastructure, industrial production, and financial markets occurring north of the Mason-Dixon line, a fact that the war would unmask for all to see.

In contrast to the slave South, Northerners praised their region as a land of free labor, populated by farmers, merchants, and wage-laborers. It was also home to a robust market economy. By 1860, northerners could buy clothing made in a New England factory, or light their homes with kerosene oil from Pennsylvania. The Midwest produced seas of grain that fed the country, with enough left over for export to Europe. Farther west, mining and agriculture were the mainstays of life. Along with the textile mills, shoe factories and iron foundries, firms like the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, or the Colt Company displayed the technical advances of northern manufacturers. These goods crisscrossed the country on the North’s growing railroad network. Underlying production was an extensive network of banks and financial markets that helped aggregate capital that could be reinvested into further growth.

The Civil War, like all wars, interrupted the rhythms of commercial life by destroying lives and property. This was especially true in the Confederacy. From 1861 onwards, the Confederate government struggled to find the guns, food, and supplies needed to field an army. Southerners did make astonishing gains in industrial production during this time, but it was never enough. The Union’s blockade of the Atlantic prevented the Confederacy from financing the war with cotton sales to Europe. To pay their troops and keep the economy alive, the Confederate Congress turned to printing paper money–which quickly sank in value and led to rapid inflation. In many cases, Confederate officials dispensed with taxes paid in cash and simply impressed the food and materials needed from their citizens. Perhaps most striking of all, in the vast agricultural wealth of the South, many Southerners struggled to find enough to eat.

The war also pushed the US government to take unprecedented steps. Congress raised tariffs, and passed the first national income tax in 1862. After the suspension of specie payments in late 1861, Congress created the US’s first fiat currency called “greenbacks.” At first, the expansion of the currency and the rapid rise in government spending translated into an uptick in business in 1862-1863. As the war dragged on, inflation also hit the North. Workers demanded higher wages to pay rents and buy necessities, while the business community groaned under their growing tax burden. The United States, however, never embarked on a policy of impressment for food and supplies. The factories and farms of the North successfully supplied Union troops, while the federal government, with some adjustments, found the means to pay for war. None of this is to suggest that the North’s superior ability to supply its war machine made the outcome of the war inevitable. Any account of how the war progressed must take account of the tangled web of politics, battles, and economics that occurred between 1861 and 1865.The aftermath of the war left portions of the Confederacy in ruins, and with little or no money to rebuild. State governments were mired in debt, and white planters, who had most of their capital tied up in slaves, lost most of their wealth. Cotton remained the most significant crop, but the war changed how it was grown and sold. Planters broke up large farms into smaller plots tended to by single families in exchange for a portion of the crop, called sharecropping. Once cotton production resumed, Americans found that their cotton now competed with new cotton plantations around the world. For the South as a whole, the war and Reconstruction marked the start of a period of deep poverty that would last until at least the New Deal of the 1930s.

War brought destruction across the South. Governmental and private buildings, communication systems, the economy, and transportation infrastructure were all debilitated. “[Richmond, Va. Crippled locomotive, Richmond & Petersburg Railroad depot],” c. 1865. Library of Congress.

Emancipation was the single most important economic, social and political outcome of the war. Freedom empowered African Americans in the South to rebuild families, make contracts, hold property and move freely for the first time. Republican’s in the South attempted to transform the region into a free-labor economy like the North. Yet the transition from slave labor to free labor was never so clear. Well into the 20th century, white Southerners used a combination of legal force and extra-legal violence to maintain systems of bound labor. Vagrancy laws enabled law enforcement to justify arrest of innocent black men and women, and the convict-lease system meant that even an arbitrary arrest could result in decades of forced, uncompensated labor. This new form of slavery continued until World War II.17

Massachusetts Agricultural College (now known as University of Massachusetts Amherst) was one of many colleges founded through the Federal Morrill-Land Grant Colleges Act. “Massachusetts Agricultural College, Amherst, Mass. 1879,” 1880. Wikimedia.

Re-enslavement was only the most extreme variety in an array of economic injustice. In the later nineteenth-century, poor whites would form mobs and go “white-capping” to scare away blacks from jobs. ((William Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 23.) Lacking the means to buy their own farms, black famers often turned to sharecropping. Sharecropping often led to cycles of debt that kept families bound to the land.

Victory did not translate into a quick economic boom for the United States. The North would not regain its prewar pace of industrial and commodity output until the 1870s. The war did prove beneficial to northern farmers, who responded to wartime labor shortages with greater use of mechanical reapers, which boosted yields.

Wartime laws also transformed the relationship between the federal government and the American economy. New tariff laws sheltered northern industry from European competition. The Morrill Land Grant helped create colleges such as the University of California, Illinois, and Wisconsin. With the creation of the National Banking System and the greenbacks, Congress replaced hundreds of state bank notes with a system of federal currency that accelerated trade and exchange between regions of the country. This was not to say that Republican policy worked perfectly. The Homestead Act, meant to open the West to small farmers was often frustrated by the actions of Railroad corporations and speculators. The Transcontinental Railroad, also created during the war, failed to produce any economic gains until decades after its creation.

The war years forged a close relationship between government and the business elite, a relationship that sometimes resulted in corruption and catastrophe, as it did when markets crashed on Black Friday September 24, 1869. This new relationship created a political backlash, especially in the West and South against Washington’s perceived eastern and industrial bias. Conflicts over emancipation and civil rights quickly gave way to long political conflict over the direction of American economic development.

The End of Reconstruction

Reconstruction concluded when national attention turned away from the integration of former slaves as equal citizens enabling white Democrats to recapture southern politics. Between 1868 and 1877, and accelerating after the Depression of 1873, national interest in Reconstruction dwindled as economic issues moved to the foreground. The biggest threat to Republican power in the South was violence and intimidation by white conservatives, staved off by the presence of federal troops in key southern cities. But the United States never committed the manpower required to restore order, if such a task was even possible. Reconstruction finally ended with the contested Presidential election of 1876, which put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in office in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. But by 1876, the vast majority of federal troops had already left.

Republicans and Democrats responded to the economic declines by shifting attention from Reconstruction to economic recovery. War weary from nearly a decade of bloody military and political strife, so-called Stalwart Republicans turned from idealism, focusing their efforts on economics and party politics. They grew to particular influence during Ulysses S. Grant’s first term (1868-1872). After the death of Thaddeus Stevens in 1868 and the political alienation of Charles Sumner by 1870, Stalwart Republicans assumed primacy in Republican Party politics, putting Reconstruction on the defensive within the very party leading it.

Meanwhile, New Departure Democrats gained strength by distancing themselves from pro-slavery Democrats and Copperheads. They focused on business, economics, political corruption, and trade, instead of Reconstruction. In the South, New Departure Democrats were called Redeemers, and were initially opposed by Southerners who clung tightly to white supremacy and the Confederacy. But between 1869 and 1871, their home rule platform, asserting that good government was run by locals—meaning white Democrats, rather than black or white Republicans—helped end Reconstruction in three important states: Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia.

In September 1873, Jay Cooke and Company declared bankruptcy, resulting in a bank run that spiraled into a six-year depression. The Depression of 1873 destroyed the nation’s fledgling labor movement, and helped quell northerners remaining idealism about Reconstruction. In the South, many farms were capitalized entirely through loans. After 1873, most sources of credit vanished, forcing many landowners to default, driving them into an over-saturated labor market. Wages plummeted, contributing to the growing system of debt peonage in the South that trapped workers in endless cycles of poverty. The economic turmoil enabled the Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives after the 1874 elections.

During the Panic of 1873, workers began demanding that the federal government help alleviate the strain on Americans. In January 1874, over 7,000 protesters congregated in New York City’s Tompkins Square to insist the government make job creation a priority. They were met with brutality as police dispersed the crowd, and consequently the unemployment movement lost much of its steam. Matt Morgen, Print of a crowd driven from Tompkins Square by the mounted police, in the Tompkins Square Riot of 1874, January 1874. Wikimedia.

On the eve of the 1876 Presidential election, the nation still reeling from depression, the Grant administration found itself no longer able to intervene in the South due to growing national hostility to interference in southern affairs. Scandalous corruption in the Grant Administration had sapped the national trust. By 1875, Democrats in Mississippi hatched the Mississippi Plan, a wave of violence designed to suppress black voters. The state’s Republican governor urged federal involvement, but national Republicans ignored the plea. Meanwhile, the Republican candidate for governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes, won big without mentioning Reconstruction, focusing instead on avoiding corruption, recovering the economy, and discouraging alcohol use. His success entered him into the running as a potential Presidential candidate. The stage was set for an election that would end Reconstruction as a national issue.

Republicans chose Rutherford B. Hayes as their nominee while Democrats chose Samuel J. Tilden, who ran on honest politics and home rule in the South. Allegations of voter fraud and intimidation emerged in the three states in which Reconstruction held strong and whose outcome would decide the result: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Indeed, those elections were fraught with violence and fraud because of the impunity with which white conservatives felt they could operate in their efforts to deter Republican voters. A special electoral commission voted along party lines—eight Republicans for, seven Democrats against—in favor of Hayes.

Democrats threatened to boycott Hayes’ inauguration. Rival governments arose claiming to recognize Tilden as the rightfully elected President. Republicans, fearing another sectional crisis, reached out to Democrats. In the Compromise of 1877 Democrats conceded the presidency to Hayes on the promise that all remaining troops would be removed from the South. In March 1877, Hayes was inaugurated; in April, the remaining troops were ordered out of the South. The Compromise allowed southern Democrats to return to power, no longer fearing reprisal from federal troops or northern politicians for their flagrant violence and intimidation of black voters.

After 1877, Republicans no longer had the political capital to intervene in the South in cases of violence and electoral fraud, resulting in fewer chances for freedpeople to hold state office. In certain locations with large populations of African Americans like South Carolina, freedpeople continued to hold some local offices for several years. Yet, with its most revolutionary aims thwarted by 1868, and economic depression and political turmoil taking even its most modest promises off the table by the early 1870s, most of the promises of Reconstruction were unmet.


Military District State Readmission Conservative Takeover
District 1 Virginia 1870 1870
District 2 North Carolina 1868 1870
South Carolina 1868 1877
District 3 Alabama 1868 1874
Florida 1868 1877
Georgia 1870 1871
District 4 Arkansas 1868 1874
Mississippi 1870 1876
District 5 Texas 1870 1873
Louisiana 1868 1877
None Tennessee 1866 1869

Table. This table shows the military districts of the seceded states of the South, the date the state was readmitted into the Union, and the date when conservatives recaptured the state house.


Reconstruction in the United States achieved Abraham Lincoln’s paramount concern: the restoration of the Union. The war and its aftermath forever ended legal slavery in the United States, but African Americans remained second-class citizens and women still struggled for full participation in the public life of the United States. The closing of Reconstruction saw North and South reunited behind the imperatives economic growth and territorial expansion, if not the full rights of its citizens. From the ashes of civil war, a new nation was born, a nation rich with fresh possibilities but beset by old problems.

Notes for Civil War

  1. This most recent estimation of 750,000 wartime deaths was put forward by J. David Hacker, “A Census-Based Account of the Civil War Dead,” Civil War History 57, no. 4, (December 2011): 306-347.
  2. William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 (New York: Knopf, 2012), 14.
  3. Alexander Stephens, Speech in Savannah, Georgia, delivered March 21, 1861, quoted in Henry Clevleand, Alexander Stephens, in Public and Private. With Letters and Speeches before, during and Since the War (Philadelphia: National Publishing Co., 1866), 719.
  4. “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union,” January 9, 1861.
  5. Abraham Lincoln, “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
  6. Abraham Lincoln to Orville Browning, September 22, 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
  7. For literacy rates within the armies, see Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co, 1952), 304-06 and Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co, 1943), 335-37.
  8. Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863, Presidential Proclamations, 1791-1991, Record Group 11, General Records of the United States Government, National Archives, Washington D.C.
  9. Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, August 9, 1863, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
  10. James Henry Gooding to Abraham Lincoln, September 28, 1863, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
  11. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 862.
  12. Quoted in Allen Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 247.
  13. Laura Edwards, Scarlet Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 85.
  14. Quoted in Heidi Schoof, Elizabeth Van Lew: Civil War Spy (Minneapolis, Minn: Compass Books, 2006), 85.
  15. S. Emma Edwards, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields (Hartford, CT: W.S. Williams & Co, 1865), 6.
  16. C. Vann Woodward ed., Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 85.
  17. Ibid., 158.
  18. Sally Randle Perry, 30 November, 1867, Sally Randle Perry Diary, 1867-1868, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama. [↩]
  19. Presidential Elections, 1789-2008. (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2010), 135, 225.
  20. Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address; endorsed by Lincoln, April 10, 1865, March 4, 1865, General Correspondence, 1837-1897, The Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, DC.

Notes for Reconstruction

  1. Sidney Andrews, The South Since the War: As Shown by Fourteen Weeks of Travel and Observation in Georgia and the Carolinas (Boston: 1866), 31.
  2. Edward McPherson, The Political History of the United Stats of America during the period known as Reconstruction…. (Washington D.C.: 1871), 80-82.
  3. Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Random House, 2008).
  4. Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), xi.
  5. Steven Hahn, et al. eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Series 3, Volume 1: Land and Labor, 1865 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 008), 442-444.
  6. Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (New York: 1900), 30.
  7. Benjamin Mays and Joseph Nicholson, The Negro’s Church (New York: Russell & Russell, 1933), 29-30.
  8. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Perennial Books, 1988), 92.
  9. Proceedings of the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention, Held at the Church of the Puritans, New York, May 10, 1866 (New York: 1866).
  10. Frederick Douglass, “We Welcome the Fifteenth Amendment: Addresses Delivered in New York, on 12–13 May 1869,” The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One, Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 213-219.
  11. Faye E. Dudden, Fighting Chance: The Struggle Over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  12. Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848-1889, Virginia Ingraham Burr, ed. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 272-273.
  13. David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 65-71.
  14. Carl Schurz, Report on the Condition of the South, ed. Michael Burlingame (1865; rpt. New York: 1969), iii.
  15. “A Defense of the Ku Klux,” The Chester Reporter, January 11, 1872.
  16. Sallie Adkins to Ulysses S. Grant, May 20, 1869. Letters Received, Source Chronological File, Container #7, 1868-1870: President’s Letters, Folder: May-December 1869, Record Group 60, General Records of the Department of Justice, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland.
  17. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name.