The period immediately after the Civil War may have been the last, best hope for the now-free Black citizens to gain something like equal footing in American society. While the South was still “in defeat” and Congress was dominated by Radical Republicans whose goals were focused on not only obliterating the memory of slavery but also ushering in a new age of equality, Abraham Lincoln’s hope for a reconciled and peaceful Union shined briefly. But those hopes were dashed by 1877 and a new and far more full-throated white supremacist racism took hold of our nation. In examining the Reconstruction period, the points of focus will be: the “Civil War” Amendments, the Radical Republicans and Johnson’s impeachment, the Military occupation of the South, the Grant Administration, the Panic of 1873, and the election of 1876 (and Compromise of 1877) which ended Reconstruction.
The “Civil War/Rights” Amendments of the late 1860’s incited the deep division between the Radical Republican Congress and the Southern Democratic President. Starting in 1866, Johnson encouraged Southern states to vote against ratifying the 14th Amendment, which would not only grant citizenship to the freed slaves but, crucially, specified a citizen’s right to due process and the concept of equal protection under law --- both of which, ultimately, became keystones to the 20th century Civil Rights movement. The 15th Amendment prohibited federal or state governments from denying citizens the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Needless to say, the Amendments passed and the bad blood between the Republican Congress, led by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts (famously beaten with a cane on the Senate floor by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina in 1856 for making an anti-slaveowner speech) and Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, boiled over, leading to Johnson’s impeachment in 1868. Prior to that, however, Stevens and Sumner oversaw the creation of Five Military Districts in the former Southern states, designed to insure Reconstruction policies were enforced.
The Reconstruction Acts “included the creation of five military districts in the South, each commanded by a general, which would serve as the acting government for the region. In addition, Congress required that each state draft a new state constitution, which would have to be approved by Congress. The states also were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and grant voting rights to black men. President Andrew Johnson's vetoes of these measures were overridden by Congress.” (wiki) The Military Districts were instituted because immediately following the end of the War, Southern states passed a number of “Black Codes,” laws designed to reassert white power and supremacy and keep former slaves “in their place.” While the Freedman’s Bureau was established throughout the South to help African-Americans transition from slavery to freedom, its purpose was more economic and social than legalistic, requiring the Federal Government to step in, particularly as white terrorist groups like the KKK, the Red Shirts, the White League, and the White Liner Rifle Club arose. Military units (and enforcement) remained until the spring of 1877 and their removal signaled the end of Reconstruction and the emergence of “the New South” and Jim Crow.
After several tumultuous years, the Congress and Andrew Johnson finally stopped butting heads and faced off in the first impeachment of a President of the United States in the spring of 1868. Congress had passed the Tenure of Office Act, which required the President to gain Congressional approval to remove a Cabinet Officer (a pretty clear Constitutional overstep --- but it wasn’t challenged), knowing Johnson was going to replace the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. When Johnson did remove Stanton, the Congress quickly drafted Bills of Impeachment and tried the President before the Senate where he escaped conviction by one vote. Needless to say, the remainder of Johnson’s term was ineffectual and all but guaranteed the election of Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War hero and a Republican, to office.
Ulysses S. Grant’s administration is generally remembered for a number of scandals that surfaced during his second term but, overall, Grant is ranked as a “middling” President (most recently ranked #22 or #23 out of 45 in surveys of historians & news organizations). In Grant’s defense, while his administration featured several corrupt actors (the attempted cornering of the gold market, the “Whiskey Ring,” etc.), he was never implicated in any scandal and was most guilty only of appointing tainted individuals. To his credit, he acted quickly to shut down the incipient Southern White terrorism with the Ku Klux Klan Act, vigorously prosecuting Southern terrorists. His administration was crippled not only by scandals but also by the Panic of 1873, as the economy took a post-war nosedive (typical of our boom/bust, over-speculation/over-extension of credit economy --- which still exists!). Extreme conservative Southerners, calling themselves “Redeemers,” again organized white supremacist groups and, by 1876, were regaining political and legal power in the South.
During Reconstruction the political power in the South was primarily controlled by “Carpetbaggers” (Northern opportunists who moved South), “Scalawags” (Southern opportunists who acted in concert with carpetbaggers) and elected Black officials. While antebellum (racist)attitudes regarding the races persisted, Blacks and Whites were accustomed to living together and, initially in the Reconstruction period, only saw extreme segregation in churches, where Black congregations --- primarily Methodist and Baptist denominations --- self-segregated. C. Vann Woodward’s classic study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (initially published in 1955), carefully illustrates how the rigid segregation system we call “Jim Crow” slowly developed in the post-Civil War period and did not emerge in full force until the mid-1880s and early 1890s, when those “Redeemers” and other, more extreme Southerners, wrested political control of Southern states.
What gave the “Redeemers” and their more conservative brethren the foot in the segregation door was the election of 1876. The North was not only suffering from the economic decline the Panic of 1873 initiated but were also exhibiting “Reconstruction fatigue.” It was more than 10 years after the Civil War and the North felt they had done all they could and the “New South” could take care of itself. The election between Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican from Ohio and New York’s Governor, Samuel Tilden was one that ended in dispute. While Tilden won the popular vote, there were 20 electoral votes that were disputed --- and would tip the election to Hayes or Tilden. A “special commission” was appointed (8 Republicans, 7 Democrats) to determine how each of the disputed Electoral Votes should be cast and, surprise, surprise, Hayes, the Republican, won! Behind the scenes, Hayes had agreed to “The Compromise of 1877:” when he took office, he would remove Federal troops from the South.
By 1877, then, Reconstruction was over and, as many modern historians have noted, the period that followed proved that “the North won the War, but the South won the Peace.”
Next: The Birth of Jim Crow