The Civil War ended officially on April 9, 1865, but the racial issues that divided the nation and sparked an unimaginable bloodbath still plague the country nearly 150 years after Lee and Grant shook hands inside the Appomattox court house. This edition of the The Nation Classroom Archives looks back at the beginning of the Reconstruction period, which spanned from the end of the war until 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes removed the remaining Federal troops from the South.
Coincidentally, The Nation was born in 1865, and the plight of the freedmen quickly became one of its first causes. That summer, Nation reporters were dispatched to the South to report on conditions and the attitudes of its citizens. Several of those reports are presented here. Centuries later, they are an invaluable primary resource, providing a fascinating window into Southern thinking during this crucial period. Accompanying them are a series of shorter reports and editorials from those years which also illuminate the conflict that would set the stage for the great civil rights upheavals of the 20th century.
The South that The Nation's intrepid reporters found was for the most part still trapped in the same thinking that had led it and the rest of the nation on such a disastrous path. Many of its younger men were dead or maimed. Its economy was in a shambles. Former slaves gamely tried to eke out an existence in the face of indifference from Washington and ferocious racism all around them, their precarious situation becoming even more desperate with the birth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866. Ironically, only a minority of southerners owned slaves before the war, yet under the rubric of 'states rights,' most remained convinced that despite their suffering, secession was a noble cause. In state and local elections of 1865, pro-Confederates dominated 'scalawags' or pro-unionists, dealing an early blow to President Johnson's plans for Reconstruction, which sought to steer a moderate path between ex-confederates and the increasingly vocal radical Republicans.
In the coming months, state legislatures, confident in the federal government's inability to intercede, would place more and more onerous restrictions on black legislators and voters. With the passage of the Jim Crow laws and the use of terror to enforce them, the confederates would achieve through the state legislature the victories that had eluded them on the battlefield. In fact, as racism continues to permeate American society, the question of who really was the victor that day at Appomattox might still be a suitable topic for debate.
In This Pack
The Nation reports that Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are suffering from a labor shortage as more and more freedman drift back to their former homes in the deep South (July 6, 1865).
The Essence of the Reconstruction Question
This article discusses the obstacles and options facing President Johnson as he attempts to carry out Abraham Lincoln's reconstruction plan (July 6, 1865).
A Trip in South Carolina
A trip through the state offers a firsthand look at how the citizens of South Carolina are coping with defeat and both blacks and whites are dealing with racial issues that confront them (July 27, 1865).
The South as it is (Richmond)
On a visit to the former Confederacy capital, a Nation reporter leans firsthand about how the question of race continues to plague everday life in the South (July 27, 1865).
Separate reports mention attacks on black citizens by whites, more liberal attitudes in Massachusetts, conventions of black citizens in Michigan and Virginia and an effort to give back wages to former slaves (August 10, 1865).
A report on an attack on the home of a black man and his white wife in Greenwich, Ct., concluding with a surprising aftermath and more reports of hostile racial relations throughout the South (August 17, 1865).
The Nation reports that news from around the South is not reassuring, with major trouble reported in Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina (September 10, 1868).
The Cure for the South
The Nation proposes a policy of conciliation not coercion toward the South in the hope that decency will win out in the end (January 20, 1870).