Reconstruction – Civil War

Civil War Reconstruction Era (1862 – 1877)


Reconstruction was a devastating era for America. Almost as destructive as the Civil War itself. Imagine what it was like: for four years we were engaged in a bloody war with ourselves followed by the wars end in 1865, leaving America with hundreds of thousands of men dead and maimed, soldiers that survived from both sides assimilating back into society, putting down their guns and returning home.

The southern economy was in shambles, major southern cities were in various degrees of destruction. Millions of slaves were now at some level of freedom, most able to own land, vote and run for political office (and many did). Dealing with all of this however, helped build the character of future American generations, and of course set the table for decades of  civil unrest.  

The description of the most significant events associated with the Reconstruction period are below, involving three Presidents: Abraham Lincoln (1861 – 1865), Andrew Johnson (1865 – 1869) and Ulysses S. Grant (1869 – 1877). 

Events in Order

The Confiscation Acts of 1861 & 1862

The Senate met from July 4 to August 6, 1861. This special session was to consider the Confiscation Act. This act was created to allow the federal government to take property, this included enslaved peoples, that were used to aid the rebellion of the Confederacy.

This act was passed on August 5, 1861 by a margin of 24-11 and was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. This bill was more symbolic than anything else.

Congress then met again toward the end of the year in December. The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Lyman Trumbull, introduced a new bill that would be more comprehensive.

This revised Confiscation Act would allow all Confederate property to be taken, even if it was not used in support of the rebellion of southern states. This bill was stopped in its tracks as radical and conservative Republicans in Congress disagreed over the scope of the bill.

The following year, in 1862, a group of senators headed up by John Sherman, William Sherman’s brother, created a new bill that would allow the government of the union to free enslaved peoples that were residing in Confederate territory that had been captured by the North.

This act also did not allow fugitive slaves to be returned and gave the government the power to take property of Confederates through the courts. In addition, this act allowed the Union to enlist black soldiers. This act was passed, however, the power with which it was imposed was limited and was eventually taken away by President Johnson.

Military Governors

Then, in March of 1862, Abraham Lincoln stationed military governors in Confederate states that had been seized by Union forces. Andrew Johnson was placed in Tennessee as a military governor. He was a southerner who had remained loyal to the Union and was given the rank of brigadier general.

Emancipation Proclamation Draft

Following this, later in 1862, July to be exact, President Lincoln made a major announcement to his cabinet. He read to them his “preliminary proclamation.” He agreed to wait to issue the proclamation until after a major victory for the Union.

This victory came on September 22, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam. Following the battle, Lincoln issued a proclamation freeing all enslaved peoples within states that were in rebellion. 100 days following this initial emancipation, Lincoln issued a final proclamation.

Emancipation Proclamation Final

On January 1, 1863, the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued, forever freeing the enslaved peoples in 10 states. Border states such as Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, were not named and numerous counties in other states were left out. 

1862 Abolition of Slavery in Washington DC

Also in 1862, the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act was passed by Congress. This allowed for up to $300 compensation per enslaved person to be paid to former slave owners. Many slave owners were not happy with this meager compensation and instead took their enslaved peoples to Maryland to sell them for more of a profit.

Ten Percent Plan

The following year, in 1863, President Lincoln declared a Ten-Percent Plan. This allowed southern states to re-enter the Union after 10% of the voters in that state swore allegiance to the Union. Following this, voters could elect delegates who would then draft a new state constitution and create a new government for the state.

All citizens, excluding high-ranking officers of the Confederate army and officials in the government would be pardoned. Lincoln also promised the protection of private property, excluding enslaved peoples.

The Wade Davis Bill

The Wade Davis Bill was passed on July 2, 1864 by Congress. The Radical Republicans thought Lincoln’s Ten-Percent plan too weak and too gracious to the South. The radicals wanted to completely transform and change the South.

This new bill set a requirement of 50% of white males in states in rebellion to swear allegiance to the Union, as well as the Constitution. Then they would be allowed to hold state constitutional conventions. In addition, the bill called for the federal government to give black men voting rights. The bill also called to bar former Confederate soldiers from voting. Lincoln pocket-vetoed the Wade Davis Bill.

Field Order #15

General William T. Sherman issued Field Order No. 15 on January 16, 1865. This order is known as “Forty-Acres and a Mule.” This order took about 400,000 acres of law that had been confiscated in Georgia and South Carolina.

These 400,000 acres were to be divided into 40-acre plots and given to freed African American families. When the Freedmen’s Bureau was established, it allotted legal ownership of this land to black families, as well as white southerners who had remained loyal to the Union.

Freedmen’s Bureau

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands known as the Freedmen’s Bureau was created on March 3, 1865. This agency was tasked with helping newly freed African Americans. The agency was in operation from 1865-1867.

The goal of the Freedmen’s Bureau was to direct “provisions, clothing, and fuel… for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children.”

13th  Amendment

In 1865, the 13th Amendment was signed into law, abolishing slavery and was written as follows: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction

Then, in 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation of amnesty. The goal of this proclamation was to “induce all persons to return to their loyalty” to the Union. This was the first proclamation that offered amnesty to the South. This offer was extended to all who were a part of the rebellion of Southern states.

This proclamation also allowed Southerners to have all their property returned except enslaved peoples. The fourteen “classes” of people, including civil or diplomatic Confederate officers and those who committed piracy, were excluded. They were still allowed to apply for a pardon from President Johnson.

14th Amendment

The 14th amendment to the Constitution was passed on July 9, 1865. This granted citizenship to everyone “born or naturalized in the United States.” This included former enslaved persons. It also gave them “equal protection under the laws.” The 14th amendment also gave the federal government of the United States the power to punish a state that prevented a citizen’s right to vote.

15th Amendment

The 15th amendment was passed on February 3, 1870. This amendment banned states from preventing people from voting “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The amendment did have a loophole however. States could establish qualifications for voters if done so equally across races. This led to the creation of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Compromise of 1877

On April 24, 1877 federal troops were pulled from their posts surrounding the capitals of Louisiana and South Carolina, the last states occupied by the U.S. government

Significant and Related Items of Interest


The term carpetbagger was used by Southerners for Northerners who headed south after the American Civil War to “exploit” the region for political, social, and financial gain. This term was applied to those who supported Republican politics and those who saw business and political opportunities in the ruins of the South.

Jim Crow Laws and the Ku Klux Klan

Jim Crow laws were laws instituted at the state and local levels. These laws enforced segregation based on race in Southern states. Formal and informal segregation also took place in the North.

However, many Northern states began to establish laws that banned discrimination in public accommodations and voting. The main goal of these laws was to disenfranchise African Americans and to take away their increasing political power. These laws were in effect until 1965.

In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Jim Crow laws in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The Supreme Court stated that “separate but equal” was constitutional.

The Ku Klux Klan was also established by white Southerners to scare African-Americans away from the voting polls or into voting for Democratic candidates.


The White House and Reconstruction, Lina Mann
Reconstruction Era, Wikipedia
A Short History of Reconstruction, Eric Foner

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