Reconstruction: 1865–1877

Radical Reconstruction

Wade-Davis Bill

The Wade-Davis Bill, though vetoed by President Lincoln, served as a blueprint for less lenient, more stringent Reconstruction plans.

As the Civil War came to a close and Union victory seemed certain, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress began to look ahead toward the inevitable reunification of the Union. A plan for readmitting the Confederate states and rebuilding the South was necessary. Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction, which included the Ten Percent Plan, was considered to be too lenient by a Congress led by Radical Republicans who sought to punish Southern states and dissuade future rebellion.

The Wade-Davis Bill, proposed by Congressmen Benjamin F. Wade and Henry W. Davis, was a bill to impose strict and punishing Reconstruction policies on the defeated Confederate states. Passed by Congress in 1864, before the end of the Civil War, it was vetoed by President Lincoln. The Wade-Davis Bill required 50 percent of white voters in each Southern state to take the oath before their state could rejoin the Union. The bill also compelled former Confederate states to be governed by congressionally appointed military provisional governors. In addition, each state would be required to draft a new state constitution. This constitution would include provisions for outlawing slavery and secession and for prohibiting former Confederate officials from holding elected office or voting.

Congress passed the Wade-Davis Bill in July 1864, but it was vetoed by President Lincoln and never became law. However, it served as a model for more radical plans for Reconstruction than President Johnson's Ten Percent Plan. This congressional plan was embodied in a series of bills passed called the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. The bills divided the South into five military districts and assigned federal troops to oversee law and order. Furthermore, they compelled the states to ratify the 14th Amendment and to uphold voting rights for all men, regardless of race. Conflict between Congress and the president grew out of these widely differing views of how best to deal with reconstructing the South.

Freedmen's Bureau

The Freedmen's Bureau, established in 1865, provided much-needed aid to former slaves and poor white people in the post–Civil War South.
The Freedmen's Bureau, a government agency, primarily assisted newly freed African Americans to integrate into free American society. The official name of the government agency was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Headed by former Union officer Oliver O. Howard, the bureau was tasked with addressing the immediate needs for survival, such as food, shelter, and medical care. It also dealt with the long term needs of the community, establishing social institutions like schools and hospitals and providing legal assistance.
The Freedmen's Bureau was headquartered in Washington, DC, but had offices throughout 15 Southern and border states.
Credit: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Office of the Freedmen's Bureau, Memphis, Tennessee." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1866.
The Freedmen's Bureau was burdened by a lack of funding and an untrained staff. Nevertheless, the organization was able to provide food as well as medical and legal aid to millions. The bureau also established several educational institutions still in operation today, such as Howard University, which was founded in 1867 and is one of the best-known historically black universities in the United States. Even so, the right to own land eluded African Americans. President Andrew Johnson returned seized lands to pardoned Confederate officials. Congress refused to enact legislation to redistribute the seized land to former slaves. Attempts to fully extend civil rights and racial equality to African Americans also were unsuccessful. The Freedmen's Bureau was closed in 1872 due to a lack of support from Congress.

Carpetbaggers and Scalawags

During Reconstruction, Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags took advantage of economic and political turmoil in the South for personal gain.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, some people from Northern states flocked to the South to take advantage of rebuilding efforts in the war-torn states. Southerners called such a person a carpetbagger. Though not representative of all Northerners who migrated south, these particular Northerners sought to benefit financially from the devastation in the former Confederacy and to influence politics in favor of Radical Republicans. The pejorative term carpetbaggers refers to suitcases carried by many of these Northern transplants, doubtless to be filled with money from their financial exploits in the South. In contrast to the carpetbaggers, who sought to take advantage of white Southerners and former slaves, other Northern transplants were genuinely interested in promoting the civil rights and education of African Americans. Yet white Southerners viewed Northern transplants on the whole as opportunists and resented their political and financial influence.

The Southern counterpart to the carpetbagger was the scalawag. A scalawag was a white Southerner who cooperated with the Radical Republican party and was supportive of federal involvement in Reconstruction. Many of those labeled with the derogatory term had opposed secession and remained sympathetic to the Union cause throughout the Civil War. The majority had not been slaveholders. As a group, scalawags were drawn to the Republican Party as a way to increase their political influence, which had been largely overshadowed by the planter elites. They sought to rebuild the South's economy and prevent the rise of any future rebellion.

African American Political Participation

Following the Civil War, African Americans participated in politics, with many educated outside of the South elected to local, state, and federal public offices.
With Reconstruction, African Americans entered the political process in the South for the first time. The majority of Republican Party voters in the former Confederate states were ex-slaves. Hundreds of African Americans were elected to state legislatures and other local public offices, such as justice of the peace and supervisor of elections. Two African American men were elected to the Senate during Reconstruction: Hiram R. Revels (partial term, 1870–71) and Blanche K. Bruce (one full term, 1875–81). A total of 16 African American men were elected to Congress during Reconstruction.
The first African American representatives to Congress: Senator Hiram Revels and Representatives Benjamin Turner, Robert DeLarge, Josiah Walls, Jefferson Long, Joseph Rainey, and Robert B. Elliot
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-17564
Nevertheless, political leadership was not accessible to most of the newly freed slaves. Many of the African Americans elected to public office had not been slaves and had been educated outside of the South. They were primarily clergy or other professionals, such as lawyers and educators.

In a few short years, black political influence began to wane. By 1872, Confederate elites, pardoned by Northern politicians, were again eligible to vote and hold public office. Growing intimidation by organized groups and laws designed to disenfranchise African American voters were successfully restricting voting rights. In the end, no African Americans were elected to Congress between 1901 and 1929.