Between 1863 and 1877, the U.S. government undertook the task of integrating nearly four million formerly enslaved people into society after the Civil War bitterly divided the country over the issue of slavery. A white slaveholding south that had built its economy and culture on slave labor was now forced by its defeat in a war that claimed 620,000 lives to change its economic, political and social relations with African Americans.
“The war destroyed the institution of slavery, ensured the survival of the union, and set in motion economic and political changes that laid the foundation for the modern nation,” wrote Eric Foner, the author of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877. “During Reconstruction, the United States made its first attempt. . .to build an egalitarian society on the ashes of slavery.”
Reconstruction is generally divided into three phases: Wartime Reconstruction, Presidential Reconstruction and Radical or Congressional Reconstruction, which ended with the Compromise of 1877, when the U.S. government pulled the last of its troops from southern states, ending the Reconstruction era.
December 8, 1863: The Ten-Percent Plan
Two years into the Civil War in 1863 and nearly a year after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln announced the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction or the Ten-Percent Plan, which required 10 percent of a Confederate state’s voters to pledge an oath of allegiance to the Union to begin the process of readmission to the Union.
With the exception of top Confederate leaders, the proclamation also included a full pardon and restoration of property, excluding enslaved people, for those who took part in the war against the Union. Eric Foner writes that Lincoln’s Ten-Percent Plan “might be better viewed as a device to shorten the war and solidify white support for emancipation” rather than a genuine effort to reconstruct the south.
July 2, 1864: The Wade Davis Bill
Radical Republicans from the House and the Senate considered Lincoln’s Ten-Percent plan too lenient on the South. They considered success nothing less than a complete transformation of southern society.
Passed in Congress in July 1864, the Wade-Davis Bill required that 50 percent of white males in rebel states swear a loyalty oath to the constitution and the union before they could convene state constitutional convents. Co-sponsored by Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Congressman Henry Davis of Maryland, the bill also called for the government to grant African American men the right to vote and that “anyone who has voluntarily borne arms against the United States,” should be denied the right to vote.
Asserting that he wasn’t ready to be “inflexibly committed to any single plan of restoration,” Lincoln pocket-vetoed the bill, which infuriated Wade and Davis, who accused the President in a manifesto of “executive usurpation” in an effort to ensure the support of southern whites once the war was over. The Wade-Davis Bill was never implemented.
January 16, 1865: Forty-Acres and a Mule
On this day, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Field Order No. 15, which redistributed roughly 400,000 confiscated acres of land in Lowcountry Georgia and South Carolina in 40-acre plots to newly freed Black families. When the Freedmen’s Bureau was established in March 1865, created partly to redistribute confiscated land from southern whites, it gave legal title for 40-acre plots to African Americans and white southern unionists.
After the war was over, President Andrew Johnson returned most of the land to the former white slaveowners. At its peak during Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau had 900 agents scattered across 11 southern states handling everything from labor disputes to distributing clothing and food to starting schools to protecting freedmen from the Ku Klux Klan.
April 14, 1865: Lincoln's Assassination
Six days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to the Union Army’s Commanding General Ulysses Grant in Appomattox, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War, Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. by John Wilkes Booth, a stage actor.
Just 41 days before his assassination, the 16th President had used his second inaugural address to signal reconciliation between the north and south. “With malice toward none; with charity for all ... let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds,” he said. But the effort to bind these wounds through Reconstruction policies would be left to Vice President Andrew Johnson, who became President when Lincoln died.
May 29, 1865: Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction Plan
President’s Johnson’s Reconstruction plan offered general amnesty to southern white people who pledged a future loyalty to the U.S. government, with the exception of Confederate leaders who would later receive individual pardons.
The plan also gave southern whites the power to reclaim property, with the exception of enslaved people and granted the states the right to start new governments with provisional governors. Yet Johnson’s plan did nothing to deter the white landowners from continuing to economically exploit their former slaves.
“Virtually from the moment the Civil War ended,” writes Eric Foner, “ the search began for the legal means of subordinating a volatile Black population that regarded economic independence as a corollary of freedom and the old labor discipline as a badge of slavery.”
December 6, 1865: The 13th Amendment
The ratification of the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, with the “exception as a punishment for a crime.” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 only covered the 3 million slaves in Confederate-controlled states during the Civil War. The 13th amendment was the first of three Reconstruction amendments.
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1865: The Black Codes
To thwart any social and economic mobility that Black people might take under their status as free people, southern states beginning in late 1865 with Mississippi and South Carolina enacted Black Codes, various laws that reinforced Black economic subjugation to their former slaveowners.
In South Carolina there were vagrancy laws that could lead to imprisonment for “persons who lead idle or disorderly lives” and apprenticeship laws that allowed white employers to take Black children from homes for labor if they could prove that the parents were destitute, unfit or vagrants. According to Foner, “the entire complex of labor regulations and criminal laws was enforced by a police apparatus and judicial system in which Blacks enjoyed virtually no voice whatever.”
March 2, 1867: Reconstruction Act of 1867
The Reconstruction Act of 1867 outlined the terms for readmission to representation of rebel states. The bill divided the former Confederate states, except for Tennessee, into five military districts. Each state was required to write a new constitution, which needed to be approved by a majority of voters—including African Americans—in that state. In addition, each state was required to ratify the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution. After meeting these criteria related to protecting the rights of African Americans and their property, the former Confederate states could gain full recognition and federal representation in Congress.
July 9, 1868: 14th Amendment
The 14th amendment granted citizenship to all persons "born or naturalized in the United States," including former enslaved persons, and provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws,” extending the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. The amendment authorized the government to punish states that abridged citizens’ right to vote by proportionally reducing their representation in Congress.
WATCH: The 15th Amendment
February 3, 1868: 15th Amendment
The 15th Amendment prohibited states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The amendment left open the possibility, however, that states could institute voter qualifications equally to all races, and many former confederate states took advantage of this provision, instituting poll taxes and literacy tests, among other qualifications.
February 23, 1870: Hiram Revels Elected as First Black U.S. Senator
On this day, Hiram Revels, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, became the first African American to serve in Congress when he was elected by the Mississippi State Legislature to finish the last two years of a term.
During Reconstruction, 16 African Americans served in Congress. By 1870, Black men held three Congressional seats in South Carolina and a seat on the state Supreme Court—Jonathan J. Wright. Over 600 Black men served in state legislators during the Reconstruction period.
Blanche K. Bruce, another Mississippian, became the first African American in 1875 to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate.
April 20, 1871: The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871
To suppress Black economic and political rights in the South during Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups like the Knights of the White Camelia were formed to enforce the Black Codes and terrorize Black people and any white people who supported them.
Founded in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee by a group of Confederate veterans, the Ku Klux Klan carried out a reign of terror during Reconstruction that forced Congress to empower President Ulysses S. Grant to stop the group’s violence. The Third Enforcement Act or the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, as it is better known, allowed federal troops to make hundreds of arrests in South Carolina, forcing perhaps 2,000 Klansmen to flee the state. According to Foner, the Federal intervention had “broken the Klan’s back and produced a dramatic decline in violence throughout the South.”
March 1, 1875: Civil Rights Act of 1875
The last major piece of major Reconstruction legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public transportation, public accommodations and jury service. In 1883 the decision was overturned in the Supreme Court, however. Justices ruled that the legislation was unconstitutional on the grounds that the Constitution did not extend to private businesses and that it was unauthorized by the 13th and 14th amendments.
The End of Reconstruction
April 24, 1877: Rutherford B. Hayes and the Compromise of 1877
Twelve years after the close of the Civil War, President Rutherford B. Hayes pulled federal troops from their posts surrounding the capitals of Louisiana and South Carolina—the last states occupied by the U.S. government.
According Foner, Hayes didn’t withdraw the troops as widely believed, but the few that remained were of no consequence to the reemergence of a white political rule in these states. In what is widely known as the Compromise of 1877, Democrats accepted Hayes’ victory as long as he made concessions such as the troop withdrawal and naming a southerner to his cabinet. “Every state in the South,” said a Black Louisianan, “had got into the hands of the very men that that held us as slaves.”