Politics & Policy

What Happened After Appomattox

Depiction of a Freedmen’s Bureau agent, Harper’s Weekly, 1868 (Library of Congress)
Following Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, imprudent actions on all sides scuttled chances for a just peace.

On April 12 a century and a half ago, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered what was left of his Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Over the next month and a half, three other Confederate armies would follow suit.

The North rejoiced: The rebellion had been put down and the Union saved. But Northerners also breathed a sigh of relief. Many had feared that the Confederacy would not accept defeat, but instead would continue the struggle by means of guerrilla warfare. Indeed, Lee’s chief of artillery, E. Porter Alexander, had suggested this option before Lee’s surrender. The Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, also wished to continue the war in this manner. But Lee rejected the guerrilla option in favor of unifying the country. And General Joseph Johnston defied Davis’s orders to continue hostilities, instead surrendering his force to William Tecumseh Sherman at Durham Station in North Carolina in order to “save the people [and] spare the blood of the army.” But in reality, the war was not over. It would continue for nearly another decade and a half in the form of Reconstruction.

In American memory, the war itself is often seen as a noble undertaking on both sides. According to David Blight, in the “collective victory narrative” that came to shape post-war thinking, the Civil War was a test of national vigor between two adversaries that believed firmly in their respective causes. Indeed, despite the human cost of the war, it represented a heroic crisis that the United States survived and became a source of pride, proving that Americans could solve their own problems and redeem themselves in unity. For many Americans, the Civil War was the original “good war,” a necessary sacrifice, a cathartic mutual experience that in the long run solidified the nation.

In contrast, the dominant American memory of Reconstruction is neither noble nor uplifting, but instead sees the period as an interlude of bitterness and wrong-headed policy, reflecting the radical Republican legacy of corrupt carpetbagger government and the anarchy of African-American rule. As the historian Kenneth Stampp wrote a half-century ago, “historians have called this phase of American history ‘The Tragic Era,’ ‘The Dreadful Decade,’ ‘The Age of Hate,’ and ‘The Blackout of Honest Government.’ Reconstruction represented the ultimate shame of the American people — as one historian phrased it, ‘the nadir of national disgrace.’ It was the epoch that most Americans wanted to forget.”

There is no question that Reconstruction was a difficult period, but it did score some successes, most importantly the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which established the basis of racial equality in the United States. And the Southern state governments during Reconstruction were far from the dysfunctional entities described in the conventional narrative. Of course, one of the great questions is this: Would Reconstruction have proceeded more smoothly and successfully had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated? As Philip Lyons writes in Statesmanship and Reconstruction: Moderate Versus Radical Republicans on Restoring the Union After the Civil War (2014), in his wartime efforts to restore Louisiana to the Union, Lincoln exhibited the kind of statesmanship that would have been necessary to accomplish the concurrent tasks of “binding up the nation’s wounds, establishing republican governments where there had been none, and protecting freedmen’s rights. . . . ”

Reconstruction was a difficult period, but it did score some successes, most importantly the 14th and 15th Amendments, which established the basis of racial equality in the United States.

Lincoln’s most important virtue was prudence, a trait sorely missing in both his successor, Andrew Johnson, and the radical Republicans in Congress who seized control of Reconstruction policy from the president after Johnson, with the help of recalcitrant Rebels, had disgraced both himself and his policy. But Southern resistance to Reconstruction might well have overwhelmed even Lincoln.

Presidential Reconstruction: Lincoln

Reconstruction actually began before the end of the war, and in the process laid bare the basic disagreements between Lincoln and the radical Republicans. Lincoln claimed responsibility for Reconstruction — he preferred the term “restoration” — based on his constitutional role as commander-in-chief of the Army (and the militia when in federal service) and his authority for proclaiming martial law, granting pardons, and providing general amnesty. Congress claimed responsibility based on its obligation to provide a republican form of government for the states and to accept representatives and senators.

Lincoln wished to restore the Union as quickly as possible, reestablishing the proper relationship between the federal government and the states then controlled by Rebels with minimal federal interference in the states’ internal affairs. His theory of government held that the states were never out of the Union — he believed firmly that the Union is perpetual. Instead, individuals within the states were in rebellion. He further believed that “restoration” and suppression of the rebellion could occur simultaneously.

Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction called for establishing a tangible nucleus of loyal citizens in each seceded state — 10 percent of qualified voters based on the 1860 census — who would swear an oath of allegiance. Accordingly, he sought to grant amnesty or pardons to white Southerners — excluding Confederate civil officers, military officers (including those who had resigned commissions in the U.S. Army or Navy), and members of Congress or judges who had resigned their seats or appointments (these could apply for individual pardons, which would be granted liberally) — and give those who took a loyalty oath to the government the full power to reestablish state governments. His plan implied, but did not make explicit, that the abolition of slavery was a precondition for the restoration of a state.

Lincoln issued his proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction on December 8, 1863. Under its provisions, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas were reconstructed before the end of the war, but Congress refused to seat their representatives. This refusal was an indication of a rupture within the Republican party. Radicals wanted to use the full power of the federal government to effect a social revolution, including the extension of civil/political rights to freedmen. They rejected Lincoln’s program of reconstruction as a “soft peace” that would permit Rebel leaders to regain power in the South. Most radicals saw the rebellious states as disorganized communities without legitimate civil governments. Some even wished to return the seceded states to territorial status, governed by Congress.

On the other hand, even radicals had little taste for mass executions of former Confederate officials. Thus the Second Confiscation Act, of July 17, 1862, declared that treason could be punished by fine or imprisonment as well as execution, and that engaging in rebellion or insurrection was punishable by fine, imprisonment, or confiscation of property.

Lincoln’s critics, then as now, accused him of temporizing on the issue of slavery. He had reversed emancipation orders by two of his military commanders, failed to enforce the emancipation clauses of the Confiscation Acts, and refused to allow the enlistment of black soldiers after Congress authorized him to do so. But his approach reflected prudence. Lincoln needed to maintain a working coalition of Republicans and War Democrats — who had supported the use of force to restore the Union but did not wish to interfere with slavery — in order to prosecute the war. He also needed to ensure the cooperation of the loyal slave states, particularly Kentucky, to prevail in the conflict.

Although both Lincoln and the radicals wished to abolish slavery, they differed on choosing the best means to achieve the end — which is the essence of prudence. As Lincoln himself observed, the difference between himself and radical Massachusetts Republican senator Charles Sumner was “six weeks,” in the sense that both desired the end of slavery, but Lincoln’s constitutional role obligated him to move more slowly than the radicals wanted. In his annual message to Congress in December 1862, Lincoln renewed his call for gradual compensated emancipation. When that was rejected and the rebellion grew in strength, Lincoln adopted a policy of wartime emancipation, codified in his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 and the final proclamation of January 1, 1863. By the end of 1863, he had made it clear that the abolition of slavery would be a precondition for a state’s return to the Union. Finally, he authorized the enrollment of black soldiers and issued an order of retaliation to counter the proclamation of the Confederate Congress that treated such enrollment as inciting servile insurrection.

But still the radicals were not satisfied. In July 1864, Congress passed the Wade-Davis Bill — an explicit rejection of Lincoln’s presidential Reconstruction. This bill called for temporary rule of Southern states by military government to supervise enrollment of white male citizens. It required that a majority of voters take an “ironclad” oath, declaring that they had never voluntarily supported the Confederacy. Delegates to a state convention would then be selected from among the list of qualified voters. This convention was required to repudiate secession and abolish slavery prior to restoration. And of course, all slaves were to be emancipated. Lincoln employed a “pocket veto” to kill the bill.

As Philip Lyons has observed:

Rather than coercion, Lincoln’s idea was to rely on incentives to bring a significant number of Southerners around to the new order — particularly for them to accept the freedman as a fellow citizen. This required establishing a political framework conducive to such an outcome. The framework had to be one under which “the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new.”

Lyons argues that “Lincoln’s Reconstruction statesmanship envisaged a free state government that avoided political extremes, rose above the racial divide, included qualified Blacks in the work of governing, and put race prejudice on the defensive.”

Presidential Reconstruction: Andrew Johnson

Following Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson initially pursued a policy of reconstruction similar to that of Lincoln. Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, repudiated his state when it seceded, kept his Senate seat, and was subsequently appointed military governor of Tennessee before being tapped as Lincoln’s second-term running mate in 1864 in a gesture toward unity. At first, the radicals welcomed him because of his virulent castigation of Rebel leaders and his demand that “treason . . . be made odious and traitors . . . be punished and impoverished.”

Although President Johnson agreed with the radicals regarding the need to crush the rebellion and to end slavery by constitutional amendment, he did not share their other goals.

But they had misread him. Johnson was a Jacksonian who believed that all white men were equal and that, accordingly, democracy should not be expanded to include freed slaves. The real object of his hatred, though, was the affluent planter class. He welcomed the end of slavery because it punished the planters, but he did not support the social change that the radicals wished to effect.

Only later did the radicals realize that Johnson’s political goal was to bring white yeomen farmers into a reconstructed Democratic party, one purged of planter leadership, which was characterized by a feudal, patrician elite. Thus, although he agreed with the radicals regarding the need to crush the rebellion and to end slavery by constitutional amendment, he did not share their other goals.

On the surface, Johnson’s plan, announced on June 30, 1865, was similar to Lincoln’s. It called for the president to appoint provisional governors who would call state conventions and supervise the election of delegates. Only those who qualified under state laws in effect in 1860, or who had taken the loyalty oath, were eligible to stand for election as delegates. The state conventions would then prescribe the permanent requirements for voters and officers and elect representatives for local governments, state legislatures, and members of Congress. These conventions were required to proclaim the illegality of ordinances of secession, repudiate Confederate debt, and ratify the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. Once these requirements were met, federal troops would be withdrawn.

But, sensing weakness and a lack of resolve, the Southern state governments pushed back. They repealed ordinances of secession but did not repudiate secession itself. They ignored proscriptions against unamnestied Confederates. Mississippi refused to ratify the 13th Amendment, and South Carolina refused to repudiate the Confederate debt.

In addition, state governments kicked the props out from under the freedom of former slaves. They issued “black codes” that limited economic and social options for the freedman. They blocked his political freedom by prohibiting him from voting. They worked to limit his education, thus reducing the freedman’s economic potential by keeping him an illiterate laborer. These measures, along with restrictions on owning property, permitted whites to exert strict social control over the freedmen.

The irresponsible behavior of the Southern Reconstruction governments discredited Johnson, but, having turned the radicals into enemies, he soon embraced resistance by the old Confederates. In effect, he became a captive of the very people whom he had detested. The consequences were predictable. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote, “The entire South seem to be stupid and indiscreet, know not their friends, and are pursuing just the course which their opponents, the Radicals, desire. I fear a terrible ordeal awaits them in the future.”

Welles’s words were prophetic. As he had predicted, the conduct of Southern states and Johnson’s vetoes in 1866 of the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights Act (which was passed over his veto) hurt him badly. But concerns about the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 led to calls for a constitutional amendment to replace it. The 14th Amendment easily passed both houses of Congress (no approval by the president was necessary) and was submitted to the states in June of 1866. Johnson, now adopting a states’-right argument, publicly called for the states to reject it. Ten of the eleven previously seceded states did reject it (the sole exception was Tennessee), but it was made a condition for readmission to the Union and was finally ratified in 1868.

Over the course of 1866, the actions of the Southern states and Johnson’s vetoes of the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights bills led to a loss of credibility on the part of the executive branch and caused a shift in Congress that gave power to the radicals. Moderate Republicans held the balance of power in both houses, and to keep these moderates in the fold, Johnson had to be flexible and prudent, and the Southern states had to take account of public opinion in the North. Neither of those things happened. Instead, Johnson became more uncompromising and violent, and the Southern states seemed to do everything in their power to alienate the North. This forced the moderates into an alliance with the radicals.

The elections of 1866 were a disaster for Johnson. In response to his intemperate rhetoric, the radicals adopted an electoral strategy of “waving the bloody shirt” of the late rebellion. Republicans gained veto-proof three-quarters majorities in both houses of Congress and won every Northern governorship and legislature. Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, even though it did not lead to his conviction, further weakened not only him but also the executive branch in general. As Frederick Douglass observed, Johnson “came in as Moses and went out as Pharaoh.” The stage was set for radical Reconstruction.

Congressional (Radical) Reconstruction

The radicals believed that secession had destroyed the old relationship between the states and the national government. Unlike Lincoln, who held that the seceded states had never been out of the Union, the radicals maintained that the seceded states had “committed suicide” and therefore had reverted to the condition of federal territories. They were now subject to rules and regulations as prescribed by Congress and could not regain statehood until Congress was ready to give it to them. And the radicals’ views on race went beyond what most whites, North or South, were willing to grant.

As Frederick Douglass observed, Andrew Johnson ‘came in as Moses and went out as Pharaoh.’

Congress passed three Reconstruction Acts from March to July of 1867, all of them over Johnson’s veto. The acts established five military districts and required that the former Rebel states form governments in conformity to the Constitution, but based on universal male suffrage. Once a state had established a government to the satisfaction of Congress, it would be readmitted to the Union with full rights and privileges.

Radical Reconstruction led to violence, as whites attempted to reestablish social control of blacks through intimidation. The violence targeted not only freedmen but also white Republicans. The goal was to make the cost of Reconstruction unbearable for the federal government. The best-known of the anti-Reconstruction groups was the Ku Klux Klan, which mobilized poor whites and yeoman farmers and conducted such a campaign of terror that even its original leaders tried to abolish the organization. In reaction, Congress (with Ulysses Grant now in the White House) passed three Force Acts from May of 1870 through April of 1871.

By 1872, the power of the KKK had been broken, but this was not the end of the violence. The “Mississippi Plan” became the model for resistance to federal authority. The idea was to employ as much force as necessary, including irregular militias. In addition to violence, Southern whites employed more subtle pressures against blacks, such as economic coercion. And unreconstructed Southerners brought social pressure to bear on apostate Southern whites, or “scalawags,” including ostracism.

The End of Reconstruction

Republicans lost control of the House in the election of 1874. In 1876, the federal government renounced its responsibility for Reconstruction by failing to pass an Army appropriations bill, which led to pressure on President Grant to withdraw troops from the South (though it would fall to Rutherford Hayes to complete the job in return for being awarded the disputed presidential election of 1876). In so doing, the government largely abandoned blacks in the South and invited Southern white men to formulate their own programs of political, social, and economic readjustment.

Why did Reconstruction come to an end the way it did? Kenneth Stampp has argued that the main cause was that Republicans lost the moral fervor that had animated the party since its creation in the wake of the Nebraska controversy of 1854. While the Republican party abolished slavery and crushed the rebellion, it was a “spent force” by the 1870s. It had nominated Ulysses Grant in 1868 rather than a radical. Indeed, most of the radicals had passed from the scene, leaving the party to be dominated by business and financial leaders. In addition, Northerners were tiring of the issue. The country had endured the business panic of 1873, four years of depression, and scandals in the Grant administration. Finally, the Democrats had gained strength in the South as a result of the general amnesty passed in 1872, which restored to many former Confederates the right to hold office.

There was also a change in the dynamics of electoral politics, most notably the uneasy alliance between blacks and the Republican party after the end of land reform and the Freedmen’s Bureau. The party gained strength in the Old Northwest, which had been solidly Democratic before the Civil War and indeed was a “Copperhead” stronghold during the war. This made Republicans less dependent on the black vote in the South.

Finally, race prejudice continued in both the South and the North. Its own racism led the North to acquiesce in this bargain that brought Reconstruction to an end. In the words of one contemporary writer, “Boston . . . and Ohio hold the coats of Georgia and Mississippi, while they slay the common victim of Northern prejudice and Southern hate.” Accordingly, while the nation healed its wounds, it did so at the expense of justice.

In summary, by 1876, the North had lost the will to continue Reconstruction in the face of Southern resistance. There was also a backlash in the North against black rights, motivated in part by its own experience with immigration from southern and central Europe. In addition, the perceived ethical failures of the Grant administration fed Northern discontent with Reconstruction. Finally, there was a failure to provide economic opportunity for freedmen. This was critical because it led to dependence and the emergence of a new kind of servitude.

Historians have noted that there were three alternatives for land reform that would have provided former slaves with the means to economic self-sufficiency: the Homestead Act; federal purchase of land, reselling it to blacks on long-term credit; and confiscation. The Radicals chose confiscation. But as Lincoln observed with regard to the Confiscation Acts of 1862, confiscation constitutes a bill of attainder, and is therefore unconstitutional. And indeed, after the war, grants based on confiscation and turned over to freedmen — the South Carolina/Georgia Sea Islands land grant, established by Sherman’s Special Field Order 15, and Davis Bend in Mississippi — were reversed by the federal courts. The most promising plan would have been the second option, but at the time it represented a step by the federal government that had no precedent.

As noted at the beginning, Reconstruction achieved some notable successes, but it created bitterness and a legacy of racism that prevailed for nearly a century. As important as the other causes may have been, the main reason that Reconstruction ultimately failed was a lack of prudence on the part of the actors that followed Lincoln: Andrew Johnson, Southern whites, and the radicals. According to Aristotle, prudence is concerned with deliberating well about those things that can be other than they are (means). In political affairs, prudence requires the statesman to be able to adapt universal principles to particular circumstances in order to arrive at the means that are best, given existing circumstances. After Lincoln’s death, there was no one that possessed this critical quality of the statesman.

Would Lincoln have succeeded where the others failed? We cannot know for certain. But as the historian LaWanda Cox has written, if anyone could have succeeded in restoring the Union while ensuring the rights of the freedman, it would have been Abraham Lincoln.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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