The end of the American Civil War on 3 April 1865 was followed only a few days later by the assassination of President Lincoln. Throwing the whole nation into shock, the USA now had to face urgent questions of reconstruction – including how to deal with the South and former slaves – without their President. Although African-American men (but not women) were given the vote in 1868, this did not lead to political equality between the races or the sexes. Both women and African-Americans had to struggle to achieve reform.
Only a few days after the end of the American Civil War on 3 April 1865, the nation was shocked by the assassination of President Lincoln. The details of the reconstruction period now had to be addressed without the input one of the outstanding figures of the Republic. How was the country going to reintegrate the South and deal with the newly-freed slaves? Although all black men were given the vote in 1868, black women were not enfranchised. This led to the growing organization of black women. Despite such advances, the end of the Civil War did not result in racial equality, but the start of a new system of racial separation known as segregation. This situation remained until the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

1. The policy of Abraham Lincoln

"Freeing the slaves during the war"

The Emancipation Proclamation 1. January 1863

„That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a State, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.“


The mere fact of the declaration did not translate into immediate freedom for the slaves, and the institution remained in the border states. The declaration only freed those slaves in the territories under Union control.

An excerpt from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the 33 Regiment of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in January 1863, as relayed by the Black nurse Susie King Taylor (1848-1912)

“On the first of January, 1863, we held services for the purposes of listening to the reading of President Lincoln’s proclamation by Dr. W.H. Brisbane, and the presentation of two beautiful stand of colors, one from a lady in Connecticut, and the other from Rev. Mr. Cheever. The presentation speech was made by Chaplain French. It was a glorious day for us all, and we enjoyed every minute of it, and as a fitting close and the crowning event of this occasion we had a Grant barbecue. A number of oxen were roasted whole, and we had a fine feast. Although not served as tastily or correctly as it would have been at home, yet it was enjoyed with keen appetites and relish. The soldiers had a good time. They sang or shouted „Hurrah!“ all through the camp, and seemed overflowing with fun and frolic until taps were sounded, when many, no doubt, dreamt of this memorable day.”

Taylor, Susie K. and Catherine Clinton. Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: An African American Woman's Civil War Memoir. Paperback Ed. Athens, Ga.: Univ. of Georgia Press, 2006, S. 18.

Süddeutsche Zeitung, 18 February 2013

Embarrassing bureaucratic errors. The last US state ratifies the 13th Amendment freeing slaves

 “Having just been to the cinema to watch Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln”, a US immigrant was surprized during subsequent internet research to find that due to a bureaucratic error, slavery had never been abolished in the state of Mississippi.” (…)

The Atlantic Wire reported that 148 years after the passing of the 13th Amendment to the US constitution, Mississippi was the last American state not yet to have ratified it. This amendment forbids both slavery and forced labour, the latter still being permitted only as a criminal punishment. Other exceptions to this ruling include duties for the state such as national service and jury service. (…)

Although Mississippi is known as a conservative state, this was truly an oversight – during the first ratification procedure in 1865, the Southern state rejected the amendment, but signed in 1995. Forgetting to inform the US Federal Register, the ratification was not binding. Thanks to the attentive Dr Batra, the error has now been rectified. The Republican Secretary of State Delber Hosemann commented: “This was long overdue!” 


The death of Abraham Lincoln

Visiting Ford’s Theater in Washington on the evening of 14 April 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot dead by the well-known actor and Confederacy supporter John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) who forced his way into the presidential box and fired a number of shots at Lincoln. The President collapsed and died a day later.

Booth was subsequently shot in a barn in Virginia. His conspirators were either sentenced to hang or served long prison sentences.

2. The postwar period

Reconstruction 1865-1877

“If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to the blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?”

Fredrick Douglass, 5. July 1875 in a speech at Hillsdale close to Washington D.C.
Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2001, S. 132.

The Situation at the end of the war in June 1865

The Southern states lay in ruins and a large proportion of the railway network had been destroyed. Fields had been ravaged or left untilled for years.  Agriculture, the largest economic sector in the South, was in a parlous state. Thousands of soldiers returned from the war, many as invalids. Some three million slaves had attained their freedom.

The political tasks facing the South:

  • Repairing the war damage
  • Reintegrating former enemies
  • New laws to grant slaves equal rights

Urgent questions:

  • How was it possible to reintegrate the South?
  • What should be done with the former slaves and the structures of slavery which still existed?

Presidential Reconstruction

President Lincoln began with the reconstruction of the Union-occupied confederacy as early as 1863. Seeking to establish a moderate peace and thereby reintegrate the South in the United States, he was forced to defend his plan against radical Republicans, who demanded punishment of the South. The assassination of Lincoln in April 1865 raised hopes in these quarters, that his successor Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) would implement a programme of sanctions against the former Confederate state. Johnson pardoned the former Confederate leaders, all of whom were open racists and secessionists. Johnson viewed the process of reconstruction as complete in 1865, after the acceptance by all the Southern governments of the 13th (Emancipation) Amendment.

A number of Southern governments passed legislation to suppress the African-Americans. Forbidden to own land or chose their profession, many of the former slaves were required to perform paid work on the former plantations; they were forbidden from sending their children to public schools. African-Americans were not granted equal civil rights and were not granted the vote.


Strict anti-miscegenation laws prevented racial inter-marriage and sexual contact. African-Americans were not only excluded from white society, but were increasingly confronted by organized racism in the form of the Ku-Klux-Klan, formed in 1866.

Also in 1866, the US Congress passed a law to ensure the continued existence of the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency tasked with enforcing the rights of former slaves. It also passed the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed legal equality between the races. After President Johnson vetoed both pieces of legislation, the Congress came to the requisite two-thirds majority to undo the veto. This act of congressional defiance marked the turning point in the programme of Presidential Reconstruction, turning it into a process of Congressional Reconstruction. Emboldened, the Congress ratified the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which guaranteed equal civil rights for all people born in the United States (except for the Native Americans) and the 15th Amendment, which forbade restrictions to the franchise on the basis of race, skin colour or former slave status.


Native Americans

In the early to mid-nineteenth century, Native Americans, the aboriginal peoples of North America to whom Christopher Columbus referred to as Indios (Indians) became weakened by conflict with the settlers, hunger and disease. Blocking the westwards expansion of white settlers, the US government decided that the Native Americans should be settled on reserves and turned to a life of agriculture. Conflicts with the Native Americans increased during the Civil War and the last “Indian Wars” were fought and won by the federal forces in the 1870s.


Radical Reconstruction

The new raft of legislation passed in the Reconstruction period effected the legal and social equality of African-Americans in the South. Elected as President in 1869, the former Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) sought to use a federal military presence in the South to make sure that the African-Americans could enjoy the rights that were accorded to them. This led to the growth of white supremacist movements in the South, which sought to intimidate and exclude the African-American population.

The end of Reconstruction

The inconclusive presidential election of 1877 saw the growth of a compromise: the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893) would be confirmed as President in return for the withdrawal of all federal troops from the Southern States. The withdrawal of the troops meant that African-American rights were not enforced. The laws passed to effect this compromize were repealed under pressure from the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.


Although the Reconstruction period saw the emergence of a United States characterized by the dominance of the North, the “old South” did not vanish. Its attitudes and values lived on in the latent racism prevalent in the South. In terms of racial equality, the programme of Reconstruction must be viewed as a failure. This is made clear by comparison of two sources. A new Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 (almost one hundred years after the first such act from 1875) are very similar. That such legislation needed to be repeated however, shows how ineffective the first Act had been.

„Civil Rights Act of 1875“ and „Civil Rights Act of 1964“ (excerpts)

Despite attaining legal rights in the 1950s and 60s, African-Americans remained subject to a level of informal segregation which continues until this day. Indeed, many argue that economic inequality on racial lines is not the result of individual failure, but structural discrimination. Many believe that African-Americans are treated as second class citizens. 

Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream

A speech by the Reverend Martin Luther King given at a rally within the March on Washington for Work and Freedom held in front of the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963 in Washington D.C.

“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”


German translation: www.usa.usembassy.de/etexts/soc/traum.htm

3. The Civil War in memory

Immediately after losing the Civil war, the majority of whites viewed it as a lost cause. They viewed the conflict as the result of a misinterpretation of the constitutional freedoms of the individual, and not as being caused by divergences of the issue of slavery. As such, they viewed the aims of Confederacy as entirely honourable. The adoption of this interpretation in the North greatly simplified the project of national reconciliation.


The introduction of Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) as a national holiday to honour the dead of the Civil War. This originated in May 1865 as a group of former slaves in Charleston acted to rebury a group of hastily-interred Union soldiers so as to provide them with an honourable grave.

The most important veterans’ organization in the North was the Grand Army of the Republic founded in 1866, which was initially open to African-American veterans. Expelling African-American members over the course of the 1880s, the grouping moved closer to the Democratic party.

The most important veteran organization in the South was the United Confederate Veterans, founded in 1889 and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894. The female members did not just collect money to tend graves and erect monuments, but to influence the history of the Civil War as portrayed in school text books. (Faust, Drew Gilpin, This Republic of Suffering, New York 2008, pp. 237-249.)

The official culture of remembrance sought to emphasize the culture of sacrifice and heroism on both sides of the war. The emancipation of the slaves and the role of African-Americans in the war was tacitly ignored.


The events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1913) excluded the African-American population. Half a century after the end of the war, African-Americans still did not enjoy equal rights.



The start of organized resistance amongst the African-American community to segregation; the seeds of the Civil Rights movement were sewn.


Both whites and African-Americans sought to use commemoration of the Civil War to advance their interpretations of the conflict. White historians continued to ignore the role of African-American soldiers.


The first national commemoration of the role of African-American troops in the Civil War


The African American Civil War Memorial was opened in Washington D.C.