As the Confederate troops left Orange County after Johnston’s surrender at the Bennett farm, they marched home to an uncertain and incomprehensible future. War weary and homesick, they would soon find that the life they knew prior to the war no longer existed. A shattered economy, social upheaval, and a new era of politics awaited them. Many would struggle against these changes. In the few years it took to wage the war, thousands of people who once held positions of power, authority and influence found themselves in a state of poverty and politically and economically destitute.
The formally enslaved freedmen and women would struggle as well. Trying to find their place in the new society, most African Americans briefly tasted freedom and citizenship for the first time. They also experienced the more enduring backlash of southern white fear and anger.
From 1865 until 1877, North Carolina underwent reconstruction as imposed by the victorious North. Profound changes took place in the state as North Carolina once again found her place in the Union.
North Carolina suffered terrible human losses from the Civil War. More than 30,000 troops died, almost half from battle deaths and the rest from disease. Untold numbers were wounded or disabled by injury. There were human costs at home as well. With the majority of white men off fighting the war, the women struggled to maintain farms and families. The results often included impaired health and even death of the elderly and weak.
Economic costs were also staggering. These included millions of dollars of property destroyed or looted across the South; millions spent by the Confederate government to wage the war; and the abolition of slavery, which cost slaveholders nearly $200 million in capital investment. Worthless currency, repudiated war debts, and few avenues for credit caused many individuals, institutions, and businesses to declare bankruptcy. During the war many colleges closed, factories shut down, and banks collapsed. Almost none were in any condition to re-open after the war.
The end of the war brought a social revolution to North Carolina and to the entire South. The destruction of the institution of slavery, and the caste system it entailed, resulted in an upheaval never before experienced in the state. Persons previously of wealth and affluence either lost their lands by confiscation or simply abandoned large amounts of land for lack of a labor force to cultivate it. Newly freed slaves embarked on a journey to find their place in an ever-shifting society. Most had their freedom but little else. They, along with poor whites, fell into sharecropping on land the enslaved population had previously tended. Others migrated to refugee camps set up by the federal government to start their new lives as freedmen and women. Most whites grudgingly agreed to give blacks rights that they had not previously possessed as enslaved property, but they did not agree to legal and social equality.
Prior to his assassination, President Lincoln planned how he wanted the South reconciled to the Union. He did not believe in a harsh punishment of southern leaders. He wanted a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery but did not support citizenship and suffrage for the newly freedmen and women. Congress, on the other hand, felt the South should be punished severely and that only those who swore an oath of loyalty that they had never opposed the Union should be allowed the rights of full citizenship. Lincoln knew that sectional strife led to the war, and he felt harsh treatment would only lead to more sectional strife. However, he didn’t live to see his plan implemented. His assassination on April 14, 1865 at the hands of a southern partisan actor, John Wilkes Booth, added fuel to the issue. Vice Pres. Andrew Johnson became president and generally attempted to fulfill Lincoln’s desires.
At the end of the war, the political system in North Carolina was in shambles. Both the state and local governments collapsed in early 1865. Before leaving the state, General Sherman left Gen. John M. Schofield in charge of the state, with orders to maintain law and order. Thus, North Carolina, like most of the south, came under military rule. It was under these circumstances that President Johnson took over the task of bringing the rebellious states back into the Union. He issued two proclamations on May 29, 1865. The first applied to all southern states, and the other applied to North Carolina. The Amnesty Proclamation offered a pardon to all southerners, except those in positions of leadership and extreme wealth, provided they swore an oath of loyalty to the United States and the U. S. Constitution. It also allowed those who swore allegiance to retain all their property, except for slaves.
The second proclamation appointed William W. Holden as the provisional governor of North Carolina. Johnson ordered Holden to call a state convention to restore North Carolina to the Union. Johnson’s plan required that the convention repeal the May 20, 1861 Ordinance of Secession, ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, and cancel the Confederate war debt. The convention would also provide for the election of a new governor, state legislators and U. S. congressmen, thereby reestablishing civil government in the state. This convention was set to convene on October 2, 1865.
Three days before, on September 29, another meeting took place at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Raleigh. The Convention of the Freedmen of North Carolina was led by James Hood, a missionary from Connecticut, Abraham Galloway of Craven County, and James H. Harris of Wake County. This group consisted of approximately one hundred men, some free before the war, some newly freed, and northerners, like Hood, who came to North Carolina to help the freedmen adjust to their new status. Since the freedmen were barred from participation in the constitutional convention scheduled to take place in a few days, they took this opportunity to express their desire for three constitutional rights for blacks: the right to vote; the right of judicial equality in the form of admission of black testimony in court; and the right to seats on a jury. Overall, they expressed their interest that all races be treated equally. This was the first statewide assembly of African Americans in North Carolina. The resolutions passed by the Freedmen’s Convention were submitted to the constitutional convention, where they were promptly ignored.
Before adjourning, the Freedmen’s Convention resolved to form itself into the North Carolina State Equal Rights League and scheduled a second Freedmen’s Convention for the following year. At the 1866 Freedmen’s Convention, a main focus was the right to equal access for education. Clearly, the freedmen gathered in Raleigh in 1865 and 1866 saw education as the avenue toward social, economic and political equality.
The constitutional convention met October 2, 1865 as planned and adopted the provisions outlined by President Johnson in his proclamation, with the issue of the war debt being hotly debated. The convention approved the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and the legislature ratified the amendment on December 4, 1865. The convention also set state elections for November. Jonathan Worth, the provisional treasurer of the state and an opponent of repudiation of the war debt, immediately announced his intention to run for governor. Holden, the provisional governor and supporter of debt cancellation, also declared his candidacy. Worth won the election despite Holden’s claim that North Carolina would not be re-admitted to the Union if Worth was elected because of his stand on the debt. It turned out his claim was well founded, though for a different reason. A growing Republican faction within the United States Congress believed congress, and not the president, should make the decisions about when and how to re-admit the southern states. As a result, Congress refused to seat North Carolina’s newly elected representatives and senators, as well as those from other southern states. This congressional or “Radical Reconstruction” would delay North Carolina’s re-admittance to the Union for two and a half years.
Radical Republicans expressed great concern over the state of the freedmen and women in the South. Some feared that rushing to re-admit the southern states would jeopardize true emancipation and blacks would be reduced to a state of near slavery unless the white South was forced to change. Others saw the practical political advantage in giving blacks the right to vote which, in the Radicals’ minds, meant the right to vote Republican.
Earlier in 1865, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to oversee the newly emancipated slaves’ transition from slavery to freedom. Designed to last only one year, Congress extended the program early in 1866. In North Carolina, the Freedmen’s Bureau operated until the end of 1868. Officially called the “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands,” the Freedmen’s Bureau had the authority to parcel out forty-acre plots from abandoned and confiscated lands. The Bureau then rented these plots to the recently freed slaves and refugee whites who pledged loyalty to the Union. In North Carolina, the bureau later returned these lands to the former owners, but took a leading role in negotiating fair labor contracts between the owners and freedmen. The Freedmen’s Bureau also coordinated efforts to feed, clothe, restore to health, and educate those left destitute by the war, both black and white. Approximately $1.5 millions worth of food and clothing found its way into the hands of the freedmen through the bureau in North Carolina and over 40,000 patients sought treatment in newly established hospitals. Two notable women, Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley, both former slaves in North Carolina, did relief work in contraband/refugee camps in other parts of the South both before and after the war’s end. Jacobs, in 1864, also established the Jacobs School in Alexandria, Virginia, where her daughter Louisa served as administrator and teacher. The Jacobs School was Alexandria’s first free black school under black leadership.
The bureau assisted the American Missionary Association, the National Freedmen’s Relief Association, the American Freedmen Union Commission and the Friends’ Freedmen’s Aid Association in the establishment of 431 schools for over 20,000 students, both adults and children. During Reconstruction, six of what would eventually be eleven colleges for African Americans were established in North Carolina. The establishment of these historically black colleges and universities is another indication of the importance the freedmen placed on education.
In North Carolina, as well as elsewhere in the South, questions existed as to how to assimilate 350,000 freed slaves into the economy, society and political system of the state. These questions arose before the war was over, at such places as Roanoke Island and James City, but were now being addressed across the state in emancipation communities such as Freedom Hill. While whites accepted the abolishment of slavery, most did not agree that the freedmen and women were equal to them. They found the Freedmen’s Bureau to be meddlesome and believed everyone would find his or her natural place in society if left alone.
In the minds of most white people, the natural place for former slaves was still at the bottom of the social order. Early in 1866, the North Carolina legislature enacted the Black Code, a series of laws that regulated control of the African American population. Although North Carolina’s code was less rigid than those of other southern states with larger black populations, it nevertheless denied the rights of citizenship to free blacks and the recently emancipated. The code also placed restrictions on free movement within and outside the state, made it difficult for blacks to purchase and carry firearms, and prohibited interracial marriages. This denial of rights created strong opposition by northerners and blacks within and outside the state.
It was in this atmosphere that the Radical Republicans began to exert their power and to limit that of President Johnson. When Congress passed the law extending the Freedmen’s Bureau, Johnson vetoed it. Congress overrode his veto, thus asserting the Radicals’ agenda. In response to the institution of black codes across the South, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended citizenship to the freedmen and women and guaranteed their rights as citizens of the United States. It disqualified any state that denied the right to vote to former slaves from re-admittance into the Union. The amendment also stated that anyone who had previously sworn to support the U. S. Constitution, but then supported the Confederacy, would not be allowed to hold public office. Such a provision, in effect, removed the pre-war political leadership of the southern states from further or future political positions.
The ratification or rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment became the central issue of the state election campaign of 1866. Governor Worth, who opposed the ratification of the amendment, lobbied the legislature to reject it. His main argument alleged the amendment was unfair to former southern leaders and was perhaps illegal, as representatives from North Carolina were not seated in Congress when Congress drafted the amendment. Former governor Holden supported ratification and, in general, the Radical plan for reconstruction. In the 1866 gubernatorial race, Holden and his followers nominated Alfred Dockery for governor against Worth. Worth won easily and those opposed to ratification held the majority in the legislature. Thus, North Carolina rejected the Fourteenth Amendment, which set the state on a long, harsh road to reunion.
The Radicals in Congress took the rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment as a sure sign that North Carolina and other southern states needed firmer treatment in regards to reconstruction. Otherwise, they argued, the southern states would revert to previous actions and attitudes, which jeopardized the standing of freedmen and women and those loyal to the Union. The result of such thinking was the Reconstruction Act of 1867. It divided the South into five military districts, placing all southern states under military rule, and dissolved the civil governments in all southern states except Tennessee. North Carolina was required to hold a constitutional convention to develop a new state constitution, which would guarantee suffrage to all men over twenty-one years old who had not supported the Confederacy. This requirement would ensure that freed slaves could participate in elections and government, while those white men, who had supported the Confederate cause, could not. Once written, the constitution had to be submitted to and approved by Congress. Another condition of the act required that the states ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before being re-admitted to the Union.
North Carolina remained under military rule from March 1867 until July 1868 as part of the Second Military District of the Carolinas under the command of Gen. Daniel E. Sickles. Sickles did not rule with a heavy hand, choosing to cooperate with Governor Worth’s administration. He did, however, anger many whites when he set up military courts to try civilians and allowed freedmen to serve on juries. President Johnson removed Sickles from command for refusing an order from a federal judge, and replaced him with Gen. Edward R. S. Canby. Canby, somewhat more radical-minded than Sickles, carried out the requirements of the reconstruction acts and ordered an election for November of 1867 to choose delegates to the constitutional convention.
A two-party system of politics emerged at the time of the delegate election. The Conservative Party, comprised mainly of former Whigs and old-order Democrats, joined together in an effort to defeat radical reconstruction politics. They desired to return North Carolina to the status quo antebellum, or something close to it, by denying black equality and maintaining white political and economic control of the state. The Republican Party, established in North Carolina in March 1867, opposed the Conservatives and supported congressional reconstruction. William W. Holden, recognizing he would never have the support of the Conservatives, saw the new Republican Party as his ticket to power once again. Members of the Republican Party included unionist native whites, called Scalawags; freedmen; and northerners, called Carpetbaggers, who came south for political and economic gain. The Republican Party dominated the convention election by a vote of three to one mainly due to the registration of more than 70,000 black voters who participated in their first act of citizenship by voting for the Republican convention candidates. Of the 120 delegates elected, 107 were Republicans, eighteen of whom were northerners and fifteen of whom were black.
The convention met from mid-January to mid-March, 1868. While the Conservatives criticized it, the new state constitution of 1868, was an improvement over the old one. All three departments of government were amended. The constitution created new offices under the executive branch, including a superintendent of public instruction, a superintendent of public works, a state auditor, and the office of lieutenant governor. The term of office for these new positions as well as for the governor was increased to four years and all faced direct election by the people, instead of being chosen by the legislature. In the legislative branch, the lower house, formerly the House of Commons, became the House of Representatives. Property qualifications for holding the governorship or any public office were removed. The lieutenant governor would now serve as the president of the Senate, rather than allowing senators to elect their own president. In the judicial branch, the state Superior Courts and Supreme Court increased the number of judges, who would now be elected for eight year terms. Sheriffs and other court officers would now be elected as well. The new constitution also provided for a tax-supported, statewide, public school system open to everyone.
Following the convention, a bitterly fought statewide election in April 1868, resulted in a Republican-controlled government. Holden, candidate for the Republican Party, easily defeated the Conservative candidate, Thomas S. Ashe. In this election, voters sent sixteen African American men to the N.C. House of Representatives, including James H. Harris, and three to the state Senate, including Abraham Galloway and John Adams Hyman. The voters also approved the new state constitution. Holden immediately called a special session of the legislature, which promptly ratified the Fourteenth Amendment on July 2, 1868. Within three weeks, North Carolina’s Republican representatives were seated in the U. S. Congress, and North Carolina was officially re-admitted to the Union. This did not bring peace to the state, however, as Conservatives and those who feared Republican rule began a violent campaign to re-assert Conservative control over the social and political systems in the state.
Republican control of the legislature and governorship would be short-lived. The party held the legislature only until the 1870 election and, in those two years, the level of government corruption and extravagance exploded. Mismanagement of state funds and the selling of votes for favorable legislation, particularly in regards to state-aid to the railroad industry, doomed the Republicans’ reputation.
The appeal to white supremacy also helped the Conservatives regain control of the legislature in 1870. By asserting that blacks were inferior to whites and, thus, too ignorant to hold office or even vote, the Conservatives were able to attract additional white voters. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan, however, had an even greater impact on politics. By intimidating blacks and Republican whites through violence, the Klan influenced elections in favor of Conservative candidates. Fearing what could result from such tactics, the 1869 Republican legislature attempted to fight back with the passage of the Shoffner Act, which allowed Governor Holden to declare martial law in any county where he determined that county officers were not maintaining law and order. It also allowed that trials for murder, conspiracy, or wearing a mask could be moved from the county in which the crime occurred. This provision was not designed to ensure a fair trial for the accused, but to assure that the prosecution had a fair chance at conviction, which was unlikely in a Klan member’s home county.
Armed with provisions of the Shoffner Act, Governor Holden finally confronted the Klan in Alamance and Caswell Counties, after the deaths of two Republican leaders, Wyatt Outlaw and John W. Stephens. He sent two regiments of state troops under the command of Col. George W. Kirk into the area, resulting in the arrest of eighty-two men in Alamance County and nineteen in Caswell County. These men were held in jail, denied bail, and, in some cases, never told why they were being arrested. When a state judge issued a writ of habeas corpus to bring these men before a civil court, Kirk refused to comply, stating that they were being held for a military court. A second appeal before a federal judge resulted in writs of habeas corpus for all the prisoners, with which Holden eventually complied.
This episode, known as the Kirk-Holden War, was one more nail in the Republicans’ coffin. The Conservatives used Holden’s actions as evidence that he needed to be replaced. Because there was no election for governor in 1870, the Conservatives knew if they could win a majority in the legislature, they would have enough votes to impeach Holden and remove him from office. The election resulted in an astounding defeat for the Republicans, not only in the legislature, but also in the national offices, with six out of seven seats going to the Conservatives.
Shortly after the election, the North Carolina House of Representatives brought charges against Holden, which alleged that he acted illegally in declaring martial law and arresting individuals; in refusing to obey the writs of habeas corpus; and in raising state troops and paying them. After a seven week trial, the Senate convicted Holden and voted to remove him from office. He became the first state governor in the country to be impeached and removed from office. Lt. Gov. Tod R. Caldwell replaced him as governor.
For the most part, after the 1870 election and the return of the Conservatives to power, Klan activity ceased in many areas. The group remained active in the western counties, resulting in federal intervention and trials for Klan leaders. By 1872, the Klan became more focused on race rather than politics and ceased to play a major role in North Carolina's political circles until the next century.
With the decline of the Republican Party in North Carolina, the Conservatives looked forward to winning the governorship in 1872. They nominated Augustus S. Merrimon of Asheville, while the Republicans nominated Tod R. Caldwell, the current governor who took over Holden’s term. Some Republicans, disgusted with the politics of the previous administration, jumped party lines and supported Merrimon. Despite everything in his favor, Merrimon lost to Caldwell by a margin of about 2,000 votes. The Conservatives, however, won the legislature and sent Merrimon to the United States Senate.
Back in legislative power, the Conservatives set about changing much of what the Republicans had accomplished. They amended the constitution in 1873 and again in 1875, concentrating power in Raleigh and ensuring that only white Conservatives would hold local offices through legislative control of county governments. Other amendments, like those that outlawed interracial marriage and prohibited integrated public schools, served to relegate African Americans to a lower level of society and politics: the status quo antebellum.
The Reconstruction era came to a close with the election of 1876. The Conservatives, now known as the Democratic Party, nominated North Carolina’s former war governor, Zebulon B. Vance. The Republicans nominated Judge Thomas Settle. The Democrats won the governorship, the legislature, and seven of eight congressional seats. The presidential election hung in the balance with neither candidate, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes nor Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, gaining a majority of the vote. The contests in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were in dispute and the election was thrown into the House of Representative for a decision. After much wrangling and deal-making, Republican Hayes was named the winner in exchange for a promise to withdraw all federal troops from the South. This was done in April, 1877,ending the era of Reconstruction.
While all of the political turmoil raged during the Reconstruction years, most North Carolinians simply tried to survive. There was no “getting back to normal,” as what they knew before the war simply did not exist anymore. The devalued land and crop prices, along with the lack of a sufficient labor force, resulted in the breakdown of the old plantation system and an increase in the number of small farms. Large landowners sold off property for extremely low prices. In order to cultivate what land they retained, most resorted to a system of sharecropping. North Carolinians began to define a new “normal” for their lives.
Industry seemed to fair better than agriculture during the Reconstruction period. During the years immediately after the war, the tobacco and textile industries in North Carolina flourished. Washington Duke, a Confederate veteran, and his sons, began what would eventually be the American Tobacco Company. Textiles, a booming industry prior to the war, continued to grow as part of the war effort. In the years following the war, production increased tremendously. By 1870, production levels surpassed those of 1860.
Reconstruction, which most textbooks define as the period from 1865 to 1877, meant different things to different people. Politically, the time period is specific. However, when viewed in a broader context, the time period is less definitive. Clearly some “reconstruction” activities began as early as 1862 in areas occupied by federal troops. For African Americans, it did not stop in 1877 but continued on for years as they struggled to find their place in the society and political system of the state.
In North Carolina, the years after the Civil War saw a series of political and social changes that revolutionized the lives of its citizens. Efforts towards reconciliation and assimilation of blacks into society provoked a reaction of violence and racial polarization. African Americans and many whites briefly shared power during Reconstruction, but were soon replaced by the return to power of the white political elite. African Americans were no longer slaves but neither were they totally free from the oppression and control by white society. It would take approximately one hundred years before they regained the full citizenship rights briefly enjoyed during Reconstruction. Although the experience of racial oppression intensified, many African American people persevered towards building strong communities through black churches, businesses, schools and even entire towns.