The Era of Reconstruction

Inevitably, there was violence done in this reign of terror inaugurated by the Ku-Klux riders. Blacks were beaten; scalawags were shot and the Carpetbag officials greatly exaggerated these first violent events, asking for more troops for their protection. It came to actual fighting in the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana and the trenches outside Vicksburg, Mississippi, which were used in 1863 by the Union sharpshooters, were the scene, ten years later, of a disgraceful race conflict between blacks and whites. Thus, long after the war was over, the South, which should have been well on the way to industrial and commercial recovery, under the leadership of its own best genius, still presented in many parts a spectacle of anarchy, violence, and fraud, — its legislatures and offices in the grasp of low political adventurers, its resources squandered or stolen, its people divided into two bitterly hostile races.

Instead of keeping a firm military hand upon the southern states and waiting for them to comply with the terms offered in the 14th Amendment, the Republican Congress of 1867, by hastening to reconstruct them on the basis of Black suffrage, did them an unpardonable injury. Though some bitterness would have, no doubt, existed in the South against their fellow countrymen of the North, due to the Civil War itself, it was made much worse and lasted much longer for the “crime of Reconstruction .”

Recovery of a Nation

Charleston, South Carolina. Ruins

Charleston, South Carolina. Ruins

Although the restitution of the Southern states to their place in the Union was the most pressing business of Congress in the years immediately following the Civil War, it was by no means the only problem in the Reconstruction of the nation.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had exercised a greater power than any other President in our history up until this time. As Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, he had the appointment of officers and the general direction of campaigns. Through his Secretaries of War and of the Treasury, he had superintended the raising of men and money for the prosecution of the war. As measures of safety and military policy, he had suspended the clauses of the Constitution (Amendments V and VI) which guard citizens of the United States against arbitrary arrest and punishment without a jury trial and had emancipated all the slaves of men in rebellion against the authority of the United States. Congress had generously ratified his acts, but, toward the close of the war, it had begun to reassert its power, as was shown by its resistance to Lincoln in the Wade-Davis Bill, the proposed program for the Reconstruction of the South.

Under his successor, Andrew Johnson, the pendulum swung to the other extreme, and Congress developed quite as absolute a control over the government as President Lincoln had exercised during the war. Congress not only overrode Johnson’s vetoes with mocking haste, but, it passed acts depriving him of his constitutional powers as commander of the army, and forbidding him to dismiss a member of his cabinet. Finally, it impeached him on the charge of high crimes and misdemeanors.

On the same day the Reconstruction Act was passed on March 2, 1867, Congress also instituted a law called the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade the President to remove officers of the government without the consent of the Senate, and made the tenure of cabinet officers extend through the presidential term for which they were appointed. This was an invasion of the privilege which the President had always enjoyed of removing his cabinet officers at will. The purpose of the act was to keep Edwin Stanton, who was in thorough sympathy with the radical leaders of Congress, at the head of the Department of War.

However, President Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act, which he believed to be unconstitutional, and removed Stanton. As a result, the House of Representatives impeached him on February 24, 1868, and the Senate assembled the next month under the presidency of Chief Justice Chase to try the case. To the chagrin of the radical Republicans, the Senate failed by one vote of the two-thirds majority necessary to convict the President. Johnson finished out his term, openly despised and flouted by the Republican leaders, and was succeeded on March 4, 1869, by Ulysses S. Grant.

Though Grant had been known as a superb soldier, he would not earn the same reputation as a statesman. In a visit to the Southern states, a few months after the close of the war, he had become convinced, as he wrote, that “the mass of thinking men of the South accepted in good faith” the outcome of the struggle. Yet, as President, he upheld the disgraceful governments of the Reconstruction Act and constantly furnished troops to keep the carpetbag and scalawag officials in power, in order to provide Republican votes for congressmen and presidential electors. He was so simple and direct, himself that he failed to understand the duplicity and fraud that were practiced under his very nose. Like all untrained men in public positions, he made his personal likes and dislikes the test of his political judgments, and it was only necessary to win his friendship to have his official support. Unfortunately, his early struggle with poverty and his own failure in business had led him to set too high a valuation on mere monetary success, making him unduly susceptible to the influence of men who had made millions. In his treatment of the South, Grant was changed by his radical Republican associates from a generous conqueror into a narrow, partisan dictator.

Though his terms in office would be remembered for their corruptness, he implemented several policies that would increase Civil Rights and decrease the violence. He created the Department of Justice and Office of Solicitor General, led by Attorney General Amos Akerman and the first Solicitor General Benjamin Bristow, who both prosecuted thousands of Klan’s men under the Force Acts. He also sent additional federal troops to nine South Carolina counties to suppress Klan violence in 1871. Additionally, he used military pressure to ensure that African Americans could maintain their new electoral status; endorsed the 15th Amendment, which gave African Americans the right to vote; and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 giving people access to public facilities regardless of race.

All of the seceding states were eventually readmitted to the Union and allowed representation in Congress, on the following dates:

Tennessee – July 24, 1866

Arkansas – June 22, 1868

Florida – June 25, 1868

North Carolina – July 4, 1868

South Carolina – July 9, 1868

Louisiana – July 9, 1868

Alabama – July 13, 1868

Virginia – January 26, 1870

Mississippi – February 23, 1870

Texas – March 30, 1870

Georgia – July 15, 1870

 

Black History DVD

Black History DVD

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated January 2018.

About This Article: Much of this article is part of the  Cyclopedia of American Government, Volume 1, edited by Andrew c. McLaughlin and Albert Bushnell Hart, 1914. However, the article that appears here is far from the original as it has been heavily edited, truncated, and additional information added.

Also See:

Causes of the Civil War

Confederate States of America

Civil War (main page)

Civil War Photo Print Galleries

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