By the end of the Civil War, the South was in a state of political upheaval, social disorder, and economic decay. The Union’s tactics of total war destroyed southern crops, plantations, and entire cities, and hundreds of thousands of emancipated slaves rushed to Union lines as their masters fled the oncoming Union army. Inflation became so severe that by the end of the war a loaf of bread cost several hundred Confederate dollars. Thousands of southerners starved to death, and many who did not starve lost everything they owned: clothing, homes, land, and slaves. As a result, by 1865, policymakers in Washington had the nearly impossible task of southern Reconstruction.

Reconstruction encompassed three major initiatives: restoration of the Union, transformation of southern society, and enactment of progressive legislation favoring the rights of freed slaves. President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction—issued in 1863, two years before the war even ended—mapped out the first of these initiatives, his Ten-Percent Plan. Under the plan, each southern state would be readmitted to the Union after 10 percent of its voting population had pledged future loyalty to the United States, and all Confederates except high-ranking government and military officials would be pardoned. After Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, President Andrew Johnson adopted the Ten-Percent Plan and pardoned thousands of Confederate officials. Radical Republicans in Congress, however, called for harsher measures, demanding a loyalty oath from 50 percent of each state’s voting population rather than just 10 percent. Although such points of contention existed, both presidents and Congress agreed on one major point—that the southern states needed to abolish slavery in their new state constitutions before being readmitted to the Union.

The Radical Republicans also believed that southern society would have to be completely transformed to ensure that the South would not try to secede again. The Radicals therefore attempted to reshape the South by enfranchising blacks, putting Unionist and pro-Republican governments in southern legislatures, and punishing southern planter elites, whom many politicians held responsible for the Civil War. As “carpetbaggers” (northerners who moved to the South after the war) and “scalawags” (white Unionists and Republicans in the South) streamed into the South, southerners denounced them as traitors and falsely accused many of corruption. However, through organizations like the congressionally approved Freedmen’s Bureau, the U.S. government did manage to distribute confiscated lands to former slaves and poor whites as well as help improve education and sanitation and foster industrial growth in rebuilt southern cities.

Ultimately, the most important part of Reconstruction was the push to secure rights for former slaves. Radical Republicans, aware that newly freed slaves would face insidious racism, passed a series of progressive laws and amendments in Congress that protected blacks’ rights under federal and constitutional law. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment granted blacks citizenship, the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 attempted to ban racial discrimination in public places.

Reconstruction was a mixed success. By the end of the era, the North and South were once again reunited, and all southern state legislatures had abolished slavery in their constitutions. Reconstruction also laid to a rest the debate of states’ rights vs. federalism, which had been a pressing issue since the late 1790s. But Reconstruction failed in most other ways. When President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered federal troops to leave the South in 1877, former Confederate officials and slave owners gradually returned to power. Southern state legislatures quickly passed “black codes,” imposed voter qualifications, and allowed the sharecropping system to thrive, ensuring that the standard of living did not improve for freed slaves. A conservative Supreme Court aided southern Democrats by effectively repealing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1875. By 1877, northerners were tired of Reconstruction, and violations of blacks’ civil rights were essentially going ignored. Ultimately, the rights promised to blacks during Reconstruction would not be granted fully for almost another century.

Popular pages: Reconstruction (1865–1877)