The final defeat of the Confederacy in 1865 brought an important and difficult problem for the federal government: how were the defeated states to be brought back into the Union? Most agreed that this should be accomplished as rapidly as possible, but not so rapidly that the planter elite that had led the South in secession would be able to renew the rebellion or reverse the results of the war. The South would have to remain under federal control until it was deemed safe to leave matters to the southern state governments. This probationary period of federal control was termed “Reconstruction.” To some contemporaries, the reconstruction of the Union was complete, and Reconstruction ended when the South’s representatives were readmitted to Congress in 1868. In modern parlance, however, the period of President Andrew Johnson’s control of the process of readmission is termed “provisional Reconstruction” or “Presidential Reconstruction.” The following period, marked by the control of southern policy by Congress, is termed “Congressional Reconstruction” or “Radical Reconstruction,” after the Radical Republicans who dominated Congress. The duration of the Reconstruction period varied among southern states, depending on when they were readmitted to the Union by Congress, or when they reestablished Democratic rule. In South Carolina, Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877, with the break between Presidential and Congressional control occurring in 1867 when the freedmen were registered to vote for delegates to a constitutional convention.
President Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction would have left the antebellum elite in control of the southern states and would not have included black suffrage. It did, however, require that southern whites accept the results of the war—in particular the abolition of slavery. The plan did not sit well with Republicans in Congress, who considered it too lenient. Northerners blamed the war on southern planters, who used their control of black labor to control their states. In a serious miscalculation of northern sentiment, southern leaders passed Black Codes, laws restricting the activities and occupations of African Americans and remanding them to the control of their former owners. South Carolina’s code, enacted in December 1865, was typical: there were stringent regulations on work and travel that applied only to African Americans and a system of courts that tried only African Americans. The Black Codes were invalidated by the state’s military governor, who saw them as reestablishing slavery in everything but name. South Carolinians then lost their last chance to avoid Congressional Reconstruction by refusing to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which among other provisions would have made African Americans citizens of the state and punished the state if it did not give them the vote.
Congressional Republicans capitalized on northern outrage in 1867 by passing the Reconstruction Acts, which mandated the registration of all adult males in the South as voters and the holding of elections for delegates to a constitutional convention. In South Carolina, of 124 delegates to the 1868 convention, 73 were black or of mixed ancestry, and all were Republicans. The constitution they wrote was modeled on those of northern states on matters such as local government, women’s rights, and public education, but it surpassed them in its commitment to racial equality. It extended voting rights to all men; proposals to limit voting to the literate, the educated, or those who paid a poll tax were all voted down overwhelmingly.
Under the new constitution the state’s African Americans, who comprised sixty percent of the voting population, had the voting strength to ensure Republican control of the state government. This domination allowed the passage of more legislation to improve the condition of the freedmen than was accomplished in any other state. An example was the creation in 1869 of the South Carolina Land Commission, an institution unique to the state, whose purpose was to make landownership possible for poor blacks. Unfortunately, one-party domination also led to a lack of accountability on the part of many Republican officeholders. Corruption flourished in the state legislature and in the executive offices of the state. In one instance in 1870–1871, the state’s financial board secured the authority to print and sell $1 million in state bonds; there were to be $1,000 bonds numbered 1 to 1,000. Members of the board printed two sets— both numbered 1 to 1,000—and sold both sets. They kept no records of their transactions and were caught only when a New York investment firm came into possession of two bonds with the same number on both. Partly as a result of such malfeasance, and partly because of legitimate increases in expenditures such as the creation of a public school system from scratch, state budgets skyrocketed during Reconstruction and the state slipped further and further into debt.
Most white South Carolinians never admitted the legitimacy of the Republican government. Claiming that Republican leaders lacked the wealth, education, and intelligence to govern the state, the former planter-elite derided their opponents in vituperative and bitter language. Often they did worse. Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan were formed to intimidate Republicans, especially Republican leaders; they whipped or beat hundreds of victims and murdered scores. Some of those killed were Republican legislators, such as Solomon Dill, Benjamin Franklin Randolph, and James Martin, all assassinated in 1868. From that year until 1871 South Carolina Republicans operated in a climate of terror. Some were able to defend themselves; others were able to move. Most had to be vigilant and try to stay one step ahead of the Ku-Klux, as it was then called. Almost all Republicans had the experience of spending nights in the woods to avoid attack.
President Ulysses S. Grant, elected in 1868, was much more sympathetic to Congress’s view of Reconstruction than Johnson had been. In 1871 Grant’s administration undertook an extensive effort to crack down on terrorism, and South Carolina in particular was under scrutiny. Congress passed the Ku-Klux Act, making it a federal crime to “conspire or go in disguise . . . for the purpose of depriving . . . any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws.” Nine upcountry counties were placed under martial law, and hundreds of arrests were made. Convictions were few since the federal prosecutors were overwhelmed by the number of cases and since most of the attacks had occurred before the passage of the Ku-Klux Act. Federal intervention certainly reduced the scale of terrorism, and the Ku-Klux as an organization was destroyed as many of its leaders fled the state. Nevertheless, the government’s assault on political violence was not a complete success. Attacks on leading Republicans continued throughout Reconstruction and beyond.
White Democrats often claimed that violence was a response to corrupt government. Simple chronology disproves this assertion— terrorism began well before the first frauds were committed—but it was accepted as truth by much of the northern press. Perhaps the most important example is the reporting of James S. Pike, first in the pages of the New York Tribune and then in a widely read book, The Prostrate State. In the book, Pike portrayed the South Carolina government as a sink of corruption and ignorance, and he placed the blame squarely on blacks. Most of his accusations were unfair and many were entirely fictitious, but the northern public believed them. Such writings undermined northern will to maintain the southern Republican governments in power.
White Democrats attempted to achieve some level of influence in state politics by several means. In the 1870, 1872, and 1874 elections, they joined with disaffected Republicans to create fusion tickets. These all went down to failure, but the last one did increase the number of Democrats in the legislature and in some county governments. In 1871 and 1874 they orchestrated “Taxpayers’ Conventions,” which met to decry the government’s extravagance and investigate its finances; these too had only limited results. The means by which they recaptured the state was simply the assertion of force. This strategy, pioneered in 1875 by Mississippi whites, was put into effect in 1876. In the election of that year, the Democrats ran a full statewide ticket for the first time since 1868. Wade Hampton III, South Carolina’s highest-ranking Confederate officer, accepted the nomination for governor, and the other Democrats on the ticket were also former Confederates. The Democrats used a dual strategy: Hampton portrayed himself as a moderate and made appeals for black support, while his lieutenants practiced strong-arm tactics of intimidation and violence. Combined with massive fraud, the strategy propelled the Democrats to victory, at least on the face of the returns; but the returns were clearly fraudulent.
Hampton and the Republican incumbent, Daniel H. Chamberlain, each claimed to be governor. Both parties claimed control of the state legislature. And both parties claimed to have carried the state for their candidates in the 1876 presidential election. Republican Rutherford Hayes was awarded the presidency by a bipartisan election commission, but after meeting with Hampton and Chamberlain he decided not to use federal power to protect Chamberlain’s government. Chamberlain knew that spelled the end of Republican government in South Carolina. Hampton commanded the loyalty of almost all white South Carolinians, giving him the largest taxpayers of the state and a superior military force of trained Confederate veterans. Chamberlain resigned in April 1877, thus ending Reconstruction in South Carolina. With the Democrats in control of the state, the election system was altered to prevent most blacks from voting. By the 1890s there were almost no black or Republican officeholders in the state, a condition that continued for more than half a century.
Holt, Thomas. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Reynolds, John S. Reconstruction in South Carolina, 1865–1877. 1905. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Simkins, Francis Butler, and Robert Hilliard Woody. South Carolina during Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932.
Williamson, Joel. After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861–1877. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.