After reading this chapter and completing the Freewriting and Reflection assignments, you will be able to:
- Define “Reconstruction”
- Understand and analyze the surrender at Appomattox Court House
- Define “the Lost Cause” mythology
- Explain the connection between the surrender at Appomattox and “Lost Cause” mythology
- Explain what each of the 13th 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution said
- Understand Sherman’s Field Order 15
- Identify some of the ways in which Reconstruction changed the American South, and some of the ways in which it did not
- Define the “Freedmen’s Bureau.”
Introduction: What is Reconstruction?
The Term “Reconstruction” refers to the time period in U.S. history, between the end of the Civil War and 1877, when the federal government, victorious in the War, had a presence in the American South in an attempt to “reconstruct” the Southern economy and Southern society following the ravages of war and the abolition of slavery. Reconstruction can also be seen as an attempt to “reconstruct” the Union, bringing the South and North back together after the War, now without slavery. The Reconstruction era has been one of the most contested time periods in American history; competing narratives concerning what happened, how successful it was, have dominated its discussion in both the popular imagination and in scholarly analysis.
- The End of the Civil War and The Beginning of “Lost Cause” Mythology
As the Civil War drew to a close, it was clear that the Union would be victorious. Some in the federal government and Union army argued that the Union should accept any Confederate surrender (which might have enabled the Confederate States of American and/or slavery to continue to exist in some form), whereas others, including Lincoln, insisted on holding out for a full, unconditional surrender from the Confederacy. This surrender occurred at Appomattox Court House, in Virginia, on April 12, 1865, four years to the day after the first shots of the War had been fired. Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s terms of surrender, reflecting his understanding of what President Lincoln had approved at a meeting two weeks earlier, were as follows:
“Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”1U.S. Grant to Robert E. Lee, April 9, 1865, quoted in Stephen Cushman, “Surrender at Appomattox,” https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/appomattox-surrender-at/
Freewriting: Terms of Surrender at Appomattox. What do you think the paragraph above means? Put it in your own words.
General Robert E. Lee had been concerned about the fate of the men serving under him and was relieved by the language that “each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes.” The Union’s relatively generous terms, as scholar Stephen Cushman writes, provided “the foundation for subsequent reconciliation between the warring sections.”2 Here we also see the seeds of subsequent mythology about the Confederacy, the Civil War, and the reconciliation of North and South.
“As the Lost Cause view of the war developed, it grew into a much larger, sweeping belief that the greater numbers and material strength of all Union forces made inevitable from the beginning the defeat of all Confederate forces, Confederate forces that nevertheless fought nobly and heroically in the face of this inevitable outcome. In his Personal Memoirs (Chapter 68) Grant sharply challenged this view, and many subsequent historians have done likewise. But the Lost Cause view played, and continues to play, a significant role in some versions of reconciliation, which focus on magnanimous victors welcoming the gallant vanquished back into the restored nation without mentioning the role played by slavery in the coming of the war and its subsequent prosecution.”3
Scholar Michael Paradis defines this “Lost Cause” mythology thus:
“A revisionist history that gained popularity in the 1890s, the Lost Cause recast the Confederacy’s humiliating defeat in a treasonous war for slavery as the embodiment of the Framers’ true vision for America. Supporters pushed the ideas that the Civil War was not actually about slavery; that Robert E. Lee was a brilliant general, gentleman, and patriot; and that the Ku Klux Klan had rescued the heritage of the old South, what came to be known as “the southern way of life.”4
Freewriting: The appeal of Lost Cause mythology. Before reading onward, reflect a bit: why do you think the “Lost Cause” mythology might have appealed to many white Americans, in the North and South, in the decades following the Civil War?
Lost Cause mythology is important to understand because it still underpins much of how Americans popularly perceive the Civil War and Reconstruction. In the decades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, popular opinion and scholarly opinion crystallized around the idea that Reconstruction had been a terrible mistake, during which time corrupt Northerners (sometimes referred to as “carpetbaggers,” eager to punish Southern whites for their role in the Civil War, banded together with a few corrupt white Southerners (“scalawags”) as well as Southern African Americans to form local and state governments that ruled poorly during the Reconstruction era.
In the last fifty years, influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, historians have recast this mythology. Instead of a terrible mistake or an over-assertion of federal power, what if Reconstruction was a missed opportunity to make real, under American law and in American society, the words of the Declaration of Independence – that “all men are created equal”? In this sense, Reconstruction can be seen as an “unfinished revolution.”5
2. Reconstructing the Union – The Reconstruction Amendments
The Civil War “reconstructed” the Union in several senses. First, the decisive Northern victory and unconditional Confederate surrender established, once and for all, that the Union – the federal government of the North during the Civil War – was the “true” American government and the Confederacy was not. Secondly, it ensured that the United States of America’s future would be closer to antebellum Northern than Southern visions – it would be commercial and industrial, not primarily agricultural. Thirdly, it fundamentally altered the Constitution and, in so doing, the relationship of individual citizens to the federal government. Although this final portion was only partially executed in reality, on the ground, until the Civil Rights era, its legal framework was laid with the three “Reconstruction amendments” to the Constitution.
The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, to the Constitution ended slavery and involuntary servitude, except for those convicted of a crime. Finally decided was the decades old debate over whether the Constitution was a “pro-slavery” document (as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison had argued) or a “freedom” document (a abolitionist Frederick Douglass had argued); of note is that this and the next two amendments had to amend, or change, the Constitution, for this to be true.
The Fourteenth Amendment. One of the issues that had plagued American politics since the framing of the Constitution had been that of citizenship. Can a person be a citizen of one state and yet not eligible for citizenship in another – for example, enslaved in one state but not another? The answer to this had been unclear. Similarly, what was the relationship between the state governments and the federal government? Did federal law always supersede state laws? Again, the answer to this question had also been unclear. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, addressed the question of citizenship. Section 1 of this amendment reads:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”6
Freewriting: The Fourteenth Amendment. How do you think Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment addresses these questions:
- Can a person be a citizen of one state and yet not eligible for citizenship in another?
- What is the relationship between the state governments and the federal government?
As noted at the Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute website, the Fourteenth Amendment “addresses many aspects of citizenship and the rights of citizens. The most commonly used — and frequently litigated — phrase in the amendment is “equal protection of the laws”, which figures prominently in a wide variety of landmark cases, including Brown v. Board of Education (racial discrimination), Roe v. Wade (reproductive rights), Bush v. Gore (election recounts), Reed v. Reed (gender discrimination), and University of California v. Bakke (racial quotas in education).”7
The Fifteenth Amendment. Soon it became clear that some state governments would try to circumvent the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment that African Americans be ensured voting and other civil rights throughout the United States, including in the South. In an effort to address this, Radical Republicans in Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, which addressed voting rights specifically. This short amendment states:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
- Continuity and Change: How Effective was Reconstruction at “Reconstructing” the South?
The decisive Union victory in the Civil War thus “reconstructed” the Union in the sense of bringing the Southern states back under the auspices of the federal government, and broadening the relationship of citizens to the federal government. Very literally, though, the American South needed to be “reconstructed” following the ravages of war and the ending of slavery which had been so economically, culturally, and socially influential.
Many, particularly the Radical Republicans in Congress, advocated for a literal Reconstruction of Southern society. They suggested taking the land and wealth from the wealthiest of Southerners, those who had the most political and economic power prior to and during the war – who had, after all, legally speaking, committed treason against the United States. This land and wealth could have been redistributed to the formerly enslaved – who had, after all, along with their ancestors, worked, without compensation, to create that wealth. In fact it was just this approach which informed General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous Field Order 15.
Sherman was a Union general who, in November and December of 1864 had led what is now known as “Sherman’s March.”8 After capturing Atlanta, his forces marched to the sea, following a policy sometimes known as “scorched earth” or “total war,” in which they destroyed not only military targets, but also civilian property and infrastructure. As Sherman’s Army marched through Georgia, tens of thousands of African Americans ran away from slavery to join them. Field Order 15, issued by Sherman from Savannah, Georgia, on January 16, 1865, set aside certain lands to be owned and farmed by these newly free people – including a provision that “each family shall have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable land.” This is where the phrase, still famous today, that each newly free African American family was entitled to “forty acres and a mule” came from. For more on this, complete the Reflection Assignment – Sherman’s Field Order 15, at the bottom of this chapter.
One vision of Reconstruction, the one that could have begun with this Field Order 15, encompassed the literal redistribution of property from those who had made their wealth from slavery and committed treason against the United States, to those formerly enslaved who, along with their ancestors, had created that wealth via their labor.
This vision was not the one that prevailed. Instead, members of Congress and Andrew Johnson, who became president upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, spent much of Reconstruction embroiled in conflicts between and among themselves over what Reconstruction should look like. Johnson, many Democrats, and more moderate Republicans, believed that those Southern states who had seceded from the Union should be welcomed back with relatively few punishments and most certainly with no redistribution of property. Radical Republicans, former abolitionists, and others disagreed.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, more formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, was one initiative of the Radical Republicans that did come to pass. The Bureau “had three main functions – to distribute rations to Southerners who had been loyal to the Union during the Civil War, to establish public schools for black children and adults, and to oversee labor contracts between landowners and black workers.”9 The Bureau also assisted Black soldiers and sailors who had served in the Civil War in obtaining back pay and pensions.10
The labor contract function of the Freedmen Bureau is of particular interest because it helps us understand one of the major historical questions of Reconstruction – how much changed after the Civil War, particularly in the American South, and how much stayed the same? Historians use the term “continuity” to refer to the idea of things continuing as they had previously been. The table below, which we will go over in class, illustrates some of the ways in which historians have traced both continuity and change in the South in the decades after the War.
The Freedmen’s Bureau did assist in many efforts that related to change in the South, prompted mostly by African Americans themselves who wanted to know how to vote and run for office, how to reunite with family members lost during slavery, how to establish schools and churches, and so on.11
Equally important to understand, however, is that the fundamental structure of the Southern economy and, therefore, many elements of Southern society, did not change after the war. Cotton remained “king” of the Southern economy for decades. Exploited laborers, while no longer enslaved, remained crucial for the profitability of this cash crop.
Historian Jacqueline Jones writes, “Federal officials put great faith in annual labor contracts as a means to resume cotton staple-crop production in the South, get black workers back into the fields, and protect freed men, women, and children from abusive employers. Typically, a worker would sign an agreement with an employer on January 1, and promise to work for the full calendar year. On December 31, the landowner would ‘reckon’ – that is, tally up the amount of money the worker owed the employer for credits and supplies advanced to him during the year, the amount of cotton the worker and his family had produced, and the amount of money owed the worker from his share (usually one third) of the crop.” However, the Freedmen’s Bureau “was chronically understaffed, and enforcement of labor contracts was difficult, since most bureau agents were stationed in towns, far away from isolated plantations.” Therefore, African American workers, often formerly enslaved or descendants of the enslaved on the very plantation upon which they worked, were vulnerable to exploitation, in the form of slavery-era coercive practices such as whippings and beatings. Further, they were tied to that land and employer for the time of the one-year contract. Often, enslaved workers had to use credit extended by plantation owners to buy seeds, tools, and food for their families – so, quite often, these workers were more in debt at the end of each year than the last. Thus, while slavery had ended, the formerly enslaved and their descendants remained tied to the land, unable to get ahead or leave. As Reconstruction went on, and eventually ended, local law enforcement and town and county governance generally returned to the hands of landowners and those who supported white supremacy, often in cahoots with the Ku Klux Klan. Legal disputes between black workers and white property owners, for example, were almost never resolved in favor of the black workers, if they made it to court at all.
After Reconstruction ended, the re-institution of structures of white supremacy in the American South with the so-called “Jim Crow” laws also meant the disfranchisement of African Americans. For a brief time, African Americans had voted and, in many cases, elected African American officials to local and state office and even to the U.S. Congress.
That ended with the end of Reconstruction. Northern Republicans, and their mostly white constituents, grew tired of the cause and became more politically conservative. Many began to see Reconstruction as a misguided over-reach of federal power. The very close 1876 presidential contest between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden concluded with the “Compromise of 1877,” a back-room deal in which the Republican won the presidency while Democrats were assured of the withdrawal of the federal presence in the South, assuring that the three states which still had a Republican majority (South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana), would switch to Democratic control – because the federal presence would be withdrawn, effectively ending enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and ensuring disfranchisement of African American voters. “Hayes was inaugurated; federal troops returned to their barracks; and as an era when the federal government accepted the responsibility for protecting the rights of the former slaves, Reconstruction came to an end.”12
In the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln made the stakes of the Civil War clear:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Historians now agree that Reconstruction was a moment of lost opportunity to help make real those words of the Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal.” Instead, for decades, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments languished, mostly not enforced, in the South and other regions of the United States. “Lost Cause” mythology of the Civil War and Reconstruction took hold, obscuring the significance of racism and slavery in the United States. In more recent decades, historians and the public at large have begun to reevaluate the legacies of the Civil War and Reconstruction. While sometimes difficult, this process is crucial to help make real the promise of the phrase “all men are created equal.”
You may recall that Chapter One of this text contained my (Dr. Damico’s) top reason to study the past – history is not write in stone; rather each generation re-imagines the past. This process of re-imagining can be difficult, but it also contains the potential to help us re-imagine ourselves and, in so doing, mold the future. Many thanks to you, my students, for reading this text and engaging with it and with me here and in the classroom. Most importantly, thank you for your willingness to challenge your own assumptions and, hopefully, make the world a better place thereby.
REFLECTION ASSIGNMENT – this chapter and SHERMAN’S FIELD ORDER 15
- In your own words, define “Reconstruction”
- In your own words, define “the Lost Cause” mythology
- In your own words, define the “Freedmen’s Bureau.”
- Identify some of the ways in which Reconstruction changed the American South, and some of the ways in which it did not
See the text of Sherman’s Field Order 15 here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Field_Orders_No._15
Answer these questions:
- What did Field Order 15 do?
- Where do you think the land that the freedpeople would settle upon came from?
4Michael Paradis, “The Lost Cause’s Long Legacy: Why does the U.S. Army name its bases after generals it defeated?” The Atlantic, June 26, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/the-lost-causes-long-legacy/613288/
5The most influential book on this subject is probably Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (originally published in 1988; revised edition, 2014).
6Full text available at https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendment/amendment-xiv
7“14th Amendment,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv
8 For more on this fascinating historical event, see here: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/shermans-march-sea
9Jacqueline Jones, “The Freedmen’s Bureau: Work After Emancipation,” Not Even Past, February 8, 2012, https://notevenpast.org/freedmens-bureau-work-after-emancipation/
10“The Freedmen’s Bureau,” African American Heritage, National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau
11“The Freedmen,” U.S. History Primary Source Timeline, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-timeline/civil-war-and-reconstruction-1861-1877/freedmen/
12“The end of Reconstruction,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Reconstruction-United-States-history/The-end-of-Reconstruction