Written by: Brooks D. Simpson, Arizona State University
By the end of this section, you will:
- Explain the context in which sectional conflict emerged from 1844 to 1877
- Compare the relative significance of the effects of the Civil War on American values
As the spring of 1861 arrived, the United States teetered on the verge of war. Seven southern slaveholding states had seceded from the republic the previous winter and established the Confederate States of America. They were South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Eight more slave states were contemplating whether to follow suit: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. The failure to resolve the sectionalism of the previous decades resulted in a civil war with Americans battling each other and more than 700,000 killed. Since the war was primarily fought over the question of slavery and its expansion, questions of freedom, equality, and justice were central to the war and the reconstruction of the Union after the war. The Civil War and Reconstruction produced significant political, economic, and social transformations in the United States, but for African Americans, the progress had mixed results at best.
The Decision for War
The new president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, the first member of the antislavery Republican party to hold that office, pondered what to do next. Everyone’s attention was focused on the fate of Fort Sumter, located in the harbor outside Charleston, South Carolina. The fort’s garrison, under the command of Major Robert Anderson, was under siege by the Confederate Army and running out of supplies. Would Lincoln choose to evacuate the fort, postponing a confrontation with the new Confederacy, or would he seek to resupply it? Would the Confederacy, under the leadership of its new president, Jefferson Davis, contest such efforts and initiate hostilities? (See the Fort Sumter and the Coming of the War Narrative.)
Both presidents decided to make their stand at Sumter, with Lincoln authorizing its resupply and Davis ordering an attack on the fort in the early morning hours of April 12, 1861. Before long, the fort had surrendered and Lincoln made his first call for troops to put down the southern rebellion. In North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas, news that a war was underway tipped the scales in favor of secession, whereas in Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, it remained unclear which faction would prevail. Only Delaware seemed certain to remain within the United States.
As both sides raised volunteer armies and began mobilizing for conflict, everyone realized the fate of the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri would prove crucial in shaping the early course of the conflict. The addition of those states to the Confederate fold would have narrowed the disparity in population and resources between North and South, already reduced by the decisions by Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas to join the Confederacy. True, the remaining United States still held significant advantages over the Confederacy. For every factory worker in the Confederacy, there existed an entire factory of workers in the Union, giving the North a large advantage in producing for war. The North also had a far larger and more integrated rail network than the South to move troops and supplies. The Confederacy would have to build factories, railroads, and other economic institutions from scratch. Of the approximately nine million people who lived in the Confederacy, some four million were enslaved, whereas the Union’s population of 23 million included only 500,000 enslaved people. As a result, the North could field bigger armies of free white men and eventually free blacks.
However, the Confederacy possessed certain advantages as well. For the United States to win, it would have to subdue the entire Confederacy, a rather imposing task: even a negotiated peace resulting in the establishment of an independent Confederacy would signal a defeat. The Confederacy’s enslaved population could be put to work to support the cause of southern independence, freeing many more white men for military duty, although the Confederacy would rest uneasy knowing it would have to rely on its slaves not to revolt.
The Question of European Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy
Within a week of the opening of hostilities, the Lincoln administration declared a blockade of Confederate-controlled ports, which, in turn, induced Great Britain to recognize the Confederacy as a belligerent. During the next several years, Confederate diplomats sought to secure official recognition of the Confederacy by Great Britain and France, to be followed by their offer to mediate a peace settlement and, should that proposal fail, their active intervention on behalf of Confederate independence. The Confederacy hoped the value of its cotton exports to English textile mills would secure British involvement. It also believed France would be motivated by its ambitions to restore a transatlantic presence by supporting a puppet government in Mexico.
France was more eager to intervene but followed Great Britain’s lead, and the English were well aware that conflict with the remaining United States could be as economically damaging as the struggle to secure its supplies of raw cotton would be. Thus, while English politicians debated the pros and cons of recognition, mediation, and intervention, they waited for a sign that the Confederacy would prevail: in short, recognition, mediation, and intervention would follow Confederate success, rather than be instrumental in securing it. Despite several military triumphs in the East in 1862, the Confederacy suffered terrible setbacks in the West and failed to secure a decisive victory. Once the Lincoln administration adopted an emancipation policy and scored important victories, Britain’s interest in supporting the Confederacy declined because it had already abolished slavery in its New World colonies decades earlier.
Fighting the War
Whereas the Confederacy’s military strategy stressed survival and protection of the homeland, the Union at first looked to fight a limited conventional war, with the issue of slavery set aside. Believing that white southerners were still strongly inclined toward reunion and reconciliation, military planners in the North decided not to strike at the “peculiar institution” of slavery, because the result would embitter southern whites and complicate peace making. General-in-chief Winfield Scott proposed what became known as the Anaconda Plan, featuring the existing blockade of southern ports Lincoln had instituted in April 1861 and an expedition down the Mississippi River to constrict southern trade. (See the J.B. Elliott, Scott’s Great Snake (Anaconda Plan), 1861 Primary Source.)
Once that waterway was in Union hands, Union forces could squeeze the Confederacy without having to undertake extensive military operations in the southern interior, a step that would inevitably create destruction and promote bitterness and thus complicate the quest for reunion and reconciliation. Although some aspects of Union military operations over the next several years appeared to follow this plan, in truth, northern strategy evolved during the conflict as it became evident that the Confederates would persist in their struggle for independence. It proved necessary to strike at slavery to facilitate Union victory.
On July 21, 1862, Union forces suffered a humiliating defeat in their initial attempt to advance southward to Richmond at Bull Run (or Manassas; northerners named battles after nearby bodies of water or natural landmarks, whereas southerners named battles after nearby towns). Elsewhere, Union forces had more success at chipping away at Confederate defenses. They occupied much of Kentucky after the Confederates violated that state’s neutrality in September 1861 and drove Confederate forces and politicians out of Missouri. By year’s end, Union forces had secured critical portions of the border states and were poised to strike into the Confederacy, especially in the western theater.
In February 1862, a pair of Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson in Kentucky, including the surrender of nearly 15,000 men, brought the victorious commander, Ulysses S. Grant, into the public spotlight. Grant soon came under criticism after he barely managed to survive a Confederate surprise attack at Shiloh in southwest Tennessee (April 6–7, 1862). Still, with the fall of New Orleans to Union forces later that month, followed by the occupation of Memphis in June, it looked as if the Union was well on the way to occupying the Mississippi River valley.
However, in Virginia, the Union’s Army of the Potomac, under the command of George B. McClellan, did not fare so well. Although McClellan’s army marched up the York Peninsula and approached the outskirts of Richmond, the Confederate capital, from the east, the skillful operations of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley diverted reinforcements intended for McClellan to the defense of Washington and efforts to bring Jackson to bay. At the end of June, Confederate forces under the command of Robert E. Lee, bolstered by Jackson’s arrival, managed to drive McClellan away from their capital and thwarted what could have been an early end to the conflict.
Nor did matters improve for the Union forces in Virginia over the summer. Lincoln had gathered a second Union army in northern Virginia under the command of John Pope, with orders to approach Richmond from the north; in support of that movement, McClellan was to abandon his position along the James River and reinforce Pope. Lee took advantage of the shifting of the Army of the Potomac (which ended any immediate threat to Richmond) to converge on Pope before McClellan’s reinforcements arrived, and Lee’s army smashed Pope’s command at the old Bull Run battlefield (thus the battle, fought August 28–30,1862, was called Second Bull Run, or Second Manassas). With Union forces defeated, disorganized, and disheartened, Lee decided to cross the Potomac and invade Maryland, in the hope he might encourage British intervention, win Maryland’s allegiance to the Confederacy, and take the war into northern territory. Now placed in command of Union forces around Washington, McClellan moved west to bring Lee to battle and did so along Antietam Creek (September 17, 1862), where some 30,000 men fell in the bloodiest single day of combat in the conflict. (See The Battle of Antietam Narrative and the Mathew Brady, The Dead of Antietam Photography, 1862 Primary Source.)
The Emancipation Proclamation
Lee managed to make his way back across the Potomac River because McClellan did not renew his attack on September 18. Lincoln, dissatisfied with what he believed to be McClellan’s lethargy and excessive caution, relieved him of command in early November. By that time, Confederate efforts to seize the initiative in Kentucky and Mississippi had fallen short. But it had been clear to Lincoln for several months that it would be necessary to escalate the war by striking against slavery.
Early efforts to establish a policy of gradual and compensated emancipation followed by the voluntary colonization of the freed slaves had proved futile, and Lincoln’s early hopes that Unionist sentiment would reemerge in the South were dashed as Confederate resistance stiffened. Meanwhile, the president blocked efforts by his generals to issue emancipation orders in Missouri (John C. Fremont, 1861) and the southeast (David Hunter, 1862), saying that only he retained the power to issue such orders. He moved cautiously against slavery while the fate of the slave-owning border states that had stayed in the Union was still undecided. (See the Was the Civil War Fought Over Slavery? Point-Counterpoint.)
Fortunately for Lincoln, by the middle of 1862, Union military operations had gone far toward securing control over the border states. Seeking a constitutional basis on which to ground a blow against slavery, Lincoln discovered it in the doctrine of military necessity rooted in the still largely undefined war powers of the president. Union policy had already declared that slaves working in support of the Confederacy should be treated as contraband of war seized as human property of the enemy if captured (First Confiscation Act, 1861), and legislation had provided for the emancipation of slaves held by supporters of the Confederacy (Second Confiscation Act, 1862). In the aftermath of the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln went one step further. He declared that as of January 1, 1863, the United States would recognize as free all slaves in areas under Confederate control, regardless of the sentiments of their owners. To avoid that outcome, the Confederates would have to abandon their quest for independence and return to the Union. With several modifications to recognize peculiar political circumstances, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect at the beginning of 1863, adding a provision for enlisting freed black adult men in U.S. military forces. (See the Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation Decision Point.)
Lincoln’s proclamation came in the wake of several Union military setbacks. The Army of the Potomac, under the command of McClellan’s successor Ambrose Burnside, failed at Fredericksburg, Virginia to crack the Confederate defense formed by the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers. In Mississippi Grant failed in his first effort to take Vicksburg, Mississippi. Only in Tennessee, where William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland beat back attacks by Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee outside Murfreesboro, did Union forces hold their own.
Homefront Politics in the North and South
The war had become an effort to destroy slavery to save the Union. With Congress totally in the hands of the North, Republicans used their political power to pass legislation that reflected their vision of the good society fostered by government intervention. For example, they passed the Homestead Act, making it easier for white migrants to move westward and claim land for themselves (see The Homestead Act of 1862 Primary Source); the Morrill Tariff to protect domestic industries from foreign competition; the Morrill Land Grant Act, which established the foundation for a wave of public colleges; and the Legal Tender Act to enable the federal government to pay for the conflict and provided the first step toward a federal banking system.
But the party suffered setbacks in the 1862 off-year elections. Some voters were disillusioned by the conduct of the war, while others opposed the administration’s antislavery policies, especially the Emancipation Proclamation. Some Northern Democrats, labeled Copperheads by the Republicans, pushed for an end to hostilities and criticized the Republicans for foisting a “tyranny” upon the republic. In 1863, the Copperheads objected to emancipation and the enactment of a draft to mobilize more soldiers for the Union Army. At times, their resistance turned violent. In July 1863, mobs in New York’s Draft Riots attacked symbols of Republican rule such as pro-Republican newspapers and recruiting stations (see The Draft and the Draft Riots of 1863 Narrative). Although they first targeted wealthy neighborhoods, eventually the rioters turned in frustration to an attack on the African American community, including its schools and churches and an orphanage. These riots reinforced the link between escalation of the war and objections to emancipation.
Yet the Confederacy faced its own internal tensions, in part because of the contradictions inherent in trying to forge a new united republic upon the shaky foundations of states’ rights and secession. Its adoption of conscription in 1862, nearly a year before the Union followed suit, showed the growth of a centralized government power, as did decisions to impress slaves to support military operations. The Confederacy struggled to establish a stable financial system, raise funds to wage war, and engage in war production sufficient to support the fight for independence. At the same time, slaves often resisted working in support of the war effort; some awaited the approach of Union forces to seek their freedom through escape to enemy lines. As growing portions of the Confederacy came under Union occupation, several states, notably North Carolina and Georgia, defined defending their cause as defending their state. Desertions from the military began to mount as the fortunes of war became less favorable for the Confederacy.
Turning the Tide: Battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg
In the spring of 1863, the Army of the Potomac, now under the command of Joseph Hooker, attempted once more to take on Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia along the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers. Although outnumbered by more than two to one, Lee moved audaciously in response to Hooker’s offensive at Chancellorsville and drove him back once more, although this brilliant victory came at a high price when cavalry leader Stonewall Jackson, beloved by his troops, was mortally wounded.
To the west, along the Mississippi River, Ulysses S. Grant managed to survive criticism that nearly cost him his command as he finally moved against Vicksburg, Mississippi—the last major Confederate citadel along the river. Waging an aggressive, fast-moving campaign, Grant managed to drive the Confederate defenders inside the city and commenced a siege by mid-May. Lee rejected a proposal that would have sent him west to face Grant and instead proposed to invade the North once more. He hoped a decisive victory on northern soil would so erode support for the war there that the Lincoln administration might be forced to sue for peace. However, in a three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July that proved the bloodiest of the entire war, the Army of the Potomac, now under George G. Meade, held firm and resisted repeated attacks. A defeated Lee, his army severely damaged, was forced to retreat southward (see the Gettysburg and Vicksburg: July 4, 1863 Narrative). Lincoln later commemorated the victory and sacrifice with his Gettysburg Address, laying out the purposes of the war in equality, a “new birth of freedom,” and democratic self-government. At the same time, Grant laid claim to Vicksburg and its 30,000 defenders, dividing the Confederacy and securing the Mississippi River for the Union.
As the summer advanced, the Confederate Army sought once more to turn the tide in Georgia and Tennessee. The Union’s Army of the Cumberland under William S. Rosecrans drove Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee out of its namesake state. Reinforced by elements of Lee’s army, Bragg counterattacked in September, at Chickamauga Creek in northwest Georgia, and drove Rosecrans and his army back to Chattanooga, where the undersupplied army soon seemed trapped. In response, the Lincoln administration sent reinforcements from other field armies and placed Grant in command of the united force. In November, Grant drove Bragg away from Chattanooga, opening a way into the Confederate heartland and reinforcing his status as the Union’s preeminent general—a status confirmed in March 1864, when Lincoln promoted him to lieutenant general in command of all the armies of the United States.
The Final Year of the War
The year 1864 brought a presidential election, and Lincoln realized his chances of reelection depended on maintaining continued public support for a successful war effort. Grant chose to mount a series of coordinated offensives by mobilizing the Union’s military power, including the influx of African American soldiers now available to him. First recruited in significant numbers in 1863, blacks had demonstrated at Milliken’s Bend, Port Hudson, and Fort Wagner that they would fight tenaciously for their freedom (see the Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment Narrative). By 1864, as the war became a contest of attrition in which the Union’s superior numbers could be brought to bear, the fact that one in every seven Union soldiers was African American proved critical to success. Complicating the deployment of the men, however, was the Confederacy’s refusal to treat captured black Union soldiers as prisoners of war. On occasion, they slaughtered them in cold blood, notably at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, and this led Union authorities to call for an end to exchanging prisoners altogether.
Leaving William T. Sherman in charge of the western armies in northern Georgia, Grant came east and took command in March 1864 to supervise operations against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Originally, Grant planned a multipronged offensive in Virginia that would force Lee to counterattack or retreat to protect his lines of supply as well as the Confederate capital at Richmond, but subordinate commanders in the Shenandoah Valley and along the James River proved unequal to their assignments. This left Grant to slug it out with Lee in six weeks of nearly continuous combat between the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers, all the way south to the outskirts of Richmond and Petersburg.
The names Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor were etched in blood as the campaign cost both sides dearly. Some 90,000 men were killed, wounded, or reported missing, but by its end, Grant had pinned Lee against Richmond and Petersburg, then fended off Lee’s efforts to turn the tide by launching a thrust northward through the Shenandoah Valley to threaten Washington once more. Meanwhile, in northern Georgia, Sherman waged a campaign of maneuvers against Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, driving the Confederates back to the outskirts of the critical rail junction of Atlanta by July. Frustrated by Johnston’s seeming inability to stop Sherman, Jefferson Davis replaced him with the aggressive John Bell Hood, but Hood failed to drive Sherman away from the city.
By the summer of 1864, the two major Union thrusts against Richmond and Atlanta had caused frustration when they bogged down into siege operations. Union naval victories, particularly at Mobile Bay, did little to lessen the sense of disappointment. Due to the failure of the Confederates to honor the provisions for prisoner exchanges, captured soldiers on both sides languished in scandalous conditions. The strategic stalemate promoted war weariness in the North, and Lincoln despaired of reelection. However, hardly had the Democrats nominated George B. McClellan as the party’s presidential candidate than news arrived that Sherman had occupied Atlanta. Nearly three weeks later, Philip Sheridan commenced securing the Shenandoah Valley for the Union by winning a series of victories that brought an end to Confederate use of the region to secure supplies and launch counteroffensives. With Lee unable to elude Grant’s grasp, Union prospects brightened and Lincoln won reelection easily, although McClellan still garnered 45 percent of the popular vote.
With Lincoln reelected, Union armies continued to press Confederate armies. In mid-November, Sherman commenced a march through Georgia, targeting Savannah as his destination. His men lived off the land and demonstrated to Confederate civilians that their government could not protect them, thus eroding support for southern independence (see the William Tecumseh Sherman and Total War Narrative and the Images of Total War: Sherman’s March to the Sea, 1865 Primary Source). At Nashville, Union General George H. Thomas turned back a forlorn effort by Hood to revive Confederate military fortunes. Meanwhile, Lincoln finally succeeded in ensuring congressional passage of a proposed amendment to abolish slavery. A number of efforts to secure a negotiated peace settlement fell flat, in part because of Jefferson Davis’s determination to keep fighting for independence; instead, during the winter of 1865, Union military offensives in the Carolinas shut off the Confederacy’s remaining ports and devastated Confederate military resources and morale. It was left to Grant to commence closing out Confederate military resistance by forcing Lee to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg at the beginning of April, followed by a vigorous pursuit that ended at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant.
The victor was generous in the terms offered allowing the Confederates to retain their side arms and personal animals. Of greater importance was the promise that if the surrendered Confederates returned home and obeyed the law they would not be subject to prosecution for treason—a promise Grant kept later that year when he compelled the Johnson administration to drop the charges when Lee and other Confederate military leaders were indicted for treason by a Virginia grand jury. Confederate commanders followed Lee’s example and by June 1865 Confederate military resistance had ceased. (See the Grant and Lee at Appomattox Decision Point.)
With the end of the Confederacy’s quest for independence in the Civil War Americans faced the challenges of reuniting and rebuilding the war-torn nation restoring the former Confederate states to the Union and determining the status of former slaves as well as free blacks. The success of the Reconstruction effort that followed the war was limited by the sometimes conflicting goals of those who simply wanted sectional restoration and those who wanted racial justice for African Americans (see the Cartoon Analysis: The “Rail Splitter” at Work Repairing the Union 1865 Primary Source). The legacy of the Civil War included the central question of what emancipation meant beyond the destruction of the institution of slavery. Reconstruction also tested just how far people were willing to use government power to achieve political economic and social ends and whether the war had transformed the Union and the role of the federal government in life.
During the war, Lincoln had explored paths toward reconstructing the Union, hoping to erode support for the Confederacy by establishing state governments in the South that were loyal to the United States. Even the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation can be viewed as a Reconstruction effort, for it tied emancipation to Confederate refusal to abandon secession and return to the Union. In December 1863, the president issued a pair of proclamations setting forth the terms on which individual Confederates could seek amnesty and pardon (depending on their classification) and erect new state constitutions and governments as the first step toward rejoining the Union in good standing. Although these new constitutions and governments had to end slavery, there was no provision requiring that black men be granted citizenship or suffrage. Moreover, with the 10 percent rule, only a tenth of the eligible electorate of 1860 needed to take an oath of loyalty to the United States and participate in the process for Lincoln to recognize it as legitimate.
Many congressional Republicans in the North, doubting the loyalty of white southerners, took a more punitive approach and disagreed with such minimal requirements. Those who favored more extreme measures, including keeping the former Confederate states under congressional supervision, called for a more demanding process that required the participation of 50 percent of each state’s electorate and restricted voting and office holding to those who had been loyal to the Union throughout the process of Reconstruction. However, Lincoln pocket-vetoed their effort to enact such a process through the Wade-Davis Bill in the summer of 1864, leaving those who became known as Radical Republicans to complain that he was being far too lenient toward the South and was not sufficiently invested in defining what freedom meant for the former slaves.
The Struggle for African American Rights
Through the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau in March 1865 Congress and the president took an initial step toward shaping the contours of emancipation by providing for a transition from slavery to freedom (see the O. O. Howard and the Freedmen’s Bureau Narrative). The bureau offered monetary relief to black refugees and white refugees struggling in the aftermath of the war arbitrated disputes between white landowners and black workers and did what it could to promote economic and educational opportunities for the freedmen. Some of the legislation’s advocates hoped the Bureau would oversee a much larger program of land confiscation and redistribution that would break the political and economic power of white landowners while providing a foundation of economic freedom for the newly emancipated. However, it took until the war’s end for those questions to assume new importance. (See the Comparing Views of the Freedmen’s Bureau 1866 Primary Source.)
In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination Radical Republicans eagerly awaited the Reconstruction policy of his successor Andrew Johnson. Born in North Carolina Johnson had grown up in Tennessee where he became a prominent Democratic politician and wartime Unionist. Republicans welcomed his pledges to punish treason and traitors as foretelling a stern policy toward the defeated South overlooking the new president’s relative silence about the fate of the freed people. Although Johnson had freed his slaves and supported wartime emancipation Republicans in Congress were unaware that his passionate Unionism masked an equally fierce embrace of white supremacy and a deeply felt belief in the innate inferiority of African Americans.
Johnson’s initial acts of Reconstruction policy echoed Lincoln’s wartime initiatives calling for the negation of the ordinances of secession the abolition of slavery (including ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment by state legislatures elected under these new state governments) and the nullification of Confederate debts. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing black citizenship and the Fifteenth Amendment granting black men the right to vote were known at the Reconstruction Amendments. But Johnson made no provision for African Americans’ citizenship male suffrage or economic and educational opportunity. Johnson’s pardon policy stopped confiscation of Confederate property for freed people in its tracks. It provided for the restoration of all property to people covered by the policy although wealthy white southerners (as well as other classes of prominent Confederates) had to seek pardon from the president personally.
Encouraged by Johnson’s leniency white southerners went about constructing new state constitutions and governments that sought to retain the hold white supremacy had had over the South. In a few cases they debated whether to accept emancipation or seek compensation for their losses. None of the former Confederate states provided for black citizenship and male suffrage was out of the question as was government assistance to promote educational or economic opportunities. Instead, legislatures passed so-called Black Codes that provided a second-class status for blacks limited their rights of citizenship and established differential punishments according to race for individuals convicted of a crime. The new regimes also elected prominent former Confederates to office at the state and national levels (see The Emergence of Black Codes DBQ Lesson). Whatever reservations Johnson harbored about this outcome were concealed in his declaration that his policy was “an experiment” subject to modifications many Republicans were only too eager to suggest.
Such an approach to Reconstruction held out little hope to the freed people. Gone were notions of equality before the law, let alone suffrage. The almost exclusively white ownership of land and the continuing poverty of freed people, who now owned little but themselves, meant that most blacks remained agricultural workers for their former masters. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau did its best to arbitrate labor disputes, most whites were not willing to treat their workers fairly. Moreover, as blacks tested their freedom by moving about, entering town, seeking to reunite families, and establishing households that reduced the time women and children worked in the fields, whites claimed that the former slaves were lazy, shiftless, and disrespectful and had to be coerced to work. Sometimes whites sought to restore their preferred social order by vigorous application of the Black Codes; at other times they used intimidation and violence, slowly laying the foundation for more organized forms of terrorism embodied in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. (See The Ku Klux Klan and Violence at the Polls Narrative.)
Most Republican leaders were unsatisfied with the outcome of Johnson’s experiment in restoring white southerners to the Union while dismissing the needs of the freed people. When Congress convened in December 1865, Republicans refused to seat the southerners elected under Johnson’s plan. They commenced investigating conditions in the South and began to frame alternate proposals to protect the rights of blacks and promote opportunities for them. They also passed civil rights legislation that would have made equality before the law subject to federal enforcement in the absence of state action. Johnson struck back, vetoing a bill that would have expanded the authority of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congressional Republicans failed to override this veto, settling instead for the less ambitious Civil Rights Act of 1866 several months later (see the Andrew Johnson’s Veto of the Civil Rights Act, 1866). This time they overrode the president’s veto, thus setting the stage for a showdown over Reconstruction between the president and Congress.
Events in the South testified to the need for federal intervention to stop white supremacist terrorism against black southerners and their white allies. In May, a white mob in Memphis, Tennessee, attacked black Union veterans who had just been discharged from service; three months later, another mob, this time in New Orleans, attacked marchers protesting the actions of the Louisiana state government. However, the threat of a presidential veto limited what Republicans could achieve through the normal legislative process.
They chose instead to implement a fairly moderate Reconstruction program through the ratification of a new constitutional amendment, the Fourteenth. This defined U.S. citizenship to include African Americans, provided for all people to enjoy equal protection under law, and established which former Confederates could hold federal office. Of critical importance was that the amendment prevented the southern states from increasing their representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College by reducing representation for states that denied the right to vote to any adult men who qualified as citizens. Any former Confederate state that ratified the amendment was to be readmitted to full status within the Union. Tennessee was the first to take advantage of the opportunity.
The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, represented a fundamental expansion of federal authority to protect the rights of U.S. citizens, a group it defined for the first time. It was a measure behind which most Republicans could rally, and it was written to forestall Johnson’s opposition. It only indirectly addressed suffrage, for instance, allowing the states to determine qualifications for the exercise of that right, although it established new consequences for limiting it among adult male citizens. It said nothing explicit about securing the economic or educational futures of the freed people. Nevertheless, politicians and observers at the time recognized the importance of the measure for African Americans. The president might protest the amendment, but because as president he could not vote on it, he could not prevent its ratification unless he rallied fellow Democrats in opposition.
Radical Reconstruction and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
Thus, the midterm elections of 1866 became a national referendum on Reconstruction, as Johnson sought to erode Republican congressional majorities while Republicans looked to secure veto-proof supermajorities. In a contest made memorable by a disastrous speaking tour by the president, called the Swing Around the Circle, Republicans prevailed by presenting themselves as the party that would best protect the fruits of northern victory against the threats posed by former Confederates and their northern Democratic allies. In the aftermath of defeat, Johnson urged southern state legislatures to reject the Fourteenth Amendment, persuading Republicans to renew their efforts to seek legislative solutions.
Republicans offered their answer in the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. The state governments established under Johnson’s plan in the ten former Confederate states that had not ratified the Fourteenth Amendment were declared provisional. They were divided into five districts, with each placed under the supervision of a major general. In this way the southern states were required to undergo the process of framing state constitutions and electing state and federal officials.
This time, however, African American men would participate in the process as voters, delegates, and elected officials—a broad act of enfranchisement accomplished through federal power. The intent was to secure black freedom, equality, and opportunity, although the acts still fell short of securing economic resources, most importantly land ownership, for the freed people. Radical Republicans could not convince enough of their moderate Republican colleagues to go along with more revolutionary measures, and the necessity of passing bills that could withstand the challenge of a presidential veto loomed large in the framing of these proposals.
As the idea of land confiscation and redistribution faded, those blacks who could not secure ownership of their own lands continued to negotiate with white landowners who needed their labor to till their plantations. In an economy short of cash and credit, both parties turned to sharecropping, a system in which landowners rented land, tools, seed, livestock, and housing to laborers (eventually white and black alike) in exchange for a significant portion of the crop.
This system proved unsustainable. In years when there was a poor harvest, workers struggled to meet their obligations, plunging themselves further into debt, whereas a high yield might mean a surplus of crops, leading to lower prices. Storekeepers also extended credit to workers to purchase food, clothing, tools, seed, and other commodities, with the same result: over time, indebtedness increased. Other systems of credit, such as the crop-lien system (in which the merchant provided the supplies for the workers, including tools and seed) and straight wage labor, competed with sharecropping to shape southern agriculture. Although sharecroppers enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy than slaves had and felt their fortunes depended on their own efforts, on the whole it was not a profitable system, and with the end of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872, federal supervision of the contracting system came to an end.
If congressional Reconstruction did not lead to a revolution in the structure of the southern economy or a massive expansion in economic opportunity for blacks, the new legislation nevertheless opened the door to large-scale participation in politics and public life for African American adult men. They voted for the first time in large numbers, served as delegates to state constitutional conventions, and won election to local, state, and even federal offices. The new local and state governments erected schools and provided for public education. Although significant numbers of southern whites did what they could to obstruct this process, by 1868, all but three of the former Confederate states had regained their representation in Congress, participated in the presidential contest of that year, and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.
Congress also took steps to prevent presidential obstruction of its Reconstruction initiatives. A rider to an army appropriations bill provided that the president had to issue orders through the general-in-chief (Ulysses S. Grant, an advocate of congressional measures), and the Tenure of Office Act stated that federal officeholders whose nominations required Senate approval could not be removed by the president without Senate approval, although they could be suspended while Congress was not in session.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1867, Andrew Johnson struggled unsuccessfully to hamper implementation of congressional measures, but once Congress recessed, he wasted no time in suspending Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a supporter of Republican measures, from the cabinet. In the fall elections throughout the North, Republicans suffered a series of setbacks, in part because of their efforts to secure black suffrage there. These losses signaled the limits of popular support for Radical measures.
Emboldened by this sign, Johnson sought to resist the Senate’s failure to concur in Stanton’s removal, finally deciding to remove him outright in defiance of the Tenure of Office Act. The House of Representatives responded by impeaching Johnson on February 24, 1868, although its articles of impeachment fell short of placing presidential obstruction at the center of the indictment. Seven Republicans joined Democrats to acquit Johnson by a single vote in the Senate trial; therefore, he was not removed from office and served the remainder of his term. Johnson’s acquittal occurred, in part, because of Republican concerns about the politics of the man who would replace him, Ohio Radical Benjamin Wade, and because most Republicans had rallied behind the candidacy of Ulysses S. Grant to secure control of the White House through more traditional means. (See The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson Decision Point and the Comparing Impeachments across U.S. History Lesson.)
The Grant Administration
In accepting the Republican nomination, war hero Ulysses S. Grant declared, “Let us have peace.” This pledge looked to an end of political strife, sectional disputes, anti-black violence, and partisan bickering, and it was offered by someone who seemed to be above partisan politics and who promised to restore order. It did not hurt Republican prospects that Democratic nominee Horatio Seymour had addressed New York draft rioters in 1863 as “my friends,” or that his running mate, Francis P. Blair, Jr., pledged to undo Reconstruction legislation.
In the contest that followed, Grant secured an easy victory in the electoral vote, but his victory in the popular vote was narrower. The main reason was that white supremacist terrorist groups, notably the Ku Klux Klan, suppressed the black vote throughout the South. The support given Grant by African American voters, casting ballots in large numbers in a national contest for the first time, helped overcome those efforts, though suppression secured Georgia for the Democrats. Congressional measures undid that result, however, relegating Georgia to Congress’s supervision. Furthermore, Republicans proposed the Fifteenth Amendment, which declared that race, color, or previous condition of servitude could not deprive citizens of the right to vote and provided for the passage of legislation to enforce that mandate. They sought to secure federal protection for black voters in the South while extending black suffrage throughout the North.
Many suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were bitterly disappointed and opposed the Fifteenth Amendment because mostly illiterate black men won the right to vote but not educated white women. The women’s suffrage movement split over the dispute. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, which opposed the Fifteenth Amendment and pursued an amendment for women’s suffrage. Lucy Stone founded the American Woman Suffrage Association, which supported the Fifteenth Amendment and pursued a state-by-state strategy for women’s suffrage.
During Grant’s first term, the remaining former Confederate states (Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas, along with Georgia) regained their full standing within the Union, while the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment appeared to be the culmination of Reconstruction efforts at the federal level. Republicans looked to address new issues, including financial and monetary policy, tariff legislation, and civil service reform, which promised to free federal officeholding from the grasp of partisan politics. Reconstruction was not over, however, in large part because of the persistence of white supremacist terrorist violence throughout the South. In response, Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts, including the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which provided for federal intervention to subdue such violence and strengthened presidential authority to act vigorously by suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus during peacetime and declaring martial law as part of that effort. However, the measures were controversial, and an increasing number of Republicans believed the federal government could do no more to protect black rights. Others thought that by providing for black suffrage, Republican policymakers had ensured blacks could use the ballot to protect themselves and advance their interests.
The ensuing debate helped drive a wedge between Grant and Sumner, two leading advocates of black freedom. Schurz, in turn, became one of the founders of an anti-Grant movement within Republican ranks that eventually grew into a third party, the Liberal Republicans. Although some of this movement’s leaders claimed its followers supported civil service reform, free trade, an end to federal intervention in the South, and monetary reform, the diversity of the views represented when the party met to nominate a presidential candidate suggested it was largely an anti-Grant movement. Its nominee, Horace Greeley, lost in a landslide to Grant, who could cite his advocacy of Reconstruction and civil service reform as well as his successful diplomatic efforts in peacefully resolving outstanding issues with Great Britain dating from the Civil War.
Grant’s reelection could not in itself secure the success of Reconstruction. Throughout the South, Republican governments—a coalition of northerners labeled “carpetbaggers” by their foes (in reference to their suitcase made of carpeting material and testimony to their alleged opportunistically vagabond background), white reformist southerners (derisively called “scalawags” by unrepentant southerners), and African Americans—struggled valiantly against southern Democrats and their paramilitary groups that used violence and intimidation to suppress Republican voters. Efforts to promote regional prosperity through postwar recovery proved unavailing in the face of economic depression after a financial crash in 1873. Wealthier white southerners resented the increased tax burdens they shouldered to help provide for public schools and opportunities intended to benefit more marginalized southerners, including African Americans. In states where native white southerners were a key part of the Republican coalition, many Republicans eventually defected back to Democratic ranks in the wake of economic difficulties. This left violence as the main way to overthrow Republican regimes that depended on black votes to stay in power. The limited and ineffective federal efforts to subdue such violence exposed the regimes’ inability to defend themselves, undermining their legitimacy. (See the Cartoon Analysis: Thomas Nast on Reconstruction, 1869–1874 Primary Source.)
Grant’s second term proved far more challenging than his first. Investigations of congressional corruption and malfeasance, although they did not directly involve the administration, tarnished Republican prospects, and the crash in 1873 and ensuing depression brought hard times when the federal government’s ability to respond constructively was limited. Reconstruction proved less popular as it continued, with Republican governments throughout the South falling one by one even as racist violence oppressed African Americans. Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in 1874, bringing an end to additional legislation to support Reconstruction, although the Civil Rights Act of 1875 represented a last effort to secure equal access to public facilities. The law banned racial discrimination in public transportation and accommodations, but it was declared unconstitutional in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases. Supreme Court decisions severely curtailed legislation designed to provide for federal enforcement of black voting rights, while an increasing number of northern voters, more interested in addressing the consequences of economic depression, had grown weary of continuing to pursue the Reconstruction experiment. Nor did it help that the Grant administration found itself beset by scandal after scandal, with the president coming under attack because of the actions of people he trusted.
By the presidential election year of 1876, only three southern states remained under Republican rule (South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida). The Republicans nominated Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes, a Civil War veteran with a reputation as a reformer, and the Democrats nominated New York governor Samuel J. Tilden, a reformer who opposed the operations of New York City’s corrupt Tammany Hall machine. In the election, northern Republicans waved the “bloody shirt” of Civil War memory, linking the Democrats with a resurgent Confederacy. Northern Democrats, on the other hand, denounced the excesses of Reconstruction, held Republicans responsible for the continuing depression, and reminded voters of the corruption in the Grant administration. Having returned to power in a majority of the former Confederate states, southern Democrats, also known as Redeemers, argued for home rule (meaning an end to federal intervention and Reconstruction) and supported efforts to overthrow the remaining Republican-led state governments by whatever means were necessary, including more violence.
Garfield and Tilden supporters claimed victory in the three remaining Republican states. This led to the formation of an electoral commission to determine who, indeed, had prevailed in states where Republican fraud sought to overcome Democratic violence. Composed of five members of the House of Representatives, five U.S. senators, and five Supreme Court justices, the commission divided along partisan lines, with the Republicans claiming victory in critical decisions by a single vote. Hayes, who had already committed to a new approach to southern affairs that featured the withdrawal of federal support of Republican statehouses, took office in the wake of a so-called Compromise of 1877 that guaranteed that result along with other concessions, few of which ever materialized.
The northern victory in the Civil War confirmed the promise of an American union of republican liberty and equality. The slaves were freed during the war and received constitutional protections after. However, the promise was not fully met. African Americans lost their rights and lived in a segregated society rooted in racist beliefs of inequality (see the To What Extent Did American Principles Become a Reality for African Americans during Reconstruction? Point-Counterpoint). The nation continued to struggle with this contradiction as the rise of a new industrial order and social change created economic growth as well as new challenges.
Additional Chapter Resources
- Women during the Civil War Narrative
- Mary Chesnut’s War Narrative
- Clement Vallandigham and Constitutionalism Narrative
- Did Abraham Lincoln Exceed His Presidential Powers during the Civil War? Point-Counterpoint
- Daniel Emmett’s “Dixie” and Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic ” 1859 and 1861 Primary Source
- The Rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln DBQ Lesson
- Unit 4 Civics Connection: Equality the Civil War and Reconstruction Lesson
1. Once the Civil War broke out one major advantage held by the South was that
- it possessed more financial capital and could afford a long conflict
- its superior navy would protect trade routes between the South and European trade partners
- the Confederacy needed to fight only a defensive war whereas the Union needed to conquer the South
- the production of cotton gained the military support of Great Britain and France
2. The Confederacy’s hope for official diplomatic recognition by Great Britain depended on Britain’s
- desire to split up the United States to keep it from becoming an economic rival
- need for cotton in its textile industry
- requirement for staple food crops produced on Confederate farms
- need for a new military ally in its continued rivalry with France
3. France’s main motivation for involvement in the western hemisphere during this time is best described as a
- new interest in expanding its presence in North America especially in Mexico
- desire to split up the United States to keep it from becoming an economic rival
- need for raw materials such as cotton for newly established factories
- need for a new military ally in its continued rivalry with Great Britain
4. Which event had the biggest impact on Great Britain’s decision to remain neutral in the American Civil War?
- Several decisive Confederate victories in 1862 and 1863
- The decision of France to remain neutral throughout the war
- An increase in the output of its own factories
- Lincoln’s decision to make abolition of slavery a major war goal
5. General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan was a strategy based on
- a blockade of New England trade
- a surprise invasion to take control of major Southern industrial cities
- a blockade to choke off the Confederacy
- slash and burn methods in the Midwest
6. Lincoln’s strategy regarding Fort Sumter included
- evacuating the fort to postpone confrontation with the new Confederacy
- a surprise resupply mission before Southern troops could mobilize
- watchful waiting and caution so the Union would not be the aggressor
- overwhelming attack to demonstrate his resolve to preserve the Union
7. One motivation of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in launching an invasion north of the Potomac River in the summer of 1862 was to
- outflank Union General Ulysses S. Grant to prevent the secession of more states
- set up a first line of defense for Richmond to encourage South Carolina to secede
- destroy the Army of the Potomac and quickly defeat Jackson’s troops
- attract recognition and support of the Confederacy by a foreign power such as Great Britain
8. In the early years of the Civil War Republicans took advantage of their majority in Congress and passed all the following except
- a repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act
- the Morrill Tariff
- the Morrill Land Grant Act
- the Homestead Act
9. A turning point for the Union Army in the spring of 1864 leading to military victories and the reelection of Abraham Lincoln as president was the
- Union victory at Chickamauga Creek
- appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as commander of the Union Armies
- burning of Atlanta by troops under Jefferson Davis
- Union capture of Fort Wagner and Fort Hudson
10. The Freedmen’s Bureau can best be described as an organization that
- assisted in the redistribution of land to freed people in the South
- aided former slaves and white refugees with legal and economic problems
- provided a college education to all freed people
- campaigned for the ratification of the Thirteenth Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments
11. President Lincoln’s reaction to the Wade-Davis Bill an early form of the plan for Reconstruction by Radical Republicans was to
- sign it into law
- veto the legislation outright
- use a strategy known as the pocket veto
- force a compromise
12. At first the Radical Republicans believed President Andrew Johnson could be a strong ally. However Johnson’s attitude toward the South was
- more lenient than Abraham Lincoln’s and provided almost no protections for the freed people
- more lenient than Abraham Lincoln’s although Johnson provided for protection of the freed people
- just as lenient as Abraham Lincoln’s but required the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment
- just as lenient as Abraham Lincoln’s but required the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment
13. Black Codes were laws passed
- by Congress to protect the rights of the freed people
- by Congress requiring state laws in the former Confederate states to protect the rights of freed people
- by the former Confederate states to deny civil rights to freed people
- by the former Border states to guarantee civil rights to freed people
14. In the election of 1866 President Andrew Johnson’s “Swing Around the Circle” was considered
- a success because Johnson persuaded many Democrats who formerly opposed him to support his reconstruction plan
- a success because Democrats picked up a supermajority of support because the South was back in the Union
- a failure because Republicans wanted Johnson to be more lenient to the South
- a failure because Radical Republicans picked up a supermajority in Congress meaning they could override any presidential veto
15. After the election of 1866 the only political influence President Andrew Johnson had was
- the ability to impeach senators
- the ability to use the Supreme Court to ratify his decisions regarding Reconstruction
- the veto although many of his vetoes were overridden by Congress
- the veto which he used successfully
16. During the later years of Reconstruction all the following were employment options for freed people except
- the crop-lien system
- the straight-wage system
- ownership of land through grants provided by breaking up former plantations
Free Response Questions
- Explain the South’s advantages over the Union in the Civil War.
- Explain the advantages of the Union over the Confederacy.
- Explain the initial reaction of southern whites to the Reconstruction policy implemented immediately after the Civil War.
AP Practice Questions
“That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then thenceforward and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States including the military and naval authority thereof will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons or any of them in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom. . . .
And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States including the military and naval authorities thereof will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons. . . .
And I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts positions stations and other places and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
Abraham Lincoln The Emancipation Proclamation January 1 1863Refer to the excerpt provided.
1. The context surrounding the excerpt was
- the ideals of Thomas Jefferson’s statement of equality in the Declaration of Independence
- the core beliefs of self-determination as expressed by the Stamp Act Congress
- the compact theory explained in the South Carolina Exposition and Protest
- the concept of popular sovereignty as expressed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act
2. People who supported the ideals expressed in the excerpt might include
- settlers who violated the Proclamation of 1763
- northern abolitionists who agreed with William Lloyd Garrison
- states’ rights supporters who agreed with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
- the authors of the resolutions published by the Hartford Convention
3. What was an immediate outcome of the execution of the document?
- The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
- A major change in the Union’s wartime goals
- The creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau
- The end of the Civil War
4. The right portrayed in the political cartoon was granted by
- the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution
- the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution
- the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution
- the passage of the Force Act in 1871
5. Based on the context depicted in the political cartoon the portrayed scene most likely would have taken place in
- the South during Reconstruction
- the New England states during the Civil War
- the South between 1885 and 1920
- the Upper Midwest during the 1860s
6. Which of the following groups would most likely have opposed the action depicted in the political cartoon?
- Freedmen’s Bureau educators
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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
In our resource history is presented through a series of narratives, primary sources, and point-counterpoint debates that invites students to participate in the ongoing conversation about the American experiment.