While politicians in Washington, D.C., were busy passing Reconstruction legislation in the late 1860s, the South remained in upheaval, as the ruined economy tried to accommodate newly emancipated blacks and political power struggles ensued. As freed slaves tried to establish livelihoods for themselves and take advantage of their new rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, politicians and vigilantes used insidious legislation and intimidation to try to maintain the prewar status quo.
The Union Army’s advance deep into southern territory in the final months of the Civil War freed thousands and thousands of slaves. Although some of these slaves were emancipated officially in the final days of the conflict, most freed themselves, simply refusing to work or walking away from the fields to follow the Union Army.
The end of the war meant that thousands of blacks could search freely for family members from whom they had been separated when they were sold or auctioned. Many black couples took the opportunity to get married after being freed, knowing that they could never again be lawfully separated. The number of black marriages skyrocketed.
Many freed blacks, previously forbidden to learn to read or write, wanted their children to receive the education that they themselves had been denied. The Congress-created Freedmen’s Bureau, assisted by former abolitionist organizations in the North, succeeded in establishing schools for thousands of blacks during the late 1860s.
In addition, many former slaves established their own churches. White southern clergymen had often defended slavery in their sermons in the period before the Civil War. As a result, blacks distrusted their white congregations, so they created their own as soon as they had the opportunity.
Meanwhile, some northerners jumped at the opportunity to move to the South in the wake of the Confederacy’s defeat. Commonly known as carpetbaggers because of their tendency to carry their possessions in large carpetbags, some moved from the North to promote education, others to modernize the South, and others to seek their fortune. White southern Unionists, or scalawags, attempted to achieve similar aims. Carpetbaggers and scalawags served in state legislatures in every southern state during Reconstruction.