Far From Over: The Beginning of Reconstruction

Originally published in the Battlefield Dispatch Vol. 3 No. 3 Summer 2015 - read the rest of the issue here.

The fall of the Confederacy had left the South in general bankruptcy. The slaves were freed, which meant a loss to their former owners…land temporarily destroyed. Confederate bonds and money were now worthless paper… everywhere the task of upbuilding had to be begun at the bottom.
— John Spencer Bassett, historian

The morning after President Lincoln was shot, Andrew Johnson was sworn into the office of President of the United States on April 15, 1865, having served as Vice President for six weeks. With political opinions that differed from his predecessor, Johnson was at the helm of a nation still immersed in crisis. While the guns had fallen silent, the conflict was far from over. Some of the President’s statements about Reconstruction expressed a sentiment similar to his Radical Republican colleagues in Congress: “Treason is a crime… Traitors must be punished and impoverished, their great plantations must be seized and divided into farms, and sold to honest industrious men.” But ultimately, Johnson held to Lincoln’s more lenient policy of Reconstruction.

In May and June of 1865, President Johnson issued several proclamations which laid out the initial plans for Reconstruction. The President initially seemed to be in favor of enfranchising former slaves and dis-enfranchising ex-Confederates. These proclamations included provisions for the restoration of property, (excluding former slaves), amnesty to all Southern citizens who swore a loyalty oath, and required large land owners and former high ranking Confederate officials to apply for pardons directly, and required that all states ratify the 13th amendment in order to rejoin the Union. The plan initially laid out by President Johnson was not lenient enough for most Democrats in Congress, but was also not stringent enough for many of the Republicans.

By the fall of 1865, the President’s official stance began to shift. He, along with many Democrats in Congress, saw Reconstruction as an opportunity the restore the “Old Union” with the only change being the acknowledgement that slavery had been abolished. Over 13,000 individual pardons were issued by the President’s office to former Southern leadership as well as wealthy land-owners. The Radicals in Congress wanted more from the former Confederate states. The Radicals sought the ratification of the 13th amendment, rights for former slaves (specifically the right to vote), security for White Southern Unionists, and the temporary disqualification of leading ex-Confederates from holding government offices and voting.

This certainly matched the intent of the more radical Tennessee Governor William Brownlow, a Unionist during the war, who viewed the South as conquered territory. The hatred expressed between the President and the Governor did not allow for consistent implementation of many Reconstruction era policies in Tennessee. The state, which was the first to return to the Union after the war, remained in political turmoil.

John Trowbridge, a Northern journalist who toured the war-torn South in the summer of 1865 and the following winter, observed the South from an outsider’s perspective. Referring to the areas of the Middle Tennessee countryside, he remarked, “the country all around was laid desolate.” Speaking with Governor Brownlow, Trowbridge noted, “He believed a Rebel had no rights except to be hanged, and damned after death.” Governor Brownlow said, “the Rebels are as rebellious as ever. If [General] Thomas and his bayonets were withdrawn, in ten days a Rebel mob would drive this legislature out.”

At the same time John Trowbridge was touring the South, many parcels of land were restored to former Southern owners. This included land which has been previously given to freed slaves during and immediately after the war. While the newly freed men were hesitant to relinquish the land they had been working for months, they often had no choice but to leave. Former Confederates states were also holding elections during this time and many ex-Confederates were elected to local and federal political positions. The new voting rights of black men were ignored and the beginning of the southern “Black Codes” were made into law. Over sixty former Confederates were elected to seats in the U.S. Congress. When they arrived to take their seats in December of 1865, the “Clerk of the House refused to include the Southern representatives in his roll call, and they were denied their seats.” Physical fights became almost commonplace on the Congressional floor during the turbulent months following. These tensions, would ultimately lead to President Johnson’s demise.