Our Georgia History
 

Reconstruction Georgia
Georgia History 101

by Col. Samuel Taylor U.S.M.C. (Ret.)
exclusively for Our Georgia History

While marching east Sherman destroyed the Georgia rail system that was the best in the deep South at the start of the Civil War. Famine, drought and anarchy were problems that faced the people of Georgia as the war ended. As for the state government the Civil War had left it bankrupt. From 1865 until 1871 attempts would be made by the federal government to reconstruct both the state and its people. North Georgia, at best, was war torn. The near-anarchy conditions that had been contained to northeast Georgia spread throughout the region. Bands of Confederate soldiers roamed freely, taking what they needed (or pleased).  

Former slaves struggled to cope with an entirely new life. Georgians tried to make sense of a society run amok. Food shortages were widespread and the Federal overseers were corrupt.  North Georgia, at best, was war torn. The near-anarchy conditions that had been contained to northeast Georgia spread throughout the region. Bands of Confederate soldiers roamed freely, taking what they needed (or pleased). Former slaves struggled to cope with an entirely new life. Georgians tried to make sense of a society run amok. Food shortages were widespread and the Federal overseers were corrupt. North Georgia, at best, was war torn. The near-anarchy conditions that had been contained to northeast Georgia spread throughout the region. Bands of Confederate soldiers roamed freely, taking what they needed (or pleased). Former slaves struggled to cope with an entirely new life. Georgians tried to make sense of a society run amok. Food shortages were widespread and the Federal overseers were corrupt.

With the Georgia heartland liberated, Sherman prepared to head north, but on January 12, 1865 he, along with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, held a meeting with 20 or so black leaders, mostly preachers, in Savannah. This erudite group convinced the general that slaves not only understood the concept of liberty, but sought it. Special field order no. 15, issued four days later, gave 40 acres of land along the coast to any freedman for the asking.

In May, 1865, under orders of the occupying federal forces the government of Confederate Georgia was abolished. In its stead United States President Andrew Johnson appointed Charles Johnson (no relation) to govern the state. Johnson, an attorney from Columbus with strong Unionist leanings, didn't really do much more than act as caretaker until the people could present a government of which the federal forces occupying the state and the national government in Washington would approve. Washington's modest (but firm) requests included:

Repeal of the secession ordinance
Abolition of slavery
Repudiation of an $18 million debt to the Confederate government
Recognition of the federal government as supreme

In December, 1865, the state fulfilled the demands of the federal government, and shortly after the inauguration of the new popularly-elected governor Charles Jenkins, Andrew Johnson recognized the new state government. This was the end of First (or Presidential) Reconstruction.

Freedmen (the popular term for former slaves) faced a bitter world, especially from the (formerly) wealthy plantation owners and white political infrastructure. After the war the planter-freedman relationship was much more adversarial than the master-slave relationship before the war. Former slaves refused to work from before dawn to after dusk for the small wages they were offered. Planters wanted an ordered work force; freedmen wanted autonomy. Conflict was the result.

To help former slaves cope with their new freedom the federal government created the Freedman's Bureau. Their wide-ranging charter allowed it to be almost anything it wanted to be. While the bureau was very effective in the northern tier of southern states, in the deep South its effectiveness can be questioned. The bureau tried to monitor violence and court proceedings against blacks. It tried to promote racial equality, defending blacks and prosecuting whites. The underlying problem was one the Bureau could not correct: it was difficult for whites to conceive that freedmen actually had rights.

Land ownership was one right neither the planters or the politicians wanted to grant the freedmen. The land promised by General Sherman in Special Order 15 was especially inflammatory to the whites. In the end less than 80,000 acres of this land ended up under black ownership. Many "owners" were evicted with the consent of the federal government after the crops were harvested in the fall of 1866. Only the freedmen whose land had been passed to them by court decree were allowed to remain.

During 1866 Georgia began a "government as usual" campaign. Georgia sent former vice-president of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens and Confederate Senator (and Steven Douglas' 1860 running mate) Hershal Johnson to Washington as U. S. Senators. The state passed laws excluding blacks right to testify, eliminating their right to serve on juries, and enacting a convict-leasing program. The state also refused to ratify the 14th amendment. Clearly, Georgia remained unreconstructed.      Early in 1867 Republicans in the United States Congress solidified their power and enacted strict Reconstruction laws in spite of Andrew Johnson's presidential veto. Among the demands of these "Radical Republicans" were

  • Ratify the 14th Amendment
  • Give black males the right to vote
  • Elect a new state government (once black males had the right to vote).

In December, 1867 a most remarkable group convened in Atlanta, Georgia. Elected representatives met to create a new state constitution, in accordance with the demands of the Radical Republicans in Congress. This group was more representative of the state as a whole than any other elected body in the history of Georgia, and embodied a dramatic shift from antebellum Georgia where the port city of Savannah and the great coastal planters were the economic and political power center.  

Shifting from a Savannah-centric world was more than the physical movement westward. The fire-eaters leading the state before the war (Joe Brown, Howell Cobb, Robert Toombs and others) were representative of the elitist plantation owners and businessmen. They led Georgia into war. Egalitarian farmers from northern and western Georgia were generally pro-Union, although they were sympathetic with the wealthy plantation owners. Most of the others, including the black delegates, were simply against the elite establishment of plantation owners.

     The constitutional convention instituted the reforms imposed on the state by the national government. But they went far beyond the requirements of the Radical Republicans in Congress, allowing women to legally own property, nullifying all pre-1865 debt and giving yeomen farmers protection against debt collectors by protecting $1000.00 of personal property and $2000.00 of real estate. Among the notables at the convention were two Augusta Republicans, Rufus Bullock and Benjamin Conley.

Of course, the Democrats felt compelled to come up with derogatory names for the upcountry crackers who had taken control of the state. "Scalawags" they called their fellow Georgians who became Republicans; "Carpetbaggers" were outsiders (normally from a northern state) who were frequently Republican. It took a good deal of courage to actively support the Republican Party in Georgia. By 1868 individual cells of the Ku Klux Klan could be considered well-organized. The statewide organization attempted to appear well-organized but in reality it was highly factional.

In January, 1868, General George Meade, who had just become commander of the Third Military District (which included Georgia) ordered the state to pay for the constitutional convention in Atlanta. The treasurer refused and Meade ordered Brigadier General Thomas Ruger to become governor. Governor Charles Jenkins took $400,000 from the treasury and fled Georgia, depositing the money in a northern bank to secure the state's debts.

In March, 1868, under the new constitution, Augustan Republican Rufus Bullock defeated Democrat John B. Gordon for the governorship. Unfortunately for Bullock, the Democrats controlled both the State House and Senate. Democrats refused to seat the elected officials who were black because the state constitution did not implicitly give them the right to hold public office.

Republicans tried to countered the Ku Klux Klan but they were rarely successful. The Klan had economic, if not political, power, a strong organization based on long time friendships and the power of fear. In Savannah the battles between political factions were extreme. During the presidential election of 1868 a pitched battle between Klansmen and former slaves occurred when blacks tried to vote. The election brought Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency.

Georgia Democrats continued to resist the impositions of the federal government. They were strongly against the black suffrage movement and refused to ratify the 14th amendment. Bullock, who governed the state during most of Congressional Reconstruction, plotted with the federal authorities to "reoccupy" the state after the Democrats refusal to ratify. Military Governor Alfred Terry took control of Georgia in March, 1869, determined to require the elected officials to comply with the demands of the Radical Republicans in Congress.    July 15, 1870 saw the signing of the bill passed by the U. S. Congress to readmit Georgia's duly elected senators and representatives. Federal occupation troops were withdrawn and Democrats showed up at the polls in December to elect an overwhelming Democratic state senate and house. The politicians swore vengeance on Governor Bullock, vowing to impeach him and make him pay fro the crimes of Reconstruction. Benjamin Conley, Bullock's friend who had served as president of the senate, was viewed as a moderate and not the object of the fury. 

In October, 1871, with the first meeting of the Democratic house and senate looming, Bullock tendered his resignation, which was kept secret until he left the state. Conley, as president of the senate, assumed the responsibilities of governor until the election of James Smith in January, 1872. This marked the end of Reconstruction.



Our Georgia History: History 101 index

Georgia's Indian Heritage
The Age of Exploration in Georgia
Colonial Georgia
The America Revolution in Georgia
Constitutional Georgia
Antebellum Georgia
Georgia and the Civil War
Reconstrution Georgia
Georgia's Gilded Age
A State Divided
Depression and War


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