17 things people don’t know about Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction in the USA


I “knew” that Lincoln freed the slaves. These freed people were given rights as citizens by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and the right to vote by the 15th Amendment. Neat and clean, right?

So why are there still problems 100-and-some-odd years later?

I decided to do some research.

This is not an exhaustive list, but just some highlights that I think are important.  Some of this I did learn in school, but other items I never really thought about. I grew up in the North in the 1960’s-70’s where we did not have “separate” anything. I didn’t realize that the Amendments to the Constitution were not enough when dealing with hatred and individual states’ laws. I never stopped and thought about it.

1.       Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 – A terrible blight on the history of our country, passed by the US Congress in September 1850.  It was part of the Compromise of 1850 between the Southern slave-holders and the Northern Free-Soil Party. It required that escaped slaves were to be returned to their masters—citizens of Free states were liable to a fine of $1,000 or six months in jail for helping slaves escape. If a slave escaped from the South but was hunted down and found in the north, he was sent back to slavery, as he was considered property. This gave more resolve to the Underground Railroad and solidified Abolitionists’ fight against slavery. (I highly recommend the television series Underground, now showing on Hulu, which is a historical fiction series which illustrates this atrocity.)

2.       Emancipation Proclamation – January 1, 1863.  It freed the slaves in the Confederacy only. It was issued as a war measure during the Civil war. It did NOT outlaw slavery and did NOT give citizenship to the freedmen. It did NOT free slaves in four slave states that were not in rebellion against the Union: Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri, and also areas occupied by Union troops. The remaining slaves were freed by the 13th amendment in December 1865.

3.       General Sherman’s March to the Sea. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s armies burned and damaged everything from Atlanta to the port of Savannah so that the infrastructure of the South was demolished. This affected the civilian populations by disrupting the Confederacy’s economy and transportation networks. Similar to the “Scorched Earth” philosophy, the mission was also to break the will of the Confederacy to continue the war.

4.       Forty acres and a mule – General Sherman worked with Black Leaders to find out what would be most helpful to the newly freed Blacks. “Land” was the response. Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15 was issued on January 16, 1865. There were  over 400,000 acres which were confiscated from the Confederacy during the Civil War,(the islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for 30 miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida.) The order specifically prohibited whites from settling in this area. By June 1865 about 40,000 freed people were settled on 435,000 acres. The tracts of land actually varied in size from 8 acres to 450 acres, as some were settled by groups. The land was still the possession of the government. Freedmen worked the land until:

5.       Andrew Johnson rescinded the Field Order No 15.  After Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson became president and had a different idea of what the country should look like going forward. Johnson’s administration had tens of thousands of Freedmen dispossessed from the land they had been working. Imagine the sense of betrayal these people felt, having the land literally ripped out from under them!

6.       Black Codes restricted civil rights and liberties of African-Americans in the Southern states. The intent was in restricting their freedoms and compelling them to work in a labor economy based on low wages or debt. Although these freedmen had been emancipated, they were greatly restricted by the Black Codes. Freedmen could not work in certain trades and businesses and could not own property. Black Codes also kept African-Americans from owning their own businesses. Fees for Blacks to start a business: $100. Fees for whites: $0.

7.       The Thirteenth Amendment made slavery and indentured servitude illegal in the US, except for those duly convicted of a crime. Ah, yes, the fine print that bites your butt.  Sadly, being unemployed and therefore “loitering” was a crime, punishable by arrest and servitude. You’ve heard of the Chain gang, right? (January 31, 1865)

8.       Vagrancy Law allowed local authorities to arrest freed people for minor infractions (such as “vagrancy”, i.e. homeless or unemployed) and commit them to involuntary labor. This was the start of the convict lease system.

9.       Convict Lease  – Men who were arrested for even the smallest of crimes were prisoners who were leased out to businesses for labor. The “convict” did not receive any wages, just food, clothing, and shelter.  Money was paid to the state, not the workers. It was slavery by a different name.

10.   The Fourteenth Amendment   Adopted July 9, 1868, gives citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, (except Indians). Intended to give citizenship and full rights to African-Americans. (The Black Codes worked against this.)

11.   The Fifteenth Amendment. (February 26, 1869) gave African-Americans the right to vote, which “shall not be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This is a giant leap forward for Freedmen.  Many female Abolitionists were also fighting for women’s rights and were hoping to get the word “sex” added to this amendment, hitting the two birds with one stone. (Women did not get the right to vote until 1920 with the 19th Amendment.)

12.   The Freedmen’s Bureau.  Set up by President Lincoln in 1865 as part of the US Army, it was created to assist in the transition from slavery to freedmen, letting Blacks to work and live on their own. They created schools for children and adults, provided food, housing, healthcare, and employment contracts with private landowners. Its purpose was to help Freedmen have full and equal benefits of all laws. It was shut down in 1872. A good start, but ended too soon.

13.   Andrew Johnson allowed Confederates back into the Union. Although Johnson was a Southerner, he was poor, and was resentful of the rich plantation owners. He issued an amnesty proclamation for ordinary Southern citizens who swore loyalty oaths to the Union. But he excluded Confederate politicians, military officers, and landowners – he made them come to him personally for amnesty (ego?), and Johnson then returned their land to them.

14.   Jim Crow was not an actual person.  “Jump Jim Crow” was a caricature of blacks portrayed by Thomas D. Rice in blackface onstage in the 1830’s. Rice cruelly made fun of the status of slaves for the entertainment of rich white plantation owners. After the Reconstruction Era, southern legislatures passed laws of racial segregation against blacks, which were known as “Jim Crow” laws. Then came “separate but equal” verbiage: separate schools, train cars, water fountains, libraries, and hotels. As we know, conditions were not equal. These mandated laws were enforced until 1965!

15.   Federal Troops occupied the south until 1877. During the Reconstruction Era of 1865-1877 federal laws provided civil rights protections for freedmen, which were enforced by the military presence, but in 1877, the troops were withdrawn. Coupled with the Democratic Party regaining power in the legislatures, the pendulum swung back the other way, and rights were taken away from Freedmen. “Jim Crow” laws were enacted to segregate black people from the white population.

16.   Freedmen’s Voting Rights were taken away.  I honestly never knew this. The former Confederate states passed new laws for poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements. For Freedmen who were unable to read, this meant they were unable to vote. (There’s a scene in “Hidden Figures” movie, where one character is unfairly asked ridiculous questions, and then deemed unable to vote.) Voter turnout obviously dropped drastically in the South. It follows, that those who couldn’t vote could not serve on a jury or run for local offices either. This basically barred African-Americans from political life, so that their issues were not addressed.

17.   Woodrow Wilson was the first Southern-born president after the Civil War period.  (I already disliked him due to the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, but that’s another story.) Wilson filled his Cabinet with Southerners. Washington, DC and federal offices had been integrated since after the civil war, but Wilson and his gang introduced segregation into federal offices. This was another step backward. (In “Hidden Figures”, she has to run to the other side of the campus to use the “Colored Women’s” restroom.)

This list barely scratches the surface of that Era. I wish more in-depth American History was taught in schools. How about a show on this History instead of “Swamp People” on the History Channel? (another story!)

I’m convinced that education and prayer will lead our country to healing.

Many thanks to Library of Congress Web Guides, Wikipedia, YouTube, and Chronicle for America book, and the United States Constitution for the info.



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