Reconstruction: After the Civil War

This book by John Hope Franklin was published in 1961. While an older book, it stood the test of time and is still very useful. It’s well written, an easy read, yet still packed with information.

He starts the story of Reconstruction during the war itself, when the Union captured New Orleans. “Since the firing on Sumter, President Lincoln had been giving some thought to the problem of resuming normal relations with the Confederate states. He had never recognized the right or the fact of secession. From the outset he had argued that merely a state of rebellion existed, which should be put down under the leadership of the President. Likewise, Lincoln believed that the President should lay down the conditions under which the federal government would resume normal relations with the so-called seceded states.  The surrender of New Orleans increased the urgency for formulating a general policy of reconstruction. But the war had not yet reached the stage where President Lincoln felt it desirable to set forth a general policy. Thus, he dealt with Louisiana on an ad hoc basis.” [p. 15] The Union military commander at New Orleans, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, administered loyalty oaths to over 11,000 citizens of New Orleans. “These oath-takers were the electorate that sent Michael Hahn and B. F. Flanders from the First and Second Louisiana Districts to the Thirty-seventh Congress. They were seated on February 9, 1863, and served until the end of the session in March. With representatives in Congress even for a few months during the war, Louisiana’s position was unique. In general, Confederate states had no congressmen in Washington. Tennessee had some representation in Congress during the first two years of the war, but these lawmakers from the Volunteer State were strong Unionists who had refused to resign their seats when their state seceded. Virginia’s Pierpont government, which remained loyal to the Union even after the state seceded, enjoyed sporadic representation; but this was because it was regarded as the ‘restored’ government of Virginia in contrast to the one in Richmond that had seceded. Thus, before Lincoln could formulate a policy and before Congress could develop a policy of its own, Louisiana had acted. All her representatives had left Congress in 1861. But in 1863 Louisiana sent Hahn and Flanders to Washington as representatives. No other Confederate state was to enjoy this distinction until the Confederacy had collapsed and Congress had dictated the conditions of reconstruction.” [pp. 16-17] In 1863 Lincoln developed his policy, which was promulgated in the “10 percent plan.” In 1864, Congress attempted to formulate its own policy with the Wade-Davis bill, which Lincoln pocket vetoed. “In February, 1864, Michael Hahn was elected governor by qualified white males, a procedure approved by Lincoln’s military governor, General Nathaniel P. Banks. But the question of Negro suffrage, already raised by Negroes themselves, was indeed not just rhetorical. The  more than 18,000 free Negroes who were living in New Orleans when the war came owned property valued at fifteen million dollars. They had a long and distinguished record of responsible and loyal service, dating back to their military exploits under Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans in 1815. Most of them could read and write, and many could be described as educated and refined. Among the thousands of quadroons and octoroons were acknowledged kinsmen of some of the ‘best white families’ in the state. As early as November, 1863, the free men of color of New Orleans had addressed an appeal to Governor  Shepley ‘asking to be allowed to register and vote.’ They reviewed their services to the city and state and reminded him that they had never ceased to be peaceable citizens, paying their taxes on assessments running into millions. Receiving no satisfaction there, they appealed to General Banks, who likewise rejected their plea. Then they made an appeal directly to President Lincoln, who, although promising nothing, must have been impressed. On March 13, 1864, he sent a congratulatory message to Hahn, ‘first Free State Governor of Louisiana.’ In discussing the franchise in Louisiana, the President took the liberty to ‘barely suggest, for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in, as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.’ The President’s thinking had gone even beyond this proposal. To one of his intimates, he said that after much study he had decided what course he would pursue regarding the Negroes, ‘who have so heroically vindicated their manhood on the battle-field, where, in assisting to save the life of the Republic, they have demonstrated in blood their right to the ballot.’ Then he concluded, ‘The restoration of the Rebel States to the Union must rest upon the principle of civil and political equality of both races.’ ” [pp. 22-23]

Lincoln’s assassination brought Andrew Johnson into the Presidency, and under Johnson presidential reconstruction continued, though in a manner as to ensure the rights of African-Americans were disregarded. Where Lincoln had concluded they must have civil and political equality, Johnson was totally opposed to such equality.

The popular imagination believes the former confederate states were completely occupied by the US Army after the war. The truth, however, is that’s not even close. “It is nevertheless remarkable how rapidly, under the circumstances, demobilization of federal troops occurred and with what speed they were removed from Southern soil. In November, 1865, the Secretary of War could report that because of the rapid establishment of civil governments in the South, ‘the military force of the federal government has been greatly reduced, large armies disbanded, and nearly a million brave men … paid and honorably mustered out of service.’ Within a year there were only 11,000 white and Negro volunteers still in arms, and the strength of the regular army stood at 54,000. Indeed, by June 1, 1866, there were only 200 officers and 2,973 enlisted men in North and South Carolina; and every Negro soldier in Mississippi had been mustered out of service. … Even a casual examination of the report of the Secretary of War for 1865 and 1866 clearly establishes the fact that postwar demobilization was rapid and that only a skeleton military force was in the South by the end of 1866.” [pp. 35-36]

Franklin explodes myth after myth regarding Reconstruction, and provides an outstanding corrective to the record. The big problem I have with the book is the lack of footnotes. If he had notes, I would have highly recommended this book. Unfortunately, the lack of footnotes means we can’t easily judge his use of the evidence. While I can’t give it my recommendation, if you do read the book you’ll be reading an accurate history, though you’ll have to trust me on that for now.

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