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Civil War and Reconstruction
The Travails of Reconstruction
Overview Documents

The aftermath of any war is difficult for the survivors. Those difficulties are usually even worse after a civil war. Such was certainly the case in the period after the American Civil War.

With several notable exceptions, most of the fighting during the Civil War took place in the South. As a result, most of the devastation of the war affected the South and its people to a much greater extent than people in the North. In addition, portions of the South were occupied by Federal armies from virtually the very beginning of the war. Over time, Union forces occupied more and more Southern territory and governed those places as well.

Reconstruction was a period of political crisis and considerable violence. Most white Southerners envisioned a quick reunion in which white supremacy would remain intact in the South. In this vision, African Americans, while in some sense free, would have few civil rights and no voice in government. Many Northerners including President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, shared these views. On the other hand, both black Southerners and the majority of Northern Republicans thought that before the Southern states were restored to their place in the Union, the federal government must secure the basic rights of former slaves.

In civil rights legislation and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Republican Congress wrote this policy into law. They were attempting, for the first time in history, to create a truly interracial democracy. Faced with violent opposition in the South and a retreat from the ideal of racial equality in the North, Reconstruction proved short-lived. It would take another century for the nation to begin to live up to this era's promise of equality for all its citizens.

Additional primary sources regarding the Reconstruction era are available in American Memory. To retrieve them, use such key words as reconstruction, Civil War, freedmen, or consult the American Life Histories, 1936-1940, interviews for the Southern states.
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