After Appomattox, the Task of Reconstruction Begins

Ulysses S. Grant

I wrote the following short essay about General Ulysses S. Grant’s 1865 tour of the South for our park’s quarterly newsletter. I liked how the final version came out and decided to re-post it here. Enjoy!


United States General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant called for a quick restoration of the Union and reconciliation between Unionists and former Confederates following General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. “The Rebels are our countrymen again,” explained Grant, and he wanted to end military rule and restore civil state governments in the South as soon as possible. When President Andrew Johnson expressed his wish to hang General Lee for treason in the summer of 1865, Grant threatened to resign. He argued that Lee had been protected by the surrender terms at Appomattox and that hanging him would only complicate efforts at sectional reconciliation.

In the fall of 1865, President Johnson asked General Grant to take a tour of the South to assess the sentiments of local residents and write a report on his findings. During his fifteen-day tour (November 27 – December 11) Grant made stops in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. He met with political leaders, Confederate veterans, and black Southerners during his tour. In a letter to his wife Julia while in Georgia, Grant stated that “people all seem pleasant . . . at least towards me, and I think towards the Government.” At the same time he told a reporter that “my faith in the future rests on the soldier element of the South. I feel assured that those who did the fighting may be depended upon to restore tranquility.”

When Grant returned to Washington, D.C., he reported that white Southerners were “more loyal and better-disposed that [I] had expected to find them.” But he also believed that some whites were still vengeful and that black Southerners still needed the protection of the U.S. military. These concerns were validated when Grant’s commanders wrote him a month later stating that black and white Unionists in the South were subjected to persecution, fraud, and violence by former Confederates. In May 1866 a series of riots in Memphis, Tennessee, saw 46 African Americans killed and more than 100 homes, churches, and schools destroyed. Grant now realized that the protection of black Southerners trumped reconciliation with angry rebels.

The work of reconstruction was only beginning.


2 thoughts on “After Appomattox, the Task of Reconstruction Begins

  1. Interesting to me because I suspect that Grant saw and reported what he wanted to see and report, and because I suspect the violence in Memphis was part of a widespread reaction which is generally under-reported and not well understood

    1. Hi Rick,

      Thanks for the comment. I think you make a very good point about Grant’s perceptions going into this Southern tour. Prior to Grant’s tour the Radical Republican Congressman Carl Schurz conducted his own tour of the South and came back with a very negative report to Congress about the conditions of the freedpeople and white Unionists. He reported on lynchings and mass violence against these people, and his fellow Radical Republicans in Congress embraced these findings as further justification for their belief that the prewar Southern political elites that fought for the Confederacy during the war should be harshly punished for their involvement in the rebellion by losing their voting rights and potentially their property. This approached differed from President Johnson’s, who by this time was calling for a quick restoration of the sections and the quick return of all political privileges to that Prewar Southern elite, who would have the power to create their own state constitutions without needing to include black suffrage rights.

      Johnson asked Grant to take this tour partly because he believed Grant would tell him what he would want to hear–that Schurz’s report was overblown and that things were going just fine in the postwar South–and partly because he knew Grant’s opinions would hold a lot of sway with the public.

      The Radical Republicans in congress, especially Senator Charles Sumner, harshly criticized Grant’s report and accused him of downplaying the severity of conditions in the South when he returned. Future historians like W.E.B. Du Bois also criticized Grant’s report as misleading, but I tend to agree with Brooks Simpson, who argues that the Southern tour was part of a larger evolution in Grant’s views in which he gradually distanced himself from his earlier wish for a quick political reunion and towards a stronger belief in the need for military protection of black and white unionists in the South and, importantly, giving blacks additional political leverage through the granting of suffrage rights.

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