Who Was Responsible for the Extreme Violence During the Reconstruction Era

Actor and Assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Although it was intended to be a time of healing and progress, Reconstruction in America became a violent endeavor. The founding of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866, coupled with individual and riotous acts of violence were an extension of the first brutal act of the era; the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln as President of the United States, held none of Lincoln’s compassion or his innate ability to forgive. His quest to punish the southern states for their rebellion against the Union fanned the flames of vengeance. The hatred felt by defeated Confederates and the inevitable violence that stemmed from that hate was omnipresent in the South. Had Lincoln survived to oversee Reconstruction; however, the degree to which the killing and destruction of innocent lives may have been lessened. It can therefore be concluded that Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was largely responsible for the horrifically violent and inept attempt at Reconstruction.

The Lincoln Assassination

The Presidential Box at Ford's Theater where Lincoln was shot. Taken April 15, 1865.

In his Annual Address to Congress on December 8, 1863, President Lincoln promised to any man in a seceded state a “pardon in case he voluntarily takes the oath.”[1]The oath to which he was referring was one of allegiance to the Union and an agreement to uphold emancipation. He intended to restore the Union gradually and with ease.

Even prior to assuming the office of President, Lincoln believed the best way to end slavery was to let the institution suffocate itself. He felt that gradual change, rather than abrupt actions were likely to result in a smoother transition in a changing society. He practiced the same methods with regard to introducing the newly freed slaves into society as equal citizens to the white man. When delivering his last public speech on April 11, 1865, Lincoln spoke of the “elective franchise” with regard to black men, and stated that it was his preference that it be “conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”[2]Lincoln had every intention of fighting for suffrage for black males. John Wilkes Booth, a devoted Confederate and white supremacist was seen in the audience the night Lincoln made these remarks and purportedly claimed that Lincoln just made his “last speech.”

On April 14, 1865, at ten-thirty in the evening, John Wilkes Booth fired a bullet into the back of President Lincoln’s head. “Father Abraham” died at approximately seven-thirty the following morning at the Pederson House across the street from Ford’s Theater. On April 16 Andrew Johnson took the oath of office to become the 17th President of the United States. Like Lincoln, Johnson came from poverty and rose to political prominence through self-reliance, long hours of work, and determination. The similarities end there. Johnson was a “lonely, stubborn man” who was “unable to compromise.”[3]

These traits were ideologically inverse to those of Lincoln in that President Lincoln remained patient in his actions and realized that the only successful method with which to reincorporate the states to their “proper practical relation with the Union,” was that of compromise.[4]In contrast to Lincoln, Johnson deemed the secessionist states and their leaders to be traitors and sought much harsher treatment and conditions of reinstatement than those of Lincoln.

Violence against Freedman and Republicans

Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States

According to statistics given at the Southern States Convention in 1871, approximately 1600 murders had taken place in Georgia alone since Reconstruction began. In total, the number of murders across the entire South was 20,000; the victims being free blacks and their white allies.[5] One act of mass violence took place in Louisiana in July 1866. Radical Republicans of that state recalled their delegates to meet at the statehouse with the goal of enfranchising black men. The delegates and their supporters were attacked by a group of white men, many of whom were wearing their Confederate uniforms.

Federal troops were brought in to quell the violence but not before 146 people were wounded and 37 killed, 34 of which were black and the other three were white radicals.[6] It was clear that the new state governments enabled by President Johnson were either unwilling or incapable of preventing violence against blacks and their supporters. In 1865 and 1866, the courts in Texas indicted 500 white men for the murder of black citizens; there were zero convictions.[7]

Black Codes and the Freedmen's Bureau

Little more than a month following Lincoln’s last speech, Andrew Johnson made a proclamation regarding voting rights. His proclamation restored the Constitution in North Carolina to that which it was prior to secession and other states were soon to follow. The newly created governments of the former Confederate states were, of course, composed of white men who were elected by white men. Johnson believed, as he stated two years hence to congress, that “white men alone must manage the South.”[8]By giving white men free reign to run their states, these newly established governments began enacted what were called, “Black Codes”.

Among other things, these harsh regulations directed at newly liberated men entailed the regulation of labor. In Mississippi for example, the “Vagrant Law” required all black men to have proof of employment and those who did not were subject to fine and arrest.[9]These men, having no money to pay their fines, remained confined to a jail cell until someone, usually a plantation owner in need of hands, paid the fine. They were then required to labor in service of these men until the fine was repaid. All of these laws and regulations were enforced and punished by a police force and judicial department composed solely of white men.

A threat, printed by the KKK circa 1869, depicting the hanging of scalawags and carpetbaggers.

The Freedmen’s Bureau, which was enacted in March of 1865 for the purpose of helping newly freed slaves enter white society, was supposed to receive protection from the government while working in the hostile South. Often, the agents themselves came under violent attacks. Because of the threat to the Bureau's agents, a supplemental Freedmen’s Bureau was proposed by congress and quickly vetoed by Johnson in February of 1866. Two months hence, Johnson again used his veto power on the Civil Rights Bill passed by congress. On this occasion, however, congress had enough votes to override the president’s veto.

The Radical Republicans in Congress and Democrat Andrew Johnson were unable to work together. Johnson was completely incapable of compromise, as were the radicals, which led to constant bickering between the two branches of Government and produced very little progress in reunifying the nation. Lincoln, on the other hand, was a savvy politician and adaptable. Where Johnson was governed by his ego and unyielding opinions, Lincoln’s proposals were “made in the hope” that they “may do good without danger of harm.”[10]This selfless attitude was removed from the Executive Office by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater.

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

Abraham Lincoln, 1864. Matthew Brady Studio.

Abraham Lincoln was sworn in for his second term as President of the United States on Saturday, March 4, 1865. A mere six weeks hence, he, along with his message of a peaceful reunification were to die. The President's brief inaugural address foreshadowed the coming end to the Civil War. With his words, he sedately emphasized that in order to successfully restore the Union to a bonded nation, peaceful heads had to prevail. When Lincoln presented his address, the war was being fought more fiercely than ever before. Lincoln wanted the fighting to stop and the process of reunification to begin. He invoked the Almighty when he said, "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."[11]

His closing remarks offer a glimpse into what was possible had Lincoln lived:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

When Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant on April 09, 1865, Lincoln ordered that generous terms be given to the Rebels. Grant then ordered his soldiers at Appomattox Court House to give rations to the hungry Southern soldiers and show respect when they stacked their arms. Once they signed an oath of loyalty to the Union, the Confederate men were allowed to keep their rifles and horses and simply return to their homes. Like his generals, Lincoln understood the importance of "a hard war and a gentle peace."


Johnson was a staunch believer in States’ rights and was blind to the fact that Federal intervention was needed in order to proceed with a successful period of Reconstruction. His predecessor was open to new ideas and willing to compromise for the good of the country. Abraham Lincoln's brilliance stemmed from his ability to adapt to new and foreign circumstances. The Civil War affected him greatly and in the waning months of the conflict, he clearly understood that patience and compassion were essential if reunification was to succeed.

Although they did not always agree, Lincoln and congress worked together in order to be productive as the President's primary goal was restoring the country. He had no interest in political posturing yet was an innately clever politician and possessed the qualities needed for the country to be returned to a state of peace. John Wilkes Booth erased the opportunity for America to reunite in a peaceful manner. While Booth had accomplices, with whom he planned to decapitate the Federal government, he alone pulled the trigger. It is conspicuous and worth noting that Johnson, who was targeted in the larger plot, managed to survive the horrible night of April 14, 1865, unscathed.

Secretary of State Seward was attacked and almost killed in his own bed while five members of his household also suffered the wrath of Booth’s accomplice, Lewis Powell. All who were involved with the assassination plot may never be revealed, however, one indisputable fact remains; John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger and ended Abraham Lincoln’s life. Booth erased the best hope of the South and the nation as a whole when he entered the Presidential Box at Ford's Theater the night of April 14, 1865. When Lincoln fell that night, so too did the promise of peaceful reunification.


  1. Abraham Lincoln Association, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, University of Michigan http://quod.lib.umic.edu/l/lincoln. This is from Lincoln’s last speech given on April 11, 1865 in reference to the status of the seceded states. He did not recognize the states as having left the Union, rather he held that they were out of alignment with the Union.
  2. ibid.
  3. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty: An American History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 534.
  4. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.
  5. Herbert Shapiro, “Afro-American Responses to Race Violence During Reconstruction”, Science and Society 36, no.2 (summer, 1972): 158, http://www.jstor.org/pss/40401634
  6. Louisiana State Museum, “Riot of 1866," http://www.lsm.crt.state.la.us/cabildo/cab11.htm
  7. Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper&Row, 1990), 85.
  8. Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 84-85.
  9. Eric Foner, Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 320.
  10. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.
  11. Abraham Lincoln, "Second Inaugural Address," Library of Congresshttps://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=38&page=transcript.

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