A Short History Of Reconstruction

Hey there reader, I hope you’re doing great.  I began another book, A Short History of Reconstruction, by Eric Foner.


Foner balanced Lincoln the idealist, Great Emancipator and Lincoln the principled, pragmatist during the Civil War.  For example, Foner cited Lincoln using slavery as the reason for the Civil War in his second inaugural address in 1865.  But Foner also used Lincoln’s letter to Louisiana Governor Michael Hahn to convey his pragmatism: Lincoln suggested Hahn might prohibit slaves from voting in the election of 1864.  It seems like Foner found Lincoln’s sanguine leadership style appealing and patient.

Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction was conciliatory: Confederate war debts would be forgiven if 10 percent of southern voters swore an oath denouncing the Confederacy, the former Confederate states would be readmitted into the Union under the Ten Percent Plan.  Former Confederates were prohibited from holding public office and from voting in some states until 1870.  Each state would form new governments, adopt new constitutions and ratify any new amendments to the federal constitution, to be readmitted into the Union (note: Mississippi finally ratified the 13th Amendment in 2013).

Foner explained how some slaves’ freedom began before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863; as Confederate yeoman and slave patrols were away fighting the Yankees, some slaves emancipated themselves by leaving the plantation and following the Union armies.  Union generals employed the freedmen as laborers, gravediggers, cooks and had them maintain Union camps, calling them contraband.

Reconstruction began in east Tennessee and New Orleans during the Civil War as cities like Atlanta, Charleston and Richmond were being destroyed.  Foner explained how geographic regions and counties of the South differed on secession and slavery.  For example, high elevation counties along the Appalachian and Ozark mountain ranges remained loyal to the Union: people owned fewer slaves there, just as people in the border states of Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri owned fewer slaves.  It was the planters along the flood plains and deltas who owned more slaves than people in the hill country: cotton was more profitable there.  However, white people in high elevation counties were more concerned with preserving supremacy than they were concerned with slavery and secession.


Foner explained how the Homestead Act was passed before emancipation in 1862, which effectively blocked the majority of freedmen from owning land, which they desperately needed to build wealth.  General Sherman of course passed his Field Order No. 15 in January 1865, which granted freedmen 40 acre plots from Charleston, South Carolina to the St. John’s River, Florida and 30 miles inland to the coast.  Freedmen would be granted a federal mule as well.  But this order was later repealed during reconstruction and 40,000 freedmen were effectively evicted.

After the Civil War ended, white land owners made secret agreements to only sell their land to white buyers, which again blocked freedmen from owning land.  Freedmen sometimes resented farming cotton for profit and commerce, instead they farmed corn and sweet potatoes for their family’s and community’s consumption.  One can understand why Martin Luther King Jr. criticized the Homestead Act and lead a Poor People’s Campaign after the Civil Rights movement almost a century later.

Foner detailed the struggle of freedmen to overcome the destruction of the Civil War and the depressed southern economy during reconstruction.  The northern economy boomed following during reconstruction with railroad and petroleum development.


Freedmen and women relied on families, churches and public schools to teach morality, literacy and numeracy for all blacks, young and old.  And a new black bourgeoisie class structure emerged when northern blacks who were free before emancipation and had obtained more education taught freedmen, women and children in the South.  Black Americans focused on reuniting families separated during slavery and fostered communities.  They and often times rejected their former plantation duties: black women tended their own family homes, refusing to come close to their former masters for safety reasons.  Black communities developed in rural churches, where meetings were held to organize voting, discuss politics and strategize labor.

But reconstruction wasn’t an American dream for freedmen and women: white people still tried to assert their supremacy in the South.  Foner described white people as masters without slaves who still beat, burned, lynched, whipped and killed freed black people.  Some white people unlearned their violent behavior toward blacks during reconstruction but many did not.


The south was in a deep depression during reconstruction: southern states received only 15 percent of the annual budget on average.  Foner elaborated on how blacks collectively negotiated work contracts in southern urban factories and sharecropping with planters.  Labor during reconstruction was scarce given so many southerners died in battle.  Economists believe when labor is scarce, wages should increase but the post war labor shortage presented planters with a problem of competitive wages; laborers went where wages prevailed.

Southern state legislatures enacted new labor policies for the freedmen during reconstruction: blacks were ordered to obtain an annual labor contract with their employer and present evidence to a court.  If blacks didn’t obtain a labor contract, they would be arrested for vagrancy and would be forced to work on a prison chain gang.  And when blacks wanted to work in professions other than agriculture and personal service, they had to obtain a license and pay a fee to the state.  Northern abolitionists believed these labor contracts violated the very principle of free labor.

Children and teenagers apprenticed when their parents were too elderly or disabled to work. This was slavery by another name: there was an ample supply of free black child labor during reconstruction.  Legislatures also passed low property tax laws while they expanded high consumption taxes, effectively placing a larger tax burden on poor whites and poor blacks than on affluent white property owners.

States enacted the black codes which prohibited freedmen testifying against whites, serving on juries, owning firearms, voting or accepting a new job without their previous employer’s approval.  Blacks were further prohibited from being outside of the farm after sundown in some towns.

Some freedmen favored sharecropping while others didn’t: information about the harvest was controlled by the planter who could always not pay workers and still get away with it.  And some blacks also refused to sharecrop because they couldn’t farm land of their own.

Sharecropping changed how southern society was organized: northern capital was invested into plantations and white farmers often opened general stores and sold goods to the freedmen.  This became burdensome: freedmen often had to take on debt to the general store and were evicted from their home after the harvest so planters could avoid wage payments.

Foner emphasized the Freedman’s Bureau’s struggle to realize the complexity of race during reconstruction.  The Bureau provided food, housing and medical assistance, established public schools and provided legal assistance to southern blacks but it was only supposed to last a year, renewed annually thereafter.  The Bureau also attempted to confiscate and redistribute Confederate land to blacks to resettle but the Bureau was weak at best: President Andrew Johnson vetoed its renewal in the Bureau Bill in 1866 and it was eventually shutdown in 1872.

President Andrew Johnson refused to support black suffrage: he mistakenly thought blacks would vote in favor of their former masters’ interests.  Johnson was of course later impeached after firing Edwin M. Stanton who was under the direction of Congress at the time.  But Congress failed to convict Johnson coming up 2 votes short on his 11 charges.  Johnson was disliked by the Abolitionists and Radicals in Congress: he pardoned former Confederates and allowed many of them to work in government positions against Lincoln’s wishes.


The 13th Amendment answered the slavery question but it also made new questions: what did it mean for blacks to be free?  As you can see above reader, Southern states tried as much as possible to exert power over the freedmen after the 13th Amendment was passed.  Foner explained the significance of the 14th Amendment calling it the most important amendment in the constitution: equal citizenship for all before the law.  But some people believed the 14th Amendment of 1866 didn’t go far enough: it didn’t grant voting rights to freedmen.  Black suffrage was withheld until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870. And the 14th amendment upset feminists: it introduced gender into the constitution.  Feminists continued to advocate for female suffrage until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.

After freedmen were enfranchised with voting rights, 1,400 blacks gained public office and more than 600 served in State assemblies: black republicans outnumbered white democrats in former Confederate counties.  Robert Smalls served in the House of Representatives from 1874 until 1886.  PBS Pinchback was the Governor of Louisiana from 1872 to 1873.  Hiram Revels filled Jefferson Davis’s old seat in the Senate from 1870 to 1871.

State and federal departments were much larger during reconstruction than in the antebellum period.  And the post war depression demanded higher taxes to pay for the new state and federal departments.  State legislatures sought to reconstruct the south with railroad projects, public education departments and state run homes for veterans of the Civil War.  These initiatives required greater taxation and with the projects came scandals.


Foner described the Klan and the White Camelia as the military wing of the white southern democratic party.  The Klan terrorized black voters during reconstruction, targeting political and labor leaders in the freedmen community.  The Klan also played a part in the Colfax Massacre where 150 black men died in Louisiana in 1873: the Klan murdered 48 blacks after the battle.  The Klan represented anti-federalism and obstructed reconstruction in general.

Northern republicans grew tired of the reconstruction effort and instead focused on railroad construction in the 1870s.  The depression of 1873 ended the railroad boom in the north.  Congress focused on reviving the economy but managed to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1875 which protected all Americans regardless of race to access to public accommodations, entertainment, transportation and to serve on juries.  But the Civil Rights Act of 1875 wasn’t enforced: Republicans were most concerned with mending relationships with southern white democrats and republicans during the depression.  The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1883.

The book ends with reconstruction coming undone; the Redemption movement gained popularity with conservative white democrats in 1873; the Battle of Liberty Place happened in New Orleans, the White League seized the Louisiana State Capitol and 35 people died in September, 1874.  The Hamburg Massacre happened in South Carolina, 6 freedmen were killed by the Red Shirts in July, 1876.  And the Great Railway Strike happened in Martinsburg, WV: 100 railroad strikers were killed in July, 1877.  Foner concluded the book with the presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes and the Compromise of 1877.

This book was really about how the Union revolutionized the South during reconstruction.  It should be required reading in American history.


Published by


I want to write about new experiences, the people I meet and the things I learn. I moved from Tempe, AZ to Arlington, VA with my dog 5 years ago. We love it here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s