Before the Civil War began, rumors spread in many southern communities that Abraham Lincoln planned to free the slaves. Slowly, a small number of slaves made their way to Union forts and camps seeking refuge. Initially, Union leaders returned the slaves, pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. However, General Benjamin Butler, at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, decided to put the slaves to work for the Union cause once the war broke out. For the remainder of the war, these “contrabands of war,” as Butler called them, continued to flock to Union lines. At first, the Lincoln administration allowed individual commanders to determine how to handle the runaway slaves. As the war progressed, it became necessary for the government to adopt a more standard policy.
Lincoln struggled to find a policy that would meet the demands of the refugees for freedom while also placating the needs of Border State slaveholders. Initially, his administration focused on the military uses of black labor in the Confiscation Acts. They did not develop a long-term policy for dealing with the former slaves. However, the Emancipation Proclamation, coupled with Union victories, contributed to the disintegration of slavery. Moreover, it meant when southern states, either by choice or by force, returned to the Union, they had to accept abolition. Therefore, Lincoln developed a policy for restoring the rebelling states that took into consideration the transition from a slave labor system to a free labor system. At the same time, the Congressional Republicans did not always approve of the president’s approach. By 1864, Congress actively sought to challenge Lincoln for control of the process of reunifying the nation.
17.2.1 Lincoln and Restoration
As Abraham Lincoln approached the interrelated questions of emancipation and reconstruction, he needed to balance the Union’s political and military goals. In other words, Lincoln had to pursue a policy on emancipation that would not drive the Border States toward secession. So initially, he supported gradual compensated emancipation in the Border States. If successful, the plan would serve as a model for reconciling the rebelling states to the Union. Lincoln believed voluntary acceptance of emancipation would have better long-term results than a forced arrangement. In 1862, the president sent Congress a measure to enact his proposal, but most Republican members opposed compensation, so the bill died. Lincoln also had to devise a policy that would not increase anti-war sentiment in the North. If he moved too fast on emancipation, then Democrats, who favored a more limited war, might begin to criticize his war-related policies. Such criticism could easily undermine the effort to preserve the union.
In spite of these concerns, Lincoln increasingly saw emancipation as a military necessity. By freeing the slaves in the rebelling states, which he considered still part of the union, he hoped to undermine their ability to wage war. In July 1862, he raised the issue with his cabinet. According to Gideon Wells, the secretary of the navy, the president moved toward blanket emancipation because of the Union’s military defeats and the failure of his plans for compensated emancipation in the Border States. While the cabinet initially split over his proposal, the president decided in favor of the move and announced the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, which was scheduled to take effect on January 1, 1863 unless the southern states ended their rebellion. Not only did Lincoln’s decision effectively make the abolition of slavery a war aim, but it also raised questions about how occupied territories would implement emancipation and return to the Union.
In 1863, Lincoln encouraged military governors in the occupied South to push residents to accept the end of slavery. However, he did not require immediate emancipation. The president told one governor that southern states could “adopt systems of apprenticeship for the colored people, conforming substantially to the most approved plans of gradual emancipation.” To Lincoln, a slower transition to freedom would benefit the black and the white population. Moreover, the president continued to support the possibility of colonization for former slaves in order to ease concerns about the postemancipation relationship between blacks and whites. Lincoln hoped that by allowing for gradual emancipation and suggesting possible colonization, he could encourage pro-Union sentiments in the South, thereby shortening the conflict. By late 1863, the Lincoln administration’s effort to increase loyalty in the southern states had accomplished little. Therefore, Lincoln decided the time had come to outline a policy for restoration.
On December 8, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” and then explained the initiative in his annual message to Congress. In the proclamation, the president offered southerners who participated in the rebellion a “full pardon…with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves” if they would “take…an oath, and thenceforward keep and maintain said oath.” He did exclude from amnesty all persons who served in “the so-called Confederate government” as well as those who served as high-ranking officers in the Confederate military. Furthermore, once ten percent of the number of voters in the 1860 presidential election took the oath, a state could establish a government, which the Union would recognize “as the true government of the state.” Finally, he noted only Congress could decide whether to seat new members from the loyal governments. In his annual message, Lincoln suggested his plan followed the Constitution’s provisions on presidential pardons. To quell possible concerns among the Radical Republicans, he also reinforced the idea that amnesty and restoration would not undermine the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln based the Ten Percent Plan on the principle that the “so-called Confederate” states had never really left the Union. As historian James McPherson noted, for Lincoln “the task of reconstruction was one of restoration rather than revolution.” He designed the plan to shorten the war, not to launch major social and political changes in the South. The president proposed moderate, some even said lenient, terms in order to encourage enough southerners to declare their fidelity to the Union. If he imposed draconian terms or promoted black rights, lukewarm secessionists would never declare their loyalty. Additionally, any policy needed to respect the states’ authority to determine the civil and political rights of their residents because they had never left the Union. Therefore, under the proclamation, loyal southern states had to accept the end of slavery, but they could set the pace at which it happened. The president also thought state action on slavery, as opposed to federal action, would help avoid questions about the constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation as it related to reconstruction. Lincoln hoped the procedures he set forth during the war would provide a model for the postwar era, but nothing quite turned out as planned since the Border States seemed reluctant to adopt emancipation and the Union-occupied territories struggled to establish loyal governments.
17.2.2: Emancipation in the Border States
Although the Border States never left the Union, they still underwent a process of reconstruction during the war. The Lincoln administration encouraged Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri to adopt a policy of gradual compensated emancipation, which it hoped to use as a model for restoring the states in rebellion. Delaware and Kentucky firmly resisted the pressure to abolish slavery. However, discussions about emancipation led to significant political changes in Maryland and Missouri. There, whites excluded from power in the antebellum era made their voice heard. They managed to increase their own political power in the new state constitutions, but they did little to change the political status of the freedmen. Two factors seemed to make the difference between the move toward and the resistance to emancipation. At the beginning of the Civil War, federal troops moved into both Maryland and Missouri to help secure the loyalty of the population. The presence of those troops helped to undermine slavery, which caused support for abolition to grow.
Lincoln offered Delaware a plan for gradual, compensated emancipation financed by the federal government early in the war. He expected leaders there to accept the plan given the small number of slaves in the state. While some residents supported abolition, Delaware never acted on the president’s offer. Lincoln did not count on the white population’s hostility to any suggestion of equality between the races. Once people heard about the proposal, some began to worry that emancipation would in turn produce demands for political rights. Supporters could not convince opponents otherwise, and Delaware retained slavery until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. Resistance to emancipation in Kentucky proved even greater than in Delaware. Early on, leaders suggested any attempt by the Lincoln administration to undermine slavery would affect their loyalty to the Union. Throughout the war, the planter class retained political power and no opposition movement emerged to challenge that control. The Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of runaways in the Union army weakened slavery, but did not destroy it in Kentucky. Masters only freed their slaves because of the Thirteenth Amendment, which the state never ratified.
Early in the war, free black support for abolition, along with a rise in the number of slaves enlisting in the army, weakened the institution of slavery in Maryland. Most Unionists accepted emancipation, but they disagreed about when and how. Led by Henry Winter Davis, radicals wanted to enact immediate emancipation. Led by Montgomery Blair, conservatives embraced Lincoln’s ideas for a gradual, compensated program. In 1863, supporters of immediate action won a majority of seats in the legislature because the army required all voters to take a loyalty oath, thereby curbing planter power. The legislature then called for the convention to write a new state constitution. Lincoln privately and publicly supported immediate emancipation if the convention chose to move in that direction. The resulting constitution abolished slavery immediately. It also cut the power of the planters in state politics, limited future voting to those who took a stringent loyalty oath, and created a tax-supported school system. However, it excluded the black population from political rights and access to education. By the end of the year, voters approved the new constitution, but the future of the freedmen in the state was far from certain.
Like Maryland, Unionists in Missouri also divided over the issue of emancipation and therefore experienced political reconstruction during the war. Both conservatives and radicals pushed Lincoln to back their position, while the president tried to find a policy to reconcile their differences. In 1863, conservative unionists, who tended to be slaveholders, encouraged the adoption of gradual compensated emancipation. In response, radicals, who tended to be non-slaveholders, launched an effort to promote an immediate end to slavery. In 1864, voters chose as Governor Thomas C. Fletcher, a radical, a choice which led to a constitutional convention. The new constitution provided for an immediate end to slavery and granted the freedmen some political and educational rights. In order to secure its ratification, the radicals relied on laws restricting the political participation of Confederate sympathizers. The limited electorate approved the constitution in June 1865. However, their actions left the state bitterly divided as the war ended.
17.2.3: Reconstruction in Union-Occupied Territory
Early in the war, Lincoln seized the initiative on restoring the southern states when he placed occupied territory under the control of a military governor. In so doing, he took the first step in moving toward presidential reconstruction. He planned to use executive decisions, not Congressional legislation, to shape the government’s policy on the return of the rebelling states.15 In Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana, the president sought to encourage the formation of loyal governments to help shorten the war. While Lincoln ascribed publicly to the Ten Percent Plan, he was more than willing in these states to be flexible on the means of restoration.
Both Virginia and Arkansas established loyal governments in 1864 under the auspices of the Ten Percent Plan. Loyalists in Virginia held an election for representatives and then a convention to draft a new constitution. Adopted in April, it barred slavery, restricted suffrage to white men, and created a system of public education for whites. At no point before the end of the war, however, could this government claim to represent ten percent of the states’ population. Lincoln hoped the situation would be better in Arkansas because residents in the northern regions seemed more likely to declare their loyalty. Nevertheless, unionists there bypassed any elections under the Ten Percent Plan and moved directly to creating a constitution. The delegates proposed to end slavery gradually through a system of indentured servitude and to limit suffrage to the white population. In March, unionist voters approved the constitution. Although neither Virginia nor Arkansas followed the Ten Percent Plan exactly, Lincoln recognized the new governments as the legitimate authority in both states in order to show the success of his restoration policy.
After Confederate forces withdrew from Tennessee in 1862, the president appointed Andrew Johnson as the military governor and instructed him to establish a new government. While Johnson convinced Lincoln to exempt Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation, the issue still divided the state. Some people renewed their commitment to slavery, and others became more vocal in their opposition to it. Johnson eventually sided with those who wanted to abolish slavery, and he took action to undermine the conservatives by expanding on the loyalty oath outlined in the Ten Percent Plan. In Tennessee, potential voters had to declare loyalty to the Union, vow to fight the Confederacy, and support the end of slavery. Johnson’s support for abolition had more to do with a desire to punish the state’s slaveholders, whom he long resented, than to do with a desire to help the state’s slaves. His approach to restoration and amnesty did little to support the creation of a pro-Union government in 1864. After his election as Lincoln’s vice president, Johnson followed the Arkansas model of restoration. He endorsed a constitutional amendment ending slavery drafted by a convention of unelected unionists. People permitted to vote under Johnson’s loyalty oath approved the amendment in February 1865.
Lincoln was optimistic about the restoration in Louisiana because many reluctant Confederates, immigrants from Europe and the northern states, and free blacks lived in the occupied area, and they appeared likely to support a constitution barring slavery. Partly because of the slow pace of change in Louisiana in 1863, Lincoln proposed the Ten Percent Plan. He thought it would encourage the residents to overcome their differences about how to approach reconstruction, particularly their questions on the future status of blacks. Conservatives and moderates preferred abolition but not equality; they feared mentioning equality would undermine unionism in the region. On the other hand, many of the radicals came from the wealthy free black community in New Orleans. They possessed more civil liberties than did most free blacks in the antebellum South, and they wanted to maintain those rights and secure voting rights.
The demand for black suffrage complicated the effort to create a loyal government in Louisiana. In 1863, the Lincoln administration supported the free black community’s desire to vote in elections pertaining to the new state government. Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, instructed General Nathaniel P. Banks to allow all loyal citizens to vote. Banks, however, ignored the order because he shared the moderates’ opinion on how black suffrage would affect unionism. He supported the creation of a government under the old state constitution, which maintained slavery, rather than calling directly for a new state constitution. So, Banks used his patronage power, or power to appoint loyal supporters to public office, to help the moderates win a majority of seats in the elections in February 1864.
Lincoln accepted this move in Louisiana because he wanted a loyal government as quickly as possible, but he also continued to encourage Banks to support the drafting of a new constitution. After meeting with two representatives from the free black community who presented a petition regarding voting rights, the president also wrote soon-to-be governor, Michael Hahn, suggesting the possibility of voting rights for well-educated blacks. The president’s work to please both factions led to a new constitution in July 1864 abolishing slavery, undermining the power of the planters, and providing tax-supported schools. It also granted the legislature the authority to extend the right to vote and for blacks to receive an education in the future. Ten percent of the voters in the 1860 presidential election supported the new government and constitution, somewhat validating Lincoln’s plans for reconstruction.
17.2.4: The Possibility of Land Redistribution
Elsewhere in the Confederacy, the advance of the Union troops forced military leaders to continue to address the issue of what to do about slaves who had fallen under union control. In some areas, Union military commanders experimented with land redistribution as a possible plan for reconstruction. Such instances occurred on South Carolina’s Sea Islands, in Mississippi’s Davis Bend, and along Georgia’s coastline. These experiments represented an atypical approach to reconstruction. Nevertheless, they raised important questions about the nature of rebuilding the South. Should the loss of land be a form of punishment for those who rebelled against the Union? Should the granting of land be a means to provide for former slaves and compensate them for past abuses by their owners?
Late in 1861, Union forces occupied parts of the South Carolina Sea Islands. White residents fled to the mainland, leaving some 10,000 slaves behind. The slaves ransacked their masters’ homes and then set about planting foodstuffs to support themselves. However, soon U.S. officials, missionaries, and reporters descended on the region, and they had their own ideas about how to help slaves transition to a life of freedom. Although the slaves had begun to disperse the land among themselves, treasury officials decided to organize land sales to cover the back taxes on the abandoned property. The missionaries hoped to secure some of the land for the freedmen, but most of it went to northern investors. They in turn hired the black residents to work as wage laborers on the plantations, a move which provided an opportunity to test the merits of free labor. Relatively quickly, the free labor experiment on the Sea Islands showed how whites and blacks understood the term differently. For the white landowners, free labor meant they would pay their workers wages; however, for the black workers, free labor meant the opportunity to own land and grow the crops of their choice. The misunderstanding on the Sea Islands very much foreshadowed the problems that emerged in the postwar transition from slave to free labor.
In Louisiana, and later Mississippi, Union commanders struggled to devise a policy to manage occupied plantations along the Mississippi River. They came up with a system to lease abandoned lands to northern investors who would pay slaves to work that land; while the workers technically remained in bondage and they remained subject to the whims of white investors, the payment of wages suggested a move toward free labor. However, military commanders occasionally allowed blacks to farm abandoned land independently. The best known of these experiments happened at Davis Bend on the Mississippi River, the former plantations of Jefferson Davis and his brother Joseph. Prior to the war, the Davis brothers developed a model slave community based on the ideas of British socialist Robert Owen where the slaves had a good deal of control over their own lives. Nevertheless, when the war forced Joseph Davis to abandon the plantation, his slaves refused to accompany him. Instead, they transitioned their experiences with utopian self-government into a successful self-run commercial enterprise. General Ulysses S. Grant instructed John Eaton Jr., the commander in the area, to lease the land to the freedmen. In November 1863, Eaton began distributing the land and instilling free labor principles among the residents. By 1865, under the leadership of former slave Benjamin Montgomery, Davis Bend produced 2,000 bales of cotton and made a profit of $160,000, suggesting to some observers that, given a chance, the freedmen and their families could become part of the market economy.
The question of land and labor also came to Georgia in the waning days of the war. As General William T. Sherman launched his March to the Sea in September 1864, slaves took the opportunity to seize their own freedom by following the Union troops across the state. When Union forces reached Savannah in December, approximately 20,000 men, women, and children had joined the advance, and they refused the army’s orders to disperse. Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, travelled to Georgia to assess the situation. He recommended that Sherman arrange a meeting with black leaders. Stanton thought it important to understand how the freedmen conceived of their freedom. On the evening of January 12, 1865, Sherman and Stanton met with twenty representatives of Savannah’s black community. As former slave and Baptist minister Garrison Frazier noted,
Slavery is receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, and take care of ourselves, and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom. The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn in and till it by our labor…and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare...We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.
Several days after that meeting, Sherman released Special Field Order No. 15, which set aside confiscated land south of Charleston, running thirty miles in from the Atlantic coast and totaling about 400,000 acres, for the settlement of the freedpeople in forty-acre plots. Sherman later indicated he would distribute some of the army’s old mules to any freedpeople who cared to take advantage of the offer. For Sherman, the field order represented a temporary wartime measure designed to deal with the refugee problem. For the former slaves, conversely, it set up the expectation that the U.S. government supported land redistribution with a policy of granting “forty acres and a mule.”
17.2.5: Congress and Reconstruction
While the Lincoln administration proceeded with its efforts to promote wartime reconstruction through the Ten Percent Plan, Congress began to question his methods. By 1863, as historian Eric Foner notes, for Lincoln and the Radical Republicans, “the definition of Southern loyalty…encompassed not merely a willingness to rejoin the Union, but an acceptance of the slaves’ freedom.” Yet, they did not agree on the best method to end slavery. The president preferred a more moderate approach directed by the states. Radical Republicans wanted reconstruction to do more than just end slavery.
The Radicals thought the federal government should have a greater say in the process of reconstruction. They wanted to ensure real Unionists controlled the process and to somewhat protect the rights of the freedpeople. To justify more federal control, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts contended that when the southern states seceded they committed “state suicide.” Therefore, they had to apply for readmission to the Union, and only Congress had the right to set the terms. Concerns about Louisiana, where the control of genuine Unionists seemed slim and the rights of the freedpeople seemed tenuous, prompted Radical Republicans in Congress to introduce an alternate approach to reconstruction that would forestall any decisions until after the war ended.
In mid-1864, Congress considered numerous plans on how to improve Lincoln’s approach to restoration. They finally settled on a measure sponsored by Senator Benjamin (Ben) Wade of Ohio and Representative Henry Winter Davis of Maryland. The proposed Wade-Davis bill required fifty percent of voters to declare their loyalty before reconstruction could begin. The first step in the process would be the drafting a new constitution that abolished slavery, barred Confederates from voting and serving in the new government, and repudiated the Confederate government’s debt. Only voters who could swear an “iron-clad” oath of past and future loyalty could vote for delegates to the constitutional convention. The bill also contained provisions for federal courts to enforce the maintenance of the freedpeople’s liberty. Congress would only readmit the reconstructed states to the Union if they followed these steps.
Radicals won support for the bill from a majority of Congress on July 2, 1864, just before it adjourned for a break. To ensure support among moderates, Wade and Davis decided to leave out any provisions for black suffrage, even though they supported such a move. Therefore, similar to Lincoln’s plan, observes James McPherson, the measure “confined the reconstruction process to white voters.” The sponsors recognized most Republicans wanted to exert greater control over the process of reconstruction, but, for some, political equality went too far. Wade-Davis never became law because Abraham Lincoln decided to pocket veto the measure. In other words, he did not sign the measure before Congress adjourned. The president viewed the proposed law as unconstitutional because it would force states to abolish slavery. He also worried it would undermine the governments created under the Ten Percent Plan and it would limit his options for creating loyal governments.
Although the Wade-Davis bill died, the debate about the future of reconstruction continued throughout the presidential campaign of 1864. The Republican Party, rechristened the National Union Party, ultimately chose Abraham Lincoln as their presidential nominee, pairing him with Andrew Johnson, and the party adopted a moderate platform. While the party came together to support the president and win the election, their divisions over the future of reconstruction remained. When Congress reconvened in December after the election, Lincoln hoped to mend fences with the Radical Republicans. He decided to appoint Salmon P. Chase, his radical opponent for the Republican nomination, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Then, Lincoln and Congressional leaders tried to work out their differences. Congress agreed to accept the reconstructed governments of Louisiana and Arkansas; the president agreed to support harsher terms for the unreconstructed states. However, Congress repeatedly defeated versions of the compromise because some members wanted to include support for black suffrage and others did not.
Meanwhile, Congress took another step toward inserting the federal government into the reconstruction process. For some time, Republicans had considered creating a government agency to assist former slaves in making the transition to freedom. However, they could not come to an agreement on the details about the management and functions of the agency. After the House of Representatives approved the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865 (the Senate had approved it in 1864), and it went to the states for ratification, Congress became determined to finish their work on a bill to create the Freedmen’s Bureau. Their reason for doing so was that, in addition to abolishing slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment enabled Congress to use legislation to guarantee that freedom.
The Freedmen’s Bureau bill was an attempt by Congress to define their authority over the former slaves as well as over the process of reconstruction. The measure, approved in March 1865, created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to provide relief for loyal refugees, black and white, for the period of one year. The Freedmen’s Bureau administered by the War Department distributed clothing, food, fuel, and land, as well as ran schools for the freedmen to help prepare them for citizenship. Although Congress envisioned the measure as a temporary solution to the problem of refugees in the South, it significantly expanded the power of the federal government over the states. Moreover, as historian Randall M. Miller maintains, “the act carried an implied promise of government aid to blacks and Unionists in staking new lives as independent farmers in a reconstructed South.” The creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau showed Congress intended to exert more authority over reconstruction; however, until the war actually ended, no decisions about reconstruction were final. Moreover, policymakers in Washington rarely considered the needs and wants of blacks or whites in the South.
17.2.6: Before You Move On...
Throughout the Civil War, Republican leaders in the North debated how to bring the Confederate states back into the Union. For Abraham Lincoln, the process of restoration fit into his desire to win the war as quickly as possible. He pursued a cautious policy on emancipation in the Border States to secure their loyalty. As for the rest of the South, he hoped to outline a policy that would encourage unionists to declare their loyalty to the United States. With the “Proclamation on Amnesty and Reconstruction” issued in December 1863, the president made emancipation a precondition for restoration, but allowed the states to determine how exactly to end slavery. Moreover, he required only ten percent of voters in a state to take a loyalty oath. In 1864, Lincoln worked with unionists in Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana to create loyal governments. Radical Republicans in Congress, however, found the president’s Ten Percent Plan too lenient. Therefore, they tried to reassert their control over reconstruction with the Wade-Davis Bill. The measure set forth additional qualifications for readmission to the Union, so Lincoln pocket vetoed it. In 1865, after Congress sent the Thirteenth Amendment to the states for ratification, it created the Freedmen’s Bureau to help the South transition from a slave labor to a free labor system. Although Congress had asserted its authority over reconstruction, it remained unclear whether the president or Congress would control the process in the postwar years since the war had not ended.
Which of the following statements best describes Abraham Lincoln’s “Proclamation on Amnesty and Reconstruction”?
a. The policy was consistent in the Union-occupied territories.
b. The policy was designed to promote the rights of the freedmen, not to help end the war.
c. The policy was fairly lenient toward the southern states.
d. The policy was widely supported by the Radical Republicans in Congress.
The Border States quickly accepted Lincoln’s proposals for gradual compensated emancipation and willingly implemented the Thirteenth Amendment.
Which of the following measures did Republicans in Congress promote in 1864 to counter Lincoln’s Ten-Percent Plan?
a. The Military Reconstruction Bill
b. The Louisiana Bill
c. The Civil Rights Bill
d. The Wade-Davis Bill
Congress envisioned the Freedmen’s Bureau created in March of 1865 as a permanent solution to dealing with the problems of African Americans after the Civil War.