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The Reconstruction of the South

1865-1876 in Southern States

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*MAP shows the following information:
1. Date the states were admitted back to the union
2. Date of reestablishment back to conservative rule
3. Military districts
4. Military district commanders
   President Abraham Lincoln and the Radicals in the Republican Party had clashed bitterly about reconstruction policies long before the assassination thrust Vice President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, into the fray. "Mr. Johnson, I thank God that you are here", said Radical Republican Sen. Ben Wade. "Lincoln had too much of the milk of human kindness to deal with these damn rebels. Now they will be dealt with according to their deserts."
Believing he was basically carrying on Lincoln's plans for reconstruction, Johnson, by a May 29, 1865, presidential proclamation, granted amnesty and pardon to all persons who directly or indirectly participated in the "rebellion", with a wide range of exceptions. Excepted persons included people with taxable property worth more than $20,000, civil and diplomatic officials, officers above the rank of colonel, anyone who left the U.S. military to fight for the Confederacy, anyone educated in the U.S. military academies, anyone who left homes in the North to go South, and many others. However, Johnson proclaimed, these excepted persons could apply to him personally and "such clemency will be liberally extended as may be consistent with the facts of the case and the peace and dignity of the United States". A loyalty oath that "henceforth" all such persons would support the Constitution and abide by the laws was required of all. Property rights, with certain exclusions- notably slaves- were restored and a policy of re-establishing state governments and adopting new state constitutions that incorporated the 13th amendment was set forth.

The Radicals were furious. Surely there were Southerners who must hang. What about freed slaves? They should be enfranchised, and the property of the whites should be divided amongst them. Would these states be represented in Congress by the same people that had led them in rebellion? Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens asked his colleagues if there was "no way to arrest the insane course of the President."

Knowing that Southerners would be looking to him for guidance in regard to the amnesty proclamation, Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to set the right example and applied to Johnson for a pardon. He was never pardoned during his lifetime.

Birth of the Ku Klux Klan:
The world to which the ex-Confederate veterans returned after the war was greatly changed from the one they had known in 1860. Many Southern towns and cities were little more than clusters of blackened chimneys, and large areas of the South were utterly desolate. Besides the physical and economic ruin, a great upheaval of the social structure was taking place. The Radical Republican Congress had placed the South under military rule. Carpetbaggers and scalawags sat in the state houses, raising taxes and looting the state treasuries. And ex-slaves, now armed with the right to vote, were struggling to claim their rights.

White Southerners had lost all control over their own affairs. As ex-Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest put it, in losing the war they had "lost all but [their] honor", and now they felt even that was being stripped from them. Southerners tried to regain some measure of control by forming secret organizations to restore order to their disrupted society through the intimidation and terrorism of blacks and unionists. These secret societies had such names as the Pale Faces, the Sons of Midnight, and the Knights of the White Camelia.

In May 1866, a group of ex-Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tenn., formed another such group, giving it the name Ku Klux Klan. Thus beginning the "invisible empire of the South" that would grow to be the largest and best known of the groups that opposed the Reconstruction government and attempts by freed blacks to receive their rights. In May 1867, Forrest became the Grand Wizard of the Empire and thereby leader of the KKK. The Klan was run as a quasi-military organization and grew quickly with the addition of more former Rebel soldiers. Wearing white robes and hoods, these "ghosts of dead Rebel soldiers" paid midnight visits to frightened blacks and carpetbaggers. If warnings failed to get the desired results, the KKK never hesitated to resort to more violent methods.

Disillusioned by the tactics and the goals of the Klan, Forrest resigned as Grand Wizard and tried to disband the organization. The KKK, seemingly not realizing that the prewar society could never return, continued without him.

What is known as the reconstruction of the seceded States is a very sad epoch to recall, and no American who loves his country likes to bring back its harsh memories. Yet it is a matter of history and it needs be recorded in order that the part which the North and the South played during that period should be fully understood. It began under President Abraham Lincoln before the close of the war, and was carried on by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Lincoln, during the years 1865 and 1866. Afterward there was a second phase of reconstruction, or "destruction," known as the congressional plan, which undid all that had been done by Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. This latter period was the greatest trial that the South had to bear, not excepting the terrible ordeal of war. To understand properly the surroundings, it is necessary to enumerate briefly the events which occurred early in 1865, and the directions given by President Johnson to the military officers of the United States.
First, I would mention the death of Lincoln himself, which was regarded as the greatest calamity that could have happened to the people of the South. The arrest and imprisonment of President Davis and many of the Confederate soldiers and statesmen have been already related. The treatment of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was very harsh indeed, complicity in the assassination of Lincoln being cruelly imputed to him, and a large reward offered for his capture. He was placed in prison and shackled with irons in the strongest fortress in the Union, and a military guard placed over him day and night.

Every town, village and district in the South was occupied rapidly by the Union troops as the Confederate resistance melted away, and all civil government was ignored. The governors of most of the seceded states attempted to call their legislatures together to conform to the results of the war and take steps for their restoration to the Union. They did this, believing that the American principle of government (the sovereignty and indestructibility of the states) would be respected and that these prompt proceedings would be favored as the constitutional plan of restoration. They did this also believing it absolutely necessary to preserve civil government, and to show by legislative enactment complete submission to the results of the war in repealing their ordinances of secession and in accepting the freedom of the negro.

The order issued by Gen. Wilson, of the United States army in Georgia, when the legislature was called to meet, was to this effect: "Neither the legislature nor any other political body will be permitted to assemble under the call of the rebel State authorities." The spirit of this order was carried out in all the seceded States. Existing civil government was ignored everywhere, and military rule inaugurated in municipal and local communities. The only government allowed was that of the local military officers, or under their supervision.

This harsh action of the Federal authorities, civil and military, immediately following the collapse of the Confederate government, caused all prominent actors in the war to feel insecure. They did not know what to expect. It was not known how general the arrests and imprisonments would be, and many leading men, civil and military, escaped to foreign lands, and for the time expatriated themselves. Gen. Jubal Early, with others, escaped to Cuba. Gens. Loring, Graves, and a few other officers went to Egypt and took service under the khedive. Hons. Robert Toombs, J. C. Breckinridge and many others went to Europe. Gov. Isham G. Harris, Gens. J. Bankhead Magruder, Hindman and Price went to Mexico. In fact, prominent citizens and soldiers everywhere felt great apprehension as to the course of the government, even with their paroles. It was even contemplated by Pres. Johnson and his advisers to arrest and imprison Gen. Robert E. Lee, who had surrendered his army to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and had been paroled. Grant, however, entered a vigorous protest against such action, and insisted that men who had surrendered with arms in their hands were entitled to the usual laws recognized by all civilized nations, and that their paroles should be respected. This action on his part, and the advice of Lee and the leading statesmen, officers, and soldiers of all the lately seceded States, caused it to be thought best for all to remain in their respective States and share whatever fate was in store for the South. The feeling of expatriation was greatly allayed when such prominent men advised against it.


The terrible ordeal of reconstruction may be said to have lasted from 1865 to 1876, 12 years, before the whites got hold of the states again. No people had to undergo so dark a period with such complications, having 4,000,000 of slaves suddenly enfranchised, with no preliminary training to fit them for the great responsibility of the ballot. "Our ancestors placed suffrage upon the broad common-sense principle that it should be lodged in and exercised by those who could use it most wisely and most safely and most efficiently, to serve the ends for which government was instituted . . . not upon any abstract or transcendent notion of human rights, which ignored the existing facts of social life .... I shall not vote to degrade suffrage. I shall not vote to pollute and corrupt the foundation of political power in this country, either in my own State or in any other State." (Senator Buckalew of Pennsylvania). It seems strange now that statesmen of the Republican party in control of the government, even after so terrible a war, and mad with absolute power, could have gone so far in error as to place those who had been slaves but a few years before, and were now led by corrupt and reckless adventurers, in charge of framing governments for the Anglo Saxon (white) race in the South It seems now that they could have seen they were attempting an impossible problem; but they did not, even when warned by cool-headed statesmen who did see it. Passion and prejudice reigned supreme. Those who were conservative were misled by the colored representations of designing partisans. The negroes were as clay in the hands of the potter. They had never before felt the strong hand of strong men, ruling them and using them in affairs, in which they had had no experience, for political ascendency The negroes were never very much blamed by the Southern people, for the whites felt that the influences surrounding the negro, backed by military power and the moral support of the government of the great republic and of the state governments, were irresistible under the circumstances.

The conduct of the true citizens of the South during the days of reconstruction surpassed in wisdom, endurance, patience, and subordination to law (military law), any traits they had displayed in the war. They never yielded moral support to the corrupt legislation surrounding them, but patiently waited for the time to come when they could act together to restore local self-government. This time came when the corrupt influences of those in power had passed beyond endurance. The better element of the Republicans in the South, composed of Northern men, could not stand the stealing and general corruption which threw the spoils mainly into the hands of the few officeholders.

They began to separate from the extremists as they "saw the handwriting on the wall," and to approach the true citizens of the state. All thinking men now saw that there was no doubt that white civilization itself, the very existence of society, was at stake. The white people arose as one man to correct the evil. They appealed to all to help (white and black), no matter what had occurred in the past. The moral pressure and presentation of the open frauds and crimes accomplished under form of law, were irresistible. It amounted almost to another revolution, and one after another, the States were recovered by the white people within their borders. Illegal and corrupt returning boards, under semblance of law, prevented the consummation for a time, as the Federal power was slow to relax its hold, but it was seen on every hand that the end was near, and that the corrupt governments, set up under the reconstruction law, remained only because held up on the points of the bayonets of the United States army.

The carpet-bag government in Louisiana fell in a day (September 14, 1874), and was powerless when the military (United States troops) were not interfering. One company of U. S. troops, after a few days, reinstated the corrupt government for a time. This was an object-lesson that every citizen of the North could understand, and the conservative men there began to change their views in regard to the South, and to understand that Congress had made a mistake in its zeal, as it supposed, to gather in the results of the war, and afford protection to the negro race in its freedom. It was shown, too, that no change could be made under Republican rule in the South, as was demonstrated by Governor Chamberlain's effort in South Carolina. Their régime was a stench in the nostrils of every respectable man, North or South. It could only be done under the Democratic party, and all good citizens flocked to its standard and worked under it, till what was desired was accomplished. "The conduct of the Republican party in the South was such as to repel patriotism and decency . . . and a monumental warning to those who seek party advantage through illegitimate legislative enactment." (Noted Men of the Solid South.)
The cost to the South was great, but her citizens did not repine, but began to work with a will to revoke all improper and corrupt legislation, to restore economy in public expenditures, to reduce taxation, to do away with useless offices, to make the schools efficient, and to build up the waste places. The conservative element in Congress was strong enough to enforce "hands off." In fact, Congress, as early as May, 1872, had passed a general amnesty bill removing political disabilities from almost all citizens who had been disfranchised, still excepting those who had been officers in the judicial, military, or naval service of the Confederate States. The carpet-baggers had taken their "carpet-bags" and gone to a more congenial clime, where they lost their identity as a class, having the scorn and contempt of all respectable citizens.

The Supreme Court, too, had rendered several decisions tending to recall Congress from its proneness to legislate beyond the limits of the Constitution. The blacks, who could not resist being led to extremes in the hands of the "masterful" carpet-baggers, now easily and readily yielded to the will of the Southern whites, and began to return to more industrious habits and conditions, and were less disposed to spend their time as politicians and lawmakers. They began to realize that they were not competent to withstand the nerve and moral pressure of the white man, whether he was a carpet-bagger and using him for his own advantage, and for corrupt and vindictive purposes, or the Southern white man who intended to rule and preserve white civilization and society at all hazards. The normal condition of the Southern states, being again ruled by the whites, by the educated people and the property-holders, was accepted by the people of the North as the only true solution in the reconstruction of the States. The restoration of the governments of the states to their own people, left them heavily burdened with debts put upon them under the guise of law. They had to start with this great burden upon them in their work of restoration. Even after the States were restored, for many years there was a large element of the Republican party that still desired to interfere in the internal management of the States. Some force bills were passed by Congress to carry into effect the 14th and 15th Amendments. This uncertainty, in again resorting to extreme legislation, kept capital away and made it timid. It had become thoroughly panic-stricken during the corrupt days of reconstruction, and had fled from the South and sought other channels, mainly in the development of the Northwest. It showed no disposition to return for many years, even after recuperation had begun in earnest with Southern hands and Southern capital.

The struggle of Southern men during reconstruction, in fact, of the whole Southern people, under adverse political, social and commercial circumstances, was the most remarkable feature in those dark days. They never lost confidence in themselves, patiently bided their time, and achieved a most remarkable victory over all malign influences. Although they had had such sad experience with the carpet-baggers, they at once invited immigration to assist in building up the South, but they preferred bona fide citizens, not the class which had lived off of them so long, and which had fled when the purse and power had been stripped from them.

It cannot now be a question that the policy of the Northern statesmen was a failure, and that the wisdom of Southern leaders was superior in their ideas of reconstruction. "Reconstruction accomplished not one useful result and left behind not one pleasant reflection." History will certainly condemn the legislation that entailed such misery, such corruption, such profligate expenditure of the money of an impoverished and crushed people, and in establishing negro governments at a time when the whites of the South bad the best intentions of protecting the negroes in their new given freedom. "The experiment being tried, all interests, not least those of the blacks themselves, were found to require that the superior race should rule. It seems strange that even any were so dull as to expect success of the opposite policy." Gov. Chamberlain, of South Carolina (Republican), said: "The Republican party in power was not all nor nearly all Northern adventurers, Southern renegades, or depraved negroes. Among all the classes so described were worthy and able men, but the crude forces with which they dealt were temporarily too strong for their control or their resistance. Corruption ran riot; dishonesty flourished in shameless effrontery; incompetency was the rule in public offices."

Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida were not entirely reclaimed till after President Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated in 1877. One of the first acts of the new president was to order the withdrawal of the United States troops from the South. As soon as this was done, the Republican governments in the Southern States at once fell to pieces, and the Democratic state governments, which had been legally elected and had claimed to be the true governments, took their places. The rule of the white people was once more inaugurated in all the lately seceded states. They had governed these states from their earliest colonial or territorial days, until the reconstruction policy of the presidents (Lincoln and Johnson) was overturned by the armed forces of the government, as the Confederate government had been overturned by the same force in 1865, and the negro governments established in their places in 1867, under the reconstruction laws of Congress. As already explained, this reconstruction might be styled "destruction," for it took what little the Southern people had left after coming out of the war which had impoverished them, and left their country devastated and devoid of nearly all property.

The assessed property in 1876 was about 1/3 of what it was in 1860. Two-thirds of the wealth of the Southern people had been swept away, and the South was helpless and bankrupt. However, as soon as the white people realized that they again had control of their country, that the 11 years' trial of negro lawmaking and legislation was about ended, they at once went to work with a will to correct the corrupt and vicious legislation of the experiment of negro suffrage, in administering the affairs of the great States, and with heart and soul to reassert their influence and rights in the union of their fathers.
In so far as their material resources were concerned, they were about in the same fix that they were in 1865, in fact, worse off than when they laid down their arms. At that date the total debts of the States were about $87 million. They had been compelled to repudiate all debts contracted for carrying on the war. In the 10 years of negro legislation and government, conducted under carpet-baggers, the additional debt of $300 million was added to the burdens of the people of the South.

The Republicans in Congress gave the ballot to the negroes as a weapon of defense of their freedom and to keep the party in power. But the first result of negro suffrage was a saturnalia of ignorant and corrupt government such as the world has seldom seen. The debts of the Southern states were rolled up to enormous extent. At the close of the war the debts had aggregated $87 million. Reconstruction added $300 million, and a great part of this was squandered.

Public and private debts remained as a legacy to remind the people of the war and its consequences. These debts were paid by many, compromised by many, and in many cases could not be paid at all. As yet, the people were not sure that there were not to be further attempts at readjustment. Capital had long since fled from the South, and was diverted in other directions. Money could only be had at enormous rates of interest (75%-80%). The North and West were enjoying the greatest financial prosperity in their history. All capital was being used in booming and building up the Northwest into new States and increasing their material wealth. This was being done to its utmost limit, and there was no money to help the South. The great Western railroads were being built, backed by enormous grants of public lands by Congress, and these roads were planting immigrants (500,000 foreign) and citizens from other States in the West. Immigration had even gone westward from the people of the South who had despaired of better days. There was no immigration southward. The increase in population was only the natural one. There were but few banks, and Southern men had few friends among the great financiers anywhere. The South, in its looted and prostrated condition, offered no invitation to capital which promised even prospective returns. Northern capital strictly avoided the South in those gloomy days. To all appearances, the South was paralyzed. Her great wealth, as shown by the census of 1850 and 1860, which had been the accumulation from the earliest days, in slave property and material investments in all possible directions, had been swept away.

The social fabric of the people had been uprooted and turned upside down. The negroes had not only been freed as the result of the South's failure in the war, but they had been made lawmakers and put to governing States, whose people had been as progressive and aggressive as any element of the Anglo-Saxon race in any part of the world. The Southern people had before them the lamentable failure of their brothers at the North to restrain their bad blood and forego Anglo-Saxon determination, indifferently to friend or foe, to carry out their own purposes by putting negro governments over men of their own race for whom they showed at that time no sympathy or generosity.

But the white people of the South began to realize again that their destinies had fallen into their own hands. They recalled the terrible ordeal through which they had passed, a fiery furnace, as it were, of devastating war and reconstruction and destruction of over fifteen years. Every true citizen realized the fearful conditions surrounding him to begin social, political and material life anew. A condition without a precedent in history confronted them. Their brothers of the North were still hostile, suspicious, distrustful, and watching them with vigilant eyes, possibly to try a new experiment in restoration.
Yet they were at least able to face the future and apply their wisdom and statesmanship to the upbuilding of a new civilization, having to accept the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution irrevocably, although fastened on them by the bayonet; and having negro suffrage as a fixed fact, and that, too, in face of the great burdens imposed on them in the ten years' experiment. It looked as if the effort they could not avoid in the solution of the intricate problem was made hopeless by the conditions they had to accept. Two races differing in almost every respect, one a governing race with a proud prestige of success, the other a docile, inexperienced, uneducated race without a record, had to live side by side with equal political power and rights.

The new problem which Southern statesmen had to face and solve, was surrounded by every possible adverse condition. At the same time, the need most pressing above all others was to restore confidence and prosperity, and provide employment to hands made idle by destruction of all manufacturing enterprises and all employments not strictly agricultural. Although the South was mainly agricultural, because her peculiar conditions made her so before the war, still she had been proportionally doing her share in all lines of development before the struggle. The almost total destruction of all these lines of industry, reduced her people in starting, to the one primitive pursuit of every people--agriculture, as an immediate way of making a living. The Southern people knew their great unequaled resources in climate, soil, rivers, seacoast, rainfall, iron, coal, timber, agriculture, and everything necessary to make a people rich and prosperous. They knew that they had every condition essential to success. They realized that the race question was settled possibly for a time, and with discretion on their part, passion and prejudice must necessarily die out. They knew that with patriotism, patience, and fidelity and good principles, success might be assured.

They were conscious that in the ordeal through which they had passed, they had preserved their self-respect and honor, and there was nothing to be ashamed of in their conduct. And they now determined to enter with courage and skill the great future before them, relying on their strong arms and hearts and on their own meager resources, for it has been shown that there were no friends at hand to aid them materially. The only friends they had politically were the Democrats at the North, and these friends had never deserted them from the time the war closed.

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