Reconstruction was particularly divisive in Mississippi. Upper South states such as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, where former slaves comprised a minority of the population and white citizens had opposed secession until after the Civil War began, had relatively short and mild Reconstruction experiences. In the Deep South, however, where African Americans constituted a majority of the population and white leaders seceded before hostilities erupted, Reconstruction lasted much longer and was much more divisive. Mississippi, the second state to secede, epitomized this group. Reconstruction went through two phases and lasted for eleven years, revealing both the limitless possibilities and depressing realities of postwar America.
In May 1865 Pres. Andrew Johnson’s requirements for readmission to the Union seemed simple: Mississippi had to annul its ordinance of secession and abolish slavery. Following Abraham Lincoln’s policy, Johnson also requested that southern states consider enfranchising some black males, such as property owners or war veterans. Johnson appointed William L. Sharkey, a Union Whig, as provisional governor to oversee Reconstruction in Mississippi. The state constitutional convention, composed of seventy-one Whigs and eighteen Democrats, proved how unconquered white Mississippians were. Instead of annulling secession, the delegates repealed Mississippi’s secession ordinance, implying that they retained the right to secede. Likewise, instead of abolishing slavery, they acknowledged that the institution was destroyed but refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. They never considered black suffrage. Despite the delegates’ defiance, Johnson accepted the new state constitution and scheduled state elections for October 1865. National politics influenced Johnson’s decision: he wanted to complete Reconstruction before Congress convened in December and challenged his policies.
Johnson’s leniency emboldened white Mississippians. Col. Samuel Thomas, the assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau who opened the bureau’s office in Vicksburg, noticed white Mississippians’ rebellious posture: “Wherever I go—the street, the shop, the house, or the steamboat—I hear the people talk in such a way as to indicate that they are yet unable to conceive of the Negro as possessing any rights at all.” White men boasted to Thomas that blacks would “catch hell” after local whites reacquired political control. Whites spread false rumors that former slaves were planning a race war with the aid of the thirteen thousand US soldiers (most of them black) who occupied the state. Mississippi’s population was 55 percent African American, and many whites believed that maintaining white supremacy was more important than promoting peace, economic progress, educational reform, or justice. In November 1865 this racism surfaced in Mississippi’s Act to Confer Civil Rights on Freedmen, the misleading title of the state’s Black Codes. Instead of embracing change, Mississippi legislators passed the first and most extreme postwar racial laws in an attempt to replicate slavery. The codes used vagrancy laws to control African Americans and punished them for any breach of Old South etiquette. Blacks could not be idle, disorderly, or use “insulting” gestures. Blacks could not own guns or preach the Gospel without a special license. Until they turned eighteen, black children were forced to work as “apprentices” for white planters, usually their former masters. Most blatant of all, the state penal codes simply replaced the word slave with freedman: all the crimes and penalties for slaves remained “in full force” for the emancipated.
The Black Codes not only limited African Americans’ political power but also addressed the deeper economic struggle between former masters and freed slaves. Planters wanted to force blacks to work as they had during bondage. The former slaves had different goals: renting or owning land and self-sufficiency and independence from the old ways of plantation agriculture. In short, they wanted physical and economic distance from their terrible past. But whites seldom were willing to sell land to African Americans, even when they had saved up money to buy it. In parts of Mississippi, landowners who refused to sell property to blacks for ten dollars an acre sold it to whites for half that price. Declining land prices and a failing cotton market then threatened white planters’ livelihood. Economic recovery stalled because Mississippians depended almost exclusively on agriculture, and the state’s transportation system was inadequate and wrecked by war. Planters who had withstood wartime destruction and postwar uncertainties faced spiraling debt. More than 150 planters near Natchez, one of the wealthiest cotton regions in the world, forfeited their land to pay debts or back taxes. Eventually, when neither whites nor blacks could achieve their economic aims, the sharecropping system developed.
Testimony from officials such as Thomas and the Black Codes convinced Congress that Mississippi and other states needed a more thorough approach. Beginning in 1867, Congressional or Radical Reconstruction ensued. In Mississippi this period contained great achievements and embarrassing failures. The state recognized the property rights of married women and established public education. One of the greatest successes was black participation in democracy, both as voters and officeholders. At least 226 black Mississippians held public office during Radical Reconstruction, far more than in Arkansas (46) or Tennessee (20), and among them were the first and only black US senators of this period, Hiram Rhoades Revels and Blanche K. Bruce.
But Radical Reconstruction infuriated southerners committed to white supremacy. As Republicans implemented political equality, terrorist groups used intimidation and violence to reverse progress. The foremost of these organizations was the Ku Klux Klan. Established in 1866, the Klan became a vicious paramilitary organization that promoted planters’ interests and the Democratic Party. Klansmen targeted Republicans, “outspoken” blacks, and workers who challenged planter rule. In Monroe County, the Klan killed Jack Dupree, an African American who led a local Republican group and spoke his mind. Mississippi courts, black churches, and schools became frequent targets of racial violence. In Meridian three black leaders were arrested in 1871 for making “incendiary” speeches. During their trial, Klansmen shot up the courtroom, killing the Republican judge, all three defendants, and African Americans in the audience. The violence sparked a bloodbath in which white rioters murdered dozens of black leaders.
In 1875 these violent tactics ruined democracy in Mississippi. The Democratic Party adopted intimidation, voter fraud, and violence to regain power, a strategy dubbed the First Mississippi Plan. In Vicksburg, white supremacists patrolled the streets with guns and told black voters to stay home on Election Day. In Clinton, Democrats assaulted a Republican barbecue just weeks before the November elections, killing schoolteachers, missionaries, and others in attendance. Former governor James L. Alcorn, a scalawag who had allied with black leaders during his term, rounded up a gang and attacked a meeting held by Coahoma County sheriff John Brown, an African American, slaughtering six blacks and two or three whites and chasing Brown from the area. Alcorn’s shift toward violence epitomized white Mississippians’ determination to oust Republicans and protect white supremacy at any cost. Gov. Adelbert Ames, a carpetbagger, asked Pres. Ulysses S. Grant for federal troops to quell the insurgents and guarantee a fair election. When the president denied further aid, Ames called out the state militia but then sent them home after Democrats promised to keep the peace on Election Day. They broke their promise. In the absence of the militia, roughnecks scared black voters away from the polls or forced them to vote Democratic. The strategy worked: Democratic candidates committed to white supremacy replaced every Republican incumbent in the 1875 elections. With control of the legislature, the Democrats grabbed the executive branch by impeaching its Republican leaders. Lt. Gov. Alexander K. Davis, an African American, was convicted of bribery, theft, and unconstitutional acts and removed from office. Ames resigned and left Mississippi rather than face the same fate. The federal government refused to address these blatant abuses. In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes won a contested presidential election by promising to withdraw the last federal troops from the South and ignore the hideous ways that southern Democrats regained power. John Lynch, Mississippi’s last Republican congressman, warned that “the war was fought in vain.”
- Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror after Appomattox (2008)
- Eric Foner, Recostruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988)
- William C. Harris, The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi (1979)
- Peter Kolchin, A Sphinx on the American Land: The Nineteenth-Century South in Comparative Perspective (2003)
- Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2007)