The Post-War Years

Free at Last

With the conclusion of the war, emancipation became a reality, but the place of freed blacks in society was far from resolved. The exigencies of military conflict gave way to equally difficult questions of race. Should freedmen be given Southern land, or grants with which to buy land? How far should the right to vote be extended? Could the Northern philosophy of wage labor degenerate into a system that resembled slavery in all but name? Could blacks and whites ever peacefully coexist?

Despite the ominous implications of these issues, liberal Northerners generally regarded the arrival of emancipation with high spirits. The following print, drawn by a young Thomas Nast, who would later go on to a famous career at Harper's magazine lampooning corrupt politicians, captures that optimism:

The central scene depicts an idealized version of postbellum black family life; they enjoy the material comforts of a decent home and appear to be living in harmony. One portrait of Lincoln hangs on the family's wall, while another gazes out past the viewer. On the left are three scenes depicting the horrors of slave life in the South: the hunting of fugitives in a swamp (top), the public sale of a slave away from his family (middle), and the flogging of a black woman and branding of a black man (bottom). On the right are three correspondingly positive images of emancipation: a freedman singing outside his cottage (top), a woman sending her kids off to public school (middle), and a black employee receiving his due wages from a cashier (bottom). Reigning over the entire image is Thomas Crawford's statue of Freedom, framed against the glorious sunburst of "EMANCIPATION."

An entirely different, and possibly self-fulfilling, view of black freedom was the harsh anti-abolitionism captured in the next image, "Northern Coat of Arms":

The feet of a black man emerge from beneath a Phrygian liberty cap complete with several stars, an eagle with an olive branch, and the word "Liberty." At first glance, this may seem a fairly humorous image, but the underlying message is unmistakable: freedom is too great a responsibility for blacks. The print forces the viewer to concentrate on the literally and symbolically lowest portion of the human form, while seeming to deny any presence of higher faculties in the person underneath the cap.

Both of the above images capture prevalent views of emancipation, but of course the reality of post-war life for blacks lay somewhere between the two extremes.

Racial Reconstruction

This is how part of Richmond, Virginia, looked in April 1865, after fleeing Confederate soldiers set the city afire:

Richmond's condition was neither unique nor merely physical. In the wake of the Civil War, the South lay in ruins -- politically, institutionally, and economically. Several arduous decades of reconstructing a still-proud society lay ahead. In the short term, the federal and state governments needed to plan for the adoption of new state constitutions, new land policies, and new patterns and rights of suffrage. The reforming of these structures of social existence, however, proved easier to accomplish than the reconstruction of racial attitudes or racial justice.

The story of reconstruction is in large measure a story of the tension between expanding the rights of freed blacks and confronting the racism of Southerners and Northerners alike. A corollary tension also developed between the so-called radical reconstructionists, who sought a complete overhaul of Southern society in the image of the North, and the moderates, who urged reconciliation and the cession of reconstruction responsibilities to the Southern states.

Land reform emerged as one of the key areas where these tensions were played out. Many radicals wanted to confiscate large amounts Southern land and parcel it out to newly freed blacks as compensation for their years of servitude and toil. Arguing against this proposal, the moderates warned that confiscation would forever alienate Southern whites and rekindle the kind of sectional antagonism that had led to war in the first place.

Ultimately, land reform never became a major part of reconstruction. Questions persisted as to the legality and morality of confiscating land, and Congress, for its part, failed to pass effective legislation to settle the issue. Although the federal government had allotted significant portions of land to freed blacks, and had arranged for sales at below-market values, white owners soon began filing suits for their property and were often upheld by the courts. By the end of 1866, almost all Southern land was back in the hands of its original owners.

For newly freed blacks, the failure of land reform meant virtually a return to the antebellum status quo. While many blacks left the South to search for friends and relatives, or to simply glory in their unfamiliar mobility, many stayed in the South and tried to make a living farming the land. Since few had enough money to buy their own land, and since whites often refused to sell to those who did, the customary mode for blacks was to work as wage earners, often for their former masters. Nominally free, these blacks were for practical purposes indentured.

Blacks and radical reconstructionists also discovered that efforts to expand suffrage rights could run aground. With the abolition of slavery, the

Beneath the banner title, the poster reads, "Every radical in Congress voted for Negro Suffrage. Every Radical in the Pennsylvania Senate Voted for Negro Suffrage. [Thaddeus] Stevens, [John] Forney & [Simon] Cameron are for Negro Suffrage; they are all Candidates for the United States Senate. No radical newspaper opposes Negro Suffrage. Geary said in a Speech, at Harrisburg, 11th of August, 1866 -- 'There can be no possible objection to Negro Suffrage'." Beneath the idealized portrait of a white voter and the caricature of a black voter, the poster bluntly asserts, "Clymer's platform is for the White Man" while "Geary's platform is for the Negro." It concludes: "Congress says, The Negro must be allowed to vote, or the states be punished."

Racist opposition to the expanding role of blacks in society also took the form of "black codes." Following emancipation, Southern legislatures undertook the business of determining the status of freedmen in society, and as the legislators operated under certain obligations, not all of the black codes were oppressive. Some laws extended to blacks such legal protections as recognized marriages, the right to own and sell property, and the ability to enter into contractual relationships.

But in many cases the black codes also prohibited blacks from serving on juries and providing testimony, outlawed interracial marriage, and created segregated public facilities. Harsher discriminatory aspects of the code included vagrancy laws, under which unemployed blacks were often fined and then sent to work off their fine, and license requirements for non-agricultural occupations.

In the face of such formidable institutional obstacles and deeply rooted prejudice, the federal government sought to gain a tighter grip on Southern reconstruction through the Freedmen's Bureau. The Freedmen's Bureau was a federal agency charged with helping to manage and ease the transition from slavery to freedom. As Union troops and Northern relief agencies moved into the devastation of the south, the Bureau set up offices in each of the former Confederate states. Eventually, 550 local agents, most of them Northerners sympathetic to the plight of former slaves, worked toward the elusive goal of racial reconstruction.

The Bureau took on daunting responsibilities. One of its foremost was to provide legal guidance for freed persons: adjudicating disputes between blacks and whites, observing trials of blacks, and arranging contractual labor relationships between former slaves and owners. As part of this process, through a newly created category of Freedmen's Bureau courts that could override local authority, the Bureau overturned many of the harsher aspects of the black codes.

Also under the Bureau's purview was the thankless task of trying to reorganize land ownership, which, as we have seen, would prove minimally effective in the end. By placing black families on abandoned land, or arranging land sales at cheap prices, and providing them with animals and equipment, the Bureau did, for a while at least, help to give a boost to thousands of freedmen. Finally, the agency simply gave food rations to large numbers of poor and unemployed blacks.

Predictably, the Freedmen's Bureau had its detractors, the vast majority Southerners, who charged that the agency instilled a kind of welfare ethic in blacks. Since Bureau offices were often located in cities, they tended to draw blacks away from the countryside, exacerbating a agricultural labor shortage, and since the offices provided assistance to unemployed blacks, it was seen as encouraging them to be "idle." The following 1866 poster plays up the "welfare" theme:

A barefooted black man lounges in the foreground, asking himself, "What is de use for me to work as long as dey make dese appropriations."

  • Continue
  • Return to previous section
  • Return to main menu