The Reconstruction Era is the period in American history from 1865-1877. It deals with the legacy of the American Civil War, especially in the defeated southern Confederate states. The Reconstruction Era saw attempts by US Congress to reform southern states, in particular dealing with the effects of the Emancipation of slaves and the civil rights of freed black slaves.
The Reconstruction Era saw a nation recover from the Civil War, but seeds of the conflict remained with the vision of offering full political freedom to former slaves coming against the reality of continued attempts to intimidate African-Americans and ensure segregation and white supremacy.
Timeline of reconstruction era
- 1865 – Jan – Thirteenth Amendment approved in January. Abolished slavery in the United States.
- 1865 – April – Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
- 1865 – Formation of Klu Klux Klan in Tennessee.
- 1865 – Nov. Mississippi ‘Black Code’ passed limiting right for freedmen to own property, serve on juries and forced them into labor contracts with white landowners
- 1866 – Fourteenth Amendment on equal civil rights passed in the Senate.
- 1867 – President Johnson vetoes three Reconstruction Acts
- 1868 – Fourth Reconstruction Act passed by President Johnson
- 1869 – President Ulysees S.Grant (Rep) elected president
- 1870 – Fifteenth Amendment on equal voting rights for men passed.
- 1870 – First black members of Congress elected
- 1875 – Civil Rights Act of 1 March passed. States equal treatment in public places between white and coloured people.
- 1875 – Blanche Kelso first black senator elected as Senator of Mississippi.
- 1877 – Rutherford B. Hayes inaugurated President of the United States.
- 1877 – Last Federal troops leave the south.
Famous people of the Reconstruction Era
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) 16th President of the US from 1861-1865. Lincoln laid the foundations of the Reconstruction Era by moving the country towards accepting the idea of abolishing slavery. First, with the Emancipation Proclamation and then the 134th Amendment to abolish slavery. Towards the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was leading towards being forgiving to the defeated Ssouth but also pushing for greater political freedoms for the emancipated blacks. His assassination in 1865 was a set back for the emancipationist vision of ensuring greater equality and fairness.
Andrew J. Johnson (1808 – 1875) A Senator from Tennessee, Lincoln chose Johnson as Vice-President for his 1864 election. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson became President (1865 – 1869) and changed the direction of Reconstruction Era. He opposed the implementation of federal voting rights to Black Americans and enabled southern states to rejoin the Union while denying voting rights to former black slaves. Johnson vetoed the civil rights Act of 1866. His conservatism enraged Congress dominated by radical Republicans who wished to see greater rights for freed slaves, and they overrode his veto to pass the rights bill as the 14th Amendment. His presidency was overshadowed by efforts to have him impeached – something he only narrowly avoided.
Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) Grant was the commander of the Union forces for the final year of the Civil War. From 1869-1877, Grant served as President. He proved more willing to support civil rights in the south. He was disillusioned with Johnson’s stand-offish approach. In 1870/71 he signed three Enforcement Acts and spoke out against voter intimidation. Grant was successful in severely reducing the power of the Klu Klux Klan who were behind many murders of black leaders. However, despite his efforts, it was often insufficient to make political enfranchisement in reality in Confederate strongholds. Grant was weakened by the corruption of ‘carpetbaggers’ in the south and political aides.
Jefferson Davis (1808 – 1889) President of the Southern Confederate States during the Civil War. He was imprisoned after the end of charges of treason. He was released in 1868 after Johnson’s presidential pardon for treasonous behaviour. Davis resented Federal rule in the south and expressed his belief in white supremacy and denying the freedman the vote. Although much diminished as a political figure, his words still carried weight in the south, which shared his sentiments.
William Pitt Kellogg (1830 – 1918) Leading Republican senator from Louisiana who served 1868-72 and governor of Louisiana 1872-1876. Kellogg was one of the most successful Republican politicians in the south, who held on to power during the Reconstruction Era. He won the disputed election of 1872. Tensions were so strong, that in April 1873, 150 black men were killed in an outbreak of violence against reconstruction and civil rights.
Horace Greeley (1811 – 1872) Founder and editor of the influential New York Tribune. Greeley supported the radical Republicans in promoting equal voting rights. He became disillusioned with Johnson for his acquiescence to the return of white rule in the south and disillusioned with Grant for the corruption of his administration. He briefly served as a senator and was a candidate for the liberal Republican party for the 1872 election – shortly before his death.
Jim Crow – Jim Crow was not a real person. Jim Crow laws referred to discriminatory laws passed in the south which prevented blacks from voting and have equal access to education. The white actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice created a fictional black ministerial character ‘Jim Crow’ a derogatory ‘black’ character. This term was then used to refer to a series of laws designed to promote white supremacy in the south
Significant political groups
Klu Klux Klan The Klu Klux Klan was founded by former Confederate army officers. The group evolved to be a violent and reactionary opposition to Republican involvement in southern states. The Klan terrorised local black leaders and blacks who tried to exercise their newfound freedoms. In response to its violence, Grant passed Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 which significantly weakened the Klan, though hostility and violence to blacks continued in other guises.
Carpetbaggers. Carpetbagger is a term of derision used to describe any northerner who came to the south and was perceived to be profiting from the misfortune of the south. After the civil war, federal funds were allocated to rebuild the south. But, those in charge of reconstruction, often misused funds for personal gain. Combined with resentment at Federal efforts to enforce the 14th Amendment (equal voting rights), carpetbaggers became a source of resentment from southerners – especially those sympathetic to white supremacy. Milton Smith Littlefield was known as the ‘Prince of the carpetbaggers’. He served in the union army and was accused of appropriating funds for personal benefit.
Scalawags. Scalawags were white southerners who supported the principles of Reconstruction and black political voting rights. It was used as a term of derision by other southerners who saw ‘scalawags’ as betraying the principles of white supremacy and the Confederacy. A prominent ‘scalawag’ was General James Longstreet, – the top general of Robert E. Lee. James L. Alcorn of Mississippi was elected to the senate in 1865. He supported suffrage for freedmen and the 14th Amendment (civil rights for blacks)
Famous people of that period
Although not closely connected to the politics of the Reconstruction era, these writers were prominent figures of the period.
Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) American poet. During the Reconstruction Era, Whitman published his most significant works such as “Leaves of Grass.” He also wrote on political topics, expressing an idealised view of harmony and end to racial discrimination. He was also pessimistic about American democracy without a move to greater personal integrity, e.g. Democratic Vistas. (1871)
Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895) A former slave, Douglass became a leading figurehead in the anti-slavery movement. He was one of the most prominent African American leaders and noted for his stirring oratory. After the civil war, he continued to campaign for civil rights legislation.
Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883) African-American abolitionist and women’s rights campaigner. A former slave who gave powerful speeches on the inhumanity of slavery and the justification for equal rights.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) American Transcendentalist poet, philosopher and writer. Emerson was opposed to slavery and called for its abolition. In 1862, he gave a lecture in Washington at the Smithsonian calling for the emancipation of slaves. In the same year, he met Lincoln at the White House.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815 – 1902 ) – Stanton was a vocal critic of slavery, campaigning for the NY Anti-slavery society. She also helped the underground railroad, a movement helping black people to escape slavery. After the civil war, she became more concerned with gaining women the vote.
Clara Barton (1821-1912) – A nurse in the American civil war, Clara Barton helped improve the treatment of wounded soldiers. After the war, she set up a Committee to investigage missing soldiers. Her team replied to 60,000 letters and helped bury over 20,000 war dead. Later she helped set up the American Red Cross.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) One of America’s greatest poets, Emily Dickinson lived most of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts in seclusion. Her poems were published posthumously and received widespread literary praise for their bold and unconventional style.
Mark Twain (1835 – 1910) American writer and humorist, considered the ‘father of American literature’. Famous works include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). During the civil war, Twain, a southerner briefly enlisted with the Confederate Army, before leaving. Twain became a leading abolitionist and supported the end of slavery.
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