Background: Reconstruction era is generally the time period from the end of American Civil war in 1865 to 1877. However, some historians consider it starting from 1863 after the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’. In reality, different Southern states had a different start and end time of reconstruction phase. Union imposed the reconstruction policies as and when a particular state was seized from the Confederate control.
Reconstruction was concerned with the re-inclusion of former Confederate states into union, safeguarding the civil rights of freed slaves, fate of former Confederate officials and their civil status and the issue of according suffrage to these freed men. The federal reconstruction phase was finally ended in 1877 after the ‘Compromise of 1877’, in which Republicans and Democrats struck a deal which saw Republican Rutherford B Hayes to the White House and end of military presence and Republican rule in southern states.
Lincoln’s Vision: President Abraham Lincoln had announced ‘Emancipation’ in 1863 to weaken the Confederate war effort and achieve the aim of abolishing slavery. Starting from 1863, Lincoln took critical steps to reconstruct the Southern society by installing reconstructed governments in captured Confederate states that addressed the race issue, by allotting land to freed slaves, founding the Freedmen’s Bureau, banning color discrimination and legalizing slave unions.
He also took a moderate approach in dealing with Confederate apologists and states. In 1863, after the Confederate state of Louisiana was captured, Lincoln presented his Louisiana Plan for reconstruction. In the plan he granted amnesty to rebel confederates, tied freed slaves with the condition of working at their former masters plantations for one year and asked states to declare slavery illegal in their state laws. However, his moderate plan was not well received by the Congress controlled by radical section of Republicans who wanted to change the Southern society completely. Lincoln on the hand wanted to go slow and considered Louisiana plan a model for other captured Confederate States.
Johnson’s Plan: After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson took over as president and his plans included continuation of Lincoln’s reconstruction policy. However, he followed a much more moderate policy and allowed former Confederate officials to enter important government posts and Congress. He also pardoned many war criminals and did not carry out many war crime trials.
He also did not forcefully pursue the agenda of societal reforms regarding race equality in Southern states and many Southern states enforced black codes that put freed black slaves at a much lower pedestal in society. His soft stance on these issues was viewed very negatively by Northerners who were already angry over Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of a Confederate apologist. He was vehemently opposed by radical Republicans in Congress. He however, vetoed many of the sterner legislations brought forward by the radical republicans.
Radicals take over: After the Congressional elections of 1866, radicals returned with majority and thereafter, exercised complete control of policy. They accorded suffrage to freed males and passed constitutional amendments to bring their desired changes in southern society. They also elected more radical Ulysses S Grant to presidency. A major step was to place ten southern states under military control on the pretext of controlling law and order, hate crime, overseeing elections and supervising local governments. Freedmen were brought into political sphere and were elected to state legislature and even US Congress. Thousands of white and freed men migrated to south and started businesses.
End of Reconstruction: Democrats alleged corruption under radical control and through violence and fraud gained majority in most of the state legislatures. Hate groups such as Klu Klux Klan surfaced in south and committed violence against freed blacks. In this backdrop the controversial Presidential election of 1876 were held after which the political crisis deepened.
The crisis was averted through the ‘Compromise of 1877’ through which democrats accepted Republican candidate Rutherford b Hayes as president but in return had military removed from states of South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida which effectively ended republican control and the ‘Reconstruction Era’. The condition of freedmen deteriorated under the rejuvenated democrat rule in south and it took another almost years for them to gain true equality.