UNITED STATES HISTORY
The New South
*Life under Reconstruction was not easy for anyone. Blacks
had a measure of freedom, although it had been slow in coming
thanks to disputes within Congress and between Congress and the
President and the South. The XIV Amendment was meant to put
Blacks in the same position as women—they were to be citizens but
not be guaranteed the franchise by the Federal Government.
However, this was partly a compromise to satisfy moderate
Republicans and the few Democrats in Congress. The Radicals
wanted to give the vote to blacks, at least in the South.
They would do this, moreover, while preventing thousands of white
Southerners from voting, due to their Confederate service records.
*With the army to protect them, black men in the South voted in
great numbers. They joined the Union League, a political
organization based in the North but that soon helped Southern
blacks learn to vote and to campaign for offices or on behalf of
their favourite office-seekers. Even black women assisted in
campaigns, often doing important work despite not being able to
*With Black votes behind them, Black Southerners went to the
conventions that created new state Constitutions and they were
elected to local, state, and even federal offices. Between
1868 and 1876, 14 black Congressmen and 2 Senators (Hiram Revels
and Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi) were sent to Washington from
*Reconstructed governments did initiate many valuable reforms,
some of which were kept around by the Redeemer governments that
replaced them. Among these were public schools, simpler tax
systems, and new public works (although these often ended up
putting Southern states deep in debt to carpetbaggers—in
Tennessee, for example, Governor Brownlow issued far more bonds
than the state could afford). Women also got a few more
rights, mainly the right to control their own property.
*Southerners cursed the Yankees who came South to take part in
Reconstruction and the new governments, calling these people
carpetbaggers, suggesting that they were poor, no-account people
at home who carried everything around in a cheap suitcase made of
carpet scraps. The only thing worse than a carpetbagger was
a scalawag, a Southerner who became a Republican after the Civil
War. Most of these men had been Whigs and Unionists before
and during the war, but some were former Democrats who changed
parties when it became obvious who was running the show.
*The stereotype of these scalawags and carpetbaggers was that they
were corrupt, opportunistic profit-seekers out to take advantage
of the defeated South under a corrupt government. In some
cases that was true—the 19th Century after the Civil War was
characterized by government corruption at almost all levels.
However, many were simply businessmen and even reformers who
wanted to modernise the South, although many were, of course, not
averse to making some money on the deal.
*Some, of course, did treat Reconstruction as a period of imperial
rule, which is why no West Virginian owns the mineral rights on
his own lands. Indeed, some historians have described the
South as an ‘internal colony’ in which it could be exploited for
raw materials in the same way that Europeans of the 19th Century
exploited their colonies overseas.
*Others did skim liberally from public funds, accept bribes, and
use government money for private purchases, especially in South
Carolina and Louisiana. One carpetbagger governor with an
$8,000 annual salary managed to make $100,000 in one year through
graft. However, this kind of corruption was common in all
the United States, and generally even worse in the North, where
there was more to steal.
*Former slave-owners are incensed to see their former slaves
running their states, especially when they could not vote or hold
office themselves. They resented being a conquered people
prevented from even voting by an occupying army that seized
property and bullied former rebels into obedience.
*To fight back, Southerners formed resistance organizations.
On Christmas Eve, 1865 the Ku Klux Klan was formed in Pulaski
County, Tennessee. The name came from the Greek 'kyklos,'
meaning 'circle.' Their first Grand Wizard was General
Nathan Bedford Forrest, infamous for his role in the Fort Pillow
Massacre. They soon began playing tricks on black people in
order to frighten them out of voting or taking a large role in
public life or otherwise ‘getting above themselves.’ To do
so, they wore bed sheets so they would resemble ghosts or spooks
or something. Early tricks were as simple as pretending to
drink an entire bucket of water or claiming to be the ghost of a
Confederate soldier. To the superstitious Blacks (and even
poor Whites) of the day, this could be very frightening.
Many Blacks and carpetbaggers got the message and quit going out
to vote or left town.
*Soon, though, pranks were not enough, and the Knights of the
Invisible Empire turned to outright violence and terror. The
Ku Klux Klan attacked freedmen, carpetbaggers, and scalawags in
order to scare them away from things the Klan did not want them
doing, especially voting or holding public office, but even to
keep Black from buying their own property, especially in towns
near White people. Enemies of the Klan were harassed,
kidnapped, and often murdered. 1,000 Louisianans alone were
supposedly killed by the Klan in 1868, and 300 Republicans were
killed across the South, including a Congressman.
*Congress was outraged by the Klan’s activities. In 1870 and
1871 Congress passed the Force Acts, which, despite the ruling in
ex parte Milligan, gave the US Army tremendous power to use
against anyone suspected of participating in violence through the
Klan or any similar group. Under the president at that time,
Ulysses S. Grant, the Army was very active in suppressing the Klan
under these laws.
*However, many of these groups just went underground, claiming to
be dancing clubs or missionary societies. Besides, they had
already done their work. Afraid to vote or seek office, many
Blacks were in much the same position they had been in before
military reconstruction began. This power, now back in the
hands of white Southerners, would be used to flout the XIV and XV
Amendments throughout the 19th and well into the 20th
Centuries. Afterwards, the Klan would be romanticised as a
freedom-fighting organisation that saved the South from oppression
by carpetbaggers and their black allies. The most famous
instance of this was the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation. That
film would be one of many forces that would bring the Klan back to
prominence in the 1910s and ‘20s.
*Congress had problems besides the Klan. The Radicals were
increasingly frustrated by that drunken tailor Johnson. The
Radicals had an ally in the executive branch, though.
Secretary of War Stanton was on their side and often told them
what Johnson was up to, essentially serving as a spy against the
president on behalf of Congress. This angered Johnson almost
as much as Johnson angered Congress. Furthermore, it gave
Congress an idea for a pretext for impeachment. Impeachment
would benefit Congress because then the president pro tempore of
the Senate (according to the custom of the day) would become
President. The present president pro tem was the
controversial, but certainly Republican, ‘Bluff’ Ben Wade of Ohio.
*In 1867 Congress declared that since the Senate had to confirm
all Cabinet appointments, that also meant that the Senate had to
confirm any removal from office of any Cabinet member during a
president’s term. This was called the Tenure of Office
Act. Congress knew Johnson, who badly wanted to fire
Stanton, was likely to break this, and they turned out to be
*On 5 August, 1867 Johnson requested Stanton’s resignation.
Stanton refused and the Senate backed him up. Stanton
barricaded himself in his office, even after Johnson named General
Grant as his replacement. Grant eventually turned the job
down to show support for Stanton.
*This gave Congress what they needed. For violating the
Tenure of Office Act Johnson was impeached by the House of
Representatives. During the Senate trial, however, Johnson
behaved himself, was quiet, sober, and conciliatory, when he even
appeared in the Senate chamber at all. His defence suggested
that the law was unconstitutional (and the Supreme Court would
officially say so in 1926, but in the 1860s was too scared of the
Radical Republicans to challenge them much, and its Chief Justice,
Salmon P. Chase was pretty radical himself).
*The prosecutors had a fairly flimsy case, and Johnson was
acquitted, although only by one vote. This was partly
because many Republicans did not trust Ben Wade, whom they
regarded as a dangerous radical because he supported paper money,
the labour movement, and a very high tariff, most of which scared
the business community. Others simply felt the charges were
not substantial enough: Johnson was certainly obnoxious, but
that alone is neither a high crime nor a misdemeanour. Other
Congressmen were nervous about setting a precedent that would
weaken the executive office too much. Besides, Johnson would
be out of office a few months after the end of the trial in 1868,
so there was no great need to remove him a few months early.
It is possible that the entire trial was rigged to yield this
dramatic outcome for the sole purpose of breaking Johnson’s
remaining power and prestige, and to show him just who was in
*Indeed, Congress would remain the most important part of the
government for the rest of the century. The Third Two-Party
System, which was beginning to develop and which would last until
about 1900, would be characterised by relatively weak presidents
(almost all of them Republicans elected by Union veterans) facing
a more powerful Congress (often controlled by a slim majority of
Democrats, at least in the House, and with the support of the
entire South behind them, as no Southerner would ever vote for the
Party of Lincoln). Although voter turnout was very high, the
differences between the two parties were fairly trivial and few
great policies were enacted.
*Even one of the few triumphs of Johnson’s presidency was seen as
a great mistake at the time. This was Seward’s purchase of
Alaska in 1867 from the Tsar of Russia, Alexander II, who wanted
America as an ally to counterbalance Britain. Seward got all
of Alaska for $7.2 million. It was seen as useless and a
waste of money at the time and was called ‘Seward’s Icebox’ and
‘Seward’s Folly,’ and political cartoons showed all the polar
bears voting Republican, but Alaska has since proven to be very
*After leaving office, Andrew Johnson returned to Greeneville and
to Tennessee politics, and after a couple failed attempts at
election, was returned to the Senate in 1875, the only former
president to serve in the Senate, although he only served six
months before dying of a stroke while visiting his daughter in
Elizabethton. He was buried wrapped in an American flag with
a copy of the Constitution for a pillow.
*One irony of the creation of new state constitutions by Black
legislators and Yankee carpetbaggers is that once the Southern
states were back in the Union and the white population could vote
again, those Black men and carpetbaggers would lose most of their
powers under the Redeemer governments of states that got through
Reconstruction and set up new, usually anti-Black and
*These Redeemer or Home-Rule governments had to be careful not to
re-create de facto segregation too quickly, as they could
be re-occupied, and some were. Southern governments remained
volatile, but they began to run themselves as soon as they could,
and by 1870 most Southern states were back in the Union, although
they would still need watching if the North wanted to look after
the freed slaves.
*In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican Governor of Ohio ran
against Samuel Tilden, Democratic Governor of New York, for the
presidency. Hayes was a Civil War veteran, a fact his
supporters mentioned often, thus ‘waving the bloody shirt.’
Tilden was more popular, however, and won a slight majority of the
*In the Electoral College, however, things were closer.
Several states--Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and
Oregon--had one or more of their electoral votes questioned, so
that twenty votes were unallocated at the end of 1876. The
election was close—if Tilden got even one of the disputed votes,
or if Hayes got them all, that man would win.
*Tilden probably should have won, but the Democrats were afraid to
complain too loudly, because they feared (unjustifiably) that
Grant would set himself up as military dictator if pushed too
far. Republicans were upset, but some were willing to let
Tilden in. Some Blacks were supposedly afraid that if Tilden
did win, slavery would be re-established. It was a very
*Congress had to decide what to do, so they set up a special
committee. The committee had 7 Democrats, 7 Republicans, and
one honest man. However, at the last minute, the neutral
man, David Davis of the Supreme Court, was appointed to the Senate
and resigned his judgeship. He was replaced by a
Republican. Not surprisingly, the commission voted 8 to 7 in
favour of Hayes.
*The Democrats were furious. However, rather than have a
constitutional crisis, a bargain was reached: the Compromise
of 1877. Tilden would let Hayes take office without
complaint, but in return Reconstruction would end in the South,
and some money would be spent to improve the Southern states in
ways they wanted.
*By this point almost every Southern state was part of the Union
again, but as government scrutiny declined the South returned to
its old ways. The Black Codes were replaced by Jim Crow
Laws, civil rights were ignored, and Black suffrage was
limited. Furthermore, the North and especially the South
would remain bitter about the war for generations to come.
*After the devastation of the Civil War and Reconstruction, many
Southern leaders felt they needed to change how the South did
business. They wanted to move away from growing staple
crops, and industrialise as the North and Europe had. They
said they needed to become ‘Southern Yankees’ and create a New
*In some places this happened, although it was usually funded by
Northern (and sometimes British) investors, so a lot of the real
profits did not stay in the South.
*Some industries seemed natural for the South: textile mills
opened in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia; cigar
factories opened in Virginia and North Carolina. A large
timber industry developed in the Appalachians (especially North
Carolina) and iron and steel manufacturing expanded in Nashville
and especially Birmingham. Tennessee, especially Middle
Tennessee, also produced a great deal of flour. A lot of
their products, though, were sent North (planks went North to
become furniture, cloth went North to be dyed and made into
clothes, iron and steel went north to be made into beams,
machines, and tools).
*Many more railroads were also built, particularly leading to and
from major cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, Montgomery,
Mobile, and elsewhere, but they were still slow to enter rural
areas and only a few linked the South to major Northern
cities. Later, Atlanta, Dallas, and Nashville also grew into
railroad hubs, and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad had a
near-monopoly on rail transit in much of the central South.
*The Southern economy did grow, but slowly, largely because there
were not enough educated workers, nor did Southerners have enough
money to spend or to invest to really help industry grow.
Northern industry had grown in part because of the conspicuous
consumption or a growing middle class, but the South could not
*Because business owners had limited funds, and Southern banks did
not have much to lend, Southern factories could not grow as large
or offer the same wages as Northern businesses, so southerners who
wanted to work in factories often went north to work for better
wages there. In the South, workers might earn 6 cents to 50
cents a day, while the standard daily wage in the North was $1,
and railroad workers might make $1.75 to $2, and some jobs even
*In many ways, therefore, the New South looked a lot like the Old
South. Most people were still farmers, even though many
people, white and black, could not afford to buy land.
Unable to afford land, or often even the supplies needed to farm
it, blacks and poor whites had to find other things to do or other
ways to get the means to farm.
*Sharecroppers and tenant farmers were encouraged to grow only
cash crops on their plots, so they could give a better crop to
their landlord of have the money to pay their rent. This
meant that the South quickly regained its cotton production and
soon exceeded pre-War levels. However, farmers often stopped
growing enough food to feed their families, and had to buy it
elsewhere. Eventually the South, the most rural part of the
country, had to import food.
*These systems inadvertently (or sometimes intentionally) created
vicious cycles of debt for whites and blacks. At the beginning of
the year, sharecroppers and tenant farmers had to buy their seeds
and other supplies, but they typically had to borrow money to do
so, either from the bank, their landlord, or the local merchant, a
class that grew richer and richer during this time.
Likewise, farmers often borrowed money to buy food, clothes, or
supplies during the year. When the crop was finally sold,
the proceeds went to pay off this debt. The next year, more
money was borrowed to start planting again. If crops failed
one year, it might be difficult to pay off the debt, and the land
and property would be seized by creditors.
*Furthermore, the price of cotton fell badly after the end of the
Civil War, making it even harder for small farmers to get out of
debt or large landowners to spare money to invest in businesses.
*Just as Northern workers created Labour Unions, some Southerners
created the Farmers Alliance—many chapters even included Black
members, as some poor farmers came to feel they were more alike
due to their economic status than they were different due to their
race. It demanded that the government force railroads to
ship agricultural products cheaply. It also wanted the
government to regulate interest rates so that it would be easier
to repay loans.
*Indeed, repaying loans became a major political issue in parts of
the South. In many Southern states, railroads (and some
other public works) had been funded by issuing bonds, but as many
of the early railroads had gone bust, states were still paying
interest on loans that had ended up being wasted. Many of
the bonds had been sold on by the initial beneficiaries (who were
often corrupt or sometimes just incompetent), and ended up in the
hands of legitimate businessmen—although many of them were
Yankees, British, or other foreigners.
*Paying these bonds back was expensive and unpopular, and some
Southern governments wanted to repudiate their debts in whole or
in part, but others felt this would make it impossible for the
states or business leaders there to borrow again, and said the
bonds needed to be redeemed at face value. Supporters of
redemption were typically supporters of the New South.
*Southerners escaping Reconstruction described their new state
governments as Redeemed governments, and the Democratic
politicians who led the opposition to Reconstruction and its
legacy were also called Redeemers. However, for some people
in the South, the end of Reconstruction was not a redemption at
*The end of Reconstruction meant that the US Army was no longer in
the South to protect the rights of African-Americans. The
XIII, XIV, and XV Amendments had ended slavery, established civil
rights, and granted Black suffrage. The Freedmen’s Bureau
had also built schools and provided legal services to
African-Americans. Once they were gone, Southern states
began to create black codes.
*Black codes contained oppressive provisions that included curfews
(to keep Blacks from gathering together after sunset), vagrancy
laws (which let vagrants (Blacks who did not work) be whipped,
fined, or sentenced to a year’s labour and sold to a white man
under a contract), labour contracts (obliging blacks to sign
year-long contracts for which they were often paid at the end of
the year so they could not quit), and land restrictions (allowing
blacks to own or rent property only in rural areas, which
essentially forced them to live on plantations). Blacks
could not vote, marry white people, own firearms, or exercise many
other rights white people enjoyed.
*In one of the most important rights they were denied,
African-Americans were kept from voting through literacy tests
(which required voters to read, but gave much harder tests to
blacks than whites, grandfather clauses (which only let people
vote if their ancestors had voted before 1866), and poll taxes
(which kept poor people from voting). Although the Ku Klux
Klan vanished in the 1870s, terror and violence also kept blacks
*Eventually, leasing out convict labour came to an end in parts of
the South, including in Tennessee. It happened in Tennessee
in the Coal Creek Miner’s Wars.
*In 1891, a mining company in Briceville (in East Tennessee)
brought in convict labour to break a strike. This started
the Coal Miners’ War. Three hundred coal miners from around
Anderson County surrounded the convicts’ stockade and forced their
guards to surrender. The prisoners and their guards were
shipped back to Knoxville.
*Governor Buchanan and the state militia marched the convicts back
to work. The miners sent them back to Knoxville again, and
then started going around the county breaking up other convict
*The governor sent in 600 militiamen. The miners refused to
stand down until they were promised that the convicts’ lease would
be repealed by the state legislature. Instead, the
legislature made it illegal to interfere with convict labour at
*From 1891 to 1893 the miners struck back, freeing convicts,
burning their stockades, and fighting with the state
militia. It was estimated that although the state made
$50,000-$75,000 a year from the convicts’ lease, it spent about
$200,000 on the militia. Furthermore, most Tennesseans
sympathised with the miners. Demonstrations were held across
the state, and money was sent to the miners.
*Finally, in 1893, the state agreed that while the existing
convict leases would be allowed to run their course, none would be
renewed and no new ones would issued.
*Some African-Americans sued for their rights, but usually lost
their cases. One of the most important was the Supreme Court
case of Plessy v Ferguson in 1896, in which it was decided
that it was acceptable to force Homer Plessy to ride in a railroad
car for blacks only, because that railroad car was (supposedly) as
good as the ones whites rode in. This established the
precedent of ‘separate but equal’—as long as blacks got
accommodations as good as those whites got, it was all right for
them to be segregated. In fact, the separate facilities were
almost never equal.
This page last updated 28 September, 2020.