The American Civil War was fought from 1861-1865. Northern and southern states collided over decisions about states’ rights, abolition of slavery and western expansion. President Abraham Lincoln was eager to end the war and quickly rebuild.
After years of fighting, the southern landscape and economy had been decimated, and supports were needed for newly freed African Americans in the south. Reconstruction was first defined in 1863 and lasted until the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877.
Here are 15 moments that defined the Reconstruction era.
1. Abraham Lincoln issues the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction (1863)
As the Civil War waged on, Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction on 8 December 1863 in an effort to entice Confederates to swear allegiance to the Union and put an end to the war.
This document offered pardon and restoration of property, and it introduced Lincoln’s ’10 Percent Plan’, asking for only 10% of voters in each Confederate state to pledge allegiance for readmission to the Union.
2. Former slaves are promised ‘forty acres and a mule’ (1865)
In the autumn of 1864, General William T. Sherman began what is now known as Sherman’s March to the Sea. As his troops marched, emancipated African Americans joined his troops, and Sherman, looking for the best option for resettlement, consulted with abolitionist leaders. Their recommendation was to provide land for growing crops.
A wartime order was issued, in January 1865, proclaiming that land was to be set aside and settled exclusively by black Americans, who were also to be provided with one mule per plot. ‘40 acres and a mule’ was the promise born out of Sherman’s order, but when Andrew Johnson became president after the war ended, he repossessed the land, leaving a legacy of false promises in Reconstruction still felt by black American families today.
3. The 13th amendment is approved by Congress (1865)
On 31 January 1865, the 13th amendment was approved in Congress, constitutionally abolishing slavery in the Union. 18 of the 34 states had ratified the amendment by the end of February. However, the south did not comply until the end of the year.
4. The Freedmen’s Bureau is founded (1865)
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was founded in March 1865 in an attempt to aid newly freed African Americans in the south. This group provided opportunities to aid in the transition out of slavery, providing food and shelter, helping negotiate labour contracts, and focusing on education.
The Bureau had many critics, mainly white southerners, and faced many challenges, including lack of funding. It operated until 1872.
5. Abraham Lincoln is assassinated (1865)
On 9 April 1865, the last major battle of the Civil War was fought at the Appomattox Station in Virginia. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender triggered a wave of surrenders across the south, effectively ending the war.
Five days later, on the evening of 14 April, President Lincoln went with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, to see a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC. John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathiser, entered Lincoln’s private box and fired a bullet into the back of the president’s head, and the president died the next morning.
6. President Johnson announces his Presidential Reconstruction plan (1865)
After Lincoln’s assassination, Vice President Andrew Johnson became the second president of the Reconstruction era. In May 1865, he announced his plan for Presidential Reconstruction. His strategy called for amnesty and restoration of property to all southerners who swore loyalty. Further, it required Confederate leaders to petition individually for pardons and required that all states ratify the 13th amendment.
Johnson’s strategy for reconstruction became quite lenient to white southerners, and he ordered the restoration of land to owners including land from Sherman’s order in January and declared reconstruction complete by the end of the year. Johnson’s increased alignment with white southerners drew criticism from Republicans.
7. Southern leaders pass the ‘Black Codes’ (1865-1866)
Southern leaders passed the ‘Black Codes’ from the autumn of 1865. These laws restricted black citizens’ ability to work as anything more than field labourers, with punishments for those who refused to sign contracts or those who were unemployed. These laws effectively reinstated slavery by a different name, confirming that white supremacy was firmly implanted in post-Civil War America.
8. Congress passes the Civil Rights Act (1866)
In April 1866, Congress passed a civil rights bill, granting citizenship and rights to all male persons in the US. President Johnson vetoed this bill, and for the first time in American history, Congress overruled the president’s veto and installed the bill.
By June of that year, Republicans had drafted the 14th amendment, which guaranteed citizenship to anyone born or naturalised in the US, effectively granting freed African Americans citizenship. The amendment was controversial and would not be ratified for two years, on 28 July 1868, as it increased the federal government’s power over states.
9. Southern states are readmitted into the Union (1866)
Over the course of 1866, Confederate states were readmitted to the Union, with Tennessee first on 24 July. Congress wanted southern states to ratify the 14th amendment to be accepted back into the Union, another point of conflict in the Reconstruction era. Georgia was the last state to re-join the Union on 15 July 1870.
10. The Memphis Race Riots leave 46 African Americans dead (1866)
While politicians battled over the reconstruction of post-Civil War America, some southerners took matters into their own hands, with racial violence erupting. In 1866, the Memphis Race Riots left 46 African Americans dead in Tennessee, with hundreds of black houses, schools and churches destroyed.
In July, a white mob in New Orleans, Louisiana, attacked black people and white radical Republicans, killing 40 people and leaving 150 more wounded. Further, the Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1865, sought to reverse radical Republican Reconstruction policies through violence. Targets of the KKK during Reconstruction included black legislators, white southern Republicans and black institutions.
11. President Johnson is impeached (1868)
President Johnson began his presidency with support from Congress, but his vision for reconstruction and his veto of congressional bills lost him favour. In 1867, he fired the Secretary of War during a congressional recess for disagreements over reconstruction policy.
He then challenged the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act, so the Republican-led Congress pursued 11 articles of impeachment in February 1868. Ultimately, though the majority voted to impeach the president, they failed to reach the two-thirds majority required to convict.
12. Congress passes the 15th amendment (1869)
On 26 February 1869, Congress passed the 15th amendment to protect the right to vote, stating that no one can be denied this right based on race or previous status as an enslaved person. The amendment was ratified a year later.
13. Hiram Rhodes Revels becomes the first African American senator (1870)
For the first time in American history, black officials served in the House of Representatives and the Senate during Reconstruction. Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American senator, sent to fill a vacancy by Mississippi in 1870.
By 1871, there were five black members of the House of Representatives: Benjamin S. Turner, Josiah T. Walls, Robert Brown Elliot, Joseph H. Rainey and Robert Carlos DeLarge.
In 1872, P. B. S. Pinchback served as acting governor of Louisiana, though his tenure was met with resistance from white southerners and was short-lived. Though African Americans sought leadership positions during Reconstruction, white supremacist resistance made such efforts dangerous.
14. Congress passes the Civil Rights Bill (1875)
In March 1875, Republican-led Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill. This addressed segregation, denouncing segregation in public facilities. However, this bill was highly controversial and was judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883.
15. Rutherford B. Hayes is elected president (1876)
In a highly controversial presidential election, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president in 1876. A deal between Republicans and Democrats was made to resolve the contestation, with Republicans agreeing to abandon Reconstruction to gain the presidency.
Upon his inauguration in 1877, President Hayes withdrew all remaining federal troops from the south and ended Reconstruction policies. Consequently, the Jim Crow era began, with policies like segregation being enforced until the 1960s.