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Reconstructing Texas: 1866-1874


This PSA illustrates the conflicting political and societal attitudes in Texas during the Reconstruction. The accounts and letters selected give learners a sense of the racial and political struggles occurring and how different groups viewed Congressional Reconstruction. It is important to remember that these sources, particularly Wood’s account, are heavily biased and are products of the social structure of the slave holding South. Obviously, they present very different views than modern individuals are accustomed to.

      To explore the Reconstruction era, there are excerpts from William D. Wood’s Reminiscences of Reconstruction in Texas which represents the view that Congressional Reconstruction was an unnecessary, harsh, and unjust period. Additionally, Donald Campbell’s letter to E. M. Pease, 25 August 1868, discusses Ku Klux Klan depredations and the need for federal troops is featured, as well as the text of a letter from General Charles Griffin to Governor James W. Throckmorton, 26 April 1867, which accuses Throckmorton of being uncooperative with the Reconstruction effort, especially toward the civil rights of African Americans.

      Students will examine the conflicting attitudes and beliefs between the military authorities and resistant Texan citizens who opposed any change to their social order. Teachers may also modify and easily incorporate these worksheets into their predesigned lesson plans.

      The web links provided will help each instructor prepare, research, and present interesting reputable sites during lectures. There are sites listed to help learners make connections between the past and the present by taking a look into contemporary immigration through multimedia experiences.


    Reconstructing Texas: 1866-1874

    by Vale Fitzpatrick

    Texas emerged relatively unscathed from the confederate defeat in the Civil War. It had not suffered a major invasion and due to its border with Mexico had maintained significant trade, especially the all important cotton exports. Texas, a slave holding state, had to accept the new reality of abolition along with Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction. Texans were uncertain of how the federal government would treat those who supported the Confederacy. Texans also struggled with the despair of a defeated cause, in which they had invested so much blood, passion, and hope.

    Presidential Reconstruction lasted from 1865-1867 and followed President Lincoln’s plan. After his assassination it was continued by President Andrew Johnson. Lincoln’s stated goal of reconstruction was to quickly bring southern states back into the union. Further it would operate under civilian control with support provided by the military. The newly freed African Americans were scarcely regarded in this plan; they were given their freedom but little else. Despite Texan fears, Presidential Reconstruction did little to dismantle the southern social order or retaliate against former Confederates.

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    Most slaves greeted their new freedom with great joy. That joy, however, soon turned to the practical questions of how they would live now that they were free. As one put it “freedom could make folks proud but it didn’t make them rich.” Another remembered his former owner asking “how are you going to eat and get clothes and such?” Most freedmen accepted Union General Gordon Granger’s advice that they stay where they were and work for wages, because they had nowhere else to go.1 Contrary to many white fears, most freedmen had no desire to get even with their former masters, they simply hoped to live in peace with whites and support themselves and their families, primarily through small scale farming.

    The Texas election of 25 June 1866 saw “Conservative Unionists,” voted into office. Many were former secessionists, Confederate soldiers, or politicians. Led by Governor elect James Webb Throckmorton, an ex-brigadier general and Confederate Commissioner to Indians, their platform was not to extend equal rights to blacks or make any radical changes to Texas society. The new state legislature refused to ratify the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and passed black code laws, similar to those passed in other southern states, which denied equal rights to the newly freed blacks. Radical Republicans reacted with outrage to these former “rebels” governing as if they had won the Civil War. Texas’s local and state governments from 1865-1867 were controlled by former confederates, secessionists, and pre-war unionists, a situation duplicated in other ex-Confederate states. Radical Republicans would not let this stand.

    During the 1866 national congressional election Radical Republicans swept into power taking a two-thirds majority of both houses. In the south this was largely due to blacks voting. Thus began Congressional Reconstruction (1867-1874). Utilizing the sanction of the 13th and 14th amendments along with their majority in both houses of Congress, Republicans restarted Reconstruction. A later civil rights case (109 U.S. 3, 20 (1883)) stated the 13th Amendment “has a reflex character also, establishing and decreeing universal civil and political freedom throughout the United States and thus Congress was empowered to pass all laws necessary and proper for abolishing all badges and incidents of slavery in the United States.”2 Certainly Congress used its power to legislate away the practices of the old South. In March 1867 Congress passed the first of four reconstruction acts, which would restart the process of reconstruction under control of the military. The South was divided into five military districts; Texas and Louisiana comprised the Fifth Military District.

    The South and Texas were forced to restart reconstruction, this time under the control of the “radical” Republican controlled Congress. However as William D. Wood said “they [the south] had submitted their cause to the arbitration of the sword and they had lost.”3 Under the congressional plan many white’s fears were realized as they were stripped of their political power.

    General Philip Sheridan initially commanded the 5th Military District headquartered in New Orleans, with General Charles C. Griffin was appointed military commander of Texas.4 White Texans’ worst fears about reconstruction now became a reality. Congressional reconstruction acts called for a new registration of voters, invalidating those who had engaged in acts of rebellion or held a state or national civil government position in the Confederacy.

    The loyalty oath required by Congress led to the replacement of many state and local officials, who had served well. This further angered conservative whites. Sheridan also appointed three man boards of registrars composed of known Unionists, and whenever possible, a freedman was placed on the board. The only bright spot of Congressional Reconstruction for most white Texans was the end of the Freedmen’s Bureau. On 8 January 1870, General Joseph J. Reynolds appointed E. J. Davis as governor of Texas, along with several other state politicians. The Republican party had temporary control of the of the state. However, its control would be short lived as it failed to appeal to the majority of white voters.

    In response to reconstruction, organizations such as the Knights of the White Camellia, Knights of the Rising Sun, and the Ku Klux Klan arose throughout the South with the objective of enforcing the old social order and denying blacks a political voice through fear, intimidation and outright violence. To combat such lawlessness Governor Davis created a state militia which could aid in policing areas of the state. Second, he created a state police force which all local law enforcement agencies were required to aid. Individuals accused of crimes by the state police were tried in state courts. He also created state supported free public schools. Such actions were not popular with most whites. Further angering them, the state legislature passed several measures that gave the governor great power. During the early 1870s Governor Davis faced a raising tide of criticism from conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans. Their attacks, colored by racism, charged the governor of tyranny and rampant taxation. His critics charged the militia and the state police gave the governor dictatorial power. Further, forty percent of the state police were black, an intolerable situation for most whites. State and local taxes rose to record highs due to the expanded state government and numerous social programs. These issues united former secessionists, Democrats, and moderate Republicans against Governor E. J. Davis.

    The Republicans suffered defeat during the October 1871 special elections, losing four seats. In 1872 the Republicans lost overwhelmingly as the Democrats won control of both houses of the thirteenth legislature. The democrat controlled legislature refused to work with Governor Davis. The legislature moved to undo all of Davis’s acts. Over Governor Davis’s veto the democrats repealed the state police act, decentralized the public schools and strictly limited the ability to raise taxes for education.

    Despite such setbacks Republicans nominated Davis for reelection in 1873 and during the election he claimed Democrats had raised taxes destroyed public education, added to the state debt and gave away thousands of acres of public land to railroads. Hatred for Davis, however, was unyielding. Most white voters equated him with the republican “tyranny” of Congressional Reconstruction, Freedmen’s Bureau, state police, and taxes. Davis lost in a landslide to Richard Coke.

    The Texas Supreme Court, composed of Davis appointees, declared the election illegal in the infamous semi-colon case. Democratic leaders demanded his resignation and had the legislature meet and inaugurate Coke to take power until the federal government intervened. Grant refused to aid Davis, and while Coke and the local militia had taken control of the legislative chambers, Davis resigned. Democrats “cleansed” the judiciary by expanding the number of Supreme Court justices from three to five and appointing an entirely new court by January 1874. With the defeat of Governor Davis, Democrats set about rewriting the state constitution and repealing all Republican legislation. Afterwards they claimed to have “redeemed” the state. Reconstruction was at an end in Texas.

    1Randolph B. Campbell. Gone To Texas: A History of The Lone Star State. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 269.

    2“Thirteenth Amendment: Slavery and Involuntary Servitude.” The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation Annotation of Cases Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States to 2 July 1982. Johnny H. Killian Editor (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987),1455.

    3William D. Wood. Reminiscences of the reconstruction in Texas; and reminiscences of Texas and Texans fifty years ago. (San Marcos, Texas, 1902), 9.

    4Sheridan would be replaced by General Hancock on August 29