The Sequel of Appomattox : A Chronicle of the Reunion of the States

Author: Walter Lynwood Fleming

Chapter VI. The Rule of the Major Generals

From the passage of the reconstruction acts to the close of Johnson’s Administration, Congress, working the will of the radical majority, was in supreme control. The army carried out the will of Congress and to that body, not to the President, the commanding general and his subordinates looked for direction.

The official opposition of the President to the policy of Congress ceased when that policy was enacted into law. He believed this legislation to be unconstitutional, but he considered it his duty to execute the laws. He at once set about the appointment of generals to command the military districts created in the South,* a task calling for no little discretion, since much depended upon the character of these military governors, or "satraps," as they were frequently called by the opposition. The commanding general in a district was charged with many duties, military, political, and administrative. It was his duty to carry on a government satisfactory to the radicals and not too irritating to the Southern whites; at the same time he must execute the reconstruction acts by putting old leaders out of power and Negroes in. Violent opposition to this policy on the part of the South was not looked for. Notwithstanding the "Southern outrage" campaign, it was generally recognized in government circles that conditions in the seceded states had gradually been growing better since the close of the war. There was in many regions, to be sure, a general laxity in enforcing laws, but that had always been characteristic of the newer parts of the South. The Civil Rights Act was generally in force, the "Black Laws" had been suspended, and the Freedmen’s Bureau was everywhere caring for the Negroes. What disorder existed was of recent origin and in the main was due to the unsettling effects of the debates in Congress and to the organization of the Negroes for political purposes.

* The first five generals appointed were Schofield, Sickles. Pope, Ord, and Sheridan. None of these remained in his district until reconstruction was completed. To Schofield’s command in the first district succeeded in turn Stoneman, Webb, and Canby; Sickles gave way to Canby, and Pope to Meade; Ord in the fourth district was followed by Gillem, McDowell, and Ames; Sheridan, in the fifth, was succeeded by Griffen, Mower, Hancock, Buchanan, Reynolds, and Canby. Some of the generals were radical; others, moderate and tactful. The most extreme were Sheridan, Pope, and Sickles. Those most acceptable to the whites were Hancock, Schofield, and Meade. General Grant himself became more radical in his actions as he became involved in the fight between Congress and the President.

Military rule was established in the South with slight friction, but it was soon found that the reconstruction laws were not sufficiently clear on two points: first, whether there was any limit to the authority of the five generals over the local and state governments and, if so, whether the limiting authority was in the President; and second, whether the disfranchising provisions in the laws were punitive and hence to be construed strictly. Attorney-General Stanbery, in May and June 1867, drew up opinions in which he maintained that the laws were to be considered punitive and therefore to be construed strictly. After discussions in cabinet meetings, these opinions received the approval of all except Stanton, Secretary of War, who had already joined the radical camp. The Attorney-General’s opinion was sent out to the district commanders for their information and guidance. But Congress did not intend to permit the President or his Cabinet to direct the process of reconstruction, and in the Act of July 19, 1867, it gave a radical interpretation to the reconstruction legislation, declared itself in control, gave full power to General Grant and to the district commanders subject only to Grant, directed the removal of all local officials who opposed the reconstruction policies, and warned the civil and military officers of the United States that none of them should "be bound in his action by any opinion of any civil officer of the United States." This interpretive legislation gave a broad basis for the military government and resulted in a severe application of the disfranchising provisions of the laws.

The rule of the five generals lasted in all the States until June 1868, and continued in Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, and Georgia until 1870. There had been, to be sure, some military government in 1865, subject, however, to the President, and from 1865 to 1867 the army, along with the Freedmen’s Bureau, had exerted a strong influence in the government of the South, but in the regime now inaugurated the military was supreme. The generals had a superior at Washington, but whether it was the President, General Grant, or Congress was not clear until the Act of July 19, 1867 made Congress the source of authority.

The power of the generals most strikingly appeared in their control of the state governments which were continued as provisional organizations. Since no elections were permitted, all appointments and removals were made from military headquarters, which soon became political beehives, centers of wirepulling and agencies for the distribution of spoils. At the outset civil officers were ordered to retain their offices during good behavior, subject to military control. But no local official was permitted to use his influence ever so slightly against reconstruction. Since most of them did not favor the policy of Congress, thousands were removed as "obstacles to reconstruction." The Governors of Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas were displaced and others appointed in their stead. All kinds of subordinate offices rapidly became vacant. New appointments were nearly always carpetbaggers and native radicals who could take the "ironclad" oath. The generals complained that there were not enough competent native "loyalists" to fill the offices, and frequently an army officer was installed as governor, treasurer, secretary of state, auditor, or mayor. In nearly all towns, the police force was reorganized, and former Federal soldiers were added to the force, while the regular troops were used for general police purposes and for rural constabulary.

Over the administration of justice the military authorities exercised a close supervision. Instructions were sent out to court officers covering the selection of juries, the suspension of certain laws, and the rules of evidence and procedure. Courts were often closed, court decrees set aside or modified, prisoners released, and many cases reserved for trial by military commission. Some commanders required juries to admit Negro members and insisted that all jurors take the "ironclad" test oath. There was some attempt at regulating the Federal courts but without much success.

Since the state legislatures were forbidden to meet, much legislation was enacted through military orders. Stay laws were enacted, the color line was abolished, new criminal regulations were promulgated, and the police power was invoked in some instances to justify sweeping measures, such as the prohibition of whisky manufacture in North Carolina and South Carolina. The military governors levied, increased, or decreased taxes and made appropriations which the state treasurers were forced to pay, but they restrained the radical conventions, all of which wished to spend much money. According to the Act of March 23, 1867, the generals and their appointees were to be paid by the United States, but in practice the running expenses of reconstruction were paid by the state treasurers.

Any attempt to favor the Confederate soldiers was frowned upon. Laws providing wooden legs and free education for crippled Confederates were suspended. Militia organizations and military schools were forbidden. No uniform might be worn, no parades were permitted, no memorial and historical societies were to be organized, and no meeting of any kind could be held without a permit. The attempt to control the press resulted in what one general called "a horrible uproar." Editors were forbidden to express themselves too strongly against reconstruction; public advertising and printing were awarded only to those papers actively supporting reconstruction. Several newspapers were suppressed, a notable example being the "Tuscaloosa Independent Monitor", whose editor, Ryland Randolph, was a picturesque figure in Alabama journalism and a leader in the Ku Klux Klan.

The military administration was thorough and, as a whole, honest and efficient. With fewer than ten thousand soldiers, the generals maintained order and carried on the reconstruction of the South. The whites made no attempt at resistance, though they were irritated by military rule and resented the loss of self-government. But most Southerners preferred the rule of the army to the alternative reign of the carpetbagger, scalawag, and Negro. The extreme radicals at the North, on the other hand, were disgusted at the conservative policy of the generals. The apathy of the whites at the beginning of the military reconstruction excited surprise on all sides. Not only was there no violent opposition, but for a few weeks there was no opposition at all. The civil officials were openly unsympathetic, and the newspapers voiced dissent not untouched with disgust; others simply could not take the situation seriously because it seemed so absurd; many leaders were indifferent, while others among them, Generals Lee, Beauregard, and Longstreet, and Governor Patton—without approving the policy, advised the whites to cooperate with the military authorities and save all they could out of the situation. General Beauregard, for instance, wrote in 1867: "If the suffrage of the Negro is properly handled and directed, we shall defeat our adversaries with their own weapons. The Negro is Southern born. With education and property qualifications he can be made to take an interest in the affairs of the South and in its prosperity. He will side with the whites."

Northern observers who were friendly to the South or who disapproved of this radical reconstruction saw the danger more clearly than the Southerners themselves, who seemed not to appreciate the full implication of the situation. In this connection the New York "Herald" remarked:

"We may regard the entire ten unreconstructed Southern States, with possibly one or two exceptions, as forced by a secret and overwhelming revolutionary influence to a common and inevitable fate. They are all bound to be governed by blacks spurred on by worse than blacks - white wretches who dare not show their faces in respectable society anywhere. This is the most abominable phase barbarism has assumed since the dawn of civilization. It was all right and proper to put down the rebellion. It was all right perhaps to emancipate the slaves . . . . But it is not right to make slaves of white men even though they may have been former masters of blacks. This is but a change in a system of bondage that is rendered the more odious and intolerable because it has been inaugurated in an enlightened instead of a dark and uncivilized age."

The political parties rapidly grouped themselves for the coming struggle. The radical Republican party indeed was in process of organization in the South even before the passage of the reconstruction acts. Its membership was made up of Negroes, carpetbaggers, or Northern men who had come in as speculators, officers of the Freedmen’s Bureau and of the army, scalawags or Confederate renegades, "Peace Society" men,* and Unionists of Civil War times, with a few old Whigs who could not yet bring themselves to affiliate with the Democrats. At first it seemed that a respectable number of whites might be secured for the radical party, but the rapid organization of the Negroes checked the accession of whites. In the winter and spring of 1866-67, the Negroes near the towns were well organized by the Union League and the Freedmen’s Bureau and then, after the passage of the reconstruction acts, the organizing activities of the radical chieftains shifted to the rural districts. The Union League was greatly extended; Union League conventions were held to which local whites were not admitted; and the formation of a black man’s party was well on the way before the registration of the voters was completed. Visiting statesmen from the North, among them Henry Wilson of Massachusetts and "Pig Iron" Kelley of Pennsylvania, toured the South in support of the radical program, and the registrars and all Federal officials aided in the work.

* See "The Day of the Confederacy", by Nathaniel W. Stephenson (in "The Chronicles of America"), p. 121, footnote.

The whites, slow to comprehend the real extent of radicalism, were finally aroused to the necessity of organizing, if they were to influence the Negro and have a voice in the conventions. The old party divisions were still evident. With difficulty a portion of the Whigs was brought with the Democrats into one conservative party during the summer and fall of 1867, though many still held aloof. The lack of the old skilled leadership was severely felt. In places where the white man’s party was given a name, it was called "Democratic and Conservative," to spare the feelings of former Whigs who were loath to bear the party name of their quondam opponents.

The first step in the military reconstruction was the registration of voters. In each State a central board of registrars was appointed by the district commander and a local board for every county and large town. Each board consisted of three members—all radicals—who were required to subscribe to the "ironclad" oath. In several states one Negro was appointed to each local board. The registrars listed Negro voters during the day, and at night worked at the organization of a radical Republican party. The prospective voters were required to take the oath prescribed in the Reconstruction Act, but the registrars were empowered to go behind the oath and investigate the Confederate record of each applicant. This authority was invoked to carry the disfranchisement of the whites far beyond the intention of the law in an attempt to destroy the leadership of the whites and to register enough Negroes to outvote them at the polls. For this purpose the registration was continued until October 1, 1867, and an active campaign of education and organization carried on.

At the close of the registration, 703,000 black voters were on the rolls and 627,000 whites. In Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi there were black majorities, and in the other States the blacks and the radical whites together formed majorities. The white minorities included several thousand who had been rejected by the registrars but restored by the military commanders. Though large numbers of blacks were dropped from the revised rolls as fraudulently registered, the registration statistics, nevertheless, bore clear witness to the political purpose of those who compiled them.

Next followed a vote on the question of holding a state convention and the election of delegates to such a convention if held—a double election. The whites, who had been harassed in the registration and who feared race conflicts at the elections, considered whether they ought not to abstain from voting. By staying away from the polls, they might bring the vote cast in each State below a majority and thus defeat the proposed conventions for, unless a majority of the registered voters actually cast ballots either for or against a convention, no convention could be held. Nowhere, however, was this plan of not voting fully carried out, for, though most whites abstained, enough of them voted (against the conventions, of course) to make the necessary majority in each State. The effect of the abstention policy upon the personnel of the conventions was unfortunate. In every convention there was a radical majority with a conservative and all but negligible minority. In South Carolina and Louisiana, there were Negro majorities. In every State except North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, the Negroes and the carpetbaggers together were in the majority over native whites.

The conservative whites were of fair ability; the carpetbaggers and scalawags produced in each convention a few able leaders, but most of them were conscienceless political soldiers of fortune; the Negro members were inexperienced, and most of them were quite ignorant, though a few leaders of ability did appear among them. In Alabama, for example, only two Negro members could write, though half had been taught to sign their names. They were barbers, field hands, hack drivers, and servants. A Negro chaplain was elected who invoked divine blessings on "unioners and cusses on rebels." It was a sign of the new era when the convention specially invited the "ladies of colored members" to seats in the gallery.

The work of the conventions was for the most part cut and dried, the abler members having reached a general agreement before they met. The constitutions, mosaics of those of other states, were noteworthy only for the provisions made to keep the whites out of power and to regulate the relations of the races in social matters. The Texas constitution alone contained no proscriptive clauses beyond those required by the Fourteenth Amendment. The most thoroughgoing proscription of Confederates was found in the constitutions of Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia; and in these states the voter must also purge himself of guilt by agreeing to accept the "civil and political equality of all men" or by supporting reconstruction. Only in South Carolina and Louisiana were race lines abolished by law.

The legislative work of the conventions was more interesting than the constitution making. By ordinance the legality of Negro marriages was dated from November 1867, or some date later than had been fixed by the white conventions of 1865. Mixed schools were provided in some States; militia for the black districts but not for the white was to be raised; while in South Carolina it was made a penal offense to call a person a "Yankee" or a "nigger." Few of the Negro delegates demanded proscription of whites or social equality; they wanted schools and the vote. The white radicals were more anxious to keep the former Confederates from holding office than from voting. The generals in command everywhere used their influence to secure moderate action by the conventions, and for this they were showered with abuse.

As provided by the reconstruction acts, the new constitutions were submitted to the electorate created by those instruments. Unless a majority of the registered voters in a State should take part in the election, the reconstruction would fail and the State would remain under military rule. The whites now inaugurated a more systematic policy of abstention and in Alabama, on February 4, 1868, succeeded in holding the total vote below a majority. Congress then rushed to the rescue of radicalism with the act of the 11th of March, which provided that a mere majority of those voting in the State was sufficient to inaugurate reconstruction. Arkansas had followed the lead of Alabama, but too late; in Mississippi the constitution was defeated by a majority vote; in Texas the convention had made no provision for a vote; and in Virginia the commanding general, disapproving of the work of the convention, refused to pay the expenses of an election. In the other six States the constitutions were adopted.*

* Except in Texas, the work of constitution making was completed between November 5, 1867, and May 18, 1868.

These elections gave rise to more violent contests than before. They also were double elections, as the voters cast ballots for state and local officials and at the same time for or against the constitution. The radical nominations were made by the Union League and the Freedmen’s Bureau, and nearly all radicals who had been members of conventions were nominated and elected to office. The Negroes, expecting now to reap some benefits of reconstruction, frequently brought sacks to the polls to "put the franchise in." The elections were all over by June 1868, and the newly elected legislatures promptly ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.

It now remained for Congress to approve the work done in the South and to readmit the reorganized states. The case of Alabama gave some trouble. Even Stevens, for a time, thought that this state should stay out; but there was danger in delay. The success of the abstention policy in Alabama and Arkansas and the reviving interest of the whites foreshadowed white majorities in some places; the scalawags began to forsake the radical party for the conservatives; and there were Democratic gains in the North in 1867. Only six states, New York and five New England States, allowed the Negro to vote, while four states, Minnesota, Michigan, Kansas, and Ohio, voted down Negro suffrage after the passage of the reconstruction acts. The ascendancy of the radicals in Congress was menaced. The radicals needed the support of their radical brethren in Southern States and they could not afford to wait for the Fourteenth Amendment to become a part of the Constitution or to tolerate other delay. On the 22d and the 25th of June, acts were therefore passed admitting seven states, Alabama included, to representation in Congress upon the "fundamental condition" that "the constitutions of neither of said States shall ever be so amended or changed as to deprive any citizens or class of citizens of the United States of the right to vote in said State, who are entitled to vote by the constitution thereof herein recognized."

The generals now turned over the government to the recently elected radical officials and retired into the background. Military reconstruction was thus accomplished in all the States except Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas.


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Chicago: Walter Lynwood Fleming, "Chapter VI. The Rule of the Major Generals," The Sequel of Appomattox : A Chronicle of the Reunion of the States, ed. Morris, Charles, 1833-1922 in The Sequel of Appomattox : A Chronicle of the Reunion of the States Original Sources, accessed March 26, 2019,

MLA: Fleming, Walter Lynwood. "Chapter VI. The Rule of the Major Generals." The Sequel of Appomattox : A Chronicle of the Reunion of the States, edited by Morris, Charles, 1833-1922, in The Sequel of Appomattox : A Chronicle of the Reunion of the States, Original Sources. 26 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Fleming, WL, 'Chapter VI. The Rule of the Major Generals' in The Sequel of Appomattox : A Chronicle of the Reunion of the States, ed. . cited in , The Sequel of Appomattox : A Chronicle of the Reunion of the States. Original Sources, retrieved 26 March 2019, from