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Society in Reconstruction

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of Society


Blacks had labored for generations without pay in the 250 years of bondage that existed on North American soil. Yet the only reparations debate which occurred in Congress during and after the Civil War was not over whether the freedmen and women should be granted restitution; it was over whether slaveowners ought to receive compensation for their emancipated "property." Lincoln once thought that it would be more cost effective to buy the slaves from their owners than wage a war; his plan would have paid owners $400 per slave, which represented some $1.6 billion, or less than half the total estimated value of slave capital.

As 1864 drew to a close, Union forces under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman completed their "March to the Sea" and captured Savannah, Georgia. This coastal region—together with nearby South Carolina—had formed some of the most fertile plantation land for the wealthiest slaveowners of the South. The wealthiest planters owned the largest numbers of slaves; fifty or more per plantation. Thus Sherman encountered a large black population in this region along the Atlantic sea coast, and their leaders—church pastors and educated blacks who had been born free, among others—met with the General to appeal for land redistribution as a substantive means of realizing their newfound freedom. Four days after the meeting, Sherman issued his Special Field Order 15, which allocated forty-acre plots of the region's confiscated land to black families. He also provided them with old mules that had exhausted their usefulness to the Army. The oral culture of the black community and the rapid transfer of information via the rumor mill soon echoed the phrase "40 acres and a mule" across the South, and for generations to come. By that summer, some 40,000 freed men and women had settled on the land, and thousands more found reason to hope that in their emancipation they could attain economic independence through land ownership.

Yet as the freed men and women worked the land they thought was theirs by order of the Union General, President Andrew Johnson was granting prominent white southerners pardons by the thousands. He ordered all confiscated land, including that covered under Field Order 15, returned to planters. Oliver O. Howard, the head of the Freedmen's Bureau, was designated the difficult charge of announcing this decision to the black inhabitants of the so-called "Sherman land." The freedmen were told to relinquish the property they had been tending as their own. They had to return to their former places of work, relinquish the dream of economic independence and land ownership (since emancipated slaves had no capital with which to purchase the land), and accept subordination to white rule. Some, such as the freedmen of Edisto Island, South Carolina, attempted to resist by petitioning the president, writing that "We look to you...for protection and equal rights with the privilege of purchasing a homestead." But such appeals were of no avail. With no vocational training and little if any education, let alone financial resources, the only alternatives that remained for the vast majority of freed people were to work as sharecroppers, unskilled laborers, or—especially for the women—as domestics, launderers, and cooks. Very few could save enough money to rise from these impoverished ranks, as the jobs barely paid enough to get buy, let alone thrive. As a result, generations of black families would be consigned to poverty and debt peonage.

Private property was an inviolable concept throughout American history, and Reconstruction was no exception. Yet contradictions abounded within this supposedly straightforward issue. Despite the fact that the freedmen and women themselves had just been deemed "property" prior to emancipation, land was considered another matter altogether, even by most of the so-called "Radical" Republicans in Congress (Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens was a notable exception; he wanted to confiscate the land of disloyal planters and redistribute it to former slaves).

This was also despite the fact that Congress saw no contradiction in delving out 160-acre homesteads to western settlers under the Homestead Act of 1862. The difference? Those western lands were deemed "public," or government-owned, even though they had been wrested from their original inhabitants, the American Indians. Private property only applied, it appears, to western conceptions of land use and settlement. Additionally, although it was deemed acceptable to turn public resources over to railroad corporations and businesses, the nationalization of militarily seized land for the use of freed slaves was not considered along the same lines. Federal troops could not and should not, so the argument went, be deployed indefinitely in the South, yet politicians and the public applauded their dispatch westward to battle Indians and clear western lands for settlement.

The Black Codes

These laws, passed by southern state legislatures during the Presidential Reconstruction period, granted blacks some rights; these varied from state to state but they often included the right to legalized marriage, limited access to the courts, and property ownership. Yet they imposed restrictions on black citizens, particularly as an attempt to control their labor. Freedmen were prohibited from work except as field hands; interracial marriage was forbidden; unemployed black men could be deemed "vagrants," seized, and auctioned off as laborers to pay the steep fines. Children could be placed under forced apprenticeships and masters could discipline them with corporal punishment. In some places, blacks could not carry firearms without a license, and they were prohibited from owning farm lands in Mississippi. In South Carolina, they had to pay an annual tax of between $10 and $100 if they held any occupation other than farmer or servant; this was a serious setback for the substantial community of blacks in Charleston who had been free before the war, and for blacks who had been trained as artisans under slavery. Black children could be taken from their families and forced to work in the fields. The ultimate effect of these measures has been described as "slavery without the chain."

The intentions of the white lawmakers who enacted them during Presidential Reconstruction were so blatantly obvious that they outraged northerners, who turned against Johnson and his lenient plan. Instead they voted for the Republicans in overwhelming numbers during the congressional elections of 1866, thus ushering in a two-thirds majority and the commencement of the Congressional, or "Radical" Reconstruction period. In their determination to discipline the white South and force them to recognize that the Union had won the Civil War, these northerners inadvertently brought about major changes in the role, philosophy, and responsibilities of federal government; in other words, they had just begun a process that would transform the entire country. This was demonstrated in part by the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1866, which would not have been possible without the two-thirds majority to override Johnson's veto. That Bill mandated equality of all citizens before the law, thereby outlawing the Black Codes or any future legislation that resembled them, as it discriminated against a specific race of citizens.


It should be noted that the southern states were not the only part of the country to devise an elaborate system of laws that sought to control the mobility, behavior, and liberty of black people, though the laws differed depending on the context. In 1804, Ohio passed its own "Black Laws" that required all blacks and mulattoes residing in the state to register and carry with them a court certificate attesting to their freedom and forbidding anyone from harboring runaway slaves. The state passed more stringent laws three years later, and blacks entering Ohio had to post a $500 bond guaranteeing good behavior; for any American at the time, that sum was equivalent to a king's ransom. Nearly every northern state considered passing legislation to prevent or restrict the immigration of blacks, and a few—Illinois, Indiana, and Oregon—included such provisions in their state constitutions. They all did so within twenty years of the outbreak of Civil War.

Carpetbaggers and Scalawags

These two archetypal figures, "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags", assumed a vastly exaggerated and caricatured role in Reconstruction lore as it was shaped by southern whites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The "carpetbagger" was a northerner who came down to the South after the war; the term referred to the notion that he had packed up his possessions in a suitcase and headed to Dixie to capitalize on the human suffering and misery that the war had produced. This phenomenon was perhaps most famously and notoriously portrayed in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, the famous novel that was then turned into an Academy Award-winning film in 1939 (although the carpetbagger depicted in the film was in the South before the war, thus making him something of a carpetbagger/scalawag combination).

In reality, most so-called carpetbaggers were investors in railroads or Union soldiers who remained in the region after the war was over. Some were attempting to reap financial gains, but they were doing so in a region that badly needed the infrastructure, especially since its principal labor system had just been radically transformed. Freedmen's Bureau agents operated in extremely difficult and hostile conditions to assist the freed slaves and bring stability to the region. Not all carpetbaggers were men, either; hundreds of very brave and idealistic northern women went South to teach in the new public schools.

"Scalawags" were white southern Republicans, and they composed the majority of white Republicans in the South. They quickly emerged as the most despised group amidst the traditionally Democratic white majority, who branded them traitors to their region and to the white race for their willingness to participate in the Reconstruction governments. A few of the scalawags were prominent landowners, such as Charles Hays, one of the largest planters in Alabama (who had supported secession and fought in the Confederate Army, but joined the Republicans in 1867), and James L. Alcorn of Mississippi, who became the state's first Republican governor. Some of them, such as Alcorn, saw in the Republican party an opportunity to revolutionize southern society by building factories and workshops; many of them fully expected whites to control the process and did not express any concern for black rights.

Most scalawags were non-slaveholding white farmers from the upland region, as well as urban and small town artisans, who were wartime Unionists and who sought to prevent the rebels from reclaiming power. In the early Reconstruction period, the scalawags composed a substantial minority of the population in Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Throughout the region, they composed an important if small group, because they were in many respects the swing vote between the almost equally divided blacks—who voted overwhelmingly Republican—and the rest of the southern whites, who were Democratic.

Yet the scalawags experienced the same factionalism and corruption that plagued many political parties of the period, thus preventing them from creating an attractive alternative to the racist appeals of southern whites. Their failure, along with the federal government withdrawal and the decline of northern interest or sympathy, brought about not only the end of Reconstruction but the beginning of a solidly Democratic southern government that employed racial politics to maintain its firm grip on the electorate.

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