When people refer to “Reconstruction” they’re generally talking about the first dozen or so years following the war, 1865 to about 1877, and the process of returning the eleven Confederate states back into the union and converting their economies from slavery to free-labor. The former slaves, called “freedmen,” were to be become equal citizens with full civil rights.
For a while it looked like great progress was being made, including Congress passing three Constitutional amendments. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was passed in 1865 before the war had even ended. In 1868, the 14th Amendment guaranteed full citizenship and civil rights to all persons born or naturalized in the United States. And in 1870, the 15th ensured the right to vote could not be denied based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (It was still denied to women until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, of course, but I’ll leave that to some of my many lady friends to address.)
Not surprisingly, as you probably know, these laws incensed many Southern whites—mostly the common men, as I used to call them, perhaps even more so than the planter class—and gave rise to white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Most people don’t realize how terrible the Klan was, how they attacked and intimidated blacks merely for trying to exercise their rights as equal citizens.
If you’ll pardon me while I digress a moment, I don’t think I’ve mentioned Adelbert Ames, Del as he was called, one of my first friends at West Point. The son of a Maine sea captain, Del was the quintessential Yankee, born and bred. I was proud to call him my friend, and I think he respected me in return, despite my being a slaveholder’s son. Not surprisingly, his hero was Abraham Lincoln, and you would not believe how upset he was to learn I was resigning from the corps to join the Confederate Army. I’m telling you all this simply to share the fact that, after rising to the rank of major general during the war, in 1868 Del was appointed provisional governor of Mississippi, and I’m proud to say he appointed the first black office holders in a state where white supremacist terrorism was rampant.
Unfortunately, when U.S. Army troops were removed from the states of the old Confederacy in 1877 and enforcement ended, white Southerners reestablished legal and political dominance over blacks through violence and intimidation, including suppression of the black vote in order to take back power and deem much of Reconstruction null and void.
With the laws of Reconstruction no longer enforced, white-dominated state legislatures enacted what came to be known as “Jim Crow” laws, a system of white supremacy that resulted in second-class citizenship for African Americans.