Reconstruction in the South

Fitzhugh Brundage

The study of the Reconstruction era in the South may appear free of the vexing problems of definition and chronology that beset many historical topics. On its face, Reconstruction was the discrete historical process of reintegrating the former Confederacy into the American nation. This process began as soon as the Union captured territory in the Confederacy (circa late 1861) and concluded with the compromise after the disputed election of 1876, which marked the restoration of home rule by southern whites. This chronology was conventional before Woodrow Wilson employed it in his History of the American People (1902); and even during the 1960s and 1970s, an especially fertile period for scholarship on Reconstruction, historians betrayed few reservations about either this definition or chronology of Reconstruction.

Like many keywords, with a nod to Raymond Williams, “Reconstruction” is a word (and concept) with a complicated history and layer upon layer of latent meanings. Some Democrats and white southerners, admittedly, preferred the term “Restoration,” which conveyed a comforting image of an ordered and gentle process of sectional reincorporation. Many other contemporaries used “Reconstruction” to describe the process of reunification, but they seldom used it as a label for the epoch in which they lived. Thus, unlike many labels that subsequently were attached to historical periods—the antebellum era, for instance—Reconstruction was not an anachronism imposed by succeeding generations. However,  the word now is routinely applied not only to the postbellum process of national restoration but also to the entire 1862–77 period.

This usage was consonant with the conventions of the teaching of American history, which until recently broke the nation’s narrative up into tidy, bite-sized units. The nineteenth century was conveniently segmented into a series of roughly two-decade-long eras: the Early Republic, Jacksonian America, antebellum America, Civil War and Reconstruction, Gilded Age. Given the emphasis on political history and the prevalence of temporally discrete (rather than thematic) college history courses, these divisions were both reasonable and convenient. This periodization now is receding in the rear view of history, or so it seems, if present-day undergraduate course titles and academic job listings are valid indicators. Job ads now more commonly solicit applications from nineteenth-century specialists than, say, historians of the Jacksonian or Gilded Age United States.

As scholars shift their interests to the longue durée of the nineteenth century, Reconstruction necessarily loses much of its utility as a descriptor for the subjects and questions that scholars are interested in. For one, the temporal boundaries of “Reconstruction” almost certainly will be much more permeable in the future than they were during the twentieth century. The issues associated with the penetration of Union forces into the Confederacy, beginning in the fall of 1861, will remain central to any treatment of the destruction of slavery, restoration of federal authority, and the economic reintegration of the South. But the “rehearsal for Reconstruction,” with due respect for Willie Lee Rose’s enduring classic work, antedated the events in, for instance, the Sea Islands of South Carolina in late 1861 or eastern North Carolina in 1862.[1] Although admittedly marked by contradictions, experimentation, and confusion, the programs adopted and policies applied as early as November 1861 mark the early implementation of the reconstruction of the South.

The conceptual rehearsals for reconstruction antedated the Civil War itself. Even so-called moderate plans for southern reconstruction, such as that of President Lincoln, were audacious visions of social engineering. They presumed profound, far-reaching, and enduring transformations in southern institutions, culture, and behavior on a scale that borders on utopian. From whence did visionaries of a remade South derive their ideas of societal transformation and their optimism about the capacity of the South to be remade? What historical analogies did they draw between their vision for the South and previous or contemporary events? Which societal transformations did they deem feasible? Which transformations infeasible?

We can cobble together a partial answer to these questions from existing scholarship, including important works by Eric Foner, Susan-Mary Grant, James Oakes, and Heather Cox Richardson.[2] But we await a comprehensive history of the ideas of social transformation that circulated in the mid-nineteenth-century United States and informed ideas about reforming the South. Such a history will reveal the various combinations of religious millennialism, “free labor” capitalism, sentimental moralism, political ideology, historical analogies, and old fashioned American hubris that informed plans for a new South.

The task at hand is not just locating the intellectual resources that provided the conceptual architecture for visions of a remade South but also tracing the evolution of those ideas across time. For example, the efforts of Illinois Republicans to “reconstruct” “Egypt” in southern Illinois during the late 1850s was a test of the capacity of expanding public education, market penetration (made possible by railroads), and political mobilization to reform a regional culture that was deeply pro-southern, anti-black, and Democratic. The attempted re-creation of Egypt was a dry run of methods that the Republicans envisioned applying to the South when their party gained the White House. Their plans, however, failed to transform the inhabitants of the region or to pry them away from the Democratic Party. Given the failure of the prewar and wartime efforts to reconstruct Egypt, we might wonder how Republicans were so sanguine that the purportedly inherent virtues of their program would appeal to white southerners.[3]

While the “reconstruction” of antebellum southern Illinois provides some insights into how Republicans imagined the reconstruction of the Slave South before the war dramatically altered the possibilities for intervention in southern affairs, the response to national and international events after the Civil War underscores the breadth of influences that contributed to the recalibration of possibilities of reconstruction. Growing fervor among American workers for the eight-hour workday and the tumult of the Paris Commune, for example, provoked anxiety among some northern champions of “reconstruction,” such as E. L. Godkin of the Nation, that private property and individual liberty were increasingly threatened by the poor demanding cooperative economic action and redistribution of wealth. For skeptics of government activism, the folly of Reconstruction was an American counterpart to the Paris Commune—a dangerous threat to the foundations of civilization itself. Property rights, the natural ordering of society on the basis of innate talent and abilities, and the respect for order had all been subverted in the cause of naïve social and racial uplift. In response, these erstwhile reformers began their “retreat from Reconstruction” well before President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration began its own retreat.[4]

If there are ample grounds to expand the discussion of “reconstruction” to the antebellum era, there are even more compelling reasons to reconsider the conventional temporal conclusion of Reconstruction. First, it exaggerates the significance of the election of 1876 and the so-called Compromise of 1877. C. Vann Woodward offered the most enduring argument about the importance of the informal agreement between Democrats and Republicans that traded Democratic acquiescence to the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in return for the removal of the federal troops from the South, support for a southern transcontinental railroad, and investment in the South.[5] But the purported compromise arguably only signaled the inevitable end of federal “occupation” of the few remaining areas in the South where troops were garrisoned. The deep processes of political, economic, and social transformation under way in the South proceeded apace after 1877. It is not clear that the “compromise” marked the moment when the Republican Party abandoned the freedpeople in the South to their fate at the hands of white southerners. A more compelling case for the abandonment of southern blacks by the party of Lincoln can be made for 1890 when Republicans failed to secure passage of the Federal Elections Bill (aka Lodge Force Bill), which would have established strict(er) standards for federal elections, thereby expanding and protecting black voting in the South. In the wake of the defeat of the Lodge Bill, white Democrats in Mississippi and elsewhere expanded their legal and constitutional machinations to deprive blacks of the vote. The “reconstruction” of the southern electorate, consequently, remained at issue for more than a decade after the purported end of Reconstruction in 1877.[6]

Second, the “reconstruction” of political partisanship in the South was by no means complete in 1877. Between 1865 and the end of the century politics in the South was marked by striking political pluralism. Not only did the Republican Party remain electorally viable in many states, but also insurgent parties, ranging from the Greenback and Readjuster Parties to the People’s Party (aka Populists), won followers in the region. The issues that fueled and the ideological communities that sustained this heightened partisan environment in the region were remarkably consistent across the period from 1865 to 1900. The Readjuster Party in Virginia, for example, was a biracial political vehicle founded after 1877 that rallied white and black voters who sought to revise (“readjust”) Virginia’s inherited and onerous debt. The party admittedly was sui generis in important regards, but the fiscal issues it addressed, the political coalitions it forged, and the social and racial challenges it confronted were extensions of the politics of postbellum readjustment. The Democrats in Virginia did not finally drive the last of the major Readjuster politicos from office until 1889.[7] Moreover, two important recent studies of the postbellum era have stressed the continuity in southern public life from the Civil War era into the early decades of the twentieth century. Greg Downs describes a half-century period during which hard-pressed southerners fashioned a form of patron-client politics that recast dependency into the foundation of regional politics.[8] Steve Hahn has traced the formation of black political networks and consciousness during slavery and its subsequent influence through the late nineteenth century and to the 1920s.[9]

Third, the economic “reconstruction” of southern society in the wake of the Civil War and abolition of slavery does not mesh with the conventional periodization of Reconstruction. Peter Coclanis makes a compelling case that deep structural transformations, especially global commodity markets and finance, were underway in the mid-nineteenth-century American economy that were largely independent of the Civil War and the fate of plantation slavery.[10] The expansion of American capitalism and changes in international commodity demand contributed to the extraordinary economic uncertainty that prevailed in the region across the late nineteenth century. Scholars have long recognized that transition from slave to free labor was jarring and contested, but there was a common assumption that by the 1870s sharecropping had emerged as a practical solution to matching labor, land, and capital in the region. Recent scholarship suggests that a wide variety of complex labor relations prevailed for decades after the end of the Civil War and that the southern economy continued to be roiled by change and innovation. Similarly, it took decades for the reconstructed southern legal system to provide sufficient legal guarantees to elicit sustained capital investments from outside the region. The political tumult in the region directly contributed to a perception of the South as a region filled with risk and uncertainty.[11]

Finally, southern society remained deeply fragmented after 1876. As important scholarship during the past quarter century has demonstrated, the “reconstruction” of gender roles and politics was by no means completed in 1876, let alone 1890. Conventional periodization of Reconstruction can mask the extent and persistence of this ongoing transformation in the southern polity and social relations. The essential and enduring role of women in civic activism, commemoration, household management, and the regional labor market is now clear.[12] It is also telling that the forms of violence that were endemic in the region—personal, political, and extralegal violence—persisted at high levels for decades after the end of Reconstruction. At best only a superficial semblance of peace and order returned there during the late 1870s and 1880s.[13] A final illustration of important trends that persisted uninterrupted across the Reconstruction era and late nineteenth century is the seeming inexorable movement of white and black southerners to new agricultural frontiers in the region and from the countryside to mill towns and cities.

Embracing a more capacious and flexible periodization of reconstruction is not intended to dismiss long-emphasized themes or “turning points” in the scholarship, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, Presidential Reconstruction, Radical Reconstruction, the so-called Reconstruction constitutional amendments, or the retreat from Reconstruction. To the contrary, these events will remain central to the interpretation of the longue durée of reconstruction. But attention to the longue durée allows us to better recognize the asynchronous pattern and speed of change in the region. And it will enable scholars to more completely (re)present the experiences of southerners after the Civil War. To take one poignant example, the impact of the postwar impoverishment of the region bore down on southerners for the remainder of their lives. A recent study of the biostatistics of cadets at The Citadel reveals that the cadets during the late nineteenth century were smaller in stature and weight than their antebellum predecessors. The bodies of the postwar cadets were living testaments to the legacy of war and reconstruction.[14]


Fitzhugh Brundage is William B. Umstead Distinguished Professor of history and department chair at the University of North Carolina. He is the author or editor of numerous articles and books, including, most recently, Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930 (UNC Press, 2011). His book, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Harvard University Press, 2005), won the 2006 Charles S. Sydnor Award from the Southern Historical Association.


[1] Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: Vintage, 1964).
[2] Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); Susan-Mary Grant, North over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000); James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865 (New York: Norton, 2013); Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post–Civil War North, 1865–1901 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).
[3] Eric Michael Burke, “Egyptian Darkness: Antebellum Reconstruction and Southern Illinois in the Republican Imagination, 1854–1861” (MA thesis, University of North Carolina, 2016); also Richard H. Abbott, The Republican Party and the South, 1855–1877: The First Southern Strategy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986); and Grant, North over South.
[4] Nancy Cohen, The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865–1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869–1879 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.)
[5] C. Vann Woodward, Reunion and Reaction; The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (New York: Little, Brown, 1951).
[6] Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2000); Vanessa Holloway, In Search of Federal Enforcement: The Moral Authority of the Fifteenth Amendment and the Integrity of the Black Ballot, 1870–1965 (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2015).
[7]Jane Elizabeth Dailey, Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.).
[8] Gregory P. Downs, Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861–1908 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
[9] Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003).
[10] Peter Coclanis, “The American Civil War and Its Aftermath,” in Cambridge World History of Slavery, vol. 4 of 4, A.D. 1804–A.D. 2016, eds. Stanley L. Engerman, David Eltis, and David Richardson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
[11] Downs, “The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States’ Transnational Path from Civil War to Stabilization,” American Historical Review 117, no. 2 (2012): 387–409.
[12] Elsa Barkley Brown, “Uncle Ned’s Children: Negotiating Community and Freedom in Postemancipation Richmond, Virginia” (PhD diss., Kent State University, 1994); Laura F. Edwards, Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Joan Marie Johnson, Southern Ladies, New Women: Race, Region, and Clubwomen in South Carolina, 1890–1930 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004); Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); LeeAnn Whites, Gender Matters: Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Making of the New South (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
[13] Hannah Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Kidada E. Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (New York: New York University Press, 2012); and George C Wright, Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865–1940: Lynchings, Mob Rule, and “Legal Lynchings” (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990).
[14] Peter A. Coclanis and John Komlos, “The Stature of Citadel Cadets, 1880–1940: An Anthropometric View of the New South,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 98, no. 2 (1997): 153–76.

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