Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: The Battle Over Reconstruction: The Aftermath of War

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The Lesson


President Andrew Johnson presided over the early days of Reconstruction.

President Andrew Johnson presided over the early days of Reconstruction.

Credit: Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

As the Civil War drew to a close, the social, political and economic conditions within the rebellious southern states fueled discussion about how to restore them to the Union. This lesson plan will examine the nature and extent of some of these social, political and economic conditions and how they influenced the early thinking about and attempts at restoring the southern states to the Union. Students will consider the economic and material impact of the Confederacy’s defeat with the assistance of an interactive map that combines statistics and data with the thoughts and ideas of the people living through this difficult period. In coming to understand the physical and political devastation of the war, students will have a basis for better appreciating the challenges facing the nation as it worked toward devising a workable solution for Reconstruction.

Beyond the obvious material destruction, there was more to reconstruct in the South than buildings, farms, manufacturing and railroads—there were social and political relationships to rebuild. With that in mind, this lesson will consider the impact that secession, war, and defeat had on the social and—to some extent—the political status of the southern states. In what sense were southern states connected to the Union after the surrender at Appomattox? Would public opinion in a fractured and wounded nation move the political drama of restoration toward vengeance, mercy, or some combination of these? Would the smoldering resentments in a devastated South lead to deeper and further divisions, or was there room for reconciliation and acceptance of social change. Students will also examine the impact of public opinion upon the rights of former slaves. What would be the status of these newly freed slaves? Upon completing this lesson, students will begin to see the outlines of a constitutional crisis (covered extensively in Lesson 2 of this unit) that ultimately would lead to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson as Congress struggles to direct and control Reconstruction policy in the face of an executive emboldened by the strength of wartime powers and a legacy of popular support.

Guiding Questions

How did the experience of social and political upheaval of the Civil War influence people to think about the process of Reconstruction?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the general character of the social conditions within the nation in the aftermath of war.
  • Demonstrate their ability to navigate through a statistical map interactive and use information gathered there to inform their understanding of the political, social and economic crisis confronting the nation during Reconstruction.
  • Distinguish the central and driving ideas at work in original documents surrounding Reconstruction and be able to discuss their impact on events.
  • Identify specific problems that may have emerged given the attitudes and conditions prevalent in the defeated South.
  • Discuss how these attitudes and ideas may have helped or hindered Reconstruction.


April 1865 saw the end of the Civil War, and with it came the need for some sort of policy to reunify, restore—or “reconstruct”—the political, economic, and social relationship of the southern states with the rest of the Union. The period of this process of bringing the states of the Confederacy back into the Union is called Reconstruction.

It is impossible to understand Reconstruction fully without a grasp of the social and economic upheaval the war brought about. For the people living through the times, this upheaval created a situation that demanded immediate attention. Economically, the South had been shattered, with much of its capital—formerly invested in slaves—lost. Fields remained untilled and fallow. Capital that during the war had been invested in manufacturing to a much larger extent than it had been before the war, was now laid to waste with many of the South’s factories in ruins. Beyond these tangible losses there was the devastating cost in human life. More than one-fifth of the South’s adult white-male population (some 260,000) was lost fighting for the Confederacy. In addition, the great majority of black soldiers who had fought and died in the Union army were from the South. Their losses in manpower, therefore, were monumental.

Another consideration in post-bellum America was a new question to southern society: What would be the role of the newly freed black population of the South? What would be the social relationship between this new community and its former white masters? The south faced a newly freed workforce that grew more and more recalcitrant, refusing to work for former masters (very often with good cause), whatever the pay. Old habits of social interaction had to be reconsidered and, most often, unlearned. Thus even if the South could quickly show some signs of economic recovery, solving the problems posed by social reconstruction would prove to be a much more difficult and lengthy proposition.

The political process of Reconstruction, on the other hand, had begun before the war ended. In some states—like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana—where earlier Union victories had been so complete as to take them out of the Confederacy for practical purposes; the populations had already taken steps in the direction of re-establishing their former relations with the Union. To rebuild the trust and friendship between these states and the Union, Abraham Lincoln believed in granting generous terms of amnesty for former rebels, and in encouraging a speedy restoration of legitimate state governments within the formerly rebellious states. Lincoln believed in the justice of a merciful policy, but he also recognized that a swift procedure for reconstruction—taking place, in effect, as Union victories gradually spread throughout the South—would aid in the effort to bring the war to a speedy end. Since Lincoln believed that the purpose of the war was to bring the Southern states back into their former relationship with the Union, he saw little distinction between good war policy and wise reconstruction policy. Indeed, he preferred the term “Restoration” over “Reconstruction” because he did not wish to imply that something new was being constructed. Reconstruction, he believed, should re-establish the authority of the Constitution.

Of course, contributing to his thinking on these matters were the facts on the ground. With feelings so raw, there was little practical distinction between wartime sentiment and post-war sentiment. Many ex-Confederates were bitterly disappointed by their defeat and would maintain hostile feelings toward “Yankees” for decades, if not generations, to come. Skeptical about the motives of Northerners coming south to aid in Reconstruction efforts, many Southerners came to resent even the smallest of differences in manners or habits between themselves and the Yankees. Sometimes their resentment was justified—as when speculators would come South with the intention of exploiting the needs of a desperate populace. But this resentment caused some to develop elaborate theories, and many myths, about the nature of the differences between genteel Southerners and crass Yankees. These theories rivaled, but perhaps did not surpass, some of the more wild notions about race that had developed to justify slavery.

When it came to race, however, old habits died hard. It was true that the newly freed black population was now free of the obligations of servitude. At the same time, however, former slave owners considered themselves free of any duty to secure the welfare of their former property. Blacks were thus thrust into a world where the forced habits of slavery that once worked to secure their self-preservation—namely, dependence and deference—would not serve them well. A free man has to learn different habits to secure his preservation and prosperity. Former slave-owners were indignant at the suggestion that they should feel any obligation to help needy freedmen establish themselves. Yet they expressed no indignation at continued expressions of deference and even paternal respect from former slaves. In fact, this deference was often expected to the point of violent outrage in its absence. Self-assertion and independence among blacks, therefore, was simultaneously necessary and dangerous. When this contradictory fact of life combined itself with the inherent difficulties of achieving prosperity in a poverty-stricken and war-crippled region, it is easy to anticipate the difficulties that lay ahead for the South on this front.

This is not to say that there were not some notable triumphs in the early and giddy aftermath of war. In states where significant pro-Union sentiment carried the day at their constitutional conventions (largely because of restrictions on unpardoned confederates participating)—blacks enjoyed a large degree of political and social equality, even to the extent of sending the first black representatives to Congress. These gains, however, would be relatively short-lived. As Reconstruction progressed, more and more former confederates obtained amnesty, re-entered the political process, and remained hostile to suggestions or policies promoting political rights for blacks. Eventually, as radicals in Congress gained control of Reconstruction efforts, their policies sought immediate and greater justice for the freedmen as well as harsher penalties for those who chose not to respect the equality of blacks before the law. Enforcing this noble sentiment was a challenge. The impatience and often intemperate rhetoric of this element in Congress and their emissaries in the South, may have caused already deep Southern resentment to solidify and, in some cases, to escalate. Violence became a common expression for this festering rage.

For more detailed information on the process of Reconstruction, the teacher is encouraged to visit America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War; for a timeline of major events of reconstruction during the war itself, of particular use is Freedmen and Southern Society Project: Chronology of Emancipation.

Preparation Instructions

In preparation for teaching this lesson, the teacher should review the entire lesson plan, including introductory background information. The teacher may also wish to visit the two EDSITEment-reviewed websites mentioned above for additional background material concerning reconstruction: America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War and Freedmen and Southern Society Project: Chronology of Emancipation. In addition, the teacher should review the interactive maps included as part of this lesson (temporarily located at http://civclients.com/nehint/recon/) and download the Text Document for this lesson, which will include all needed source material and worksheets. Print out all material from the Text Document, and make the appropriate number of copies for the students. The teacher may also wish to begin thinking about how the class is to be broken into small groups (35 is suggested—but the teacher should judge the correct size based on the size of the class) as several of the activities in this lesson involve small group work.

Analyzing Primary Sources

This lesson involves using a number of primary source documents authored by a variety of people; some were highly educated, others were less so, and still others were recently freed slaves who were barely literate. The teacher may wish to review these documents so as to be able to explain for the students any difficult vocabulary or unfamiliar vernacular. The teacher may also want to point out that original documents, such as these, retain their original spelling and syntax—even if incorrect. The teacher may also wish to explain to the students the use of the word “Negro” in some of these documents. While not generally used today, it was accepted usage (by both black and white writers) during this period and it is part of the historical record. While it could be used in a derogatory way, it did not—in every case—suggest racist attitudes or carry the stigma that it does today. The teacher will also want to discuss the vernacular and odd spellings that occasionally come through in diary entries and interviews with ordinary citizens and ex-slaves. Some of this language may be difficult for students to understand without some guidance.

If the teacher’s students have little experience evaluating primary source documents, there are several websites that include activities to help students effectively develop these skills. The website Making Sense of Letters and Diaries is one such site. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of activities to develop primary document skills. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Maps."

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Conditions in the South at the End of the War

For this activity, the students will use the interactive maps [temporarily located at http://civclients.com/nehint/recon/] as well as the documents specified below. Students will be organized into four small groups, the size of which will depend upon class size. All groups will first read a selection from Walt Whitman’s Prose Works that explains his view of the “real history” (i.e., the horror stripped of glory) of the war and a letter from General William T. Sherman to the mayor and city council of the city of Atlanta explaining the reasons for the devastation his army must inflict. Each individual group will then be assigned a state of the former Confederacy (South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana, or Georgia) and will analyze one of the following documents, each of which was written by a resident of that particular state. The authors were selected to show a variety of contrasting views and also to reflect the different ways that reconstruction affected various states. While one document cannot speak to the effects of the war on an entire state, it will give students an insight into what may have represented a common experience and reaction to the War and its aftermath.

In their groups, have the students analyze the impact of the Civil War through their assigned document as it relates to their assigned state. To do this, students will also work through the interactive maps, pictures and quotes in order to complete the Worksheet for Activity 1 located in the Text Document.

For all groups: Excerpt from Prose Works, by Walt Whitman, from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Teaching American History and Letter from General William T. Sherman to James M. Calhoun, September 1864 from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Teaching American History (excerpted on pages 1-3 of the Text Document).

Group A (South Carolina): Excerpt from The Diary of Emma LeConte, 1864-1865, February 18, 1865, from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Documenting the American South (excerpted on pages 4-6 of the Text Document).

Group B (North Carolina): Excerpts from the Journal of Gertrude Thomas, May 1865, from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Teaching American History (excerpted on pages 7-8 of the Text Document).

Group C (Louisiana): A Confederate Girl's Diary, by Sarah Morgan Dawson, March 31, 1863, from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Documenting the American South (excerpted on pages 9-10 of the Text Document).

Group D (Georgia): Diary of Julia Johnson Fisher, 1814-1885, January 3, 1864, from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Documenting the American South (excerpted on pages 11-12 of the Text Document).

After reading and discussing their documents, the groups should be instructed to begin working on Worksheet 1 for this activity (available on pages 13-18 of the Text Document). Students will need to access the internet, as many of these questions are tied directly to the interactive created for this lesson on conditions in the South. If classroom internet access is unavailable or limited, the worksheet and completing the interactive [temporarily located at http://civclients.com/nehint/recon/] could be assigned as homework. After answering the questions for Parts I and II on the worksheet, Part III of this activity should be completed in class within the group. Students may either compose their answers to these questions together and turn them in or present them in front of the class by choosing a representative.

Activity 2. Attitudes at the End of the War

The following documents are the testimony of persons who either made Reconstruction policy, or who were affected by Reconstruction policy. Divide the class into six small groups (recommended size for groups is 3-5, but can be more or less depending on class size). Each group will be assigned one of the following documents, all from the EDSITEment-reviewed sites Digital History and the Freedmen and Southern Society Project.

Group A: Corporal Jackson Cherry, appealing for equal treatment of freedmen, 1864 (excerpted on page 19 of the Text Document).

Group B: Rufus Saxon, former Commissioner of the Freedman’s bureau (excerpted on pages 20-21 of the Text Document).

Group C: Jourdan Anderson, an ex-slave, declining his master’s invitation to work on the plantation, 1865 (excerpted on pages 22-23 of the Text Document).

Group D: Testimony of a South Carolina Freedman before the American Freedmen's Inquiry E. Commission (excerpted on pages 24-27 of the Text Document).

Group E: Thomas Long, black union soldier, commenting on treatment by southerners (excerpted on page 28 of the Text Document).

Group F: Samuel Thomas, a Freedman Bureau official, 1865 (excerpted on pages 29-30 of the Text Document).

Upon analyzing and discussing their assigned document, have the students in each group individually answer the following questions, which are available in worksheet form on page 31 of the Text Document:

  1. Who is giving the testimony?
  2. When is the testimony given?
  3. Why is the person giving the testimony? What object is he trying to achieve?
  4. What attitudes about reconstruction can you find in the person’s testimony?
  5. What problems does this person mention that will have to be solved during reconstruction?

After completing their worksheets, tell each group that they will take on the role of a committee in Congress examining the problems faced by blacks in the aftermath of the Civil War. Their job is to consider solutions to these problems.

Each group will then create a list of specific problems that are hindering social reconstruction efforts according to the author of their document and, from that, suggest specific proposals to solve these problems and aid in the progress of reconstruction.

After each group has answered the above questions and created their lists, have them select a spokesman to report to the rest of the class. In turn, each spokesman will, in his report, assume the identity of the person who authored their document.

After each group’s spokesman has given his or her report, the teacher should lead a discussion of the similarities and differences of each report, trying to identify common themes or ideas that run through each of the reports. These may be put on the board by the teacher to keep a running list of such themes and ideas.


At the end of this lesson, each student should demonstrate his or her proficiency by doing the following:

  1. Compiling a list of the problems that faced the South during reconstruction. These should include social, economic, and political problems.
  2. Utilizing this list to compose a two-page essay that examines and evaluates the challenges that the nation would face in moving forward with a policy of Reconstruction. In this essay the student should consider what these facts suggest about what might realistically be expected from a Reconstruction policy. The student should state the reasons for this evaluation in the essay and show an understanding of the political realities of the day.

Alternative means of assessment include asking the students to do any or all of the following:

  1. Turn in their completed worksheets and essays from Activities 1 and 2 for a grade.
  2. Compose a 24 page essay comparing and contrasting the views of Whitman and Sherman to those of the Southerners examined in their group for Activity 1.

Extending The Lesson

The EDSITEment-reviewed sites Digital History and the Freedmen and Southern Society Project offer a wide variety of documents concerning the effects of early Reconstruction efforts on the black population. Teachers may wish to have students read several of the following, which illustrate the evolution of wartime policy toward former slaves:

Students then might be asked to read some of the following accounts by southerners, illustrating the effects of the above measures:

These documents, in conjunction with many of the documents used in Activity #2, could be used to stage a reenactment of a congressional committee hearing charged with investigating into the problems faced by blacks in the aftermath of the Civil War and suggesting solutions to these problems.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Visual analysis
  • Julie Ann Ponzi, Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA)
  • Mark Baker, Bishop Rosencrans High School (Zanesville, OH)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

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