The reconstruction of America after the Civil War

The civil war determined, once and for all, that America was one nation, indivisible. But it did not determine what kind of a nation it would be, 
says Heather Cox Richardson. Somehow, Americans had to construct a new country out of the bitterly divided states

Violence erupted in New Orleans, and white southerners killed and injured more than 100 freed slaves during a riot against reconstruction plans. (Image by Alamy)

Two new factors would determine the shape of postwar America. First, the war had revolutionised the idea of American citizenship. Before the war, Americans had looked to educated, propertied white men to govern. But in the south, those were the very men who had set out to destroy the Union. Meanwhile, people excluded from government had rallied around it. Uneducated and impoverished African-Americans had thrown themselves behind the Union: black soldiers died at a rate 40 per cent higher than white troops. Women had spent the war years tending fields, buying bonds, giving sons to the war and supporting the president. New immigrants had rushed to the Union, struggling on battlefields and in wheatfields to produce cash crops that brought gold to the treasury. Now, African-Americans, women and immigrants wanted their say.

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Second, the issue of which voices would be welcome in postwar government had huge importance because during the war Congress had changed the country’s financial system. To meet the needs of the treasury, Congress had introduced a new measure: national taxes. For the first time in American history, voting would have a direct impact on how other people’s money was spent. These two factors would determine the course of reconstruction.

Recreating the status quo

Congress adjourned in early March 1865 and would not reconvene until early December. After Lincoln’s death in April, vice president Andrew Johnson became US president and had nine months without oversight to “restore” the nation. A border state Democrat, Johnson wanted to recreate the antebellum status quo, without slavery. Democrats would, he believed, rally to him and retake the country, running it much as they had before the civil war. There would be no new voices and, once he restored the Union and gutted the government’s wartime apparatus, 
no national taxes.


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He began his term by pardoning all but about 1,500 former Confederates. To gain readmission to the Union, he demanded only that southern legislatures abolish slavery, nullify ordinances of secession and repudiate the Confederate debt (which meant southern states could not repay citizens who had bought state bonds to finance the war effort).

Southern legislatures did as he asked. Then they reflected the spirit of Johnson’s plan by circumscribing the lives of freed people. ‘Black Codes’ bound black workers to white employers, restricted their movements, and kept African-Americans from owning property or testifying in court. Southerners then re-elected to Congress a raft of ex-Confederates, including Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. Under Johnson’s policies, the postwar south looked much like the antebellum south.

In December 1865, Johnson greeted the new Congress with the cheery news that reconstruction was over. All Congress now had to do was 
seat the newly elected southern representatives, disband the military and slash the federal budget back to antebellum levels. With the exception of slavery, America would be just as it was before the war.

Mississippi frog-pond

Republican congressmen, however, utterly rejected Johnson’s version of reconstruction. Northern soldiers had died in bloody piles at Antietam, rotted from infections in dirty hospitals and starved at Andersonville, while their kinfolk sweated in fields and factories to support the war. Finally victorious, northerners had watched, horrified, as ex-Confederates retook control of the south and virtually re-enslaved the black southerners who had been loyal to the Union.
The Chicago Tribune snarled in December 1865: “The men of the North will convert the State of Mississippi into a frog-pond before they will allow [the Black Codes] to disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep and over which the flag of freedom waves.”

Congressional Republicans refused to seat southern representatives, then granted black southerners the right to own property and to bring suits and testify in court. They also established federal courts in the south to give ex-slaves access to legal protection.

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Johnson vetoed these laws, arguing both that they gave black men more legal rights than white men and that the officials necessary to protect black rights would waste tax dollars. Then he announced Congress was operating illegally because it was passing laws without southern representatives. It could not legislate, he said, until it restored the south to the Union. Congress promptly repassed its laws over his veto.

The battle lines were drawn. On the one hand, Republicans defended the rights of all loyal Americans to equal protection under the laws. On the other, Democrats complained that Republicans were using tax dollars to help black Americans at the expense of hardworking white men.

Northerners had watched, horrified, as ex-Confederates virtually re-enslaved the black southerners

Republicans were not necessarily keen advocates of black voting, but Johnson’s pardon of most white southern Democrats made them turn to black suffrage to keep the government out of the hands of ex-Confederates. Congressmen’s solution to the problem of reintegrating the southern states to the Union was the Fourteenth Amendment. This constitutional amendment expanded citizenship to African-American men as well as the children of all immigrants. It also tried to nudge the south toward black suffrage by threatening to reduce a state’s congressional representation if it denied the vote to a significant number of its men. Congress called for southern states to ratify the amendment before readmission to the Union.

Continued rebellion

In summer 1866, Johnson railed against congressmen as “traitors… trying to break up the Government”. Convinced Democrats would sweep the 1866 midterm elections and that a new Democratic Congress would endorse his own policies, he urged southern whites to ignore Republicans’ reconstruction plan.

In Memphis and New Orleans, white southerners rioted, killing or wounding more than 100 African-Americans and destroying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property. Aghast at the South’s continuing rebellion, northerners repudiated Johnson and gave Republicans a two-thirds majority 
in Congress.

Since southern whites had ignored the Fourteenth Amendment, congressmen passed the landmark Military Reconstruction Act in March 1867. This law divided the ten unreconstructed southern states into five military districts and required southern states to rewrite their constitutions. In a revolutionary change to American government, it permitted black men to vote for the delegates to those constitutional conventions. When southern whites opted for military occupation rather than registering black voters, Congress put the military in charge of the process.

Newly registered southern voters elected officials who wrote new state constitutions establishing black suffrage. Desperate to prevent the ratification of those constitutions, southern Democrats donned sheets designed to look like the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers, and terrorised Republican voters before the 1868 election. In the months before voters went to the polls, these Ku Klux Klan members murdered about a thousand people.

Democrats donned sheets to look like the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers, and terrorised Republican voters

Their campaign of terror failed. Voters accepted the new constitutions and the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1868, Congress readmitted southern states to the Union. Briefly, it seemed, a reconstructed government would include all loyal men.
But reconstruction was not over. After readmission, the Georgia legislature expelled its black legislators. Congress promptly refused to seat the state’s representatives, thus remanding Georgia to military rule. Then it passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ensuring a citizen’s right to vote could not be restricted by race, and required Georgia to ratify the amendment. It did so and on 15 July 1870 Congress readmitted Georgia to the Union, formally ending reconstruction.

Shutting out women

But the reconstruction of a new nation was still not over. White women refused to give up their seat at the national table when black men had taken theirs. “The civil war came to an end, leaving the slave not only emancipated, but endowed with the full dignity of citizenship,” Boston reformer Julia Ward Howe recalled. “The women of the North had greatly helped to open the door which admitted him to freedom and its safeguard, the ballot. Was this door to be shut in their face?”

In 1869, after being excluded from the Fourteenth Amendment, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony organised the National Woman Suffrage Association, demanding a variety of reforms. Months later, Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe organised the American Woman Suffrage Association, seeking only the vote in the belief that from suffrage all other women’s rights would flow. Excluded the following year from the Fifteenth Amendment, women staged a ‘vote in’ during the presidential election of 1872 to claim their citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment. When the registrar turned a suffragist away from the polls, her challenge began to work its way to the Supreme Court.

By 1872, though, northerners had begun to retreat from the idea that every American should have a say in the postwar nation. The rise of organised labour brought home southern Democrats’ complaints that an activist government would tax the wealthy to benefit poor workers. In 1866, America’s first National Labour Union met to call for an eight-hour working day, higher wages and better working conditions.

Wealthy northerners began to worry that southerners were right: the voice of workers in government would lead to a redistribution of wealth through taxation or pro-labour legislation. With the eruption of the Paris Commune in spring 1871, they were sure of it.

Pointing to the “recent terrible Communistic outbreak in Paris,” one reformer wrote: “In the judgment of one who has been familiar with our ‘dangerous classes’ for 20 years, there are just the same explosive social elements beneath the surface of 
New York as of Paris.”

The coincidence of black voting and rising numbers of immigrant workers convinced wealthy Americans that the expansion of the body politic invited communism. They worried that black field workers and urban labourers would elect officials who would tax hardworking Americans to provide services – or shorter hours, or better conditions – for the less affluent voters. ‘Socialism,’ southerners argued, had taken root in the south, where it was preventing the economy from rebounding from the war. Northerners looked at the crippled southern economy and listened. They worried that redistributive policies would destroy the nation by undercutting a man’s ability to accumulate wealth and, thus, his desire to work.

Fear of an underclass

In the 1870s, a fight to control the Republican party fed this growing fear of a dangerous underclass.

Elected in 1868, President 
Ulysses S Grant tried to wrest political power from the senior Republicans who had bested Johnson. They fought back, attacking Grant by charging that his southern governments were deliberately redistributing wealth from hardworking white southerners to lazy ex-slaves in order to garner votes.

Their vitriol was a ploy, but those powerful Republicans controlled most of the nation’s newspapers. They insisted federal support for widespread suffrage meant socialism. That accusation spread across the nation and rooted deep in the American psyche.

Ten years after the end of the civil war, the national mood had shifted. No longer were Americans willing to insist that everyone should have a say in the government. In 1875, the Supreme Court decided the suffragist case from 1872. Women were citizens, the court said in the case Minor versus Happersett, but citizenship did not convey a right to vote.

This bombshell blessed suffrage restriction. In 1876, white southerners openly terrorised black voters while northerners railed against politically active urban immigrants. Democrats won the popular vote in the hotly contested presidential election of that year, but Republican Rutherford B Hayes won the Electoral College in part by promising that the government would no longer protect black voting.

By 1880, the south was solidly Democratic; it would remain so 
for almost 100 years. In the north 
and west, too, states began to rewrite their constitutions, once again limiting the right to vote to propertied white men.

In the end, the postwar years did reconstruct a new nation, but not the inclusive world that Republicans had envisioned in 1865. Instead, the peculiar mix of racism, citizenship and novel taxation in the postwar years meant that reconstruction created a new mindset in American people: government activism to protect equal rights was socialism, and it would destroy America.

Heather Cox Richardson is professor of history at Boston College and author of West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (YUP, 2007)

Timeline: Key events in creating a new country after the civil war

  • 1865: Black Codes Southern legislature tries to force freed people into quasi-slavery
  • 1866: Memphis and New Orleans Riots Bloody race riots convince northerners to abandon Johnson’s postwar reconstruction policies
  • 1867: The Military Reconstruction Act Congress divides ten southern states into five military districts, overseen by army officers
  • 1868: 14th Amendment Congressmen base reconstruction on changing the Constitution to establish equal rights for all men
  • 1870: 15th Amendment After the Georgia legislature expels its black members, Congress passes the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing a citizen’s right to vote cannot be restricted by race
  • 1875: Minor versus Happersett The Supreme Court decides that citizenship does not convey the right to vote, effectively denying the vote to women
  • 1876: Election White Democrats retake control of the South
  • 1890 (and beyond): Suffrage Restrictions States across the Union restrict suffrage on grounds other than race, but which nevertheless effectively disenfranchise most blacks

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This article first appeared in our special edition The American Civil War Story, first published in 2013