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17.3: The Reconstruction Experience

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    Life in the South during Reconstruction was often not easy for anyone. Among the obvious problems, the South was physically devastated by the war. Anywhere the armies had clashed, terrible destruction ensued, and where the armies had not advanced, there was still suffering from deprivation due to the shortages during and after the war. Almost everyone in the South, no matter their race, gender, social standing, or political views, suffered during and immediately after the war. The war had been physically and emotionally difficult; for many, Reconstruction would also prove to be a painful, even traumatic, experience.

    Uncertainty prevailed in the South after the end of the war. What would the future bring? President Lincoln had not laid out concrete plans for reconstruction before his assassination. After his assassination, anger in the North became a key component of the reconstruction equation. Was the South to be accepted back and the nation healed, or was the South to be punished and brought to heel? Differing opinions among the public and the politicians held sway at various times as the Union decided what to do with the defeated Confederacy.

    President Jefferson Davis’s experience was atypical, but it does illustrate on a very personal scale the impact of the wrangling in the North following Lincoln’s assassination. Davis had been captured in Georgia in 1865 as he tried to make his way to Texas in hopes of joining with Confederates still in the field. Davis was taken to Fort Monroe, Virginia while the investigation into Lincoln’s assassination was conducted. Many believed that the Confederate government, and thereby Davis, had been behind, or at least connected to, the assassination. The investigation proved otherwise, but with feelings running high, Davis could not be released. Magazines and papers such as Harper’s Weekly called for Davis to be charged with treason, tried, and, if convicted, executed.

    General Ulysses S. Grant had given a parole to General Robert E. Lee and his army; however, Davis was not a part of the military, so he received no such parole. He was charged with treason. He was kept in a small cell and, at one point, shackled, not due to any order for such from Washington or fear of his escape, since his health was failing. Rather, the officer in charge of Davis’s care, General Nelson Miles, who was given full authority and discretion to do as he thought best, chose to do so. When the officer in charge of Davis changed, so did Davis’s treatment. Eventually he was moved into officer’s quarters, and his wife and children were allowed to live at the fort with him. Davis was released on bond after two years, having never been brought to trial, and the charges were dropped. New charges of treason were brought in Richmond in 1868, and Davis was finally brought to trial, a proceeding that soon became entangled in constitutional issues. The trial simply ceased to continue, and the prosecution eventually dropped the case.

    Shared Experience

    Focusing on the Reconstruction experience of one group or another in the South carries the danger of overlooking the shared experience. For many in the South before, during, and after the war, life was not a case of simple segregation.

    For example, Joel M. Lax, of Halifax County, Virginia, was a white, slave-owning tobacco farmer with personal property valued at over $4,000 in 1860. In 1861 two of his sons, John and William A., joined the Confederate army. John stayed healthy and served throughout the war, while William A. contracted dysentery early on and spent most of the war moving from one army hospital to another until, at last, he came to the Confederate hospital at Chimborazo in Richmond, one of the largest hospitals in history. John was surrendered at Appomattox and returned home; William A. was captured along with the other hospital patients when Richmond fell and was shipped north to Point Lookout, Maryland, a Union prisoner of war camp known for its horrific conditions. William A. died there in May, still a prisoner a month after Lee’s surrender. Like most families of soldiers in the war, William A.’s family had to wait to find out what had happened to their son. By the time they learned of his death, his body had long been buried in a mass grave.

    Along with such uncertainties as the Lax family faced, came the uncertainty regarding the treatment of former slaves. At the end of the war, slaves were freed; however, entities responsible for their rights were unidentified. Although set free by law, many had nothing and were given nothing except their freedom. Some, whether by choice or necessity, stayed on their old plantations. Two such were Linda, age 25, and Sallie, age 45, who lived on the Lax farm. They almost certainly had been slaves previously but were listed in 1865 as servants. By the end of the war, both women had consumption, known more commonly today as Tuberculosis, a common disease in Virginia and other areas at the time. For people weakened by lack of proper food, clothes, and shelter, the chances of surviving this disease were slim. Sallie died in May, the same month as did William A. Linda survived until August, often a humid month in Southside Virginia, which is an unfavorable environment for consumptives. Although the war in Virginia had been over for months, Linda was still at her home, being provided for not by Federal officials but by her former owners, who were now her employers. If Sallie and Linda had had families, they might have left, but having none, they remained.

    The 1870 Federal Census gives one more snapshot of the Lax family during Reconstruction. In the decade since the previous census, Joel Lax’s personal property value had been cut in half to $2000. All of his living children, except his son John, remained at home. By the time of his death in 1887, Joel’s personal property value had reached just below $4,000, still under its 1860 value.

    In one respect, Joel Lax was fortunate: he was a tobacco farmer. Although the war impoverished many, he worked a crop that would continue to sell; consequently, barring natural disasters, such as the flood that hit his county, Lax would be able to have an annual income. Further south, from Georgia to Texas, the cash crop was cotton. The cotton economy had suffered during the war, as Southern cotton planters could not sell their cotton either to the North or overseas. With a lack of cotton coming from the South, overseas buyers, such as those in England, were forced to look elsewhere for a supply. By the time the war was over, the damage was done, and cotton prices fell. Many farmers in the Cotton Belt turned to cotton production to try to earn money only to fail because they could not sell their crop at prices high enough to cover their debts.

    Being “land poor” was not a new condition for farmers and planters across the South. They produced much of what they needed on their own land and often did not have much available actual cash money. Seeds for crops and supplies could be purchased on credit with the debt being paid when the crop came in. The war strained this system of debt and harvest. Farm production had been reduced during and immediately after the war. Supplies, even when the farmers had cash, were short. Even General Lee, who still owned two farms after the war, had to cover his uniform buttons with cloth since he could not afford a new coat or buttons but had to conform to the law forbidding anyone wearing Confederate insignia in public.

    Forty Acres and a Mule!

    Post-war farmers potentially included former black slaves. In many parts of the South, former black slaves who had the skills and desire to farm often, however, did not have the opportunity to purchase land of their own. As whites tried to hold on to their land, blacks struggled to acquire land of their own. Because few opportunities for them to buy land existed, blacks were forced to find land to rent in order to farm for themselves. To earn money as farm hands, they had to find white farm owners who would hire them. Many blacks, as well as poor whites who lost their property and were economically devastated, became sharecroppers, paying the owner of the land with a portion of the crops they raised.

    One means of obtaining land in the United States had long been through land grants from Jamestown colonists who were given grants of land if they paid the passage for themselves or other colonists, to Revolutionary War soldiers who were given land grants in return for military service. Land grants historically have played a part in the settlement of this country. In 1865, General Sherman devised a land grant program as a means to provide former slaves with land of their own. With Special Field Order No. 15, Sherman established white-free, black-only zones on the islands from Charleston, South Carolina down the coast to St. Johns River in Florida. The freedmen would be able to establish their own homesteads and communities and have self-governance. The homesteads were restricted in size to forty acres, and the freedmen could use old government mules if they were available to help work the land. In one sense, the program was a success: approximately 40,000 freedmen flocked to the islands and built their homes. However, the land Sherman gave away had been plantations before the war confiscated from their previous owners.

    President Johnson did not support the forced confiscation of property, so in 1866 he ordered the land be returned to its previous owners. For the Radical Republicans in Congress, Sherman, not Johnson, had the right idea. They believed it was necessary, or at least desirable, to destroy the old plantation system and Southern aristocrat class. Breaking up the plantations and redistributing the land was an ideal means of achieving this goal. Some Radical Republicans even wanted to expand the program, seeing it as a way to crush the planter class they blamed for the war, generate revenue to pay off the war debts, and attach the freedmen to the Southern landscape, where they would be motivated by property ownership to remain

    Johnson prevailed, and, by 1867, the Sea Islands experiment in freedmen land grants was essentially over. The freedmen were forced to give up their land and encouraged instead to go to work for the “real” landowners. In many cases, these were the very plantation owners who had owned the freedmen as slaves. Even so, some freed people did manage to retain their holdings, but, within a couple of generations, being divided among heirs or sold off piecemeal reduced these holdings until they were also reduced to sizes too small to support families, thus resulting in communities held in a state of near-perpetual poverty.

    Interracial Relationships

    The uncertain and problematized place of freed people in the United States after the war reflected a long history of uncertain relations between different races. Indeed, since the earliest European explorers arrived in the Americas, interracial relationships have existed between whites and Indians, whites and blacks, and blacks and Indians. These relationships were not always accepted and were often frowned upon, yet were found in many communities. Anti-miscegenation laws in the colonies date back to the seventeenth century, although these laws could often be ignored if the couple in question did not marry. What changed with Reconstruction was a heightened awareness by some Southerners of, and objection to, these relationships, particularly those between whites and blacks. White men with black women were more likely to be left alone than were black men with white women. Returning to the example of the Lax family, two of Joel Lax’s brothers raised families with black women in Virginia during Reconstruction, leaving their portion of the family farm to them in their wills. Not all white male-black female relationships were so accepted; discretion was one key to avoiding trouble, while another was luck.

    Black men having relationships with white women was a great risk at that time. In 1871, John Walthall, a black man in Haralson County, Georgia, was accused of sleeping with white women after he had stayed in a house of four white sisters who were probably prostitutes. Although warned to leave the area, Walthall remained, married a black woman, and settled down. A group of men from the Ku Klux Klan, known as the “KKK,” targeted him. The Ku Klux Klan was founded early in Reconstruction. Many of the leaders and rank and file members were Confederate veterans. It comprised one of several secret organizations formed in the face of rapid social change and fallout from the war. The Klan willingly used violent tactics to achieve their ends which were to preserve white supremacy in the South, keep blacks “in their place,” and keep Northerners out. Late one night, the KKK entered Walthall’s home and beat his wife with a pistol. Walthall himself tried to hide under the floorboards of his home, but was found, shot, and pulled up from the floor and dragged out. The KKK accused Walthall of sleeping with white women and of stealing, then they whipped both him and his wife. Walthall later died of his injuries.

    That same night, the KKK also beat, threatened, and whipped nearby residents, including Jasper and Maria Carter, a couple who lived in a house the KKK first entered before reaching Walthall’s. Jasper was taken away and whipped severely then allowed to return to his frightened wife who had been threatened with a pistol. Walthall’s neighbors had known the KKK was looking for him and had tried to protect him by telling him to leave the area. By assaulting them with such public violence that their treatment would reach other black communities in the area, to the KKK intended to intimidate black communities with a demonstration of the risks of protecting their own.

    Social Violence

    The goals of the KKK and like-minded individuals were to keep blacks, and to a lesser degree “low” whites, “in their place” and thereby protect the pre-war social order. In the days of Reconstruction, many white Southerners therefore viewed the Klan in a positive light, as a source of order and means of protection against what they deemed as dangerous “trouble-makers” and criminals of all colors.

    In many areas of the South, white southerners thought that the Federal authorities put in charge of the Reconstruction, and who were supposed to provide law and order, were unresponsive to the needs of many white citizens, thus resulting in what they saw as lawlessness. In other areas, southerners perceived Federal authorities as being biased in favor of blacks and such “disreputable” whites as carpet baggers, that is, northerners who came to the South to make a fortune during Reconstruction, and scalawags, that is, white southerners who cooperated and allied themselves with carpet baggers, blacks, and those in charge of Reconstruction, in order to profit from the troubles of other white Southerners. Of course, not all northerners who came South were carpetbaggers, nor were all white southerners who tried to improve conditions for blacks scalawags; indeed, many of these people had the very best of humanitarian intentions. They supported the Republican ideals of creating a postwar South that would not be under the control of the old Confederates. The question of equality for blacks was not as fervently embraced but definitely supported by large numbers of the Republicans. Many southern and northern whites in the South and blacks risked their lives for these causes. To the southerners who wanted to restore the antebellum social order, these people were disruptive and dangerous.

    Regulators were volunteers who took it upon themselves to restore law and order, and the Klan was originally seen by some as a group of Regulators. In some areas, where the Klan did little, that reputation continued. In other regions, the Klan acted with such violence that they earned the terrorizing reputation that continues to this day. Some of these acts of violence included lynchings, which were not uncommon. The Klan, Regulators, or groups of unconnected citizens, might lynch someone, often a black male accused of “crimes” against a white female; the practice continued into the twentieth century. Whites as well as blacks might be lynched, but white men accused of similar “crimes” against black women were unlikely to be lynched or even arrested.

    During Reconstruction, Federal officials tried to make a fuller place in Southern society for blacks. These officials therefore encouraged blacks to take public jobs and government positions, and to vote. White supremacists found these actions unacceptable. Even while encouraging blacks to advance themselves and pursue political power, Federal authorities often did little to protect blacks from the Klan or other angry whites. The laws known as Black Codes that were established in the South, in some cases, sought to prevent blacks from exercising their free individual rights to property, to education, and to vote. These codes varied from state to state. In Georgia, the codes did not seem too harsh; some actually protected blacks. However, they did define “persons of color,” and declared interracial marriage as a crime, two points that were common among the codes. Southern whites who feared blacks being given political power sought to limit their political ability by supporting the passage of these laws. Blacks who were outspoken not only offended the white supremacists but also stood out, making themselves targets for vigilante violence. Jack Dupree of Mississippi was one such man. He became involved in his local Republican Party, stood for black rights, and so was murdered by Klansmen who cut his throat and disemboweled him. His wife, who was forced to witness this murder, was intentionally left alive to proclaim the horrific price Dupree paid for his political activities.

    Blacks were not the only victims of violence during the Reconstruction period. White on white violence was also common in some areas, violence that even spawned family feuds such as the famous one between the Hatfields and McCoys. These two families lived in Virginia at the start of the war, only to have their home made part of the new Northern state of West Virginia while they were absent fighting in the war. Their political and socio-economic differences soon led to a long-term violent feud. Typically in the case of feuds, leading members of the families would be on opposite sides politically or socially, or had fought on opposite sides during the war. From there, anything from a verbal dispute to a conflict over property could set off a feud that would begin a cycle of violence and retaliation that could span years.

    In other cases, the crimes could be more personal. Two such involved were Dr. George Darden of Warren County, Georgia, and Senator Joseph Adkins of Georgia. In 1869, Darden murdered the local newspaper editor Charles Wallace. He then turned himself over to the authorities in fear for his life, rightly believing that friends of his victim would seek vengeance. His jailer allowed Darden to keep weapons for his defense in case anyone attempted to remove him from the jail. As he had expected, a crowd of men came for Darden and forced him from his cell. They allowed him to write a note to his wife before taking him away and shooting him. They were actuated by a vigilante desire for justice, fearing Darden would not be convicted of murder and punished. His being shot rather than lynched may have been due to Darden’s high standing in his community, since lynching was an ugly death reserved for “outcasts” of white Southern society.

    Soon after Darden’s murder, Senator Joseph Adkins was also murdered. The white Adkins supported the Radical Republicans and associated with blacks, particularly with black women. He was thought to incite blacks against whites. Considered by white planters and those of their class as a “scalawag,” Darden’s being a state senator made him someone who had “risen above his station” and therefore unacceptable. His and Darden’s murders were reported in the North where there was an assumption that the motive for murder was political. Newspapers of the day make it clear that, while politics played its part, the behavior of the murder victims, consorting with blacks, possibly inciting them, behaving like a so-called low person, all motivated their murderers.

    Black Politics

    Besides such white politicians as Adkins, black politicians particularly faced danger and violence; the Klan and others murdered at least thirty-five black politicians. Nevertheless, many blacks engaged in political activity. Approximately 2,000 held political office at the national, state, or local level during Reconstruction. The majority of black politicians were in South Carolina and Louisiana. While blacks from all backgrounds, that is, slave and free, prosperous and impoverished, participated in the political process, those who rose to the highest offices often had the benefit of education. One such was Hiram Revels, who became the first black U.S. Senator when elected from Mississippi. Another was Blanche K. Bruce, a senator from Mississippi. Revels was born free; Bruce was born a slave. Both had been received educations atypical for average black Americans of that time, but which were not uncommon among blacks elected to office. In all, sixteen blacks served in the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction and approximately 600 served in the state legislatures.

    Legacy of Reconstruction

    While Reconstruction policies and officials may have had unforeseen effects, such as causing rather than preventing violence or pain, they did point to a direction for the South. Blacks continued to face discrimination from not only Southern whites, but also those officials intended to help them. At the same time, other Southern planters and farmers with a more progressive view reached out to help. For every blanket assumption about any group in the South, there were always exceptions where individuals stepped outside the predicted boundaries of behavior for their social class and status and did something different, either good or ill.

    Reconstruction was intended to bring the former Confederate states back into the Union as equal members once again. But the uneven efforts at Reconstruction contributed to a perpetual poverty in many Southern states, handicapping them for generations to come. Before the war, the South had been a largely agrarian society; after the war it remained so, with the difference that now most farmers did not own their own land. In the decades following the war, sharecropping would grow and fewer farmers, white as well as black, could afford to own land.

    Progress for blacks was slow but still visible. Schools, both public and private, were established across the South. Some faced opposition, even being destroyed, but in the end they achieved a measure of acknowledged success. Augusta Institute, today known as Morehouse Academy, was founded in 1867. Maggie Walker, the first African American and the first woman to be a bank president in the history of the United States, began her journey to success in Reconstruction era schools in Richmond, Virginia.


    In 1865, the South was in a state of utter devastation due to the long years of war. Everyone from the most prominent citizens to the least experienced deprivation. In the middle of this universal suffering, the Federal Government implemented Reconstruction, which included an attempt at radical social change. The people of the South, no matter their social, racial, or economic status, had to adapt to defeat in war, economic hardship, and societal changes. Some reacted with violence; others attempted to help change society for the better. Still, poverty and racism continued to plague the South long after the end of Reconstruction.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    To whites in the South, all whites were the same.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Jefferson Davis was convicted of treason.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Sharecroppers were tenant farmers who paid their rent with shares of their crops.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Cotton formed a strong economic basis for the South during Reconstruction.

    1. True
    2. False


    This page titled 17.3: The Reconstruction Experience is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.