Piecing the Union Back Together after the Civil War

One of the topics American historians like to speculate on is what might have happened if Abraham Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated. Would he have been able to come up with a widely accepted plan to reunite the states and give the former slaves their rightful place in society? Would that have led to better race relations sooner in America?

Probably not. Lincoln, like most mid-19th century white Americans, felt it was impossible to just free the slaves and make them socially equal.

“There is an unwillingness on the part of our [white] people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us,” he told a group of African Americans during the war.

Lincoln’s hope was to resettle the freed slaves somewhere else, either in Africa or the Caribbean. But most black Americans had no firsthand experience with Africa or any other country except the United States — the country in which they were born — and they had no desire to leave.

Lincoln did insist, however, that the former slaves be treated as equals when it came to the law. In 1864 and early 1865, he prodded Congress into passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which barred slavery. He also set out a general plan for reuniting the country when the fighting was done (assuming the North won).

Under this plan, most Southerners could become U.S. citizens again simply by taking a loyalty oath. Those who couldn’t, mostly high-ranking Confederate officials, could apply for the reinstatement of their citizenship on a case-by-case basis. After Lincoln was killed, his vice president, Andrew Johnson, adopted practically the same plan.

Demanding loyalty, legislating equality

When 10 percent of a state’s population had taken an oath of loyalty to the Union, the state could set up a new government and apply for readmission to the Union, as long as it agreed to give up slavery and provide an education system for blacks.

By the time Congress convened in December 1865, all the Southern states had organized new governments, ratified the 13th Amendment, and elected new representatives and senators for Congress.

But Congress, dominated by Radical Republicans — those who sought harsh reprisals against the South for the war and immediate equal rights for freed slaves — didn’t like the deal.

For one thing, many of the men elected to represent the Southern states in Washington, D.C., were the same people who’d run the Confederacy — including Alexander Stephens, the ex-Confederate vice president who was in federal prison awaiting trial on treason charges. That kind of in-your-face attitude irritated the Radical Republicans, who felt Southerners weren’t sorry enough for causing the war.

Even more infuriating were the Black Codes. These codes were established by Southern state legislatures to keep the former slaves “under control.” They varied from state to state and did give blacks some rights they hadn’t had before, such as the power to sue in court, own certain kinds of property, and legally marry.

But the Black Codes also prohibited blacks from bearing arms, working in most occupations other than farming or manual labor, and leaving their jobs without permission. They restricted African Americans’ right to travel and fined them if they broke any of the codes. To the Radical Republicans, and even many moderate Northerners, the Black Codes were simply a substitute form of slavery.

To combat the Black Codes, Congress passed a series of bills designed to strengthen the rights of blacks — and President Johnson vetoed them either as unconstitutional interference in states’ rights or as infringing on the powers of the presidency.

One thing he couldn’t veto, though, was the 14th Amendment, because the Constitution required that proposed amendments go directly to the states for approval. The amendment, ratified in 1868, entitled all people born or naturalized in the United States — including slaves — to U.S. citizenship and equal protection under the law.

Using violence to keep blacks down

Many whites in the South were outraged by the 14th Amendment, particularly poorer whites who already felt they were competing with ex-slaves for jobs. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Knights of the White Camellia, and Pale Faces sprang up. They used weird costumes and goofy rituals to intimidate blacks from exercising their rights.

When intimidation failed, they and other white mobs and paramilitary groups resorted to violence. Hundreds of African Americans were beaten, driven from their homes, or brutally murdered as a result of these groups’ actions.

The terrorist activities of the white supremacist groups were very effective in “keeping blacks in their place.” And the groups had unwitting allies in the current president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, and Northerners who were losing interest in reforming the South.

Blacks weren’t the only targets of the KKK and similar groups; carpetbaggers and scalawags were also terrorized. Carpetbaggers were Northerners who came to the South to participate in its reconstruction — and make a lot of money in the process. Scalawags were Southerners who worked in concert with the carpetbaggers.

Although it’s true some of these people were basically just vultures feeding off the defeated Southern corpse, many of both groups actually did a lot of good, reviving the school system, helping rebuild the railroads, and so on.

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