The Collapse of Reconstruction

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the economic practices and policies limiting opportunities for Black people at the end of Reconstruction
  • Identify the role of the Ku Klux Klan in ending Reconstruction

The effort to remake the South generated a brutal reaction among Southern Whites, who were committed to keeping Blacks in a subservient position. To prevent Blacks from gaining economic ground and to maintain cheap labor for the agricultural economy, an exploitative system of sharecropping spread throughout the South. Domestic terror organizations, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, employed various methods (arson, whipping, murder) to keep freed people from voting and achieving political, social, or economic equality with Whites.

An engraving captioned “A Slave Father Sold Away from His Family” shows a black man, with a box of belongings on his shoulder, sadly bidding farewell to his wife, children, and other members of the slave community. Behind him, a well-dressed white man and woman await his departure.

Figure 1. After emancipation, many fathers who had been sold from their families as slaves—a circumstance illustrated in the engraving above, which shows a male slave forced to leave his wife and children—set out to find those lost families and rebuild their lives.

The Need for Land

Land was one of the major desires of the freed people. Most freed people stayed in the South on the lands where their families and loved ones had worked for generations as enslaved laborers. They hungered to own and farm their own lands instead of the lands of White plantation owners. In one case, the formerly enslaved on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina initially had hopes of owning the land they had worked for many decades after General Sherman directed that freed people be granted title to plots of forty acres.

Frustrated by responsibility for the growing numbers of freed people following his troops, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, in which land in Georgia and South Carolina was to be set aside as a homestead for the freedpeople. Sherman lacked the authority to confiscate and distribute land, so this plan never fully took effect. One of the main purposes of the Freedmen’s Bureau, however, was to redistribute lands to formerly enslaved people that had been abandoned and confiscated by the federal government. Even these land grants were short-lived. In 1866, land that ex-Confederates had left behind was reinstated to them.

Freedpeople’s hopes of land reform were unceremoniously dashed as Freedmen’s Bureau agents held meetings with the freedmen throughout the South, telling them the promise of land was not going to be honored and that instead they should plan to go back to work for their former enslaver as wage laborers. The policy reversal came as quite a shock. In one instance, Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner General Oliver O. Howard went to Edisto Island to inform the Black population there of the policy change. The Black commission’s response was that “we were promised Homesteads by the government. . . . You ask us to forgive the land owners of our island. . . .The man who tied me to a tree and gave me 39 lashes and who stripped and flogged my mother and my sister . . . that man I cannot well forgive. Does it look as if he has forgiven me, seeing how he tries to keep me in a condition of helplessness?”[1]

In working to ensure that crops would be harvested, agents sometimes coerced formerly enslaved people into signing contracts with their former enslavers. However, the bureau also instituted courts where Blacks could seek redress if their employers were abusing them or not paying them. The last ember of hope for land redistribution was extinguished when Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner’s proposed land reform bills were tabled in Congress. Radicalism had its limits, and the Republican Party’s commitment to economic stability eclipsed their interest in racial justice.


Throughout the South, sharecropping took root, a crop-lien system that worked to the advantage of landowners. Under the system, freed people rented the land they worked, often on the same plantations where they had been slaves. Some landless Whites also became sharecroppers. Sharecroppers paid their landlords with the crops they grew, often as much as half their harvest. Sharecropping favored the landlords and ensured that freed people could not attain independent livelihoods. The year-to-year leases meant no incentive existed to substantially improve the land, and high interest payments siphoned additional money away from the farmers. Sharecroppers often became trapped in a never-ending cycle of debt, unable to buy their own land and unable to stop working for their creditor because of what they owed. The freedmen would have to set up an account at the local general store where they could obtain seed, equipment, food, and other essentials. They would have to pay this money back once they got money for their harvest. If they had a good year, their debt could be paid. In most cases, however, they barely made it. If they had a year or two of bad crops, they would never get out of debt, and the cycle of indebtedness would continue. The consequences of sharecropping affected the entire South for many generations, severely limiting economic development and ensuring that the South remained an agricultural backwater.

Try It

Review Question

Why was it difficult for Southern free Blacks to gain economic independence after the Civil War?

Racial Violence

Racial violence in the Reconstruction period took three major forms: riots against Black political authority, interpersonal fights, and organized vigilante groups. There were riots in southern cities several times during Reconstruction. The most notable were the riots in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866, but other large-scale urban conflicts erupted in places including Laurens, South Carolina, in 1870; Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873; another in New Orleans in 1874; Yazoo City, Mississippi, in 1875; and Hamburg, South Carolina, in 1876. Southern cities grew rapidly after the war as migrants from the countryside—particularly freed people—flocked to urban centers. Cities became centers of Republican control. But White conservatives chafed at the influx of Black residents and the establishment of biracial politics. In nearly every conflict, White conservatives initiated violence in reaction to Republican rallies, conventions, or elections in which Black men were to vote. The death tolls of these conflicts remain incalculable, and victims were overwhelmingly Black.

Even everyday violence between individuals disproportionally targeted African Americans during Reconstruction. African Americans gained citizenship rights like the ability to serve on juries as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment. But southern White men were almost never prosecuted for violence against Black victims. White men beat or shot Black men with relative impunity, and did so over minor squabbles, labor disputes, long-standing grudges, and crimes of passion. These incidents sometimes were reported to local federal authorities like the army or the Freedmen’s Bureau, but more often than not such violence was unreported and unprosecuted.

The violence committed by organized vigilante groups, sometimes called nightriders or bushwhackers, was more often premeditated. Groups of nightriders operated under cover of darkness and wore disguises to curtail Black political involvement. Nightriders harassed and killed Black candidates and officeholders and frightened voters away from the polls. They also aimed to limit Black economic mobility by terrorizing freedpeople who tried to purchase land or otherwise become too independent from the White enslavers they used to rely on. They were terrorists and vigilantes, determined to stop the erosion of the antebellum South, and they were widespread and numerous, operating throughout the South. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) emerged in the late 1860s as the most infamous of these groups.

The “Invisible Empire of the South”

Paramilitary White-supremacist terror organizations in the South helped bring about the collapse of Reconstruction, using violence as their primary weapon. The “Invisible Empire of the South,” or Ku Klux Klan, stands as the most notorious. The Klan was founded in 1866 as an oath-bound fraternal order of Confederate veterans in Tennessee, with former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest as its first leader. The organization—its name likely derived from kuklos, a Greek word meaning circle—devised elaborate rituals and grandiose names for its ranking members: Grand Wizard, Grand Dragon, Grand Titan, and Grand Cyclops. Soon, however, this fraternal organization evolved into a vigilante terrorist group that vented Southern Whites’ collective frustration over the loss of the war and the course of Radical Reconstruction through acts of intimidation and violence.

A broadside reads “I AM COMMITTEE. 1st. No man shall squat negroes on his place unless they are all under his employ male and female. 2d. Negro women shall be employed by white persons. 3d. All children shall be hired out for something. 4th. Negroes found in cabins to themselves shall suffer the penalty. 5th. Negroes shall not be allowed to hire negroes. 6th. Idle men, women, or children shall suffer the penalty. 7th. All white men found with negroes in secret places shall be dealt with, and those that hire negroes must pay promptly and act with good faith to the negro; I will make the negro do his part, and the white must too. 8th. For the first offence is one hundred lashes; the second is looking up a sapling. 9th. This I do for the benefit of all, young or old, high and tall, black and white. Any one that may not like these rules can try their luck, and see whether or not I will be found doing my duty. 10th. Negroes found stealing from any one, or taking from their employers to other negroes, death is the first penalty. 11th. Running about late of nights shall be strictly dealt with. 12th. White man and negro, I am everywhere; I have friends in every place; do your duty and I will have but little to do.”

Figure 2. The Ku Klux Klan posted circulars such as this 1867 West Virginia broadside to warn Blacks and White sympathizers of the power and ubiquity of the Klan.

The Klan terrorized newly freed Blacks to deter them from exercising their citizenship rights and freedoms. Other anti-Black vigilante groups around the South began to adopt the Klan name and perpetrate acts of unspeakable violence against anyone they considered a tool of Reconstruction. Indeed, as historians have noted, Klan units around the South operated autonomously and with a variety of motives. Some may have sincerely believed they were righting wrongs, others merely satisfying their lurid desires for violence. The Klan was not the only racist vigilante organization. Other groups, like the Red Shirts from Mississippi and the Knights of the White Camelia and the White League, both from Louisiana, also sprang up at this time. The Klan and similar organizations also worked as an extension of the Democratic Party to win elections.

Despite the great variety in Klan membership, on the whole, the group tended to direct its attention toward persecuting freed people and people they considered carpetbaggers, a term of abuse applied to Northerners accused of having come to the South to acquire wealth through political power at the expense of Southerners. The colorful term captured the disdain of Southerners for these people, reflecting the common assumption that these men, sensing great opportunity, packed up all their worldly possessions in carpetbags, a then-popular type of luggage, and made their way to the South. Implied in this definition is the notion that these men came from little and were thus shiftless wanderers motivated only by the desire for quick money. In reality, these Northerners tended to be young, idealistic, often well-educated men who responded to Northern campaigns urging them to lead the modernization of the South. Many of these people were lawyers, doctors, and teachers who came to the South to help the freedmen. But the image of them as swindlers taking advantage of the South at its time of need resonated with a White southern population aggrieved by loss and economic decline. Southern Whites who supported Reconstruction, known as scalawags, also generated great hostility as traitors to the South. They, too, became targets of the Klan and similar groups.

An illustration shows a black family, with three small children, tending to their hearth as a hooded Klansman, undetected, points a rifle at them through the open doorway.

Figure 3. This illustration by Frank Bellew, captioned “Visit of the Ku-Klux,” appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1872. A hooded Klansman surreptitiously points a rifle at an unaware Black family in their home.

The Klan seized on the pervasive but largely fictional narrative of the Northern carpetbagger as a powerful tool for restoring White supremacy and overturning Republican state governments in the South. To preserve a White-dominated society, Klan members punished Blacks for attempting to improve their station in life or acting “uppity.” To prevent freed people from attaining an education, the Klan burned public schools. In an effort to stop Blacks from voting, the Klan murdered, whipped, and otherwise intimidated freed people and their White supporters. It wasn’t uncommon for Klan members to intimidate Union League members and Freedmen’s Bureau workers. The Klan even perpetrated acts of political assassination, killing a sitting U.S. congressman from Arkansas and three state congressmen from South Carolina.

Klan tactics included riding out to victims’ houses, masked and armed, and firing into the homes or burning them down. Other tactics relied more on the threat of violence, such as happened in Mississippi when fifty masked Klansmen rode out to a local schoolteacher’s house to express their displeasure with the school tax and to suggest that she consider leaving. Still other tactics intimidated through imaginative trickery. One such method was to dress up as ghosts of slain Confederate soldiers and stage stunts designed to convince their victims of their supernatural abilities.

Regardless of the method, the general goal of reinstating White supremacy as a foundational principle and returning the South to a situation that largely resembled antebellum conditions remained a constant. The Klan used its power to eliminate Black economic independence, decimate Blacks’ political rights, reclaim White dominance over Black women’s bodies and Black men’s masculinity, tear apart Black communities, and return Blacks to earlier patterns of economic and political subservience and social deference. In this, they were largely successful.

Link to Learning

Visit Freedmen’s Bureau Online to view digitized records of attacks on freed people that were reported in Albany, Georgia, between January 1 and October 31, 1868.

Government Response to Violence

The president and Congress, however, were not indifferent to the violence, and they worked to bring it to an end. In 1870, at the insistence of the governor of North Carolina, President Grant told Congress to investigate the Klan. In response, Congress in 1871 created the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States. The committee took testimony from freed people in the South, and in 1872, it published a thirteen-volume report on the tactics the Klan used to derail democracy in the South through the use of violence.

Abram Colby on the Methods of the Ku Klux Klan

The following statements are from the October 27, 1871, testimony of fifty-two-year-old former slave Abram Colby, which the joint select committee investigating the Klan took in Atlanta, Georgia. Colby had been elected to the lower house of the Georgia State legislature in 1868.

On the 29th of October, they came to my house and broke my door open, took me out of my bed and took me to the woods and whipped me three hours or more and left me in the woods for dead. They said to me, “Do you think you will ever vote another damned Radical ticket?” I said, “I will not tell you a lie.” They said, “No; don’t tell a lie.” . . . I said, “If there was an election to-morrow, I would vote the Radical ticket.” They set in and whipped me a thousand licks more, I suppose. . . .

They said I had influence with the negroes of other counties, and had carried the negroes against them. About two days before they whipped me they offered me $5,000 to turn and go with them, and said they would pay me $2,500 cash if I would turn and let another man go to the legislature in my place. . . .

I would have come before the court here last week, but I knew it was no use for me to try to get Ku-Klux condemned by Ku-Klux, and I did not come. Mr. Saunders, a member of the grand jury here last week, is the father of one of the very men I knew whipped me. . . .

They broke something inside of me, and the doctor has been attending to me for more than a year. Sometimes I cannot get up and down off my bed, and my left hand is not of much use to me.

—Abram Colby testimony, Joint Select Committee Report, 1872

Why did the Klan target Colby? What methods did they use?

Illustration showing a black family kneeling down over a newbordn child, in obvious distress, as a fire burns behind them and a man is lynched in the distance. A person dressed in KKK robes shakes hands over the picture with the White League.

Figure 4. This 1874 illustration by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast shows the KKK and the White League, another White supremacist group, joining together to bring violence and oppression to Blacks.

Congress also passed a series of three laws designed to stamp out the Klan. Passed in 1870 and 1871, the Enforcement Acts or “Force Acts” were designed to outlaw intimidation at the polls and to give the federal government the power to prosecute crimes against freed people in federal rather than state courts. Congress believed that this last step, a provision in the third Enforcement Act, also called the Ku Klux Klan Act, was necessary in order to ensure that trials would not be decided by White juries in southern states friendly to the Klan. The act also allowed the president to impose martial law in areas controlled by the Klan and gave President Grant the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, a continuation of the wartime power granted to President Lincoln. The suspension meant individuals suspected of engaging in Klan activity could be jailed indefinitely.

President Grant made frequent use of the powers granted to him by Congress, especially in South Carolina, where federal troops imposed martial law in nine counties in an effort to derail Klan activities. However, the federal government faced entrenched local organizations and a White population firmly opposed to Radical Reconstruction. Changes came slowly or not at all, and disillusionment set in. After 1872, federal government efforts to put down paramilitary terror in the South waned.

In the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), the Court narrowly defined the “privileges and immunities” of federal citizenship, and found that the Fourteenth Amendment had not been intended to expand federal powers over the states. As a result, civil rights cases would not be heard in friendlier federal courts, but rather in state courts, where civil rights violators were less likely to be convicted. In United States v. Cruikshank (1876), the Supreme Court struck down the Enforcement Act of 1870 on the grounds that the Fourteenth Amendment only applied to civil rights violations by the states and not those of private citizens, leaving Black citizens at the mercy of unsympathetic state courts.

In the aftermath of Grant’s actions and the Supreme Court’s decisions, the KKK used less brutal means to intimidate Black voters, though violence against African Americans continued. But in one state after another, emboldened by the Supreme Court’s narrow view of the Reconstruction Amendments, White majorities reclaimed political control and passed laws, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and even amended state constitutions to disfranchise the freed people. These constituted much of what came to be known as “Jim Crow laws” in the late 19th century.

Try It

Based on your understanding of the material, write down 2-3 reasons that you think the U.S. government decided to crack down on the KKK the way that it did in 1870.


carpetbagger: a term used for Northerners working in the South during Reconstruction; it implied that these were opportunists who came south for economic or political gain

crop-lien system: a loan system in which store owners extended credit to farmers for the purchase of goods in exchange for a portion of their future crops

Ku Klux Klan: a White vigilante organization that engaged in terroristic violence with the aim of stopping Reconstruction

scalawags: a pejorative term used for Southern Whites who supported Reconstruction

sharecropping: a crop-lien system in which people paid rent on land they farmed (but did not own) with the crops they grew

  1. Steven Hahn et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, Series 3, Volume 1: Land and Labor, 1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 442–444.