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America's History in the Making

Reconstructing a Nation

Unit Overview

A Visit from the Old Mistress. 1876. dup of 2131

Reconstruction, the process of reintegrating the eleven southern states that had left the Union, began at the end of the Civil War and ended in 1877.

At the end of the war, the victorious Union faced two problems: how to reunite with bitter, defeated white Southerners and how to incorporate freed black people into the body politic. Public opinion in the North divided and shifted over these questions. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, was nearly impeached for treating the ex-Confederates leniently. For several years, the federal government funded federal troops and programs to assist former slaves in the South, although most Southerners, black and white, struggled with poverty and other consequences of the war. Northern sentiment for Reconstruction soon waned and, by 1877, the South was back under the control of whites determined to subordinate African Americans.

But the Union’s victory in the war remade the United States. By 1877, when Reconstruction ended, the federal government had become much more powerful. The Civil War and Reconstruction also entrenched the Northern program of state-sponsored economic expansion. The transcontinental railroads were the most obvious example of federally sanctioned and monumental business ventures. Reconstruction also provided some protection to freed African Americans to form families, start businesses, and serve in political offices.

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