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Presentation U.S. History Primary Source Timeline

The Travails of Reconstruction

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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 U.S. 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. Many 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, as well as Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, shared these views. On the other hand, both black Southerners and a large number 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.

Conflicts over the nature of Reconstruction led to President Andrew Johnson's impeachment by Congress. Congress was in recess from shortly after Johnson took the oath of office in April 1865 until December 1865. While Congress was in recess, Johnson, a member of the Democratic party, started a process of Southern Reconstruction that included pardoning those former Confederates willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. After Congress returned, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and two Freedmen's Bureau bills. Many members of the Republican Party objected to these and some of the other policies Johnson put into place.

In the election of 1866, a large number of Republicans who opposed Johnson’s Reconstruction program were elected to Congress and proceeded to roll back some of Johnson’s policies, institute military law in the southern states, and implement measures that reined in the power of the President. In March of 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which was intended to prevent Johnson from replacing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. In February of 1868, Johnson fired Stanton, and in response the House of Representatives prepared and sent forward articles of impeachment. Johnson was tried by the Senate in 1868 and was found not guilty.

In passing civil rights legislation and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Republican Congress was 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 LOC.gov. To retrieve them, use such key words as reconstructionCivil Warfreedmen, or consult the American Life Histories, 1936-1940, interviews for the Southern states.

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