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The Story of Virginia's Reconstruction

This site reveals the many strands that wove together in Richmond in the years between 1866, when the Richmond Daily Dispatch resumed publication after the devastating fire and dislocation of the end of the Civil War, and early 1871, when Virginia began a new era after the passage of a new constitution and reentry into the United States. In those years, the largest slave state in the United States and the former capital of the Confederacy were recast into a new form.

Reconstruction began even as the Civil War was still being fought. The United States government, including President Lincoln, had defined no explicit and coherent plan for the postwar South and Lincoln’s assassination and Andrew Johnson’s rise to the presidency threw things into even greater uncertainty. Johnson, who had defended the Union as a United States Senator and wartime governor of Tennessee and who was elected Vice President with Lincoln in 1864 at the head of the Union Party, proved surprisingly lenient with white Southerners and unsympathetic to the people who had been held in slavery. Johnson hoped to create a national party devoted to the Union and sought the support of the former leaders of the South. He was unconcerned about sacrificing black Southerners’ interests in the process.

Under Johnson’s leniency, white Southerners seized all they could of the old order. They passed laws that narrowly defined the possibilities of life for the freedpeople, preventing them from renting land or owning firearms, placing their children in coercive “apprenticeships” to their former owners. Former Confederates violently attacked black people in cities and the countryside across the region. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized people who challenged white supremacy in any way. White Southerners resisted the Freedmen’s Bureau that aided impoverished whites and blacks with surplus United State Army material, used special courts to adjudicate conflicts between the freedpeople and their former masters, and tried to prevent violence against African Americans.

In the period of tumult immediately after the war, former slaves and former owners had to define new ways to live and Virginia was no exception. Virginia had been more ravaged by the Civil War than any other place in the nation. Two armies had occupied the state from beginning to end, devastating farms and towns. Battles had torn at the corridor between Washington and Petersburg, in the heavily contested area of northern Virginia, and in the Shenandoah Valley. Forty percent of all the men, Northern and Southern, who died in the war dying within 150 miles of Richmond.

Virginia had seen slavery dissolve more fully and rapidly than states in the cotton South, where Union armies often did not reach. Black Virginians began reconstructing their own lives at the first opportunity. They founded their own churches and benevolent organizations, reconstituted their families, and started businesses. In many ways, these quiet, non-political actions were the most enduring acts during Reconstruction.

The Freedmen’s Bureau helped in this work, especially in the earliest days of freedom and especially in legalizing marriages among formerly enslaved people. The Freedmen’s Bureau ran the major relief operations in the city, providing rations for destitute white and black people. Teachers, black and white, mainly female, came to Virginia to teach school for the freedpeople, of all ages. They were met with eager enthusiasm by black people but with contempt by white Richmonders.

Richmond and the Commonwealth came under very lax military rule immediately after the war, in which the Federal leadership showed great sympathy for former Confederates. The Union army rounded up and shipped black people from Richmond to the countryside. Despite Federal occupation, the same people who had run the government of Richmond before and during the war also ran Richmond after the war.

The most hotly debated issue became whether former supporters of the Confederacy should be able to vote and hold office. Andrew Johnson supported such leniency because he was trying to build a new national party and knew that he would need leading men in the South—which necessarily included white men who had supported the Confederacy—if he was to succeed. To regain their former status, all these men had to do was swear that they now rejected secession, acknowledged the end of slavery, and were loyal to the United States. The former Confederates did so in large numbers, though they did not take their oaths to mean the Confederacy had been wrong or illegitimate.

Nearly two years after Appomattox, the violent resistance of white Southerners to the mild measures of Presidential Reconstruction had persuaded even moderate or conservative white Northern voters that deeper reforms were required before the Southern states would be allowed to rejoin the Union. A second era of Reconstruction began in March 1867, when a new Republican majority in Congress pressed for a much more aggressive recasting of the South than Johnson had overseen.

The wing of the Republican Party called the “Radicals” instituted a sweeping set of changes in the South. The Military Reconstruction Act divided the South into five military districts under national control. They required that each state write a new constitution giving voting rights to all men, regardless of race or prior enslaved status, and ratify the new 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which declared that all people other than American Indians born in the United States were citizens, with rights to due process of law.

The Republicans in Congress also demanded the so-called “iron clad” oath, in which men who wished to vote had to swear they had never supported the Confederacy at any point, in any way. Very few white Virginian men could, or would, take such an oath. Without it, though, they would be disfranchised and prevented from holding office. The Republicans argued that if former Confederates were allowed to vote and control the South, the South could be even stronger in the government than it was before secession. The issue of “amnesty” for former Confederates became the defining issue in Virginia.

Virginia became Military District Number One and underwent the transformation demanded by Congress. Black men mobilized themselves and joined with Republicans to make sure the new constitution reflected the needs of the freedpeople. To the astonishment and concern of white Virginians, black people proved adept at the machinery and rituals of democracy. They held meetings across the state, including in Richmond. They heard powerful speeches. They faced up to their employers, who threatened them with the loss of their jobs, or worse, if they dared vote for the delegates to the constitutional convention. Black women quickly mobilized and aided the cause.

Many former Confederates declared that they would have no part in such an election and so sat it out. As a result, black Virginians and white Republicans carried the election and sent the majority of delegates to write a new constitution for the Commonwealth. Twenty-four of the delegates were themselves African American. The convention, the object of much derision on the part of the white press, produced a constitution much of which even its opponents had to admit was reasonable. Its major innovation was to create the first system of public education in Virginia.

The constitution also sustained the iron-clad oath, however, which precluded former Confederates from voting or holding office. As a result, most white Virginians declared the proposed constitution a disgrace. Moreover, any white man who joined with black voters and allies in the Republican Party was castigated as a traitor to his race, as either a “scalawag” (a native white Southern Republican) or a “carpetbagger” (a white Northern Republican). Most Northern-born white Republicans tended to be well-educated men of property, often United States veterans, who had come to the South months or years before any prospect of office holding appeared.

Faced with this situation, the so-called Committee of Nine, led by former Whigs including Alexander H. H. Stuart and John Brown Baldwin of Staunton, took it upon themselves to work things out. They proposed what they called “universal suffrage and universal amnesty.” They would trade support for black male voting for former Confederates’ voting and office-holding. If that deal could be struck, they would support the new constitution.

At first, newspapers across the state attacked the Committee of Nine for its presumption—these men held no official position or power—and for giving away too much. Many white men declared that it would be unmanly to compromise in this way, to support a constitution produced under the Reconstruction Act. Better, they said, to stand on their principles and allow Virginia to be run by Republicans, even black Republicans, than to kneel before the Yankees.

With the delays surrounding these debates, Virginia did not reconstruct itself in time to participate in the presidential election of 1868. Almost all of the other former Confederate states had gone through the same process of constitutional revision more quickly. Three years after the war, the Old Dominion remained adrift. The economy was stagnant and little new investment came from the North or England. Ulysses Grant won the election and the Republicans were in even firmer control.

The Committee of Nine traveled to Washington to meet with President Johnson and president-elect Grant as well as many powerful Congressmen and others. They testified to Virginians’ eagerness to rejoin the Union and accept black voting and the 14th Amendment. They also testified that there were simply no trustworthy men to lead Virginia if all former Confederates were excluded.

Virginia voters supported the new constitution, including the 14th Amendment and black voting, but did not support the iron-clad oath. Virginia was readmitted to the Union with universal suffrage and universal amnesty. Moderate Republicans joined with moderate former Confederates to oppose the Radical Republican candidate for governor in 1869, who ran with a black man as his candidate for lieutenant governor. The former Confederates now called themselves Conservatives; they would later call themselves Democrats.

The moderate Republican, Gilbert Walker won. Technically a carpetbagger from New York, Walker was, however, no Radical and did not institute any radical plans. The General Assembly, too, went to the Conservative/Moderate Republican coalition and enacted virtually nothing radical. Black voting remained strong enough, however, that Richmond and Virginia went for Grant in the 1872 presidential election. The legislature in the 1870s would include between 18 and 30 black members of the assembly. Despite Conservative resistance, white Republican neglect, and factionalism among black people themselves, black voting refused to fade away.

In Richmond black and white politicians divided among themselves, with factions constantly emerging among both Republicans and Conservatives. Many black leaders, especially from the churches, were quite cautious, remained closely tied to white Virginians, and asked for little; other black leaders, though, especially working men and those from the countryside, joined with the Radicals and demanded their full rights at the local, state, and national levels. Most black people in Richmond were so desperate to make a living that they could not put much energy into politics. They cared mainly about education for their children, about their churches, and about their social organizations.

Before Reconstruction faded away, however, Richmond witnessed one last remarkable scene that embodied many of the conflicts of the era. After Gilbert Walker was elected governor in January 1870 he sought to replace the officeholders of the earlier Republican regime. He appointed councilmen for the city of Richmond, retaining only two of those appointed by the military. This council elected a new mayor, H. K. Ellyson, as well as chief of police and police officers. George Chahoon, the young, New York-born, Radical Republican appointee of the mayor, already in office and with his own police force, contested this municipal election and declared his intention to staying in office until his term expired six months later. Chahoon ordered his police force at the three stations to hold them against all attackers.

And thus began what was known as the “Municipal War.” Ellyson held City Hall with 375 special policemen and the fire department. Chahoon had his headquarters in the Old Market Station and had his own special police force containing many black men. Burning and shooting followed, with two men killed, but peace was eventually restored.

The contest between Ellyson and Chahoon went to trial before the Virginia Court of Appeals in April 1870 and people met in the state Capitol building to hear the verdict. As a local newspaper reported, “an immense concourse of anxious spectators and listeners had gathered to ascertain the result. Members of the Legislature, visitors to the city from all parts of our country, members of the bar, representatives of both police forces of the city, members of the press, and representatives of all classes and conditions of life, were assembled.” Suddenly, “a panel of ceiling fell, and then the girder, which is represented by the line of partition between the clerk's office and the court-room, gave way with an awful crash. . . . The mass of human beings who were in attendance were sent, mingled with the bricks, mortar, splinters, beams, iron bars, desks and chairs, to the floor of the House of Delegates, and in a second more fifty-seven souls were launched into eternity. The whole atmosphere was thick with a dense cloud of dust from the plastering, and the human beings sent up a groan which will ring forever in the ears upon which it fell.”

“As the wounded and dead were reached, they were brought out and placed in the Senate chamber, or else under the trees in the square, where they were attended by our city physicians and others who were on hand with such appliances as could be obtained.”

Even after this disaster, the Conservatives and Republicans continued to vie for the mayor’s position, with entire boxes of votes literally stolen in broad daylight. After that debacle, a second election, with different candidates, resulted in the victory of a Conservative and that was the end of Republican control of Richmond for generations to come.

The era of Reconstruction saw the redefinition of a society based on slavery to a society based on some other structures that had not yet been identified. People struggled over this redefinition not only in elections but also in the streets. Black people and white contested public ceremonies, with African Americans celebrating not only the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation but also the liberation of the city on April 3. White people fostered the Lost Cause with their own parades and, soon, statues. Jackson Ward—created by gerrymandering—ironically flourished as one of the leading black business districts in the South. Thirty-three black men served on Richmond’s city council between 1871 and 1898. In this guise, Reconstruction lived on after Reconstruction.

The struggles of Reconstruction broke out again, in fact, in the 1870s and early 1880s in the Readjuster movement, where the issue was whether bondholders of the pre-Civil War state debt should be repaid or whether the schools and other public services sustained. New alliances of black and white emerged and so did black mobilization. This was not what the Conservatives had in mind at all and after they resumed power they began laying the plans for yet another constitution, one that put an end to black voting as much as possible. The 1902 constitution made Virginia one of the least democratic states in the nation for the next half century and beyond. It disfranchised about 90 percent of African Americans who voted at the turn of the century.

Looking back over Reconstruction, we can see that the effort to recast the postwar South was up against long odds from the outset. Reconstruction sought to complete one of the great revolutions of modern history and to do so without the benefit of overwhelming military force, modern tools of surveillance, or a contrite opponent. Slavery in the United States had been strong and growing stronger when it suddenly ended in a vast war waged over much of the continent. Southern slave-owners had held the largest slave population in the hemisphere. Southerners had dominated the presidency and the Supreme Court throughout the first three generations of United States history and had not hesitated to use that power to suppress abolition, to force northern complicity in returning fugitive slaves, and to lay legal claim to at least half of the nation’s territory. Changing all those power relations at one time was a massive undertaking.

For its part, Virginia was never really reconstructed, rebuilt from the ground up. The same men ran Virginia after the war as before; the same heroes were worshipped and the same goals led government. As with the rest of the South, however, later generations took the 14th and 15th Amendments created in Reconstruction and resumed the work that Reconstruction in Virginia never had a chance to do.