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UWBTS — Chapter 35:


Chapter 35 — How Political Reconstruction Affected the Lives of the White Southern People. 

By Gail Jarvis of Georgia, S. I. S. H.



Here we present another follow-up to Chapter 33, “Political Reconstruction in the Defeated Southern States.”  Because Republican Political Reconstruction was a complex process and because the history differed in each of the 11 conquered Confederate States, we authors of Understanding the War Between the States – in presenting the impact on the personal lives of the white people – have chosen to do so primarily in one state, South Carolina – the first to secede and the last to regain home rule.  Also glimpses of the overall picture are provided.  Gail Jarvis presents the history.

Relevant History

War obviously engenders hostile feelings, and the winning side often feels that there should be some kind of retribution against the losing side. But warring factions are restrained by international protocols that prescribe the rights and treatment of both combatants and non-combatants. Although such protocols, as well as unwritten humanitarian principles, were in existence when the War Between the States ended, they were not observed.

“Unconditional surrender” was the demand Union forces made of the defeated Confederacy, and almost a century later, as World War II ended, Allied powers would make the same demand of Japan.  Note the contrast between the two eras.  The Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General MacArthur, realized that the traditional Japanese culture should not be radically altered, nor should Emperor Hirohito be deposed, even though he had sanctioned Japan’s war effort and the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Japanese military leaders suspected of serious war crimes were independently tried by an international military tribunal, presided over by judges from various nations.  But those not accused of serious war crimes were allowed to resume their civilian roles.  The occupying Allied forces left most of Japan’s social structure intact, and worked in conjunction with the Emperor, albeit restricting his authority.  The Allies assisted the Japanese in recovery from wartime desolation, and provided supplies and materials for the rebuilding of their infrastructure, as well as providing food for the starving citizens.  Because they approached their reconstruction efforts without ulterior motives or vindictiveness, the Allied powers were able to withdraw in a few years, leaving behind an island nation well on its way to normalcy.

A radically different occupation and reconstruction occurred in the defeated Southern states.  The Confederacy never officially surrendered; instead, individual Confederate armies surrendered in stages, with some simply disbanding.  These piecemeal surrenders began in early 1865 and continued throughout the year.  Finally, in August 1866, President Johnson issued a formal declaration that the war was over (Proclamation 157).  Following the reunification plan proposed by President Lincoln, Johnson sought an expeditious reunification of North and South, basically requiring that Southern states repeal secession ordinances, abolish slavery, and take an oath to support the U.S. Constitution.

President Johnson dispatched Union General Ulysses Grant to the conquered states in order to assess the prevailing mood of Southerners.  Although Grant’s report to the president stressed the demoralization of their white citizens, it said: “I am satisfied that the mass of the thinking men of the South accept the present situation of affairs in good faith.”  In conclusion, the report said: “My observation leads me to the conclusion that the citizens of the Southern states are anxious to return to self-government within the Union as soon as possible.”

In March 1865, Federals established a Freedmen’s Bureau, supposedly to help former slaves.  Although created with good intentions, the Freedmen’s Bureau soon became corrupted.  The Bureau was authorized for one year, but, over President Johnson’s veto, Republicans extended its existence because it served their political purposes.

In December of 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to outlaw slavery.  This amendment, coupled with the fact that both Northerners and Southerners eagerly sought reunification, should have signaled the softening of sectional enmity, and the return to peacetime relations.  But Republicans gained a lopsided advantage over Democrats in the congressional elections of 1866, a newly-acquired dominance that emboldened them to seek a permanent power base.  Denying that the war was fought to preserve the Union, congressional Republicans decreed that Southern states were not states, but “conquered provinces.”  Consequently, they replaced the lenient readmission policies of Lincoln and Johnson with draconian Political Reconstruction measures, including the imposition of military rule.

Congressional Republicans were able to inveigle another constitutional amendment codifying the slavery issue.  This amendment, the 14th, is often considered our most controversial constitutional amendment.  It granted basic civil rights and protections to all citizens, excluding Indians.  But while the amendment granted freed slaves the right to vote and hold office, it took those rights away from former white Confederates.  Also, the amendment validated the North’s war debt, while the South’s war debt was repudiated.  As former white Confederates were a substantial segment of the South’s population, they were reluctant to endorse an amendment that essentially denied them any voice in their government.  In a typical maneuver, Congressional Republicans made the endorsement of the 14th Amendment a requirement for readmission to the Union.

Many legal scholars maintain that the 14th Amendment was not legally ratified, but adopted in a way that violated the Constitution, and that several other aspects of Political Reconstruction were likewise unconstitutional.  At the 1868 Democratic convention in New York, the platform declared that the Reconstruction Acts authorizing military control of the South were unconstitutional.  The Republican platform stated the opposite opinion and argued that Congress should decide who had voting rights in conquered states, whereas Northern states should decide for themselves.

In its 1866 ex parte Milligan decision, the Supreme Court held that suspending habeus corpus rights and placing civilians under military control was unconstitutional, as long as civilian governments and courts existed.  With that precedent, William McCardle, a Mississippi newspaper editor, appealed his arrest by occupying military forces (McCardle’s offense was publishing articles critical of Political Reconstruction).  Although the infrastructure and other parts of Southern states had suffered extensive war damage, the states still had functioning civilian governments and courts.  Nonetheless, the Republican-controlled Congress used oblique and questionable legal justifications to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling on this case, so McCardle remained under military arrest.

Many Republicans personally profited from the scandals that plagued the Grant administration, and, with the ratification of the 14th Amendment, many felt all hindrances to their power grab were removed.  But in the 1874 congressional elections many were voted out of office, somewhat restoring balance and much needed integrity.  Although the reign of these dissembling Republicans lasted only eight years, the damage they inflicted on Southern states took almost seven decades to repair.

Many former members of the Union army remained in the South after the war, and became part of the Republican leadership during Political Reconstruction.  But Republicans with good intentions, to the extent they existed, were eventually subverted by the more corrupt officials.  Other Northerners began relocating to the South, and were referred to as “Carpetbaggers.”  Many of these perhaps arrived with good intentions, but soon succumbed to the temptations of personal enrichment so easily obtainable in the loosely structured region.  Unfortunately, many locals, called “Scalawags”, were eventually drawn into the relatively effortless plundering.

As Southern states qualified for readmission to the Union, military rule was withdrawn.  But the Radical Republicans who controlled the governments were determined to maintain their control.  They left nothing to chance, especially elections.  The ballots of Southern whites that did manage to vote were screened by the “Returning Board,” made up of a few highly placed Republican officials who reviewed ballots to determine if they had been “properly” cast, and therefore allowable.  Of course, when the Returning Board completed its review, the election results nearly always favored the Republicans.

The Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, recruited massive numbers of freed slaves to join the Loyal League, and become loyal supporters of the Union, i.e. the Republican Party.  After joining the Loyal League, blacks were immediately registered to vote, and the Bureau used fear tactics to secure their votes for Republicans.  Loyal League members were also an essential part of the statewide militia.  The justification for the militia was the claim that black voters needed to be protected from “intimidation” from whites during elections.  Actually, the militia was heavily involved in disrupting Democratic Party meetings, and intimidating Democratic voters, prompting one historian to claim “. . . election outcomes depended as much upon the balance of armed force as upon the distribution of political popularity.”

Toward the end of 1872, South Carolina was visited by the Abolitionist/Republican James S. Pike; a distinguished writer and statesman from Maine.  In his book The Prostrate State, Pike addresses the previous seven years of Reconstruction in South Carolina.  The following comments from his book will help put the degeneracy of the Reconstruction Era in perspective. “The experience of South Carolina during and since the war is one of the most tragic episodes in history. . . The rule in South Carolina should not be dignified with the name of government. . . They rob the poor and the rich alike, by law.  They confiscate your estate by law.”

Members of South Carolina’s legislature were bribed into authorizing the issuance of questionable bonds to finance railroad lines in the state.  Dishonest officials enriched themselves by deviously obtaining immense stock holdings in the railroad company.  An investigating committee uncovered one case of fraudulently issued bonds exceeding six million dollars. ($100 at that time would equal roughly $2,000 today.)

A land commission that claimed to be purchasing homes for indigent African Americans, illegally inflated prices of land and structures, with the excess payments going to the commissioners themselves.  Much of the land was unsuitable for either home-building or agriculture, and few if any homes were provided to indigent African Americans.  The state lost roughly $600,000 on this swindle.  In the 1871-72 legislative session, $300,000 was appropriated for free schools primarily for African Americans.  Sadly, these state funds were largely squandered or pilfered by dissolute officials, with little or no benefit for school children.

The personal bills of members of the legislature were falsely classified as “state supplies,” and paid for by the state – luxury items such as clothing, gold watches, fine horses, diamond pins, imported wines, liquor, and cigars.  In one legislative session alone, the bill for these “supplies” was $350,000.  Crafty officials also created a sham printing company, and obtained the contract for the state’s printing requirements.  Most printing was done by other organizations with the dummy company simply issuing grossly-inflated billings to the state.  The phony company also submitted billings for printing never done – investigators found a single printing invoice for $98,000.

The magnitude of the corruption in South Carolina during Political Reconstruction can never be determined with any degree of accuracy, but what is known indicates an enormity of theft and plundering almost beyond belief.  The cost of projects to repair the infrastructure was inflated to include bribes and kickbacks and, often, any repairs that were done were substandard.  Property taxes continued to rise until many landowners, unable to pay, suffered seizure of their property.  The Political Reconstruction years brought South Carolina’s government and its citizens close to bankruptcy.


Not only did Political Reconstruction fail to physically “reconstruct” the devastated Southern states, it also put white families in dire financial straits, blacks, too.  The War, Political Reconstruction, and government policies in the following decades essentially reduced the Southern states to colonial bondage; a condition that lasted well into the 1940s.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

Compare the Political and Economic Reconstruction of Germany, Italy and Japan following WW II to the mere Political Reconstruction of the conquered Confederate States.

Recommended Readings

  • The Story of Reconstruction, by Robert S. Henry, pub. 1938.
  • The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877, by E. Merton Coulter, pub. 1947.