Reconstruction of the South



TERRIBLE as was the war into which the United States had been plunged, and immense as was the loss of life and treasure it involved, it did not end without some compensation for its cost and its horrors. The two disturbing questions which gave rise to the conflict were definitely settled by the triumph of the government. Slavery was abolished; that most fruitful source of sectional dispute no longer existed to vex the minds of legislators and people. The doctrine of State rights, also, had been laid at rest. The country had entered the war as a not very strongly united or clearly defined confederation of States. It emerged as a powerful and much more homogeneous nation. The theory of the right of secession was not likely to be advanced again for many years to come. Other benefits had resulted from the conflict. The national banking system may be named as one of these. The finances of the country were placed on such a solid and secure basis as they had never before occupied.

During the four years of the war the United States had performed an extraordinary labor. Beginning with the merest nucleus of an army had a navy, and with its arsenals bare of war-material, it had in that time created an army of more than a million disciplined men, as thorough soldiers as ever trod the surface of this planet, and completely supplied it with war-material of the most approved kind. It had revolutionized naval warfare, with its fleet of powerful ironclads, and had brought into action guns of much greater calibre and longer range than had ever before been employed. Its feats of transportation, of rail-road-building and destruction, of bridge-building, etc., were unprecedented in magnitude. "The Etowah bridge, six hundred and twenty-five feet long and seventy-five feet high, was built in six days; the Chattahoochee bridge, seven hundred and forty feet long and ninety feet high, was built in four and a half days."

The task of the government had been no light one. It had an immense country to reduce to obedience. From the beginning to the end of the war its armies were constantly on the enemy's soil, and opposed to men as brave as themselves, fighting for their homes and what they deemed their rights, with all the advantages of a posture of defence, and of the natural breastworks of rivers, mountain-chains, forests, and other checks to an invading army. It was not an open country, traversed by practicable roads, like the battle-grounds of Europe, but in great part a wild and difficult region, of vast extent, and so strongly defended by nature as greatly to reduce the necessity of defence by art. History presents no parallel instance of a country of such dimensions and such character, defended by a brave and patriotic population, conquered within an equally brief period of time.

Within three hours after Abraham Lincoln expired, Andrew Johnson took the oath of office as the seventeenth President of the United States. the Presidential life of Lincoln had been one long period of civil war. That of his successor was destined to be one of political difficulty and struggle, in which the war seemed transferred from the nation to the government, and a bitter strife arose between Congress and the president. The task of reconstruction of the conquered territory was no light one, and could hardly, in any case, have been achieved without some degree of controversy, but Johnson, who at first expressed himself in favor of severely punishing the rebellious States, soon placed himself squarely in opposition to Congress.

He declared that a State could not secede, and that none of the Southern States had actually been out of the Union, and took measures to reconstruction of which Congress decidedly disapproved. Johnson's doctrine was ignored by a Congressional declaration that the seceding States actually were out of the Union, and could be readmitted only under terms prescribed by Congress. The Civil Rights Bill, which made negroes citizens of the United States, was enacted April 19, 1866. Shortly afterwards a fourteenth amendment to the Constitution was proposed, guaranteeing equal civil rights to all persons, basing representation on the number of actual voters, declaring that no compensation should be given for emancipated slaves, etc. This was adopted by the requisite number of States, and became a part of the Constitution on July 28, 1868.

As the work of reconstruction proceeded, the breach between the President and Congress grew more decided. Bill after bill was passed over his veto, and finally, February 24, 1868, the House passed a resolution, by a large majority, to impeach the President for "high crimes and misdemeanors" in the conduct of his office. of the acts of President Johnson, on which this resolution was based, that of the removal of Secretary Stanton from his cabinet office was the most essential. It was in direct contravention of the Tenure of Office Act, which declared that no removal from office could be made without the consent of the Senate. Stanton protested against this removal, and was sustained in his protest by the Senate, yet was soon afterwards removed again by the President. This brought the quarrel to a climax, and the impeachment proceedings immediately began.

The impeachment trial continued until May, on the 16th of which month the final vote was taken. It resulted in a verdict of "not guilty." The excitement into which the country had been aroused gradually died away, and "the sober second thought" of the community sustained the action of the Senate, though for a time very bitter feeling prevailed.

In pursuance of the "Military act," the South, on March 2, 1867, was divided into five districts and placed under military governors. These were made amenable only to the General of the army. This form of government, and the exclusion of the better class of Southern citizens from civil duties, placed all power in the hands of an inferior body of the population, and of Northern men (contemptuously designated "carpet-baggers") who had gone South after the war in search of position and power. The actions of many of these men were little calculated to restore harmony between the two sections of the country. The difficulty was added to by the behavior of bands of Southern reprobates and extremists, who, designating themselves the "Ku Klux Klan," rode about the country in disguise, and sought by acts of violence and outrage to intimidate the negroes and punish all who sympathized with them.

It was highly desirable that this transition state of affairs should come to an end, and the States be reconstructed with governments of their own. This was gradually accomplished by their acceptance of the terms proposed by Congress. By June, 1868, all but three of the seceded States had accepted the fourteenth amendment, and been readmitted to the Union. On the Fourth of July of that year a proclamation of general amnesty was made, conveying pardon to all who had been engaged in the war, except those actually under indictment for criminal offences. (Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, had been released from a military prison on bail, without trial for treason.) On February 27, 1869, a fifteenth amendment to the Constitution was proposed in Congress, which forbade the United States, or any State, the deny the right of suffrage to any person on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. This was passed and submitted to the States, and was declared ratified by the requisite majority on March 30, 1870. Early in the same year the representatives of the three States still outstanding -- Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas -- were admitted to Congress, these States having accepted the Constitutional amendments. With this admission the problem of reconstruction was completed, and the country resumed its normal condition, though with radical changes in its fundamental laws and the make-up of its voting population.





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