• Weird History

What Was Life Actually Like In The South During Reconstruction?

In April of 1865, after four long years of bloodshed, the Civil War finally came to an end when General Robert E. Lee formally surrendered the Confederate Army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.

The president of the newly-reunited United States, Abraham Lincoln, was allowed just a few short days to celebrate the victory and begin implementing his two-year-old plan for the Reconstruction of the country. Then, on April 15, 1865, Lincoln was gunned down in Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth, a man sympathetic to the defeated Confederacy. In the years following the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, his successor Andrew Johnson proved utterly incapable of unifying a fractured nation. Under Johnson, everyday life during the Reconstruction was a gauntlet of simmering hatred, short supplies, and an onslaught of new means for oppressing African Americans.

When the Civil War ended, what should have been a moment of triumph, instead marked the beginning of nearly a decade of failed attempts to undo the damage caused by the war. The disastrous effects of the Reconstruction period that followed would shape the future of the Southern United States for the next century. Here’s a glimpse of how those policies and the inherent hatred they fed off impacted daily life during the Reconstruction period.

  • Photo: Eyre Crowe / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    White Southern Planters Were Shocked Their Slaves Wanted To Leave

    Many members of the Southern elite believed their slaves were okay with being held in bondage. When abolitionists began their noble work, some Southern elites simply scoffed and reassured themselves their slaves were happy where they were. When the 13th Amendment was passed, those same Southern slaveholders were surprised when their former slaves exercised the option to get off the property.

    This sense of shock quickly turned into festering resentment, aimed at the slaves who simply wanted to experience freedom. Southern white landowners set about reinstating their hold over the African American population.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Southern Hospitality Evaporated, And People Lost Hope

    (White) visitors to the Antebellum South often noted the region was remarkable for its residents’ generally warm and hospitable attitude to (white) guests. When the Civil War ended, that day-to-day positivity went missing, along with millions of dollars that once lined the pockets of Southern landowners. Wrote a contributor for Scribner’s Monthly:

    There was no longer the spirit to maintain the grand, unbounded hospitality once so characteristic of the South. For it was a grand and lordly life, that of the owner of a sugar plantation; filled with culture, pleasure, and the refinement of living;-- but now!

    For their part, the initial hope and optimism the South’s African American community nurtured was deflated, when government promises of financial stability failed to materialize.

  • Photo: Jas. E. Taylor. / WIkimedia Commons / Public domain

    Black Children Were Allowed To Go To School For The First Time

    Between 1865 and 1870, a government agency known as the Freedmen’s Bureau founded and oversaw more than 3,000 schools across the South. These schools were created for learning at every level. During this time, Fisk University, Howard University, and several more of the nation’s first African American colleges were established.

    Though they were a victory on paper, several of these schools suffered negligible support from state governments. More often than not, there wasn’t enough money for proper buildings, let alone educated teachers or decent books. Even with those obstacles in place, however, African American attendance at schools skyrocketed.

    Oddly enough, while the number of minority students rose during the Reconstruction era, the attendance of white students dwindled.

  • Most Plantation Owners Woke Up Broke, And Had To Find New Ways To Generate Income

    History books (and teachers) tend to soften things and say the Antebellum South thrived by virtue of an agrarian economy. More accurately, a handful of landed gentry made huge sums of money from exploiting unbelievably cheap labor in the form of slavery. When the Civil War ended and Congress passed the 13th Amendment banning slavery, these previously wealthy white landowners found themselves without any source of income.

    Not only were their former slaves free to make their own future, but most of the Southern elite converted their fortune into Confederate money when the states originally seceded. In other words, of the two main ways to measure wealth in the South — the number of slaves a planter had and their liquid assets — the first was illegal and the second wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. The cumulative loss of wealth for everyone involved is estimated at around $500 million.

    Of course, these elite Southerners still owned considerable stretches of farmland, an asset they used to quickly re-establish their fortunes.