The Reconstruction Era (1865–1877)

The era was marked by thwarted progress and racial strife

Illustration of Thaddeus Stevens speaking during Andrew Johnson's impeachment.
Thaddeus Stevens spoke during impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson. MPI/Getty Images

The period of Reconstruction took place in the southern United States from the end of the Civil War in 1865 until 1877. The era was marked by intense controversies, which included the impeachment of a president, outbreaks of racial violence, and the passage of Constitutional amendments.

Even the end of Reconstruction was controversial, as it was marked by a presidential election which many, to the present day, contend was stolen.

The main issue of Reconstruction was how to bring the nation back together after the rebellion of the slave states had been ended. And, at the end of the Civil War fundamental issues facing the nation included what role former Confederates might play in the US government, and what role freed slaves would play in American society.

And beyond the political and social issues was the matter of physical destruction. Much of the Civil War had been waged in the South, and cities, towns, and even farmlands, were in runs. The infrastructure of the South also had to be rebuilt.

Conflicts Over Reconstruction

The issue of how to bring the rebellious states back into the Union consumed much of the think of President Abraham Lincoln as the Civil War came to an end. In his second inaugural address he spoke of reconciliation. But when he was assassinated in April 1865 much changed.

The new president, Andrew Johnson, declared that he would follow Lincoln's intended policies toward Reconstruction. But the ruling party in Congress, the Radical Republicans, believed Johnson was being far too lenient and was allowing former rebels too much of a role in the new governments of the South.

The Radical Republican plans for Reconstruction were more severe. And continual conflicts between the Congress and the president led to the impeachment trial of President Johnson in 1868. 

When Ulysses S. Grant became president following the election of 1868, Reconstruction policies continued in the South. But it was often plagued by racial problems and the Grant administration often found itself trying to protect the civil rights of former slaves.

The era of Reconstruction effectively ended with the Compromise of 1877, which decided the highly controversial election of 1876.

Aspects of Reconstruction

New Republican controlled governments were instituted in the South, but were almost certainly doomed to fail. Popular sentiment in the region was obviously opposed to the political party which had been led by Abraham Lincoln.

An important program of Reconstruction was the Freedmen's Bureau, which operated in the South to educate former slaves and give them assistance in adjusting to living as free citizens. 

Reconstruction was, and remains, a highly controversial subject. Southerners felt that northerners were using the power of the federal government to punish the south. Northerners felt the southerners were still persecuting freed slaves through the imposition of racist laws, called "black codes."

The end of Reconstruction can be seen as the beginning of the period of Jim Crow.