Stuff You Never Study in School: Reconstruction and the Freedman’s Bureau

Reconstruction Plans - Reconstruction Era

Episode 17: Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau

A New History of the American South

Dr Edward Ayers (2018)

Film Review

As I never studied Reconstruction in school, I found this lecture particularly valuable.

After the 1864 election, Republicans controlled the House and Senate by large majorities. Although most northerners wanted to bring Union troops home, Republicans considered ongoing military occupation essential to protect former slaves and to prevent former secessionists from resuming power.[1] Following the ceasefire that officially ended the Civil War, riots occurred in Memphis, New Orleans and other cities in which police and other whites (in some cases led by the Ku Klux Klan [2]) brutally assaulted and killed former slaves and burned their homes.

Ayers credits the Freedmen’s Bureau (1865-1872) for the most significant benefits of Reconstruction. During its operation it started 3,000 public schools, as well as assisting both landowners and former slaves in negotiating contracts enabling the latter to work for wages as free laborers.

During the 1866 midterm elections, Democratic President Andrew Johnson undertook an extremely controversial campaign tour in which he (as a former slave owner) boasted about his vetoes of civil rights legislation, mass pardons of former Confederate officials and their return to high level offices in state and federal government. This strategy backfired, resulting in a ferocious popular backlash, as well as Republican gains in Congress, as well Republican victories in all governors races and Republican control of all state legislatures.

The 1866 Civil Rights Act was the first law to define US citizenship and to guarantee equal protection under the law for all citizens. Johnson vetoed it, and Congress overturned his veto for the first time in US history. In the same year, both houses of Congress also approved the 14th Amendment (ratified by states in July 1868). In addition to granting automatic citizenship to all US-born persons, it also granted equal protection to all citizens and voting rights to all male[3] citizens. This amendment also provided for states abridging these voting rights to experience a decrease in congressional representation.

In 1867, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act, which placed the states of the former Confederacy under military rule (except for Tennessee, the only southern state to ratify the 14th Amendment and be readmitted to the Union). To be reaccepted into the Union, the other former Confederate states had to rewrite their constitutions accepting the 14th Amendment.

Congress also gave itself the power to convene special sessions,[4] as well as passing the Tenure of Office Act. This law made it illegal for the president to fire federal officers confirmed by the Senate. In 1868, after Johnson fired the Secretary of War, he became the first president to be impeached (followed by his acquittal in the Senate).

Despite their new legal rights, the majority of former slaves struggled to make a living in the Reconstruction South. In 1870 the final four states (Virginia, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia) were readmitted to the Union. Troops remained in the South until 1876.

In 1869, Congress approved the 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870) which  prohibits the federal government and each state from denying or abridging a citizen’s right to vote “on account of race color or previous condition of servitude.” According to Ayers, the primary rationale for the amendment was the large number of northern voters who didn’t agree with Black suffrage.

[1] Democrat Andrew Johnson granted pardons to most former Confederate leaders.

[2] The KKK was founded in 1863.

[3] Suffragettes who had campaigned tirelessly for abolition were extremely angry when the 14th Amendment essentially denied them the right to vote.

[4] To avoid a recurrence of the power vacuum occurring after Lincoln’s assassination when they were in recess for seven months.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

Just to let people know I’m moving to Substack and Telegram after several readers informed me I’ve been censored from WordPress Reader feed. The link to my Substack account is The link to my Telegram channel is I’ll continue to publish on WordPress as long as I’m able, but if my blog suddenly disappears you’ll know where to find me.

An Overview of the Civil War: The Bloodiest in US History

American Civil War: Commanders of the Western Theater

Episode 16: The End of War and of Slavery

A New History of the American South

Dr Edward Ayers (2018)

Film Review

Rather than describing specific battles, Ayers limits this lecture to a brief overview of the Civil War, beginning with the stalemate reached by 1862. By this point, Union ships controlled the entire coast along the periphery of the Confederacy. The latter, in turn, still controlled nearly all South’s productive farmland.

As the North pushed into Confederate territory, slaves fled their plantations to seek Union Army protection. Some Union officers returned slaves to their owners while others retained them as guides in unfamiliar Confederate territory. In August 1861, Congress passed a law classifying slaves crossing Union lines as “contraband of war” and banning their return to their owners. Instead they were housed in overcrowded, hastily constructed “contraband” camps, where they experienced tragically high mortality rates.

Meanwhile internal divisions in both North and South continued to hamper the war effort. While northern “Copperhead” Democrats openly opposed emancipation, Lincoln fought with other Republicans seeking to grant former slaves the right to enlist in the Union army. In April 1862, Washington DC officially ended slavery, issuing compensation to former slave owners.

In mid 1862 Lincoln pushed a law through Congress authorizing Union generals to confiscate or destroy southern plantations as. He also issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an Executive Order that took effect on January 1, 1863 that freed all slaves in Confederate states.

Convinced speculators were hoarding flour, in early 1863 poor southern women staged bread riots in Salisbury (North Carolina), Atlanta, Columbus and Augusta. After southern farmers rebelled against “impressment” of their crops by Confederate troops without adequate compensation, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens openly lambasted the tyrannical policies of Jefferson Davis.

The Civil War is still the most costly US war ever, in terms of lives lost. The North lost 365,000 men to wounds and disease and the South (with a smaller population) 260,000. 37,000 Black men serving in the Union army died, and 10,000 Black men, women and children died in contraband camps.

By the end of the war, the southern economy was virtually destroyed, with many cities reduced to rabble, and many acres of farmland abandoned. In contrast, the northern economy was growing robustly with Lincoln’s greenbacks* spurring rapid expansion in business investment and manufacturing.

Congress passed the 13th Amendment (banning slavery in the US) in January 1865, though the war wouldn’t end until May. It would be ratified by 27 of the required 36 states by December.

With the formal status of former slaves uncertain, some former slave owners fled to Latin America, some chained them up to keep them from leaving and others let slaves continued to live in their cabins and work for wages or for a share of crops they produced.

The Freedmen’s Bureau, formed in March 1865 as a US government agency, dispensed free medicine, food and clothing to poor whites and blacks. It also created courts to settle disputes between landowners and former slaves, drew up contracts, and set up public schools.

Southern Blacks themselves were politically divided. More wealthy black teachers, ministers and artisans merely sought equality before the law and the right to vote. In contrast impoverished former slaves were mainly interested in acquiring their own land.

As Congress was in recess (until December 1865) when Vice-president Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency (following Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865) they had virtually no influence over his policies. Under the so-called Presidential Reconstruction program he launched he granted amnesty to former Confederate leaders who signed a loyalty oath, protecting them from seizure of their property and prosecution for treason. He made no provision for Blacks to vote and refused to intervene when former Confederate states enacted Black Codes restricting the rights of former slaves. While allowing them to marry, own (non-real estate) property and sue and be sued, these laws forbade them to change jobs, own or rent land, testify in court or practice certain occupations.

*Greenbacks were emergency paper currency Lincoln issued during the Civil War when both US and European banks refused to grant his government loans at a reasonable rate of interest.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

Just to let people know I’m moving to Substack and Telegram after several readers informed me I’ve been censored from WordPress Reader feed. The link to my Substack account is The link to my Telegram channel is I’ll continue to publish on WordPress as long as I’m able, but if my blog suddenly disappears you’ll know where to find me.

The Incredible Tragedy of the Civil War


Death and the Civil War Directed by Ric Burns (PBS) 2012 Film review This PBS documentary explores the unprecedented level of casualties during the US Civil War and its effect on future federal and military policy. The Civil War was … Continue reading

Hidden History: White House Slaves

The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American ...

The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House

by Jesse J Holland

First Lyons Press (2017)

Book Review

This fascinating book recounts the personal histories of individuals slaves owned by US presidents between 1789 and 1861. Twelve of the first eighteen presidents owned slaves. Of founding fathers who became president, only John Adams and John Quincy Adam (who were Quakers) didn’t own them. Jefferson and Adams owned slaves despite speaking out against slavery.

Most is known about the individual slaves owned by Washington, Jefferson and Madison. At the time of the revolution, Washington owned 150 slaves. He would bring some of his house slaves with him to New York (the first US capitol) when he assumed the presidency in 1789. Things got more complicated when the US capitol moved to Philadelphia in 1790.  Pennsylvania, which abolished slavery in 1780, had a law automatically granting freedom to any slave who remained in the state longer than six months. This meant Washington had to send his slaves back to his Mount Vernon plantation every six months to retain ownership.* This process likely led to of them to escape.

The chapter on Jefferson’s slaves includes his relationship with 15-year-old Sally Hemmings and the six children he had by her. Sally and her children remained at Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, though her brother James served as a French-trained chef in the Jefferson White House.

Madison owned 100 slaves. Like Washington and Jefferson brought his house slaves to the White House to serve as domestic servants.

In addition to chapters on slaves owned by Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Andrew Johnson and Grant, there are excellent chapters on the history of the transition from indentured servitude to slavery and the early states to abolish slavery (Vermont 1777, Massachusetts 1783 and New York 1827).

One of the best chapters concerns the vital role slaves played in constructing the White House. One of the most important jobs they performed was digging up clay for bricks, although they also quarried stone used in interior walls and served as carpenters. The US paid their owners a wage for their services.

*This six-month rule was largely responsible for the decision to create a separate district as the nation’s capitol (Washington DC). The Southern slave states of Maryland and Virginia gladly gave up some of their state territory to accommodate slave-holding presidents.