Digital History>Teachers>Modules>Reconstruction

Learn About Reconstruction

Immediately following the war, all-white Southern legislatures passed black codes which denied blacks the right to purchase or rent land. These efforts to force former slaves to work on plantations led Congressional Republicans to seize control of Reconstruction from President Andrew Johnson, deny representatives from the former Confederate states their Congressional seats, and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and draft the 14th Amendment, extending citizenship rights to Afican Americans and guaranteeing equal protection of the laws. In 1870, the country went further by ratifying the 15th Amendment, which gave voting rights to black men. The most radical proposal advanced during Reconstruction—to confiscate plantations and redistribute portions of the land to the freedmen—was defeated.

The freedmen, in alliance with carpetbaggers (Northerners who had migrated to the South after the Civil War) and southern white Republicans known as scalawags, temporarily gained power in every former Confederate state except Virginia. The Reconstruction governments drew up democratic state constitutions, expanded women’s rights, provided debt relief, and established the South’s first state-funded schools. But internal divisions within the Southern Republican party, white terror, and Northern apathy allowed white Southern Democrats known as Redeemers to return to power.

During Reconstruction former slaves and many small white farmers became trapped in a new system of economic exploitation known as sharecropping. In exchange for land, a cabin, and supplies sharecroppers agreed to raise a cash crop and give half the crop to their landlord. High interests rates charged for goods bought on credit transformed sharecropping into a system of economic dependency and poverty.

The twelve years following the Civil War carried vast consequences for the nation’s future. They helped set the pattern for future race relations and defined the federal government’s role in promoting racial equality.

Conditions in the Postwar South
Edwin H. McCaleb (1865)
A former supporter of the Confederacy, McCaleb responds to Lincoln's death, describes conditions in the post-war South and gives voice to attitudes that would help shape Reconstruction.
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More documents in the our collection.
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Handouts and fact sheets:

Reconstruction
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Recommended lesson plan:

The Battle Over Reconstruction
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Quizzes:

Quiz on Reconstruction, Answers to the Quiz on Reconstruction
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Recommended books:

Eric Foner, Reconstruction
A magisterial overview and interpretation of Reconstruction that emphasizes the centrality of race and the role of African Americans in shaping events between 1865 and 1877. 

Recommended film:

The Birth of a Nation
The most popular silent film ever made, demonstrates the power of film as propaganda.  It provided millions of viewers with a grossly misleading portrait of Reconstruction as a period when the natural order of the South was overturned.  The film provided historical legitimization for segregation, disfranchisement, and racial violence in early twentieth century America.

 

Gone With the Wind
One of the most popular films ever made, Gone With the Wind helped shape the way that generations of Americans viewed the Civil War and Reconstruction.  It encouraged viewers to romanticize the Old South as a land of “moonlight and magnolias” and reinforced the image of the war and Reconstruction as periods when the prostrate South was exploited and region’s natural leaders were thrust into poverty.

Learn More:
See Leon Litwack, “The Birth of a Nation” in Mark C. Carnes, ed., Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies

See Catherine Clinton, “Gone With the Wind” in Mark C. Carnes, ed., Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies

Recommended Website:

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
Impeachment Simulation Game
http://www.impeach-andrewjohnson.com/15ImpeachmentSimulationGame/SimulationGameTopPage.htm
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Freedman’s Bureau Resources from the National Archives
http://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau/resources.html
Records of the Freedman’s Bureau, including extensive information about violence directed against African Americans.
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Copyright Digital History 2014