President Lincoln's Legacy: Plans for a Reconstructed Union

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  • 0:04 Reconstructing the South
  • 2:59 Competing Plans
  • 7:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Before the guns of the American Civil War fell silent, President Abraham Lincoln was making plans for the reconstruction of the South. In this lesson, learn what his plans involved and the controversy surrounding them.

Reconstructing the South

President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln Photo

Even before the surrender of Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865 ending the American Civil War, President Lincoln had begun making plans for the physical, economic, social and political rehabilitation of a region that had been devastated by four years of war. There were a number of deep wounds that needed to be treated.

First of all, there was property damage on a massive scale as Southern rail lines, factories and bridges and farmland lay in ruins. Many towns and cities had to be rebuilt. Thousands of veterans and civilians were wounded and in need of medical care. Many more were homeless. How could all of this damage be fixed? And how could it all be paid for? The destruction had crushed the Southern economy, as well as the workforce - about 20% of the Southern adult male population was dead, many more were disabled and slavery had been abolished. Many plantation owners lost their farms, and even those people who kept their land now lacked the only source of labor they'd ever known.

Ending slavery didn't just transform the workforce. It transformed Southern society and created a new set of problems Lincoln knew had to be addressed. America's four million freed slaves set about reuniting their families, building community institutions and generally trying to leave the legacy of bondage behind. Yet they lacked land, jobs and education. Where would they go, and how would they rebuild their lives? Moreover, antebellum Southern society had been built on a deeply racist divide. Freeing the slaves was not going to give them equality or unite Southern blacks and whites. Lifestyles and attitudes 200 years in the making couldn't just be erased overnight on either side of the racial divide.

There was also political damage. The Union had been preserved, but the end of the war raised several challenging political questions. How were the Southern states going to become part of the Union again? What did the Union need to do to make sure civil war wouldn't return? How would former slaves have their rights guaranteed?

Components of the Lincoln Reconstruction plan
Lincolns Reconstruction Plan

The process of trying to rebuild the South's economy, society and infrastructure was called Reconstruction, and it dominated political debate for more than a decade. President Lincoln hoped to reunify the nation as quickly and painlessly as possible. He realized that it wasn't just the South that needed to be rebuilt; many Northerners were angry and viewed Southerners as their bitter enemy, a defeated rival that should be punished. For their part, Southerners blamed the North for starting the war and resented the suggestion that their society needed to be reconstructed at all. They had left the Union in the first place because they didn't think the North (or anyone else) should be able to impose its will upon them. Yet, the goal of Reconstruction was to do just that.

Competing Plans for Reconstruction

The Civil War officially ended in April 1865. But as early as 1863, Lincoln began drafting a plan to bring the South back into the Union quickly (as he put it) 'with malice toward none and charity for all.' Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction became known as the Ten Percent Plan, which he hoped would be fair and attainable for Southern states. The plan required that former Confederates take an oath pledging allegiance to the Union and accepting the end of slavery. When just 10% of the voting population had taken this oath, they could set up a new state government. Once the new government had outlawed slavery, the state could then be readmitted to the Union. Lincoln also hoped to expand suffrage. He insisted that new state governments allow African Americans the right to vote, as long as they met the same requirements as everyone else in terms of property ownership, literacy and military service for the Union.

Within the Republican Party there was bitter disagreement over Reconstruction. Like Lincoln, most moderates favored expanding some rights for blacks, while not being overly ambitious about social reforms. Conservative Republicans believed that few, if any, conditions should be imposed on Southern states other than accepting the abolition of slavery, for re-admittance to the Union. The Radical Republicans, on the other hand, favored many more requirements to rejoin the Union. The Radicals believed that any plan to readmit Confederate states must account for land redistribution, full suffrage for black men and other policies to adequately punish the South.

General William T. Sherman led the Union Army
William T Sherman

The Radical Republicans were outraged at Lincoln's Ten Percent Plan for its leniency and the president's seeming complacency. They were angry that he had not insisted on more civil rights and protections for former slaves. Radicals in Congress passed their own plan for reconstruction in the Wade-Davis Bill. Under this plan, the president would appoint a governor for each state once a majority of its voting citizens swore that they had always been loyal to the Union. Only then could the state organize a constitutional convention. The new state constitutions had to abolish slavery, take away political rights from Confederate leaders and cancel war debts. The Wade-Davis Bill left political rights for blacks up to each state, but it would be nearly impossible for any Southern state to get half of the men to swear they had never been disloyal without franchising African Americans. Congress passed the bill in 1864, but Lincoln swiftly vetoed it.

On January 16, 1865, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15 during his march to the sea. It redistributed abandoned or confiscated plantation land to former slaves, and the recipients were often lucky enough to also obtain an unneeded mule from the army. However, after Lincoln's death a few months later, President Johnson restored all property back to its original owners. Ever since, the concept of '40 acres and a mule' has come to represent failed promises.

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