Reconstruction of the South Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Confident of victory in the Civil War, the Union government began planning to reconstruct the South even before the war ended; however, political conflicts arising from the divergent goals of the executive and legislative branches ultimately caused Reconstruction to fail the needs of the South’s newly free slaves.

Summary of Event

The end of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) brought on the enormously complex task of reconstructing the conquered South, whose situation was desperate. The South’s commercial heart had been destroyed, and economic paralysis had set in. Banks, money, and credit were virtually nonexistent. People in many southern states faced actual starvation. Institutions such as churches, schools, and city and county governments had ceased to function. The federal government faced the question of whether the rebellious and now destitute southern states should be treated as erring rebels and quickly returned to the Union. President Abraham Lincoln, who led the Union through the Civil War, consistently maintained that the “seceding” southern states had, in fact, never left the Union; those southern states, according to Lincoln, were to be brought back into their “proper relationship” with the federal government. After they were “safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had been abroad.” Reconstruction Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] [kw]Reconstruction of the South (Dec. 8, 1863-Apr. 24, 1877) [kw]South, Reconstruction of the (Dec. 8, 1863-Apr. 24, 1877) Reconstruction Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] [g]United States;Dec. 8, 1863-Apr. 24, 1877: Reconstruction of the South[3690] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 8, 1863-Apr. 24, 1877: Reconstruction of the South[3690] Stevens, Thaddeus [p]Stevens, Thaddeus;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction]

While the war was still in progress, Lincoln had turned his thoughts to the problem of reconciliation and had devised a plan to restore the South with maximum speed and minimal humiliation. The basis of this restoration would be to identify loyal minorities in each southern state. To create such groups, Lincoln expected to use the presidential pardoning power. He was prepared to grant amnesty to all ex-Confederates except high civilian and military officials, who would take an oath of loyalty to the United States. When 10 percent of the 1860 electorate of a state took the oath, that state could then set up a new state government, which would then be recognized by the president. Lincoln proclaimed this “10-percent plan” in effect on December 8, 1863—a date that might be considered the beginning of Reconstruction, although many historians date its beginning to after the war.

The more radical members of Congress Congress, U.S.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] —led in the House by Thaddeus Stevens Stevens, Thaddeus [p]Stevens, Thaddeus;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] of Pennsylvania and in the Senate by Charles Sumner Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] of Massachusetts—were annoyed by the mildness of Lincoln’s approach, and they repudiated the state governments of Tennessee, Tennessee;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Arkansas, Arkansas;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] and Louisiana Louisiana;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] that had already been established under Lincoln’s plan. Electoral votes from these states were not counted in the 1864 general election, and their representatives were not seated in Congress. Forced by political necessity to provide an alternative, the Radical Republicans countered Lincoln by passing the Wade-Davis Bill in June, 1864. That measure stipulated that Congress, not the president, was to put the Reconstruction program into effect. Congress, U.S.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction]

The congressional plan required a majority of each state’s 1860 electorate, rather than 10 percent, to swear allegiance before state governments could be established. Other rigid provisions were enumerated. The new state constitutions State constitutions;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] would have to abolish slavery, repudiate the Confederate government’s war debt, and disfranchise Voting rights;in post-Civil War South[PostCivil War South] Confederate military leaders. Prospective voters had to swear an “ironclad oath” of past as well as future loyalty in order to qualify for the franchise Voting rights;in post-Civil War South[PostCivil War South] . The bill was passed only one hour before the session of Congress ended, so Lincoln, who objected to its harshness, permitted the bill to die by pocket veto. The radicals then approved the Wade-Davis Manifesto, which bitterly attacked Lincoln for ostensibly usurping congressional power. Congress, U.S.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction]

Readmission of the Confederate States to the Union





The sentiment behind a program of Radical Reconstruction had been present from the earliest days of the Civil War, but it coalesced around the Wade-Davis Bill, a measure that would have eliminated the southern ruling class from participation in the political process. This measure came about as a response by Republicans in Congress who resented or eschewed the reconstruction proposals outlined by Lincoln in December, 1863.

Before any action could be taken by either side, Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;assassination of was assassinated in April, 1865. His death removed from politics a far-sighted statesman of tact and influence and a man well versed in handling recalcitrant congressmen. It elevated Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat from Tennessee, to the presidency. Handicapped by the fact that he had not been elected to this highest office, Johnson also lacked the respect and gratitude of the nation that Lincoln had gained as the wartime president. Moreover, Johnson was stubborn and adamant, particularly when he believed his cause to be right. In such a time of crisis, he was probably ill-suited for the presidency.

Although Johnson was a southerner and a former slave owner, he was also a devoted Unionist. Without calling Congress into session, he put into operation his own plan of reconstruction, one that closely resembled Lincoln’s. His plan, called by historians “Presidential Reconstruction,” was not revealed until May 29, 1865. The basic difference between Johnson’s and Lincoln’s plans was the number of people excluded from the amnesty. Johnson listed a total of fourteen categories of southerners who would be ineligible for pardon. Nevertheless, his pardon policy was extremely lenient. By September of 1865, he was freely issuing pardons to former Confederates. Congress, U.S.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction]

In addition, Johnson asked for explicit guarantees: The southern states’ new constitutions State constitutions;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] had to abolish slavery, declare their secession ordinances null and void, and repudiate the Confederate war debt. Majority consent, rather than 10 percent, was implied, but not specified, and the new legislatures were to ratify the recently passed Thirteenth Amendment Thirteenth Amendment;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] , which abolished slavery. By the time Congress reconvened in December, 1865, all the former Confederate states except Texas Texas;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] had fulfilled Johnson’s terms, and the president announced to the assembled legislators that Reconstruction was over.

Johnson’s plan staggered many Republicans who determined to contest it. Seeking guarantees that the South sincerely accepted the results of the war, the Republicans instead saw that the southern governments reestablished under the Johnson plan had enacted black codes, regulations that had the effect of placing the newly freed slaves in a kind of permanent peonage system. Taking various forms in the southern states, the black codes Black codes effectively kept African Americans African Americans;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] from Voting rights;and black codes[Black codes] voting, getting educations, finding homes, taking advantage of economic opportunities, and gaining equal access to the judicial system. Southern governments had also failed to prevent race riots Race riots ; elected to office important Confederate leaders such as Alexander H. Stephens Stephens, Alexander H. , the former vice president of the Confederacy; and generally given little evidence of a suppliant mood.

Politically, the Republicans did not want to jeopardize their position by the rapid return of the Democratic South. Economically, northern business interests feared southern opposition to high tariffs and government subsidies, and humanitarians from all sections of the country wanted to see African Americans African Americans;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] given political and social equality. Perhaps the most important motivating force was psychological; many northerners wanted to gloat over their victory and see some direct evidence of southern repentance.

After many proposals and counterproposals, the Republicans in Congress proposed the Fourteenth Amendment Fourteenth Amendment;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] to the U.S. Constitution. They considered this amendment to be something like a peace treaty. If the southern states accepted the amendment, they would be readmitted to the Union. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed African Americans citizenship, Citizenship, U.S.;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] imposed political disabilities upon ex-Confederates, and attempted to compel the former slave states to allow African American suffrage by decreasing their representation in the House of Representatives and the electoral college in the event of disenfranchisement. Given the temper of the North and of Republicans in the spring of 1866, it was an eminently moderate measure. President Johnson opposed it, however, and urged the southern states to reject it. They did, and the measure failed. African Americans;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Congress, U.S.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction]

On March 2, 1867, Congress passed the first of the Military Reconstruction Acts. This first act replaced civil administration in the former Confederate states with military rule, dividing the South into five military districts whose administrating officers were to take orders from General Ulysses S. Grant Grant, Ulysses S. [p]Grant, Ulysses S.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] , rather than from the president. The first duties of these military regimes were to protect persons and property, to create a new electorate based on universal male suffrage, and to supervise the election of conventions that were to draft new state constitutions. The military governments were also given the right to replace civil officials who had been “fraudulently” elected and to remove “disloyal” members from the state legislatures.

Contemporary illustration of the alleged excesses of African American politicians in a Reconstruction state legislature.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The South was now ruled with a firm hand by its military governors. Confederate veterans’ organizations and historical societies were suppressed, state and local officials were removed from office, and military tribunals assumed the duties of civil courts when it was found that those courts could not be depended upon to punish violence against African Americans. African Americans;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] The army Army, U.S.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] of occupation, consisting of nearly twenty thousand men and aided by an African American militia, enforced military rule; but these forces, deeply resented by the local populace, were kept largely in the background. In general, they were not called out except to supervise elections or to control civil disorders. In each southern state, the new African American electorate that had been registered by the military helped to choose the conventions that drafted new state constitutions. The new constitutions gave African Americans the right to vote while denying this right to former Confederate leaders. Civil and political equality was also granted to freedmen.

By the summer of 1868, reconstructed governments had been established in seven of the eleven former Confederate states. After their state legislatures had ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Fifteenth Amendment;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] the states were formally readmitted to the Union and were allowed to send senators and representatives to Congress. The states of Mississippi Mississippi;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] , Georgia, Georgia;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Virginia, Virginia;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] and Texas Texas;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] were not “reconstructed” until 1870.

The post-1868 era of “Black Reconstruction” has often been misrepresented in histories, for varied and often deceitful reasons, as a time when the South fell prey to uneducated African Americans African Americans;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] , opportunistic northern “carpetbaggers,” "Carpetbaggers"[Carpetbaggers] and a minority of disloyal southern “scalawags.” In reality, African Americans never dominated any southern state government. In fact, they did not even hold political offices in proportion to their numbers within any state. The African Americans who were elected to office were usually equal in ability to their white predecessors. Some, such as Hiram R. Revels Revels, Hiram R. , a U.S. senator from Mississippi, were men of extraordinary talent and ability. Due to their lack of political experience, however, some African American officeholders were manipulated and exploited by avaricious whites. In general, the corruption that characterized several of the state governments in this period was a result of the triumph of white political sophistication and wiles over the political inexperience of the newly elected black officeholders.

It is also instructive to note that black legislators never attempted to pass vindictive laws aimed at their former masters. However, no matter what form the new reconstructed governments took, they were bound to be hated by the majority of southern whites. A program of rebuilding the infrastructures of the area—cities, roads, railroads—necessary for economic growth and recovery resulted in deficit spending characterized by the crushing burden of taxation that was placed on the southern gentry, plus the graft and bribery that took place on a large scale. Similar corruption was also common in the North at that time.

To answer the threat of this alleged oppression, many southern whites turned to the formation of secret white supremacist societies such as the Ku Klux Klan Ku Klux Klan;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] and the Knights of the White Camelia Knights of the White Camelia . A series of pillages, whippings, and even murders resulted. These actions resulted in Congress’s Congress, U.S.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] enactment of the Force Acts, or Ku Klux Klan Acts, authorizing the president to suspend habeas corpus Habeas corpus;in United States[United States] and to send federal troops into areas that were considered to be the most unruly. By means of this legislation, portions of which were later declared unconstitutional, the first incarnation of the Klan was largely stamped out by 1872. However, the Klan would resurface during the twentieth century.


By 1874, Democrats had captured control of the House of Representatives, marking the end of northern Radicalism. The Amnesty Act of 1872 Amnesty Act of 1872 had restored full political rights to the disfranchised Voting rights;in post-Civil War South[PostCivil War South] former Confederates. Factional splits in the Republican Party had been caused by struggles between carpetbaggers "Carpetbaggers"[Carpetbaggers] and scalawags. African Americans African Americans;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] who had been promised “forty acres and a mule” by the Republicans began to desert the party when their hopes failed to materialize. Instead, they would turn to the old master class, in which they had more confidence. These white “redeemer” governments recaptured control of state political machinery between 1869 and 1871 in Tennessee, Tennessee;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Virginia, Virginia;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] North Carolina North Carolina;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] , and Georgia, Georgia;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] and in 1874 to 1875 in Alabama, Alabama;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Arkansas, Arkansas;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Texas, Texas;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] and Mississippi. Mississippi;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] With the Civil War a more distant memory by that time, the North no longer cared about the freedmen in the South, and shortly after the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes Hayes, Rutherford B. [p]Hayes, Rutherford B.;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] in 1877, Reconstruction came to an official end when President Hayes withdrew the last federal troops from Louisiana on April 24 of that year.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Eric, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., eds. The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. Collection of essays offering a variety of perspectives on Reconstruction, including education, politics, segregation, African American economic Reconstruction, Reconstruction and the Constitution, and the role of violence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Dan T. When the War Was Over: The Failure of Self-Reconstruction in the South, 1865-1867. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. Describes the emergence of leadership in the postwar South, characterizing those in power as “cautious and conservative,” responding to emancipation and defeat as best they could.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Provides a coherent narrative of how the South and the nation as a whole responded economically, politically, and socially to the end of the Civil War and slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. Detailed account of the events leading up to the Civil War, analysis of the military and political battles of the Civil War, and Reconstruction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Roy, Jr. Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Written in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election of 2000, this book reexamines the disputed election of 1876, which resulted in a compromise that effectively ended Reconstruction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Examines and compares the presidencies of the four men who had a hand in Reconstruction policies: Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Page. Trial by Fire: A People’s History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Vol. 5. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Controversial revisionist interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction that draws on a variety of sources, including primary accounts from contemporary journals and correspondence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutherland, Daniel E. The Confederate Carpetbaggers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Studies the lives of southern men and women who left their homes for the North in pursuit of better financial and educational opportunities following the Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trefousse, Hans L. Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Balanced and comprehensive biography of one of the most rabid Radical Republicans, a man set on exacting revenge on the rebellious South after the Civil War.

U.S. Civil War

Sherman Marches Through Georgia and the Carolinas

Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau

Surrender at Appomattox and Assassination of Lincoln

Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code

Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Birth of the Ku Klux Klan

Civil Rights Act of 1866

Memphis and New Orleans Race Riots

Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Fourteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Hayes Becomes President

Civil Rights Cases

Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Salmon P. Chase; Ulysses S. Grant; Rutherford B. Hayes; Andrew Johnson; Abraham Lincoln; Edwin M. Stanton; Alexander H. Stephens; Thaddeus Stevens; Charles Sumner Reconstruction Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction]

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