The American Civil war and Reconstruction period

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The American Civil War and Reconstruction

The 17-year era between 1961 and 1977 known as the American Civil War and Reconstruction was difficult and influential for the United States of America. The main driving force behind events during this time was the North and South's long-standing ideological and political disagreements regarding enslavement. The majority of the fighting in the American Civil War took place on the grounds, with President Abraham Lincoln leading the North and President Jefferson Davis the South. This conflict shifted to the US Congress after Commander Robert E. Lee's Confederate troops capitulated. This paper will compare the leadership exhibited by leaders during both the civil war and reconstruction period, and prove what many historians believe was a lack of preparedness, foresight and strategy by post-civil war era leaders, which ultimately led to a compromise in 1877 that eroded gains made in the fight for equality of all peoples in the United States.

President Abraham Lincoln's Leadership

Whereas there is almost universal consensus about the strong leadership exhibited by President Abraham Lincoln and Commander Lee for the confederate side, both on the battlefield and in the legislative realm, the same cannot be said about post-civil war leaders like President Andrew Johnson. If President Andrew Johnson had better handled the transition and legislative agenda of congress in the immediate post-civil war years, perhaps it wouldn’t have taken another century for minorities in America to attain equality and full civil rights.

Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

Perhaps no other president in American history has been as analyzed and studied as Abraham Lincoln. An example of his legislative boldness is made manifest when he proceeded to draft the emancipation proclamation order, and set January 1, 1863 as the date when all slaves in the Northern States within would be declared free. This was as bold and as daring as any president since America’s independence had gone, in terms of giving an executive order. The proclamation’s scope was massive and it would affect the way of life and livelihood of millions of people in those states. Nevertheless, President Lincoln took this step, knowing the consequences and political gamble he was about to take. Analyzing the text of the emancipation proclamation as made available in the National Archives digital library, one can read Lincoln’s boldness through the wording of the document, where he makes the proclamation by alluding to the powers vested upon him as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States, and continues to list the States which are in rebellion against the Union.

Commander Robert E. Lee's Leadership

Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Confederate forces, also displayed admirable leadership skills during the Civil war, often against seemingly insurmountable odds. One such example is when the Union forces discovered Special Order number 191, which he issued detailing movement of his troops in Northern Virginia. With his orders for the march into Maryland now in the hands of Gen. George Mc.Clellan, Commander of the Potomac Army, Lee somehow managed to escape defeat through a mix of brilliant military maneuvers and ingenuity. The respect, loyalty and high regard with which his forces regarded him, was also an invaluable asset and a testament to his leadership.

Inspiration and Leadership

Another example of Lee’s inspirational leadership in times of uncertainty is captured in a message he wrote to his troops after the heavy fighting at the battle of Spotsylvania, Virginia. His message sought to remind his soldiers of their victories thus far, and rouse them in preparation for the monumental battles ahead. He reminded the soldiers of the cause they were fighting for; that their cause was for the entire Nation, and that the suffering and death of their comrades would not be in vain. The speech was almost an echo of president Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg in 1963, which has been hailed as one of the finest orations at war, which roused the Union troops and inspired them on to victory.

President Andrew Johnson's Leadership

After the Union’s victory and President Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson took over as President. He had the daunting task of rebuilding and uniting a country devastated by war and held together by an uneasy peace. By the time of his assassination, President Lincoln and Congress had not crafted a coherent post-war roadmap. This task now fell to Johnson, who had served as Lincoln’s Vice President. Johnson, a native of Tennessee, was sympathetic to the Southern States, and was therefore lenient to the former confederate States while being unsympathetic to the former slaves. Andrew Johnson had the opportunity to shape the tone and speed of recovery and reconstruction efforts after the war. However, most analyst believe his actions paved the way for a drawback in civil rights which the Republican Party under Lincoln had so bravely fought for.

President Johnson's Veto

An example of President Andrew Johnson’s perceived leniency towards the Southern States after the civil war, was when he vetoed the 1866 Civil Rights Act, saying that it was not necessary to pass the act. Nevertheless, Congress passed the Act on 9th April 1866, his veto notwithstanding. The Act declared that people born in the United States were to henceforth to become citizens. Any person or organization that curtailed these rights would face a fine or imprisonment.

The Reconstruction Act

The following year, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act, again against President Johnson’s full support. The Act required each State to draft and promulgate a new constitution that would enshrine the rights contained in the 1866 Civil Rights Act, which included full voting rights to anyone regardless of color or creed. The process of white reconstruction in the south in 1867 and onwards, was a daunting one, and not made any easier by the failure of congress to include specific operational procedures for each State to follow in order to domesticate federal legislation.

Challenges and Resistance

In the Southern States, the task was made even more difficult by the strong anti-federal sentiments in the population, and the existence of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Republican Party in the South, which was at the forefront of pushing through Civil Rights legislation, faced stiff pushback and resistance from the Democratic party, which favored a policy of very minimal federal interference in State affairs. Many former white abolitionists from the North came to the South and partnered with black legislators, to try push through lasting Civil rights change through the new constitutions. President Andrew Johnson is criticized by commentators for not being as supportive to this cause as he should have been.

Abandoned Lands and Freedmen's Bureau

Another example of President Johnson’s perceived leniency towards the southern states is seen through the manner in which he handled abandoned lands immediately after the Civil war ended. The Freedman’s bureau was created by the US congress in 1865. As early as 1861, President Lincoln had foreseen the economic needs that freed slaves would encounter once they are released from their former masters, and the bureau had the authority to alienate land and sell parcels of land to the freedmen. In May 1865, in yet another act of leniency to the Southern states and former slave owners, President Johnson Proclaimed Amnesty to the Southern States. As a result, majority of the freedmen who had purchased land through the bureau were evicted from land they had acquired. Many of the initiatives, which the bureau had managed to achieve for the freed slaves, were rolled back through President Johnson’s Amnesty declaration.


In conclusion, this analysis of the three leaders who were prominent in the Civil war and post-war era provides an opportunity for one to see the importance of leadership in directing the agenda of a Nation. With the strong Leadership of President Lincoln, Civil Rights were declared, which subsequently led to the Civil war. President Johnson, in his quest for a United Country, made concessions which clawed back these gains.


Application of Henry Jackson; ca. 1865-1869; Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105. [Online Version,, November 24, 2017]

Ayers, Edwards. Reconstruction. (2011)

Emancipation Proclamation. 1/1/1863; Presidential Proclamations, 1791 - 2011; General Records of the United States Government, Record Group 11; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version,, November 24, 2017]

History Channel. Reconstruction (2009)

Kearns, Doris. Team of Rivals :New York, Simon & Schuster (2009)

Lee, Robert. Special Order No. 191 from General Robert E. Lee; 09/09/1862; War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109. [Online Version,, November 24, 2017]

Lee, Robert. Draft of Robert E. Lee’s address to his Troops. (1864)

President Andrew Johnson's Veto of the Third Reconstruction Act; 7/19/1867; (HR 40A-F28.4); Committee Papers, 7/1867 - 2/1871; Records from the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version,, November 24, 2017]

June 26, 2023


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