What Was Reconstruction?
In the early hours of May 13, 1862, a military steamboat made its way past the guards at Fort Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The United States was in the middle of the Civil War. The Northern states were fighting against the South over slavery. The North wanted slavery to end, but the South was determined to keep it. Eleven Southern states had broken away and formed a new country—the Confederate States of America. South Carolina was a Confederate state.
The soldiers at Fort Sumter thought the steamboat passing by was on their side of the war. But they were wrong. The man at the wheel was not
a Confederate officer on routine business. His name was Robert Smalls. He was an enslaved African American who had been forced to work on the ship. Every day he worried his family would be sold away from him. But now he was making an escape!
The white captain had left the steamboat to spend the night with his family. As on other nights, Smalls and some other enslaved crewmen invited their own families to visit them onboard. But tonight, instead of leaving, the women and children hid. And now, in the early hours, they were all steaming north to freedom!
“Although born a slave,” Smalls later said, “I always felt that I was a man and ought to be free, and I would be free or die.”
A few hours later, Smalls’s steamboat reached the Union ships guarding the coast. There, he offered his ship, and later his service, to continue the fight against slavery.
Smalls could not have imagined how much his life was going to change. He went on to meet President Abraham Lincoln, the man who helped bring an end to slavery. He served in the Union army. When the war ended, Smalls and his family returned to South Carolina. In 1874, he was elected to Congress. He was among the first African Americans to serve in federal government.
But the most unexpected change may have come after Smalls learned that the stately house of his former enslaver was for sale. Smalls bought it! He lived the rest of his life in the house where he had once been considered property. This huge reversal of fortune was thanks to the tumultuous period of change in post–Civil War America known as Reconstruction.
Reconstruction is the name for the post-war recovery that took place from 1865 to 1877. Black people became citizens and got the right to vote. Over these twelve years, the nation would attempt to rebuild itself in a new image. Many Americans hoped to see a stronger, fairer country emerge. But what began as a time of hope also proved to be a time of terror and sorrow, especially for the nation’s newest citizens, African Americans. Chapter 1: The End of Slavery
For more than two hundred years, wealthy white farmers in the South depended on enslaved Africans to work in their fields and wait on them as servants. They considered enslaved people to be property, not human beings.
In 1861, a new president, Abraham Lincoln, took office. He was from Illinois. Like other Northern states, Illinois had abolished, or ended, slavery. The South feared that President Lincoln was going to outlaw slavery everywhere, something the South would not stand for. So eleven states seceded, or withdrew, from the Union. They banded together to create a separate country called the Confederate States of America. It was also known as the Confederacy.
Did the Southern states have the right to do this? President Lincoln and his allies said they did not. And so the Northern army went to war to defeat the Confederacy and bring all the Southern states back into the Union.
President Lincoln soon realized freeing enslaved people was the key to ending the war. The South did not have enough manpower to continue the fight without them. And enslaved people were willing to fight for their freedom. Robert Smalls’s story was proof of that! So on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. (A proclamation is a written statement of something important. Emancipation means being set free.) The Emancipation Proclamation freed all of the enslaved people in the Confederacy. After that, nearly two hundred thousand Black men joined the Union forces.
In April of 1865, the war ended with a Northern victory. The Confederate states had to return to the Union. Most important of all, slavery in the United States was over.
Many Southern cities, as well as farms, bridges, and railroad lines, had been destroyed during the fighting. And four million newly freed people needed a chance at a better life. The hard work of reuniting the country and rebuilding the South was about to begin. Chapter 2: Lincoln’s Plan
A year and a half before the Civil War ended, President Lincoln was already planning how to rebuild the nation. He wanted to repair, not punish, the rebel states. His plan said Confederate states could rejoin the United States if at least ten percent of voters in that state swore loyalty to the Union. Only then could they vote in elections and send members to the US Congress. Having representation in Congress would once again make them full participants in the running of the nation.
In exchange, the Union would return all the property taken from Southerners during the war except, of course, for formerly enslaved people. Lincoln’s plan became known as the Ten Percent Plan.
Was the president’s plan too forgiving? Many thought so. After all, the rebel states had left the Union and started a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people on both sides.
In Congress, some members of the Republican Party put together a much stricter plan for Reconstruction. They were known as Radical Republicans. Radical
meant that they wanted big changes in the way the country was run. The group in Congress was led by Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner and Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens.
The Radical plan required a majority of voters in each former rebel state to swear loyalty to the Union. The plan also said that freedpeople must be treated equally under the law. (Freedpeople is another name for formerly enslaved people.)
Lincoln would not accept the Radical plan. He thought its terms would slow down the reunion of the country. Regardless of either plan, life for people in the South—both white and Black—was going to change.
The Southern economy was based on growing crops like tobacco, sugar, and cotton. In fact, selling cotton made so much money that it was called “King Cotton.”
Before the Civil War, two groups ran this economy: a few rich white plantation owners and a great number of poor white farmers. Plantations were large farms that depended on enslaved labor. Enslaved people were worked to the breaking point under extremely cruel conditions and without pay.
The Emancipation Proclamation and a new law called the Thirteenth Amendment changed everything. Both said Black people in the Confederacy could no longer be enslaved. They were free.
But what did freedom mean? How would the lives of Black people change? These were tough questions that Reconstruction would attempt to answer.
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