The American Civil War had been the bloodiest war America had ever experienced. It had been a long, hard war that was eventually won by the North. One of the main aims of the war was to reconstruct the Union, and a lot of white Southerners had very different opinions to the majority of America at the time on what should happen to it. Reconstruction is the period from 1865 to 1877 following the Civil War, during which the Southern states of the Confederacy were controlled by federal government. Social legislation, including the granting of new rights to black people, was introduced during this period of time.
It could be said that white Southerners ‘won’ Reconstruction – i.e, they gained the most prosperity and long-term success out of it.
During Lincoln’s presidency, he faced issues with and opposition to his ideas of what the reconstruction of the Union should entail. There was widespread radical dissatisfaction with his ‘ten percent plan’ – it wasn’t as effective as he’d thought it was going to be. For example, when over ten percent of Louisiana’s electorate voted in favour of the constitution; according to Lincoln’s plan, this would mean that the state should’ve been restored to the Union. However, Congress completely rejected Louisiana’s new constitution, and refused admission to two of its Senators. Most white Southerners’ didn’t support the idea of joining the Union, so this would’ve been deemed a good thing (until non-redeemed states were put under military control).
White Southerners gained from Andrew Johnson’s election and ideals, in the sense that he was, ultimately ‘one of them’. Johnson was from Tennessee (a Confederate state), an ex-democrat, and an ex-slave owner. Johnson didn’t support black suffrage, and had no interest in promoting the positions of ex-slaves. He did not consider black people to be equal to whites. This ideology obviously benefitted white people everywhere, North or South, and fitted in especially with the ideal most Confederate states had tried to enforce during the Civil War. Johnson was also famous with his ‘leniency’ when it came to the Southern states – there were a disproportionately large amount of Confederate generals and Congressmen in Congress.
If white Southerners opposed equal treatment of blacks and whites, they could’ve been seen to have ‘won’ Reconstruction. One of the main aims of Reconstruction was meant to be creating and enforcing legislation that worked towards a more equal society. Although slaves had technically been freed, black people were still seen as second-class citizens in nearly every Southern state. Southern states looked for ways to keep freedmen ‘under control’ (oppressed), and ‘black codes’ were eventually introduced. These ensured that black people found it extremely difficult to gain any sort of status within society. They prevented black people from basic civil rights – they didn’t hold the right to be unemployed, to buy land, to marry interracially, or to serve on juries. Institutional racism against black people continued long after the Reconstruction period, what with segregation, black codes, and the ‘Jim Crow’ – it can hardly be argued that anyone other than the people who opposed black suffrage (i.e, the majority of white Southerners) won Reconstruction.
On the other hand it could be argued that white Southerners ‘lost’ Reconstruction – i.e, they gained the least from it, or other demographics gained a lot more than they did.
The failure of Lincoln’s colonisation schemes was detrimental to the White Southerners. Lincoln had proposed to put colonisation schemes in place for ex-slaves in West Africa or the Caribbean. This idea of colonisation would’ve meant that the majority of the black population of ex-slaves in the South would’ve been completely segregated from the white community – they literally would be on a difference continent, and wouldn’t be ‘invading’ white Southern space. Unfortunately for the white Southerners’, the colonisation schemes never actually took place.
Although it would take a long time before black people were eventually regarded as even remotely equal to white people, large steps were made in black suffrage, and Civil Rights during the Reconstruction period, especially in terms of legislature. The Civil Rights Bill, which many white Southerners were opposed to, was passed in April 1866, despite Johnson’s veto. This was one of the first steps in guaranteeing minimal rights to the black community, as was the Freedman’s Bureau Bill. The ratification of the 14th Amendment was also a step in the right direction for black suffrage – it meant that the states were prohibited from depriving any male from equal protection under the law, regardless of race, and is still a valid Amendment today. The Southern states were forced to spend money on schools, orphanages and hospitals for black people – although this clearly enforce segregation, it was a step in the right direction for giving black people their basic human rights.
In the Spring of 1867, Congress passed a Military Construction Bill. This meant, in basic terms, that unless states agreed to elect constitutional conventions (like ratifying the 14th Amendment), and had become part of the Union again, they would be placed under a federal commander – they wouldn’t be recognised as states, and would be placed under military control by Congress. Troops were brought into the South. This Bill would’ve been a source of humiliation to the white South, whose majority’s ideals included a completely independent Confederate state. The Military Construction Bill could definitely be seen as a factor of the White Southerners ‘losing’ Reconstruction.
Some Southerners referred to the Reconstruction period as ‘Black Reconstruction’, showing a clear bitterness towards the period of time with hindsight, from a Southern point of view. Some white Southerners saw the period of Reconstruction as undemocratic, as it completely overruled the white majority in the South at the time. They also said that it encouraged and represented only the worst elements of Southern society – namely, illiterate blacks, self-seeking Northerners (carpetbaggers), and renegade whites (scalawags). The Congressmen of the time were seen as corrupt, and unfair. This interpretation of the period depicts the white Southerners as the victims of Reconstruction – not the winners.
The Southern whites also seemingly lost a lot of power within Congress during the Reconstruction period, especially after Johnson’s period of leniency came to an end after he was almost impeached. Control had been wrestled away from them, and there had been a major reduction of Southern political influence. Gone were the days of Southern dominance; between 1864 and 1914, there was just one elected Southern president, and only seven out of the thirty one Supreme Court justices were Southerners. Representation was lower, which would’ve meant it was harder for the South to use any influence they’d retained – this is proof of them coming out of the Reconstruction period worse off.
In my opinion, the white Southerners neither lost nor won the Reconstruction period. They didn’t ‘lose’ it, as the North could’ve made them pay much harsher penalties for their defeat during the Civil War, but they didn’t, because of ideals behind Reconstruction, and Lincoln’s image for a peaceful and stronger America. I also disagree with the idea of white Southerners ‘losing’ Reconstruction, because this implies that they were the demographic that came out of it the worst. This isn’t true; the white people were never losers compared to the black people of the American south, who would go on experiencing discrimination, intimidation, and being treated like second-class citizens for decades and decades after the end of the Reconstruction period. However, I don’t think that the white Southerners ‘won’ Reconstruction either – nearly everything the Confederates had thought for in the Civil War had been taken away from them by the North, and they’d experienced a serious decrease in power and influence along the way.