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Reconstruction Period: Goals, Success and Failures

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Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

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

The Reconstruction period spanned 1865 - 1877, where the Republicans worked to repair the South after the Civil War. Learn about the goals, successes and failures of the Reconstruction period. Updated: 11/17/2022

Evaluating Reconstruction

As the Civil War was drawing to a close in 1865, President Lincoln began making plans for the physical, economic, social and political rehabilitation of a region marked by four years of war and 200 years of racism. Republicans in the federal government felt responsible for restoring public infrastructure, private property, food production, medical care and housing - all while the workforce and economy were in shambles. Furthermore, they wanted to change many characteristics of Southern society and politics.

Reconstruction-era Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant
Presidents Lincoln Johnson Grant

Even though most of the programs were aimed at helping the South, many white Southerners resented the suggestion that their world needed to be reconstructed at all and fought against any changes imposed on them by Republicans, Northerners or anyone in the federal government. This struggle to rebuild Southern government, society, infrastructure and economy was called Reconstruction, and it dominated political debate for 12 years under three different presidents. But, was it successful?

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  • 0:05 Evaluating Reconstruction
  • 1:09 The Successes of…
  • 2:54 The Failures of Reconstruction
  • 5:12 The Verdict?
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The Successes of Reconstruction

President Lincoln's original goal in the Civil War was to hold the nation together. And in this, the war and Reconstruction were a success. The Confederacy was destroyed for good, and every state that had seceded was readmitted to the Union. In fact, the Civil War went a step further in terms of public thought. American historian Shelby Foote noted, 'Before the war it was said 'the United States are.' Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always 'the United States is,' as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an 'is.'

The federal government outlawed slavery with the 13th Amendment, defined citizenship and protected all Americans under the law with the 14th Amendment and extended suffrage to all men in the 15th Amendment. Federal legislation, like the Freedman's Bureau and the Civil Rights Act, worked to get African Americans back on their feet and participating equally in the government, society and economy. Black men were elected to every level of government, including governors and senators.

Some of the important successes of Reconstruction
Reconstruction Successes Map

All of the Southern states drafted new constitutions and ratified the Reconstruction Amendments. Many African Americans participated in new state and local governments, which worked for equal rights and to rebuild or create services like schools, railroads, hospitals, housing, roads and asylums. Charitable organizations and individuals - especially Northerners - worked to improve literacy and education for African Americans. Businessmen opened new industries, like steel, cotton and lumber mills to revitalize the economy. New cultural venues opened. Black institutions and churches gained autonomy.

How the Freedmen's Bureau Worked

The Union Army established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land, called the Freedmen's Bureau for short, in 1865. This office was designed to provide assistance to former enslaved people as they navigated their new, free lives in a land of hostile whites. The Freedmen's Bureau provided food rations during Reconstruction. It also helped build public schools and hospitals. The Freedmen's schools helped lay the foundation for the larger public education system throughout the South. Freedmen's Bureau officers also tried to ensure that sharecropping contracts between African Americans and white landowners were fair and were followed through appropriately. Such enforcement was particularly important because the vast majority of former enslaved people were illiterate. They flocked to Freedmen's schools to learn to read.

Still, the Freedmen's Bureau had limited efficacy, primarily because it was severely understaffed. During its existence between 1865-1872, for example, the Freedmen's Bureau never employed more than one-thousand agents, even though the Bureau was supposed to oversee the entirety of the former Confederacy. Moreover, Freedmen's Bureau offices were often hundreds of miles apart from one another, making it hard for people to reach Freedmen's offices to register complaints and receive assistance.

The Failures of Reconstruction

Yet, Reconstruction faced tremendous challenges, many (but not all) of them because of white resistance.

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