LIFE DURING RECONSTRUCTION
*Life in the South was very hard for most Southerners during Reconstruction. Not only did they have to contend with Federal policy (or possibly that of Parson Brownlow), the South’s economy was destroyed and its society was shattered.
*Despite proposals to redistribute land, this was rarely done. Arlington House and its plantation were seized by the government to use as a cemetery, a few other plantations were taken and broken up, and lesser articles of property and livestock were often confiscated.
*When land was redistributed, it was not free. The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 sold land cheap to blacks and whites, but many could not even afford that. About 1 in 20 black families owned land in the cotton states. Whites had it better, but many still had it tough.
*Without any land given them or money available to buy it, assuming anyone would sell it to them, blacks were unable to start farming for themselves. Many whites were also impoverished. Although this was true before the War, things were worse afterwards. 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.
*Many planters with land to farm could not find anyone to work their fields any more. Some blacks were forced to work for them by the black codes, but anyone who had any choice was unlikey to accept 6 cent to 50 cent a day wages when the standard daily wages in the North was $1, and railroad workers might make $1.75 to $2, and some jobs even paid more.
*Rather than paying workers, southern planters began to let them work the land under other systems. In some cases they let a family work a section of a planter’s land. In exchange, the planter received some portion, usually one third to one half, of the family’s crops at the end of the year. Because they shared their crops with their landlord, these farmers were called ‘sharecroppers.’
*Other poor families worked for rich planters, but rather than sharing their crops, they would pay a fixed rent. This gave them more flexibility, partly because they were allowed to choose what they grew. This in turn gave them a higher social status. Because they were renters, these were known as tenant farmers.
*Because blacks were no longer compelled to work, they were no longer used exclusively by planters as a work force—anyone might work for a share of the crop or for the right to rent land. Consequently, by the 1875, 40% of the work force on plantations was white, whereas before the War it was probably less than 90%.
*These 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 but 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. There is an excellent depiction of this in the book; copy it into your notes from page 437.
*After the War, Southerners visited the North to see how the Yankees had won. They saw that the North had factories, and many of them, in part because the War had forced Northern factories to enlarge small facilities into large ones.
*Many Southerners felt South needed to do the same thing. One of these men, Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady called for a ‘New South,’ with cities and factories. We should, said other ‘New South’ men, become ‘Southern Yankees.’
*Some Southern cities worked to rebuild themselves, and some, such as Atlanta, succeeded. The Reconstruction period saw the rebuilding and expansion of Railroads, in the North, South, and West, both privately and with government assistance. The most important impressive of these was not in the South, but in the West, where two private companies, strongly assisted (often corruptly) by the Federal government, built the Transcontinental Railroad, joined by a golden spike Promontory Rock, Utah in 1869.
*Despite attempts to rebuild and industrialise the South, it did not get very far. Southerners built some factories, but they mostly did early processing of raw materials, and did not turn out many fine finished goods. The South would cut lumber into boards and ship them north to be made into furniture, or make iron ingots, which were sent north to be made into other finished products. Many Southern factories made textiles, especially out of native cotton, but even much of this was sent north to be dyed. Of course, most of the profit was made in the final stages of this process by the Northerners.
*The South during reconstruction was a great business opportunity, and a great chance for corruption.
*Rebuilding and creating Southern roads, railroads, factories, and schools—started in the South in imitation of the North—created chances to make money. Much of this was supposedly made by carpetbaggers, freedmen, and scalawags who had government favour, which is one reason they were so hated.
*To pay for all this, the governments, controlled by carpetbaggers, freedmen, and scalawags, at least according to legend, raised taxes much higher than antebellum levels and borrowed lots of money, plunging many states deep into debt. Later, many of these states, when Reconstruction ended, would refuse to pay back these debts, created by scalawags and owed to carpetbaggers.
*In truth, the fault did not lie with ‘ignorant freemen,’ as some suggested at the time. There were many educated blacks in the South, and most of the freedmen elected to state governments were as qualified as their white predecessors. Likewise, while many carpetbaggers and scalawags made unpopular policies, loyal Southerners took part in any corruption that was profitable and they could get their hands on.
*The South Carolina legislature once gave the Speaker of the House $1,000 to cover a loss in a horse race.
*Furthermore, corruption was a national pastime. Grant’s administration is famous for it. Government officials, for a kickback, would ignore taxes and regulations, government officials bought votes openly and corporations bought government officials. The Union Pacific Railroad got lots of money from the Government, but hired Credit Mobilier to do their work. Credit Mobilier grossly overcharged the Union Pacific, who in turn charged the government for this. However, the controllers of Credit Mobilier were the same men who ran the Union Pacific—it was just a vast money-laundering scheme.
*The South saw terrible corruption during Reconstruction, but so did the rest of the nation. If anything, less money changed hands dishonestly in the South than elsewhere, but only because the South had less money to skim.
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This page last updated 15 October, 2003.