The Reconstruction era was a period in American history following the American Civil War (1861–1865); it lasted from 1865 to 1877 and marked a significant chapter in the history of civil rights in the United States. Reconstruction, as directed by Congress, abolished slavery and ended the remnants of Confederate secession in the Southern states; it presented the newly freed slaves (freedmen; black people) as citizens with (ostensibly) the same civil rights as those of other citizens, and which rights were guaranteed by three new constitutional amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Reconstruction also refers to the attempt by Congress to transform the 11 former Confederate states; and it refers to the role of the Union states in that transformation.
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|Date||December 8, 1863 – March 31, 1877|
|Duration||13 years, 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days|
|Location||Southern United States|
|Also known as||Reconstruction, Reconstruction era of the United States, Reconstruction of the Rebel States, Reconstruction of the South, Reconstruction of the Southern States|
|Cause||American Civil War|
|Organized by||United States Government|
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Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln—who led the Republican party in opposing slavery and fighting the war—Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency. He had been a leading Unionist in the South but now reversed himself and favored the ex-Confederates and became the leading opponent of the Radicals and the Freedmen. He intended to largely allow the returning states to decide the rights (and fates) of the former slaves in the South. While Lincoln's last speeches showed a grand vision for Reconstruction, including suffrage (the right to vote) for freedmen, Johnson and the Democrats adamantly opposed any such goals.
Johnson's Reconstruction policies generally prevailed until the congressional elections of 1866, which followed a year of violent attacks against black people in the South including riots in Memphis and a massacre of freedmen in New Orleans. The 1866 elections gave Republicans a majority in Congress. Now they were empowered and pressed forward to adopt the 14th Amendment. They federalized the protection of equal rights for freedmen and dissolved the legislatures of rebel states, requiring new state constitutions be adopted throughout the South that guaranteed the civil rights of freedmen. Radicals in the House of Representatives, frustrated by Johnson's opposition to congressional Reconstruction, filed impeachment charges. The action failed by one vote in the Senate. The new national Reconstruction laws incensed white supremacists in the South, giving rise to the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan murdered Republicans and outspoken freedmen in the South, including Arkansas Congressman James M. Hinds.
In nearly all the ex-Confederate states Republican coalitions came to power and directly set out to transform Southern society by deploying the Freedmen's Bureau and the U.S. Army to implement a free-labor economy to replace the slave-labor economy in the South. The Bureau protected the legal rights of freedmen while negotiating labor contracts and establishing schools and churches for them. Thousands of Northerners came to the South as missionaries and teachers as well as businessmen and politicians to serve in the social and economic programs of reconstruction. (Opportunistic Northerners seeking to exploit the federal occupation for personal gain were commonly referred to as "carpetbaggers" by Southerners for their typical use of cheap carpet bags as luggage.)
Elected in 1868, Republican President Ulysses S. Grant supported congressional Reconstruction and enforced the protection of African Americans in the South through the use of the Enforcement Acts passed by Congress. Grant used the Enforcement Acts to combat the Ku Klux Klan, which was essentially wiped out in 1872. Grant's policies included federal integration, equal rights, black immigration, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Nevertheless, Grant failed to resolve the escalating tensions inside the Republican Party between Northern Republicans and Southern Republicans (this latter group would be labeled "scalawags" by those opposing Reconstruction). Meanwhile, "Redeemers", self-styled conservatives in close cooperation with a faction of the Democratic Party, strongly opposed Reconstruction.
Support for continuing Reconstruction policies declined in the North. A new Republican faction emerged that wanted Reconstruction ended and the Army withdrawn—the Liberal Republicans. After a major economic recession hit in 1873, the Democrats rebounded and regained control of the House of Representatives in 1874. They called for an immediate ending. In 1877, as part of a congressional bargain to elect a Republican as president following the disputed 1876 presidential election, Army troops were withdrawn from the three states (South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida) where they remained. This marked the end of Reconstruction.
Reconstruction has been noted by historians for many "shortcomings and failures" including failure to protect many freed blacks from Ku Klux Klan violence prior to 1871, starvation, disease and death, brutal treatment of former slaves by Union soldiers, while offering reparations to former slaveowners, but denying them to former slaves. However, Reconstruction has had four primary successes including the restoration of the Federal Union, limited reprisals against the South directly after the war, property ownership for black people, and the establishment of national citizenship and legal equality.