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Reconstruction: The Second Civil War | Timeline

Reconstruction Timeline

Reconstruction of the South, 1857. Library of Congress.

January 1: President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that the majority of the nation's slave population "henceforth shall be free."

July: In New York City, opposition to the nation's first military draft triggers a riot, the largest in American history, as poor white Northerners protest being forced to fight to end slavery. Over four days, the insurrection develops into wholesale violence, with an uncounted number of victims.

December 8: President Lincoln announces the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. It offers pardon and restoration of property -- except slaves -- to Confederates who swear allegiance to the Union and agree to accept emancipation. Known as the 10 Percent Plan, it requires only 10% of a former Confederate state's voters to pledge the oath before the state can begin the process of readmission into the Union.

Early 1864: President Lincoln begins Reconstruction in the Union-occupied former Confederate state of Louisiana. Lincoln's lenient 10 percent policy upsets Radical Republicans, who expect the South to do more to gain readmission, and believe Lincoln's approach does not provide enough protection to ex-slaves.

July: In response to Lincoln's plan, Congress passes its own, the Wade-Davis Bill. It ups the allegiance requirement from 10% to a majority of a state's voters, limits many former Confederates from political participation in state reconstruction, demands blacks receive not only their freedom but equality before the law, and imposes a series of other requirements on the states. Lincoln does not sign the Wade-Davis Bill; his pocket veto means the bill does not pass into law.

November 8: Lincoln is reelected.

By 1865, some 180,000 blacks have served in the Union Army, over one-fifth of the adult male black population under 45.

January 16: Marching the Union Army through the South with an ever-growing number of freed slaves in its wake, General William Tecumseh Sherman issues Special Field Order 15, setting aside part of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida by settlement exclusively by black people. The settlers are to receive "possessory title" to forty-acre plots.

January 31: The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the Union, wins Congressional approval and is sent to the states for ratification. By the end of February, 18 states will ratify the amendment; after significant delay in the South, ratification will be completed by December.

February 18: General Sherman's troops enter Charleston, South Carolina.

March: The temporary Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands is established within the War Department. The Freedman's Bureau works to smooth the transition from slavery, providing former slaves with immediate shelter and medical services, help in negotiating labor contracts with landowners, and more. The bureau is initially authorized for just one year, but will remain in operation until 1868.

April: In Lincoln's last speech, he mentions black suffrage for soldiers and some others. The Civil War ends when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union general Ulysses S. Grant. Six days later, President Lincoln is assassinated, and his vice president, Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson, becomes president.

May: President Johnson announces his plan of Presidential Reconstruction. It calls for general amnesty and restoration of property -- except for slaves -- to all Southerners who will swear loyalty to the Union. No friend to the South's large landowners, Johnson declares that they and the Confederate leadership will be required to petition him individually for pardons. This Reconstruction strategy also requires states to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery. The president's plan is implemented during the summer.

August/September: President Johnson shows growing leniency toward the white South: he orders the restoration of land to its former owners, including the land provided to freed slaves by General Sherman's January field order. Freedmen are especially reluctant to leave the land they have started farming in South Carolina and Georgia. The president starts aligning himself with the Southern elite, declaring, "white men alone must manage the South."

Fall: Southern states elect former Confederates to public office at the state and national levels, drag their feet in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment, and refuse to extend the vote to black men. Southern legislatures begin drafting "Black Codes" to re-establish white supremacy. The laws impose restrictions on black citizens, especially in attempts to conrol labor: freedmen are prohibited from work except as field hands, blacks refusing to sign labor contracts can be punished, unemployed black men can be seized and auctioned to planters as laborers, black children can be taken from their families and made to work. The new laws amount to slavery without the chain.

November-December: At the request of President Johnson, victorious Union general Ulysses S. Grant tours the South, and is greeted with surprising friendliness. His report recommends a lenient Reconstruction policy.

December: President Johnson declares the reconstruction process complete. Outraged, Radical Republicans in Congress refuse to recognize new governments in Southern states. More than sixty former Confederates arrive to take their seats in Congress, including four generals, four colonels and six Confederate cabinet officers -- even Alexander H. Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy. The Clerk of the House refuses to include the Southern representatives in his roll call, and they are denied their elected seats.

The Union Army is quickly demobilized. From a troop strength of one million on May 1, only 152,000 Union soldiers remain in the South by the end of 1865.

Southern towns and cities start to experience a large influx of freedmen. Over the next five years, the black populations of the South's ten largest cities will double.

February: President Johnson vetoes a supplemental Freedmen's Bureau Bill, which Republican moderates have designed to extend protection to Southern blacks.

April: Another piece of moderate Republican legislation, the Civil Rights Bill, grants citizenship and the same rights enjoyed by white citizens to all male persons in the United States "without distinction of race or color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude." It passes both houses of Congress by overwhelming majorities, and when President Johnson vetoes it, Congress overrides the veto, making the bill the first major piece of legislation enacted over a presidential veto. The rift between Congress and the president is complete.

May 1: Racial violence rages in Memphis, Tennessee for three days as whites assault blacks on the streets. In the aftermath, 48 people, nearly all black, are dead, and hundreds of black homes, churches, and schools have been pillaged or burned.

June 13: Congress sends the Fourteenth Amendment to the states. It writes the Republican vision of how post-Civil War American society should be structured into the U.S. Constitution, out of the reach of partisan politics. The amendment defines citizenship to include all people born or naturalized in the U.S. and increases the federal government's power over the states to protect all Americans' rights. It stops short of guaranteeing blacks the right to vote. The controversial amendment will take over two years to be ratified.

July: Congress re-passes its supplemental Freedmen's Bureau Bill. President Johnson vetoes it again, and Congress again overrides the veto, making the bill a law.

July 24: Tennessee is the first former Confederate state readmitted to the Union.

July 30: Riots break out in New Orleans, Louisiana: a white mob attacks blacks and Radical Republicans attending a black suffrage convention, killing 40 people.

August 28: "The swing around the circle." With Congress demanding that Southern states ratify the Fourteenth Amendment in order to gain re-admittance to the legislature, President Johnson begins a disastrous speaking tour of the North to bolster support for his policies in the mid-term elections. He asks popular Union general Ulysses S. Grant to come along. When crowds heckle the president, Johnson's angry and undignified responses cause Grant -- and many Northerners -- to lose sympathy with the president and his lenient Reconstruction policies.

Fall: Following the president's ruinous campaign, the mid-term elections become a battleground over the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights. Johnson's opponents are victorious, and the Republicans occupy enough seats to guarantee they will be able to override any presidential vetoes in the coming legislative session.

Union troops are further demobilized; only 38,000 remain in the South by the fall.

March 1: The North Carolina legislature holds a whiskey party when it adjourns before the state's first election with black candidates. "We have lost all hope of escaping the vengeance of the Northern people," one state senator writes, "and are preparing for the worst."

March 2: The new session of Congress begins to pass additional reconstruction laws, overriding President Johnson's vetoes and beginning a more hard-line attitude toward the South. Known as Radical Reconstruction, the new policies divide the South into military districts and require the states to adopt new constitutions, introduce black suffrage, and ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.

July 31: President Andrew Johnson tells Ulysses S. Grant that he intends to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who has been a consistent opponent of the president and is close to the Radical Republicans who dominate Congress. Stanton has refused to resign and Congress has supported him through the Tenure of Office Act, which requires the consent of Congress to removals. At the same time, Congress has weakened the president's control of the army through the Command of the Army Act, which requires that all military orders of the President have the approval of the general of the army (Grant). Johnson believes the Tenure of Office Act is unconstitutional, and hopes to defeat the effort to force Stanton upon him by employing the popular Grant.

August 11: Johnson orders Grant to take over the War Department temporarily.

January 14: Grant resigns his position as interim Secretary of War after Congress insists upon Stanton's reinstatement. President Johnson believes that Grant has betrayed him; Grant now openly breaks with Johnson.

Winter: Black and white lawmakers begin to work side by side in the Southern states' constitutional conventions, the first political meetings in American history to include substantial numbers of black men.

May 16: Having infuriated the Republicans, Andrew Johnson becomes the first president to be impeached by a house of Congress, but he avoids conviction and retains his office by a single vote. He will not get the Democratic nomination in the upcoming presidential election.

May 21: The Republican National Convention at Chicago nominates Grant for president and Schuyler Colfax of Indiana for vice president; Grant adopts the conciliatory slogan, "Let us have peace."

June 22: Arkansas is readmitted to the Union.

June 25: Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina are readmitted to the Union.

July 14: Alabama is readmitted to the Union.

July 9: The Democrats nominate Horatio Seymour, former Governor of New York, for president, and Francis P. Blair, Jr., formerly one of Grant's commanders, for vice president.

July 28: The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, defining citizenship to include all people born or naturalized in the U.S., is finally ratified.

September: Black elected officials are ousted from the Georgia state legislature; "The Negro is unfit to rule the State," the Atlanta Constitution declares. The black legislators appeal to President Grant to intervene to get them readmitted, which takes a year.

November 3: Grant is elected president, winning an electoral college majority of 214-80 over his Democratic opponent. But the popular majority is only 306,000 in a total vote of 5,715,000. Newly enfranchised black men in the South cast 700,000 votes for the Republican ticket.

The Freedmen's Bureau tallies nearly 3,000 schools, serving over 150,000 students, in the South.

February 26: Congress passes the Fifteenth Amendment, which attempts to address Southern poll violence by stating that the right to vote can not be denied on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." It is sent to the states for ratification.

April: In its 5-3 Texas v. White decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declares Radical Reconstruction constitutional, stating that secession from the Union is illegal.

September 24:  Black Friday on the New York gold exchange. Financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk attempt to corner the available gold supply, and try unsuccessfully to involve President Grant in the illegal plan.

Fall: Violence against blacks continues throughout the South; in October, Georgia legislator Abram Colby is kidnapped and whipped.

January 10: Grant proposes a treaty of annexation with Santo Domingo in an attempt to find land for freed slaves to settle. Under Grant's plan, freed slaves will be able to relocate to the Caribbean island (the Dominican Republic today). The treaty is opposed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by Charles Sumner, and will never be confirmed.

January 26: Virginia is readmitted to the Union.

February 3: The 15th Amendment is ratified.

February 23: Mississippi is readmitted to the Union.

March 30: Texas is readmitted to the Union.

July 15: Georgia is the last former Confederate state to be readmitted to the Union.

October: Congress hears testimony from victims of Klan violence. Grant cracks down on anti-black violence in South Carolina.

May 1: Meeting of the Liberal Republican Convention at Cincinnati. Leaders of the group include many prominent Republicans unhappy about vindictive Reconstruction policies and corruption in government, which they call Grantism. New York newspaperman Horace Greeley receives their nomination. Greeley's earlier radicalism, high tariff views, and well-known eccentricity repel many who oppose Grant. The Democrats, on July 9, also nominate Greeley.

May 22: Grant signs an amnesty bill he had advocated. Although the final legislation is less generous than Grant had wanted, now only a few hundred former Confederates are excluded from political privileges.

June 5: The Republican Convention meets at Philadelphia. It will renominate Grant on the first ballot.

September 5: The New York Sun charges that Vice President Colfax, Vice-Presidential nominee Henry Wilson, James Garfield, and other prominent politicians are involved in the operations of the Credit Mobilier, a corporation established by the promoters of the Union Pacific railroad to siphon off the profits of transcontinental railroad construction. Ultimately, two congressmen will be censured for their part in the swindle and many other politicians will be damaged in reputation.

November 5: Grant is reelected with an electoral college majority of 286-66, and a popular majority of 763,000.

Winter: Articles begin to appear in the New York Tribune, accusing black lawmakers in South Carolina of corruption.

April 13: The Colfax Massacre. The White League, a paramilitary group intent on securing white rule in Louisiana, clashes with Louisiana's almost all-black state militia. The resulting death toll is staggering: only three members of the White League die, but some one hundred black men are killed. Of those, nearly half are murdered in cold blood after they surrender.

September 18: The panic of 1873 begins with the failure of a Wall Street banking firm, spreads to the stock exchange, and eventually leads to widespread unemployment.

Fall: The political tide has finally turned in the Democrats' favor; they win control of Congress as stories of black political corruption, continued Southern violence, and a terrible economic depression occupy public attention.

March 1: As one of its last acts, the Republican-led Congress passes the Civil Rights Bill of 1875, prohibiting segregation in public facilities. The law will stand only until 1883, when the U.S. Supreme Court will strike it down.

March 4: Following a bitterly disputed presidential contest between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden, in which both candidates claim victory, Hayes is declared president. In a back-room political deal, the Republicans agree to abandon Reconstruction policies in exchange for the presidency.

Reconstruction policies officially end. The South codifies and enforces segregation. Violations of black civil rights will not command national attention again until after World War II.

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