Post-Civil War Reconstruction and Redemption History, Yale Lecture Notes

Southerners were stubborn, Southerners were intransigent, Southerners could never accept St Paul’s declaration that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[1]  It was anathema, unthinkable, incomprehensible that Southerners, and many Northerners, would ever regard negroes as equal to free white men, in their eyes negroes were inferior, they would always be subservient.  General Sherman may have burned Atlanta and destroyed livestock, crops, and railroads in his mark to the sea; General Grant may have continually fought and flanked Robert E Lee until he was cornered and cut off from supplies at Appomattox; these two Union generals may have momentarily exhausted the ability of the Southern generals to continue the war; but the true Civil War to change racial attitudes is a war that is being fought to this very day.

Reconstruction is in three phases.  In Presidential Reconstruction under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, lenient terms enticed the Southern states back into the Union.  However, the South overreaches, enacting black codes so harsh that they effectively re-enslave the free blacks to their former masters, denying blacks any rights as citizens.  This backfires on the South, outraged Northern voters strengthen the position of the Radical Republican Congressmen, who gain a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress.  The South is placed under military rule, new civil rights legislation is passed, and policies that benefit free blacks are enforced.  The Southern states are forced to approve the Reconstruction Amendments that compel the states to grant citizenship, due process of law, and the right to vote to all citizens.  But there is mass resistance, the Ku Klux Klan and similar white supremacy bands spring up, terrorizing the South in their night rides and burning crosses, lynchings become commonplace.  The Panic of 1873 causes a deep recession, Northern public opinion tires of the endless struggle against the old Confederacy, leading to the final phase, Redemption.  Federal troops are withdrawn from the South and  the Southerners are free to rule as they see fit, Jim Crow laws are passed denying blacks their civil liberties and their ability to live a normal life with a decent paying job.  The KKK and other night riders step up their lynchings to intimidate blacks, in some cases violently overthrowing legitimately elected local governments.

How strange that Bible-belt Christians of the Deep South that they would name this last phase a Redemption, like it has anything to do with Christianity.  How strange the Ku Klux Klan and some white supremacist groups today take on religious symbols and twist them, like their temerity to use a burning cross as a symbol.  Have there ever been white preachers who denounced from their pulpit, over even privately, this misuse of the symbol of the cross,  condemning the burning cross as an anti-Christian symbol of hate?

The South also won the war of historians, the war of remembrance, the campaign to romanticize the Civil War as the noble Lost Cause.  We were taught in Southern schools that the Civil War was fought over the issue of states rights, not slavery, that under Reconstruction the South was victimized by Northern carpetbaggers and ignorant blacks who spent their days eating fried chicken.  Under the leadership of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the South won the school textbook wars:


Many Republicans will tell you that you need to reject SOCIALISM, you need to reject the policies of affordable healthcare, affordable education, and a living wage.  The real reason why America has not adopted these policies is not because we have rejected socialism.  The real reason why the Deep South has always been hostile to affordable healthcare for all, affordable education for all, and a living wage for all has everything to do with the rise of the Redemption ethos, white supremacy, and the terrorism of the Ku Klux Kan.  The Redemption white supremacists totally rejected the Reconstruction and Freedmen’s Bureau reforms benefiting all poor people, white and black.  White Supremacists did not want to provide any social services to their ex-slaves, and if that meant denying them to poor whites, that was acceptable to them. White Supremacists managed to neuter the effects of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Civil War constitutional amendments until the 1960’s. During the Redemption KKK takeover of the Deep South public schools and public hospitals were mostly closed down.

This is our blog on history of slavery in pre-Civil War years:
This blog also has the links to the free YouTube Yale undergraduate lectures for both Professor Holloway’s African American History class and Professor Blights’ Civil War and Reconstruction class.

This is our blog on how slaves helped the North win the Civil War:

This is our blog on the American Civil Rights history following the Reconstruction and Redemption eras:

We also encourage you to read our complete set of blogs on slavery in both the modern and ancient worlds:


Shortly before Lincoln started his second term as President, Congress passed the bill creating the Freedmen’s Bureau.  It was never intended to be a permanent agency, this bill had to be renewed several times during Reconstruction.  Professor Holloway tells us:
The Freedmen’s Bureau was social reform by military force. Americans had never done this before–a national, federal, social welfare agency, in a land that had lived and breathed laissez-faire government; in a land that had lived and breathed this idea that governments don’t provide food for people, people provide food for people, healthcare, schools. The war forced a new kind of history. The initial purpose of the Freedmen’s Bureau was to aid refugees and displaced people, black or white. The needs were great, by late winter 1865 there were at least a quarter million totally displaced starving white people and also four million soon to be liberated slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau was to provide all kinds of physical supplies, medical services, schools where it could. Its purpose was also legal, to supervise contracts between freedmen and employees[2]

Many of the reforms by the Freedmen’s Bureau were quickly reversed when the white Redemptionists took over power.  Many public schools and public hospitals were defunded.  The Southern distaste for welfare programs led to the United States being the only developed country that did not develop a national health care system after World War II.  The stopgap Medicare and Medicaid programs were enacted in the mid-Sixties, and ObamaCare is still under assault today by Republicans.


During the last year of the war Lincoln, using his Presidential war powers, initiated a lenient program of Presidential Reconstruction, his primary objective was to shorten the war.  A state could be readmitted to the Union if ten percent of its citizens swore an oath of loyalty to the Union and abolish slavery.  The thirteen amendment was passed both by Congress and a majority of the states constitutionally abolishing slavery.  Blanket pardons were issued to Confederate soldiers with a rank of lieutenant or below.

When Lincoln is assassinated shortly after the Union victory in the Civil War, his Vice President Andrew Johnson is sworn in as President.  Lincoln’s assignation may have moved the Civil War from the Southern battlefield to the political battlefield in the White House.  Johnson vetoed more legislation than all other previous Presidents combined, nearly all of his vetoes were overridden by the Radical Republicans in Congress.  Johnson was eventually impeached, though he was acquitted by one vote he was subdued for the remainder of his term.

Johnson was added to the ticket to appeal to whites in the border states, and white Unionists in the Confederate states.  Andrew Johnson was a virulent white supremacist and believed in state’s rights.  Although he hated the southern planter class, since he was from the poor yeoman farmer stock, Johnson was openly racist, he was never anti-slavery. He believed the United States should remain “a white man’s country forever.”[3]  In addition to issuing thousands of pardons to ex-Confederates, Johnson restored the abandoned plantations to their original owners.  Many blacks had hoped to receive what they thought was promised to them, forty acres and a mule, a small restitution to give them some semblance of economic independence.  This would be an idle hope.

Andrew Johnson tried to put in place some so-called Johnson governments in the South. The reason Johnson could get away with this is that Congress went out of session in the summer of 1865, and Johnson had largely a free hand to act, and did he ever. By December of ’65, when a new Congress would reconvene in Washington, all the states in the former Confederacy, except Texas, had met the simplest of criteria, had written new state constitutions, had found “that portion who are loyal” to form a new government. And it was very tiny proportions in some places. In fact, there were no loyalty oaths. All but one state, Texas, was ready for readmission to the Union, under what Foner calls the “amazing leniency of Andrew Johnson.” The only major demand put upon them was to formally nullify their Act of Secession. That’s basically all they had to do.

Blight continues:
These were whites-only governments formed by former Confederates, and they began to pass what became quickly known as the Black Codes. These Black Codes mirrored the old Slave Codes. They explicitly denied the right to vote to blacks, the right to serve on juries, the right to hold office, the right to own property. Vagrancy laws and state laws directly obstructing the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau were passed. [4]


Congress, controlled by Radical Republicans, balks at admitting unrepentant Confederate states represented by many former Confederate officials.  Many Northerners wonder why so much Union blood has been shed, so many soldiers’ lives lost, for what?  So the South can re-enslave their former slaves under the Black Codes?  The Civil War was fought to emancipate the slaves, not to re-enslave the freemen.

Southern congressional representatives are not allowed to take their seats in Congress, congressional hearings are held with over a hundred witnesses, including Robert E Lee, investigating the status of the black freemen in the South and the effects of Presidential Reconstruction.

Two additional constitutional amendments are passed.  The 13th Amendment had abolished slavery.  The 14th amendment declares that all persons born or naturalized in the US are both federal and state citizens, and all citizens have the right to due process and equal protection under the law.  The 15th amendment declares that no citizen shall be denied the right to vote.  The struggle to permit the black freed slaves to vote is critical to preserving all their other constitutional rights, this struggle over voting rights continues to the present day.

Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act of 1866 to enforce the provisions of these constitutional amendments.  All Southern states are required to adopt the principles of these three amendments to be readmitted into the Union.  These amendments give the federal government to enforce basic civil rights for citizens of the individual states.  The Supreme Court restricts the reach of these amendments in the Jim Crow era following the Redemption era, but the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Warren Supreme Court decisions breathes life back into these amendments, restoring their original intent.

President Johnson is deeply unpopular in the North, most voters think he is catering to the Confederacy.  The Radical Republicans win overwhelming majorities in Congress in the 1866 mid-term elections.  Johnson vetoes most of the Civil Rights and Reconstruction Acts, the Radical Republicans override most of his vetoes.  Each Southern state is forced to adopt a new constitution that is approved by Congress.

The South is divided into five military districts and a small number of federal troops are sent in to enforce the law.  When justice is impossible under local and state courts, civil rights cases can be tried in federal court.  Blacks are given the right to vote, and despite sometimes violent intimidation by the KKK and similar bands, most blacks are politically active, and Republican governments are established in all Southern states.  There are many blacks who are elected to public office at the local, state, and federal level.

Much was accomplished during the short life of Radical Reconstruction from 1866 to 1877.  Violent intimidation by the KKK and similar terrorist groups grew during this period.  Much progressive legislation was passed in this period.  The history of this period is complex, perhaps in a later blog we will review Eric Foner’s award winning book, Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.


There was always resistance, often violent resistance, by many in the Deep South to Reconstruction policies.  One of the worst incidents of racial violence during Reconstruction was the Colfax Massacre.  After a bitterly contested election in Louisiana in late 1872, armed conflict erupted between armed white Democrats and Republican freedmen and state militia in Colfax.

This section is from Professor Blight’s lecture:
Blacks gathered in Colfax for weeks before the spring of 1873, taking over the courthouse in Colfax. They collected lots of weapons. They built trenches all the way around the courthouse. They were ready for battle. And it is battle they got from a huge mob of disparate, paramilitary whites, many of whom were former Confederate soldiers, members of the Knights of the White Camellia. And what happened on April 14th was indeed a pitched battle. The whites had a cannon and many weapons. The blacks couldn’t hold them off, they fled into the courthouse. The whites captured a black man and forced him, under gunpoint, to take a torch and set the roof on fire, burning down the courthouse.  The blacks who were smoked out were executed on the doorsteps of the courthouse, those few who stayed were burned to death hiding under the floorboards. At least 150 blacks were killed, most of them execution style with shots to the back of their heads.  Afterwards, many of their bodies were mutilated.

The First Representatives of the Republican Louisiana State Government arrived forty-eight hours after the massacre and recorded the executions and mutilations. They also described many of the bodies being eaten by dogs and turkey vultures. Well, Colfax led to a national sensation. Harper’s Weekly and Leslie’s Weekly had illustrations of blacks carrying their dead home to bury them.  One black woman described dragging her son away from the dogs who were eating his body. And it led to a national investigation resulting in many indictments but only three convictions.[5]


This section is from Professor Holloway’s lectures,
Now when Republican government’s faded, once the Federal troops left, when they faded in the wake of a resurgent Democratic party, which is a Southern party, this at the end of Reconstruction, a range of tactics start being developed to guarantee the return of white power. So it’s not just that the Federal troops left, the government’s collapsed, whites were all of a sudden in control. It wasn’t that quick and that easy, it happened after years of terror and struggle. Crops that were owned and tilled by blacks were destroyed. Blacks’ homes, their barns, their homes, their barns and other property were destroyed and burned.

Very rarely would a white jury convict a white man for a crime committed against a black man, no matter the crime.  Blacks were denied any semblance of justice, they were completely helpless.

If blacks tried to exercise the right to vote, and if someone thinks they might be voting Republican, they might encounter someone standing outside brandishing a whip, making it very clear that if I voted for anybody but the Democrat, the whip would be used. So there is sort of a scorched earth policy by citizens, white citizens of the South to reclaim what was theirs, to get blacks off the land, to destroy their property. And the people doing this dirty work are quite often members of these local militias like the Ku Klux Klan.

During Reconstruction, blacks had a tremendous new amount of voting power. When Redemption begins, black voting power is diluted very quickly through a range of tactics. You certainly have people at the polling station with whips. There was also gerrymandering, the reconfiguration of voting districts to eliminate or to mitigate the black vote. Since housing was segregated, if you cut a district in a certain way, you can make sure that you cut out black voting numbers to make any real change.[6]


This section is from Professor Holloway’s lectures:
During the period of Federal occupation of the South, federal military forces put the lid on lynchings. But when the Federal troops are gone, during the era of Redemption, lynchings are one way the South redeems itself. Between 1882 and 1901 there are more than a hundred lynchings a year throughout the nation. Between 1882 and 1968, over five thousand people died in recorded lynchings. Easily three quarters of them or more were African American. Historians presume the actual numbers of lynchings were much higher.

Lynchings were not just about stringing somebody up. There were many different types of lynchings.  Usually someone is captured, they’re strung up, and either a chair kicked out from underneath of them, a horse run off, and they die by strangulation, by hanging. But you also have festival lynches that are advertised in the local paper, in advance, you know that on Saturday night, we’re lynching Joe Smith in Nachez. Enough time for rail companies to sell excursion tickets, advertised in the papers, so you could have a grotesque festival around this–this actual moment of murder.

Lynchings could also consist of the black person being nailed to a post or a tree and being lit on fire. It might involve being physically assaulted and mutilated while you’re conscious, before you’re strung up to a post to be burned, or before you’re actually strung up by a tree. When the lynching was over, especially for the festival lynchings, the abuse to the body wouldn’t end. The body might be chopped down.

Billie Holliday, the famous black jazz singer, sings this:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Now I said that lynching is seen by many white Southerners as the answer for rapists, especially for black male rapists, and that is the received wisdom. But really, what was it? Ida B. Wells, black woman journalist, becomes an incredible civil rights pioneer, one of the founders of the NAACP. Ida B. Wells lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and of course she hears about the scourge of the black male attacking white womanhood and raping women and children. And then she has a horrific experience. One of her friends, Thomas Moses, opens up a store, “The People’s Grocery.” He’s a black man competing against a nearby store owned by whites catering to both white and black customers for the whole town. Thomas Moss was lynched for opening up his competing store.

Wells writes editorials, organizes a boycott, and then had to flee Memphis to save her life. She would not return to Memphis for fear of her life until the very end of her life. Decades go by. She is convinced she will be killed if she steps foot back in the city. But Ida Wells starts to speak out about lynching publicly. She starts writing consistently in ways that are deemed to be a threat to Southern manhood. When she also claimed that white women often desired the interracial dalliances where they actually did exist, she crossed the final line of taboo, that white women might actually desire black men.

Ida Welles asked, “If the South is so against rape, why aren’t white men lynched?” There is a long history of certainly white slave owners raping their slaves, having children. After Emancipation rape knew no color line. She travels to England on a speaking tour, an anti-lynching crusade. And this is where she really becomes a persona non-grata in the South.

Ida B. Wells investigates and reports on many lynchings. She discovers most lynchings have nothing to do with allegations of rape as many whites believed. Accusations of theft, rude behavior, and assault often precede lynchings. Ida B. Wells relates the news of these lynchings to her English audiences, how Southern white men epitomize uncivilized behavior. Some English societies start sending investigatory groups to the South, profoundly humiliating Southerners. The South is enraged at Ida B. Wells and her inappropriate behavior.[7]


Professor Blight tells us,
The Ku Klux Klan came into its own in 1868. There was a reign of terror in five or six southern states in this election, especially in Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, and Tennessee. All across the South, in 1867 and especially that election year of 1868, as blacks are becoming tenant farmers and sharecroppers, trying somehow to eke out livings, they went to the polls in extraordinary numbers, risking and often losing their lives at the hands of thugs like the KKK. There were more than 200 political murders in the State of Arkansas alone, in this election. The death toll in Georgia was lower, but intimidation at the polls was very effective. In twenty-two Georgia counties, with a total of 9,300 black men listed on the voting rolls, Grant in 1868 tallied only eighty-seven votes.

In Louisiana, more than a thousand people died in political violence, in this one election year, almost all of them black, all between April and November 1868. In twenty-one Louisiana parishes where 28,000 blacks voted in 1867, only 501 black votes were cast in 1868.[8]


Were blacks worse off or better off in the Jim Crow era than they were under slavery?  Economically, many blacks were destitute, with few educational opportunities, excluded from voting, mostly ignored by the judicial system, subject to intimidation by white supremacist thugs with no legal recourse.

In one respect blacks were worse off.  Under slavery, they had a significant economic value as a slave to their owner, which meant that the owner would sometimes protect their property.  But after slavery, if black freemen were lynched, no white man suffered any financial loss, so it was not in the financial interest of any white man to protect them.

Eric Foner notes that in another respect, black freedmen were better off.  They rarely worked in gangs on plantations, they mostly share-cropped on small plots of land, no longer did they work under the lash of an overseer.  Marriages of blacks were legally respected, no longer would their wives and children be ripped from their side to be sold to unknown plantation owners hundreds of miles away.


[2] Jonathon Holloway, Yale African American History: Emancipation to the Present, Lecture 3, YouTube links in Slavery and Abolition blog referenced above.

[3] David Blight, Yale Civil War and Reconstruction, Lecture 21, YouTube links in Slavery and Abolition blog referenced above.

[4] David Blight, Yale Civil War and Reconstruction, Lecture 22

[5] David Blight, Yale Civil War and Reconstruction, Lecture 25

[6] Jonathon Holloway, Yale African American History: Emancipation to the Present, Lecture 4

[7] Jonathon Holloway, Yale African American History: Emancipation to the Present, Lecture 4

[8] David Blight, Yale Civil War and Reconstruction, Lecture 23

About Bruce Strom 167 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.