It’s barely mentioned in the standard school history textbooks, but the Southern states experienced two Reconstructions after the Civil War. The second is the best known, lasting from 1867 to 1876, and generally known as Radical Reconstruction (for the Radical Republicans in Congress who controlled it). The first is Presidential Reconstruction, between 1865 and 1867, directed by President Andrew Johnson, who believed he was carrying out the desires and plans of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, who wanted a speedy reunion.
The Radical Republicans wanted punishment, and they wanted civil rights for the former slaves.
Mississippi was the second state to secede after South Carolina and the first to seek reunion. But reunion was anything but simple. The state was devastated economically; much of its large agricultural and small industrial infrastructure has been destroyed, and its social infrastructure was in upheaval. Law and order had broken down, railroads destroyed, and planters and farmers were desperate for a labor force to plant and harvest cotton.
Historian William C. Harris explains what happened during these roughly two years in Presidential Reconstruction in Mississippi, originally published by LSU Press in 1967. The state faced what looked to be insurmountable difficulties – a huge debt, a collapsed currency and economy, the disappearance of the slave system that underpinned cotton and agriculture, cities and towns that had been destroyed, the deaths of so many men in the war, and the breakdown of law and order across the state.
Both the provisional government and the restoration government struggled with what to do about the former slaves. Planters wanted to keep them tied to the land; the slaves themselves flocked to the cities and towns, looking for work. There were the questions of civil rights, including land and property ownership, education, and voting. And the state faced the enormous problem of trying to revive agriculture and especially cotton production, which seemed to offer the best way for the state economy to recover.
Harris explains that the state leaders trying to manage the restoration were largely men who had been pro-Union or anti-secessionist and associated with the old Whig Party. They were aware of congressional sentiment, but they were also considering what would have been at one time unthinkable – former slaves having the right to vote. A few understood that Congress was unlikely to accept anything short of the full rights of citizenship.
He pays special attention to efforts aimed at reviving the state’s economy – agriculture, levee reconstruction, the railroads, towns, commerce, and industry. And he explains the Black Codes, tentative steps toward rights for the former slaves but also an attempt to regulate them in Mississippi society. It was these activities which put a national spotlight on presidential reconstruction across the South, outraging newspapers and many in the North who saw the codes as a kind of slavery in disguise.
Harris is a prominent Civil War historian, educator, and author. His published books include The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi, William Woods Holden: Firebrand of North Carolina Politics, With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union, Lincoln’s Last Months, Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency, Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union, and Lincoln and the Union Governors. He received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Alabama, and he taught at Millsaps College and North Carolina State University, from which he retired as professor emeritus in 2004.
Presidential Reconstruction in Mississippi, 55 years after its publication, remains a valuable resource for understanding how the state tried to manage its emergence from the chaos of the Civil War, where it succeeded, and where it fell woefully short.
Top photograph: Oxford, Mississippi, in August, 1864, after its destruction by Union troops.