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Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Understanding Abraham Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction in Louisiana is of vital importance to comprehend his thinking about how best to re-establish the Union.

Panoramic view of New Orleans, with Federal fleet at anchor in the river, ca. 1862.

Had Lincoln not been assassinated, the Louisiana experience would have served as the foundation for the Southern states’ reentry as part of the nation. 

How would he have modified his approach based on this experience?

Lincoln’s Concept of Reconstruction

The anticipated defeat of the Confederacy gave Lincoln and northern politicians an opportunity to re-shape the nation, but also a myriad of highly divisive problems to navigate. How long should occupation last? On what terms should seceding states become re-admitted? Should the legislative or the executive branch be responsible for developing these terms? What should be the legal and social status of the newly freed Black citizens be in the new South and the country in general? Eliminating slavery was a profound moral event. But its political and economic ramifications would need to be carefully considered.

Lincoln’s primary precept was to bring the Southern states back into the Union rapidly. He had no illusions about Southern opinion about race, but he knew that a prolonged occupation would not be popular in any geographic section, and recognized that re-starting the southern economy was critical. Lincoln believed there was a deep reservoir of southern unionism that could be organized to assist the speedy return of seceded states to the Union. 

His paradigm was the “10% Plan”

Once 10% of the white male population in a state pledged allegiance to the US and opposition to slavery. It could be re-admitted to the Union once it had a new state constitution approved by him. During the Fall of 1862, Louisiana became the first place where they tried this approach. Lincoln ordered General Benjamin Butler to hold elections in New Orleans for the two seats in the US House of Representatives within the occupied territory. 

Initially, the 10% Plan was highly popular besides being politically savvy. The Radical Republicans liked it because it guaranteed emancipation, and the conservative Republicans endorsed it  because it led to reunification quickly. As the New York Herald said, the trick of riding two horses wasn’t limited to the circus.

Louisiana in the Civil War

Unidentified 3rd Louisiana Calvary Regiment, CSA

After federal troops occupied southern Louisiana in 1862, the state became the testing ground for Abraham Lincoln’s approach to Reconstruction, and thus the focal point for the debate over post-war policy. 

Only the southern portion of Louisiana, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge, fell under control of the federal government.  Since these cities were occupied early in the war, the Reconstruction experience there differed from that in other southern cities. There was minimal destruction from battle; thus, most citizens were not enthusiastic about an end to the war. New Orleans remained largely undamaged and became the state capital in 1864.

Within occupied south Louisiana, citizens were torn in their loyalties, goals, and visions for the future. When parts of Louisiana returned to Union control, some residents championed reconciliation and cooperated with Union authorities, while others refused to accept defeat and staunchly resisted occupation. The majority advocated white supremacy and the need for social control despite an altered racial order.

In November, 1862, President Lincoln promoted Maj Gen Nathaniel Banks as commander of the Army of the Gulf. Lincoln recognized that Banks, a former Governor of Massachusetts, understood state governments and was skilled at forming political relationships. Banks also had a moderate political ideology which was thought of as an asset in that situation.

Constitution of 1864

Louisiana responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s plan to readmit southern states by selecting delegates to write a new state constitution. These discussions led to the first meaningful debate over many of the key issues that would later dominate the Reconstruction era, including black suffrage and public education.  It was the first state constitution to incorporate Lincoln’s conciliatory approach, and thereby became the first test case of his postwar policy.

In 1864, the main concern was to emancipate the enslaved people and ensure legal equality, not to assure black suffrage. Louisiana politicians were not enthusiastic about either goal. Moreover, General Banks became convinced that the overtly racist views of many citizens would thwart any truly equitable solution. And tried to steer the delegates to find compromises. 

Sherman’s March To The Sea

The Constitution of 1864 abolished slavery and ended Louisiana’s rule by planters and merchants. However, it did not give African Americans voting power. Part of the reason is that Banks personally opposed black suffrage. Lincoln was favorable to the constitution because he knew he was going to have the 14th Amendment that guaranteed voting in federal elections. 

The new constitution did extend voting rights to black men who fought for the Union, owned property, or were literate. The constitution enabled the establishment of a free public school system for all children, making no mention of race. However, legislators elected under the Constitution of 1864 established public schools for whites but not for blacks. And then the confederate veterans came home, and racial discrimination and violence began. 

Louisiana Black Code of 1865

The debate over Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau was nationwide. This 1866 Pennsylvania election poster alleged that the bureau kept the Negro in idleness at the expense of the hardworking white taxpayer. A racist caricature of an African American is depicted.

The failure of freed Black citizens to gain civil and political rights in the constitution was just the beginning. Thus, to control the actions of former enslaved people. Louisiana and other southern states enacted Black Codes, modeled on restrictions under slavery.

The Louisiana Black Code did grant some rights to freed persons–to acquire and own property, marry, make contracts, and testify in court. But the primary purpose was to restore the plantation economy by relegating blacks to being poorly paid laborers without equality.

The lack of progress signified by the Black Codes convinced many northerners that only with more radical forms of Reconstruction would southern society change to accommodate ex-slaves as citizens and free workers. Congress passed the 14th and 15th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Which guaranteed equal rights without regard to race. The latter bill was passed despite President Johnson’s disapproval when Congress overrode his veto..

Radical Republican Concept of Reconstruction

The problems encountered in bringing Louisiana back under the Union cast doubt on Lincoln’s plan. The Radical Republicans began to oppose Lincoln’s lenient terms, and sought passage of the Wade-Davis Bill. This proposal required 50% of a state’s white males to take a loyalty oath in order to be readmitted. In addition, states became required to give Black citizens equality under the law but not suffrage. In addition, it was widely believed that getting a majority of a state’s white males to swear under oath that they had never supported the Confederacy was an impossible condition. As a consequence, permanent national control over the seceded states might well follow.

Both houses of Congress passed the Wade-Davis Bill in July 1864. However, President Lincoln chose not to sign it, killing the bill with a pocket veto. As a result, the Radical Republicans became outraged. However, Lincoln continued to advocate for tolerance with the southern people and speed in plans for the reconstruction of the Union. He believed it would be too difficult to repair all of the social and cultural problems and re-establish the Union if the Wade–Davis bill passed. 

The Secret Meeting Of The Civil War

Lincoln also feared the bill would sabotage reconstruction activities in many states. Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee had passed ordinances of secession but were under Federal occupation and control of pro-Union governments. He believed that Wade–Davis would jeopardize state-level emancipation movements in these states and also in loyal border states like Missouri and Maryland. Furthermore, the bill threatened the delicate political coalitions which Lincoln had begun to construct between Northern and Southern moderates, and especially southern Democratic Unionists. Moreover, from Lincoln’s perspective, he would have to balance the views of southern unionists with the radical republicans in order to make re-union succeed. 

Wade-Davis encapsulated the differences between Lincoln and Radical Republicans regarding the goals of Reconstruction. Lincoln viewed Reconstruction as an opportunity to assist in winning the war and assuring emancipation, by weakening resistance through establishing state governments with broad support. Lincoln thought the best route was to quietly persuade southerners into peaceful coexistence, while Wade–Davis treated them as conquered traitors. In part, the Radical Republicans became motivated by the possibility that continued division was smart politics by sidelining the Democratic Party for a prolonged period.

Subsequent Events

After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, the Congress had the advantage in shaping policy regarding the South. It imposed the tougher requirements for re-admission advocated in the Wade-Davis Bill, resulting in a prolonged and unsuccessful Reconstruction era.

The remaining saga of Louisiana reconstruction is violent and complicated. Briefly, in 1866, a radical republican government came into power. Moreover, a new constitution was called for. As a result, a white-led riot ensued. The 14th amendment was passed, an even more fair constitution was passed in 1868. But then the violence became severe.  The main white terror groups in Louisiana were the Knights of the White Camellia, formed in 1868, and their successor, the White League, which had spread across the state by 1874. The Colfax Riot, The Coushatta Massacre, and the battles of Cabildo and Liberty Place resulted. And ultimately led to removing Federal troops from the state; and the Jim Crow era began.

An October 24th, 1874 Harper’s Magazine editorial cartoon by Thomas Nast denouncing KKK and White League murders of innocent Blacks


In conclusion, the Louisiana experience was a harbinger of the complicated and insoluble political problems Reconstruction posed to both the winners and the losers. The weakness with Lincoln’s concept of tying reunion to emancipation. Was how profoundly the hostility to racial equality became held. And that it would lead to open violence. Conversely, the alternative proposal would have extended reconstruction even longer, and it became clear by 1876 that the northern population had lost the will to further intervene. 

Lastly, the question that remains unanswered is how Lincoln would have modified his approach based on the Louisiana experience going forward. Recognizing in hindsight that there were no simple answers, Lincoln was the person in the best position to craft a solution.

Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco. A nationally recognized cardiologist with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise. He is also an amateur historian who has published previously on the Civil War. With a particular interest in political and military leadership and its economic ramifications.

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References For Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

  • Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction. HarperCollins, 2015.
  • Eric Foner, The Second Founding How The Civil War And Reconstruction Remade The Constitution. 2019, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc
  • David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.  Belknap/Harvard Press, 2002.
  • Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning. Harvard University Press, 2010.

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