December 1863: Reconstructing

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

As 1863 drew to a close, Union forces in the western theater could celebrate an almost unbroken string of victories over the Confederates. Nashville and New Orleans had been seized early in the war, the Mississippi River came under Union control with the capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson in July 1863, and U.S. Grant had routed the Rebels at Chattanooga in November. The war was still stalemated in Virginia, where Robert E. Lee continued to dominate his Yankee adversaries, but Abraham Lincoln felt enough progress had been made in the west to warrant experimenting with a plan to reconstruct the Southern states. Since his army controlled the large population center of New Orleans, the Bayou State seemed like a good laboratory for that experiment.

Lincoln wanted to treat Southern whites leniently because he did not think most of them strongly supported secession; they had simply been dragged into the war by the slave owning minority. He was convinced that if given the chance, many Southerners would be happy to quit the fight. Lincoln also believed secession was unconstitutional, and that the Southern states had never really left the Union--they remained U.S. states but were in rebellion against the Constitution. In his opinion, Reconstruction did not have to be a complicated procedure. All that was needed to restore the rebel states was to develop a plan to pardon those Confederates who were willing to return to the fold, and have them and the Unionists restore loyal state governments under certain guidelines. In Louisiana, a Union government was already functioning in New Orleans. Shortly after David Farragut captured the city, George F. Shepley had been appointed military governor, and he began organizing a loyal government in those areas controlled by Union forces. Elections were held in southeast Louisiana in December 1862, but only those white Louisianians who took the oath of allegiance were allowed to participate. In the election, Michael Hahn and Benjamin F. Flanders were chosen as congressmen, and they represented Louisiana in Washington, D.C., until Congress adjourned in March 1863.

Earlier congressional acts had authorized Lincoln to pardon secessionists, so he issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction on December 8, 1863, offering a pardon and the restoration of non-slave property to all who took the oath of allegiance (except high-ranking Rebels, who could apply for pardons individually). In this proclamation, Lincoln also put forth a reconstruction program that became known as the Ten Percent Plan. It declared that a state could reclaim its proper place in the Union when 10 percent of its 1860 voters took the oath of allegiance, abolished slavery, and organized a government loyal to the Constitution.

Some Louisianans did take the oath, but not as many as Lincoln had hoped. By that time, the war had become so destructive that most white Louisianans hated the Union and were determined to win Confederate independence. As it turned out, Lincoln was mistaken when he believed the majority of white Southerners had little loyalty to the Confederacy.

Lincoln ordered Gen. Nathanial P. Banks to begin the Ten Percent Plan in Louisiana, and in February 1864 those citizens who had taken the oath of allegiance were allowed to participate in a gubernatorial election in the areas controlled by the Union army. Since the army supported the Republicans, that party dominated the electoral process and elected Michael Hahn governor.

Hahn established a new Union state government in New Orleans, while Henry Watkins Allen ran the opposing Confederate government in Shreveport. But Hahn could do little without the army's approval and in many ways was a mere figurehead.

Radical Republicans were not convinced that the Southerners who took the oath of allegiance were really loyal and believed Lincoln was being too lenient on the former Rebels. They demanded that voters who had supported the Confederacy in any way be disenfranchised, and that all slaves be freed and granted political rights and land so they could control their own destinies. As one Radical declared, "Loyal negroes must not be put down while disloyal white men are put up."

The Radicals eventually gained control of the reconstruction process after Lincoln was assassinated. Reconstruction would drag on for years, and the various factions would fight bitterly for control of the state--Democrats against Republicans, blacks against whites, former Confederates against Unionists, and Northern carpetbaggers against native Louisianians. Next to the Civil War, Reconstruction would prove to be the most violent and bloody period in Louisiana history.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has --published six books on the American Civil War.