"The Parting of the Way." Andrew Johnson attempts to kill the Freedmen s Bureau, 1867.


In the immediate aftermath of Confederate defeat, northerners and southerners alike widely recognized two clear-cut consequences of the Federal victory in the Civil War. First, the Union had been preserved and the right of secession as a legitimate expression of state sovereignty had been forcibly repudiated. Second, slavery, which had flourished for nearly two and one-half centuries, was dead to rise no more. For both black and white Tennesseans, however, in the spring of 1865 the implications of these results were far from clear. Numerous questions remained unanswered. When and under what terms would the state be reintegrated into the political life of the reunited nation? What would be the legal and political implications for Tennesseans who had sided with the Confederacy and who were now branded as “traitors”? How, practically, would the devastation of the war and the disruption of emancipation affect the state’s economy and its traditional patterns of race relations?

Such questions would be answered, gradually and imperfectly, during the period of “Reconstruction” that followed. Historians traditionally define Reconstruction as the period extending from the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 to the final withdrawal of Federal troops from southern soil in early 1877. Although this chronological definition makes sense for the region as a whole (at least with regard to politics), it is arbitrary and often inappropriate when applied specifically to individual states. Such is certainly the case with regard to Tennessee. Many of the most crucial political questions raised by Confederate defeat were answered in the state long before 1877. For example, by the end of the 1860s the state had already regained full representation in the national Congress and repudiated fleeting Republican rule in the state legislature. Other crucial political issues, however, most notably the influence of the former slaves in state politics, would not be resolved until the early 1890s. Similarly, most of the major economic issues of the postwar era were not effectively resolved until near the end of the century. In particular, although it was undeniable that emancipation had initiated a major reorganization of agriculture across much the state, even as late as 1877 it was not yet certain what sort of new land and labor arrangements would come to predominate. In sum, to its very close the Reconstruction period was characterized by considerable uncertainty for Tennesseans of both races.

Of the numerous crucial questions facing Tennesseans after the war, the one concerning the state’s reintegration into the Union was resolved the most rapidly. Immediately after the surrender of Confederate armies, radical Republicans in Congress such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner lobbied for a punitive policy that would treat the ex-Confederate states as conquered enemies. President Andrew Johnson, on the other hand, prescribed a far more lenient policy in which the formerly disloyal states would be readmitted to Congress as soon as they had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, repudiated state debts accrued during the rebellion, and rescinded their original ordinances of secession. Like the other ex-Confederate states, Tennessee rapidly met these criteria and requested readmission to Congress in December 1865. At that point, however, the Republican majority in Congress refused to seat any Congressional delegation from the former Confederacy and eventually added one further prerequisite for readmission: ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which defined the former slaves as U.S. citizens and penalized any state that excluded them from the franchise. Unique among the ex-Confederate states, Tennessee rapidly ratified this amendment (in July 1866) and was thus readmitted to the Union before Congress imposed a more stringent reconstruction plan in March 1867. In a technical sense, Reconstruction in Tennessee had formally ended, only slightly more than one year after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Tennessee politics had not returned to normal, however, for the state continued to be dominated by a Republican minority that commanded the allegiance of, at most, one-third of the total population. Nonexistent in the state prior to 1865, the party had emerged as a political vehicle for Unionists and, consequently, always was strongest in staunchly Unionist East Tennessee. Aided by a wartime edict of Military Governor Andrew Johnson that disfranchised Confederate sympathizers, Tennessee Republicans swept into power in March 1865, controlling the general assembly as well as the governorship, which was claimed by the mercurial parson and newspaper publisher William G. Brownlow. For four years the Brownlow government worked assiduously to maintain Republican supremacy. In 1865 the legislature formally disfranchised ex-Confederates. Two years later it took the drastic step of awarding the franchise to former slaves to expand the ranks of potential Republican voters, and the following year it authorized the governor to declare martial law in individual counties in order to counter the growing influence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Despite such aggressive tactics, Republican rule in Tennessee was short-lived. Nearing the end of his second term as governor, Brownlow stepped down from office in February 1869 to accept a U.S. Senate seat and was replaced for the duration of his term by Senate Speaker Dewitt C. Senter, a conservative East Tennessee Unionist. Determined to win election in his own right and facing opposition from within his own party, Senter reached out for support from the state’s Democrats by effectively setting aside the franchise law and allowing thousands of Confederate sympathizers to vote. Senter won the election, but conservative Democrats reclaimed control of the general assembly and “redeemed” the state from Republican rule. Although divisions within the Democratic Party would occasionally allow Republicans to challenge for state offices, after the election of 1869 Republican influence was largely limited to East Tennessee. Although without significant political power, Tennessee blacks statewide would continue to vote Republican in large numbers until the early 1890s, when they were effectively disfranchised by a combination of registration laws and poll taxes.

In the economic sphere, Tennesseans had to address both the immediate impact of the war’s physical destruction and the long-term consequences of slavery’s demise. Across the state, Confederate and Union veterans returned to their homes to find dilapidated buildings and fences, deteriorated soils, broken down work animals, and depleted food supplies. A congressional investigating committee conservatively estimated the state’s non-slave property losses at approximately $89 million, or just under one-third of the total value of non-slave property in Tennessee when the war began. A recent statistical study suggests that the congressional figures actually substantially understated the war’s devastating effects. In eight counties selected from across the state for intensive scrutiny, the median value of real estate per white farm household fell during the 1860s by from one-half to three-fifths. In addition, slaveholding families (representing roughly one-quarter of all free households in the state) suffered financial losses due to the emancipation of more than 275,000 slaves, valued by Congress at just under $100 million but easily worth three times that amount on the eve of the war. In a sense, emancipation did not constitute a true loss to the state, but rather a redistribution of wealth from slaveholders to former slaves, who now for the first time legally owned their own persons.

Significantly, such severe and widespread financial injury did not lead to a notable reordering of wealth or status within the state’s agricultural population. There was no revolution in land titles in the countryside, and the bottom rung on the agricultural ladder did not replace the top. Because it disproportionately affected the state’s major plantation regions, emancipation did reduce drastically the pronounced disparities in levels of wealth that had distinguished the state’s three grand divisions before the Civil War. At the local level, however, the war’s effect on wealth-holding patterns appears to have been minimal. Gone With the Wind images aside, Tennessee’s wealthiest planters and farmers exhibited impressive resilience in the face of unprecedented physical destruction and economic upheaval. Granted, they typically suffered severe financial losses during and immediately after the war, but more often than not they landed on their feet. Noticeably weakened, they nevertheless retained their positions of economic dominance within their own communities.

Overall, given the sheer magnitude of economic and social upheaval generated by the war, the extent of continuity in wealth-holding patterns is little short of remarkable. Although the concentration of personal property (which had formerly included slaves) declined noticeably between 1860 and 1870, the distribution of real estate was almost literally unaffected, and inequality in the overall distribution of total (real and personal) wealth–a prominent antebellum characteristic–proved to be an amazingly durable phenomenon despite the cataclysm of civil war. As before the war, the top 5 percent of agricultural households commanded from one-third to one-half of their counties’ total wealth, while the bottom one-half generally controlled from 3 to 6 percent. The relative frequency with which landless farmers acquired their own farms continued to be impressive, however. As had been true of the antebellum era, during Reconstruction a highly uneven distribution of wealth coexisted in Tennessee with a social order sufficiently fluid to sustain the egalitarian ideal that hard work and perseverance would lead to economic independence.

Although evidence of continuity is impressive, it is undoubtedly clearer from hindsight than it was to contemporaries. With rare exceptions, Tennesseans who actually lived through the period were far more impressed–indeed, at times overwhelmed–by the changes that seemed likely to transform their lives. No factor contributed more to this pervasive perception of revolutionary change than emancipation. Slavery had been an indispensable pillar of the state’s economy and a bulwark of traditional patterns of white supremacy and black deference. Depending upon the color of their skin, consequently, white and black Tennesseans viewed the end of slavery with either anger and anxiety or with joy and expectation. Both races recognized its undeniable significance. Neither knew what to expect in its aftermath. Poised on the threshold of the unknown, Tennesseans fashioned a number of competing visions of the postwar world, none of which was perfectly realized.

The former slaves, for their part, sought first and foremost to own their own farms and to secure as much economic independence as possible from their former masters. In the short run, their vision could only be realized by the intervention of the federal government to break up and redistribute their former masters’ plantations. Any realistic hope of such a policy vanished abruptly with President Johnson’s offer of pardon and full restoration of non-slave property to all who would swear an oath of future loyalty to the United States.

In contrast to the freedmen, white Tennesseans were divided in their vision for the postwar economy. Given the severe labor shortage that existed for several years after the war, many whites sought to lessen dependence on black labor. For example, urban advocates of “New South” ideals trumpeted the benefits of industrialization and championed a diversified economy in which the demand for agricultural labor would be substantially reduced. Adopting a different approach, numerous large landowners sought to decrease the need for black labor per se by enticing northern and foreign workers to replace the freedmen in the fields. The majority of landowners, in contrast, continued to rely on black labor but hoped to immobilize the former slaves and to construct labor arrangements that resembled slavery as much as possible.

None of these strategies were successful in the short run. Industrial output did increase significantly for nearly a decade after the war, but the onset of a serious depression in the mid-1870s interrupted this expansion. Not until the 1880s did industrialization in Tennessee proceed in earnest. Similarly, although the Tennessee legislature in 1867 created a Board of Immigration to advertise opportunities for industrious immigrants, the much-desired influx of laborers never materialized. Finally, efforts to perpetuate slavery in everything but name were also frustrated, as they ran directly counter to the free labor commitment of congressional Republicans, who were willing to use both the Freedmen’s Bureau and the military to ensure a free market in labor during the early years of Reconstruction.

As a result, white landowners in need of labor negotiated with black laborers in need of land. The outcome was a gradual but thoroughgoing reorganization of agriculture that affected the entire state but was strongest in Middle and West Tennessee. Initially, white landowners attempted to rely solely on farm hands, i.e., wage laborers who worked under the close scrutiny of the employer or his agent. In order to attract sufficient labor, however, landowners increasingly found it necessary to subdivide their farms and plantations and rent small plots to laborers for either a fixed rent or a share of the crop. The result was a sharp increase in the number of farm units across the state (which doubled between 1860 and 1880), a severe decline in the average size of farms (which fell by half during the same period), and a substantial upsurge in the number of tenants (who constituted roughly one-third of all farm operators by 1880).

Ironically, poor whites were among the prime beneficiaries of these changes. Emancipation created a window of opportunity for white farm laborers, who had traditionally been forced to compete against slaves for agricultural employment. Close analysis of selected counties reveals that huge numbers of landless whites shifted from wage labor to some form of tenancy during the first fifteen years after the Civil War. The ex-slaves also became tenants by the thousands, although it is not true, as historians once thought, that sharecropping almost immediately became “the South’s new peculiar institution.” In Tennessee, as late as 1880, between one-half and three-fifths of rural freedmen continued to work as wage laborers, the lowest position on the agricultural ladder. At the same time, however, nearly 10 percent of the ex-slaves had managed to acquire their own farms, an impressive accomplishment considering their near total lack of financial resources and independent managerial experience only a decade and a half earlier.

Without question, Tennessee’s labor system no longer bore much resemblance to its antebellum predecessor. A new system was in the process of crystallizing, yet that process was still far from complete.

Suggested Reading

Thomas B. Alexander, Political Reconstruction in Tennessee (1950); Steven V. Ash, Middle Tennessee Society Transformed, 1860-1870 (1988); William Gillespie McBride, “Blacks and the Race Issue in Tennessee Politics, 1865-1876” (Ph.D. diss., Vanderbilt University, 1989); Gordon B. McKinney, Southern Mountain Republicans, 1865-1900 (1978)

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  • Article Title Reconstruction
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018