Murder, Mayhem, Voter Fraud, and Political High Jinks: The U.S. Army’s Thankless Task in the South, 1865-77

With the Union victory over the Confederate movement in 1865, the federal army was given the task of assisting in the readmission of the southern states into the body politic, and in protecting the newly awarded political and civil rights of the freedmen.

It was a tall order for an army increasingly short of manpower. The calls for economy within the halls of Congress, in the months after Lee’s surrender, led to a reduction of the Army (volunteers and regulars) from a high of over 1.5 million to 54,000 by the end of 1866 – with more reductions to come. (The U. S. Navy fell under a similar axe.)

Approximately one-third of that much smaller force – 18,000-20,000 – was stationed in the former Confederacy, an area the size of Western Europe with a population of eight million people. It was in effect, an occupation force, a role largely unfamiliar to it.


Former Confederate states were broken up into five military districts after the Civil War.  Each district was administered by a military governor.   (Wikipedia)

Over the twelve years of the Reconstruction era, the Army executed the political will of successively, President Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans in Congress, and finally Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes.

On May 29, 1865, President Johnson issued two proclamations. One established a loyalty oath to be taken by Southerners, foreswearing any previous allegiance to the Confederacy. The second proclamation made William Holden the provisional governor for the state of North Carolina. Later, other provisional governors were appointed in the South.

The Army was tasked with aiding the process of readmission for the Southern states by overseeing elections for the calling of state conventions to ratify the 15th amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery and pledging loyalty to the Union. The Army also had the duty of protecting freedmen and their white, Republican supporters, aiding the Freedmen’s Bureau, preventing violence, and helping to reestablish civil authority.

One of the problems that the Army faced was the continued resistance of native white Southerners to “domination” by the North. There was also resentment of the presence of black troops. Many were eventually removed in the effort to keep peace.

President Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson was selected as Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 running mate because he was a loyal southern Democrat.  Unfortunately, he was also a virulent racist and white supremacist.  Radical Republicans in Congress soon took control of Reconstruction from Johnson’s hands.  (Library of Congress)

President Johnson’s loyalty oath was problematic. Too many Southerners were disqualified for public office because they could not affirm that they had not come to the political, economic, or military aid of the Confederacy during the war years. Therefore, too few native-born Southerners were available to reestablish civil government. Complicating matters even more, many of those who took the oath were later determined to be disloyal after all, and were removed by Army commanders. These actions created tensions between the Army and the civilian leaders with whom it hoped to cooperate.

Many Army commanders desired to have civil leaders assume responsibility for preventing violence and other criminal acts, rather than having their troops intervening. Army commanders occasionally refused to come to the assistance of civilian leaders, adding to confusion and tension within Southern communities. Meanwhile, Radical Republicans, unhappy with Andrew Johnson’s “lenient” reconstruction policy, wrested control of Reconstruction from the President in 1866 and 1867.

Congressional Republicans established a Joint Committee on Reconstruction to investigate conditions in the South and to propose measures to prevent violence and disorder. The result was the passage of two Reconstruction acts in March 1867. These acts placed the South under military control, and created five military districts with commanders who were given sweeping powers to protect persons and property (meaning blacks and their white Republican supporters), remove disloyal civil officials, and replace civil courts with military commissions when deemed necessary. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 also declared all Southern state governments to be provisional and prohibited the formation of independent militias (most of which were white).


“The Freedmen’s Bureau,” from Harper’s Weekly.  The Freedmen’s Bureau was one of the cornerstones of Reconstruction in the South.  It was designed to help African Americans increase their station in life but was opposed by many white southerners.  (HarpWeek)

The Radical Republicans wanted to punish Southerners for the war, and they wanted the Army to occupy and control the political situation in the former Confederacy. As such, commanders were very aware of the need to insure that their troops conducted themselves in ways that did not make the Southern white population needlessly hostile. It was an almost impossible task. Not only did some Union commanders and their troops have an automatically negative view of “former rebels,” but those “former rebels” returned the compliment.

From 1867 to 1870, incidents of violence in the South were sporadic, though frequent enough. Peace was often tenuous as blacks and white Republicans continued to be under threat and white Southerners continued to feel imposed upon by a vindictive federal Congress.

Matters only got worse after 1870. All the former Confederate states had by this time ratified the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments abolishing slavery, granting citizenship, and the vote. They were thus readmitted to the Union. Though President Grant pleaded, “Let us have peace,” was president, it was not to be.


“Pitchfork” Ben Tilman of South Carolina was a prominent southern Democrat for decades.  (

Fraud at the ballot box became more common once the Democrats regained political power in the mid-1870s in several states. As South Carolina’s “Pitchfork Ben” Tilden bragged, “How did we recover our liberty [after the ballot box had been given to “our own ex-slaves”]? By fraud and violence.” After the polls closed, ballot boxes were seized. Votes were “counted in” or “counted out,” as need be. Gerrymandering was practiced to reduce Republican voting strength. One black Congressional district in Mississippi was concentrated in a narrow band along the Mississippi River to insure white majorities in five others. Mob attacks and lynching were also employed to discourage black and white Republican voting.

“White Leaguers,” the “White Liners,” the “Red Liners,” and the “Red Shirts” came into being, bent on terrorizing black citizens and white Republicans. The Ku Klux Klan also formed at this time. Violent outbreaks in the streets and at the polls were so frequent that at times, the army was called on to literally form a barrier in public spaces between warring Democrats and Republicans. In Louisiana in 1872/1873 Republicans took possession of the state house and Democrats took possession of a nearby hall. The Democrats attempted to overawe the Republicans with an attack of “militia.” The Army sent troops to regain control over a situation that promised increasing violence.

In the 1876 November elections in Louisiana and South Carolina, a familiar scenario played out: Democrats and Republicans in both states claimed victory, not only in the presidential election, but in the elections for governor and state legislature, too. Each side backed up its claim through the threat of mob violence.  By this time, President Grant had already voiced his concern that, “The whole public are [sic] tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South and… the great majority are ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the [federal] government.”


Many Democrats screamed “Tilden or blood!” during the election crisis on 1876, when Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote for president, but Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the Electoral College victory.  (Harper’s Weekly)

Indeed, by the end of 1876 there were fewer federal troops to protect persons and property in the South than at any point since the end of the war. Those overextended troops could no longer effectively monitor elections in that region. Reconciliation between the North and South remained elusive, despite the hopes of men of good will.

The final withdrawal of federal troops from South Carolina and Louisiana to their barracks was a concession to the reality that military force to protect persons and property in the South had failed to bring about the social justice that the victors in the late war had sought.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger



“The Most Important Political Change We Have Known”: James A. Garfield, Slavery, and Justice in the Civil War Era, Part II


In Congress, James Garfield was confronted by the war and the reconstruction of the South that followed. His goals for the freedmen were very much in sync with the Radical Republican program, especially the passage of the constitutional amendments designed to elevate the status of blacks in American society and under law. He supported the extension of the Freedman’s Bureau, the Civil Rights acts passed in the late 1860s, and with initial misgivings, the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. In time, he became disillusioned with radicalism, writing to his friend Burke Hinsdale, “I am trying to do two things, viz. be a radical and not a fool – which… is a matter of no small difficulty.”

Even before the Civil War ended, Garfield could be counted among those who favored the confiscation of rebel property in order to secure a Northern victory. He believed that the South had to be “beaten to its knees,” that both slavery and landed estates had to be abolished. “It is well known that the power of slavery rests in the large plantations… and that the bulk of all the real estate is in the hands of the slave-owners who have plotted this great conspiracy… let these men go back to their lands and they will again control the South…” If the slave-holders continued to have power, they would use that power to the detriment of the freed people, and that would call into question all the blood and treasure that had been expended during the war.

Yet, for all his desire to see slavery ended, he did not want to see African-Americans given “special treatment.” Garfield could not agree with Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to equalize the pay of white and black soldiers. Apparently he thought Stevens’ proposal was a ploy to win political points at home. Though he praised black troops for their devotion and service to the Union, Garfield would not “pat the black man on the back merely because he is black,” and he would not attempt to make “political capital by showing an excessive zeal for the black man.”

Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was a fierce abolitionist with whom Garfield disagreed over equal pay for black soldiers.  (Library of Congress)

Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was a fierce abolitionist with whom Garfield disagreed over equal pay for black soldiers. (Library of Congress)

Congressman Garfield would not “condescend” to African-Americans. Yet as a much younger man, having attended a lecture on slavery, he observed, “The Darkey had some funny remarks, and witty too.”  Was this a condescending, consciously racist remark? Or was he paying “the Darkey” a genuine compliment?

Racial prejudice certainly seems to have been a factor in Garfield’s attitude, when in July 1865, he wrote to his friend David Swaim, “It goes against the grain of my feelings to favor Negro suffrage, for I never could fall in love with the creatures…” It was a private comment – condescending perhaps – that by today’s standards seems to be an ugly remark. Still, whether or not to grant freedmen the suffrage – the right to vote, and under what circumstances – was an enduring and controversial issue during Reconstruction.

If Garfield’s discomfort with the idea of unrestricted black suffrage was based in the race prejudice of his day, it seems likely that his own experience influenced his thoughts just as much. His background was one without advantages, but he acquired education and had abiding interests in history, religion, philosophy, literature, science and the theatre. He grew knowledgeable about the world around him, and felt informed about how it worked and what its needs were. In his eyes, he was fit to exercise his voice and vote in public affairs. Not so every recently freed slave.

A young James A. Garfield, who overcame extreme poverty to obtain an education and careers as a teacher, college president, soldier, congressman, lawyer, and president.  Though some of his private remarks about blacks seem harsh today, his public support for black suffrage was consistent.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

A young James A. Garfield, who overcame extreme poverty to obtain an education and careers as a teacher, college president, soldier, congressman, lawyer, and president. Though some of his private remarks about blacks seem harsh today, his public support for black suffrage was consistent. (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Whatever may have been his private reservations, James Garfield was consistent in his public support for African-American suffrage. He condemned the idea that race should determine the right to vote. “Let us not commit ourselves to the senseless and absurd dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage…” he said in a speech at Ravenna, Ohio on July 4, 1865.

In the same speech Garfield spoke of the common cause of the black and white soldier: “In the extremity of our distress,” he said, “we called upon the black man to help us save the Republic; and amid the very thunders of battle, we made a covenant with him, sealed both with his blood and with ours… that, when the nation was redeemed, he should be free, and share with us its glories and its blessings”.  And he warned, “[God]… will appear in judgment against us if we do not fulfill that covenant. Have we done it? Have we given freedom to the black man? What is freedom? …Is it the bare privilege of not being chained – of not being bought and sold, branded and scourged? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery…” In expressing these thoughts, Garfield was referring to the mistreatment of blacks in the South, and the racial prejudice they experienced even with emancipation.

Garfield’s support for black suffrage was tied to goals that combined a sincere concern for the welfare of African-Americans with his nationalist point of view incorporating the economic unity of the country and a desire to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party in the South. Without black suffrage, these goals could not be achieved. Like many Republicans, Garfield saw voting was an economic right, as much as a political one. Without the vote, Garfield feared that the freed Negroes would be unable to control their own destinies. They would be left “to the tender mercies of those pardoned rebels who have been so reluctantly compelled to take their feet from his neck and their hands from his throat.” If blacks could not vote, they would “have no voice in determining the conditions under which they are to live and labor…” Under these circumstances, “what hope have they of the future?”

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African Americans.  (

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African Americans. (

The mix of idealism and political pragmatism embodied in this idea took concrete form in the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments abolished slavery, conferred citizenship to the freed people, and guaranteed a right to vote for adult Negro males. Subsequent legislation passed in the early 1870s was designed to reinforce those amendments.

During the debate over passage of the 14th Amendment, the necessity of abolishing the three-fifths clause in the Constitution was obvious. While slavery was constitutional, that clause had worked to the advantage of the Southerners in Congress. It counted as three-fifths of a person every enslaved individual, artificially inflating Southern influence in the House of Representatives. By abolishing the three-fifths clause, the influence of the landed whites who had brought on the rebellion was reduced. By conferring citizenship on blacks, their influence was increased. Of the necessity of removing the three-fifths clause, Garfield said, “If the Negro be denied the franchise and the size of the House of Representatives remain as now we shall have fifteen additional members of Congress from the states lately in rebellion… This… will place … the destiny of 412,000 black men in the hands of 20,000 white men. Such an unjust and unequal distribution of power would breed perpetual mischief…”

Throughout the 1870s white Southern racists constantly attacked African-Americans and their Radical supporters, politically, physically, and psychologically. Violence in Louisiana and Mississippi in the mid-1870s was particularly galling, but these events only seemed to encourage Northerners to withdraw from the racial and political problems of the South. Supreme Court decisions nullified civil rights protections and permitted restrictions on the right to vote. James Garfield’s response was to plead for additional civil rights legislation. “God taught us early that in this fight the fate of our own race was indissolubly linked with that of the black man. Justice to them has always been safety to us.” To a friend he wrote in January 1875: “I have for some time had the impression that there is a general apathy among the people concerning the war and the Negro. The public seems to have tired of the subject and all appeals to do justice to the Negro…”

The harsh Reconstruction imposed on the South by Radical Republicans led to the creation of  racist resistance groups like the Ku Klux Klan.  Members of these groups used fear tactics and terrorism to attempt to keep blacks from enjoying the full rights and opportunities of freedom and citizenship.  (

The harsh Reconstruction imposed on the South by Radical Republicans led to the creation of racist resistance groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Members of these groups used fear tactics and terrorism to attempt to keep blacks from enjoying the full rights and opportunities of freedom and citizenship. (

The battle over civil rights protections for blacks was a subtext for political control between Democrats and Republicans. In a highly partisan speech, “The Democratic Party and Government,” Garfield lamented, “that a people, accustomed to [the] domination of slavery, reenacted in almost all of the Southern states… laws limiting and restricting the liberty of the colored man – vagrant laws and peonage laws, whereby Negroes were sold at auction for payment of a paltry tax or fine, and held in a slavery as real as the slavery of other days.” Garfield thought that the “experiment” of allowing Southern whites to have control over the political culture was “a failure.” He condemned “those dreadful scenes enacted by the Ku Klux organization,” calling them “shocking barbarities,” and “sufficient proof …of that great conspiracy against the freedom of the colored race.”  He was witnessing the beginning of what historian Douglas Blackmon has chronicled in his book, Slavery by Another Name – the “re-enslavement” of African-Americans by means of forced labor for “crimes” committed. Indeed, as Garfield feared, the freedom won by war was lost in peace.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger