Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction


It is doubtful how many readers made the comparison of the two messages, but those who did must have noted a marked difference of tone. In general spirit Lincoln’s message of December 8, 1863, was notable for its absence of war-engendered hatred toward the South, ending as it did on the note of “freedom disenthralled.” In appealing for reunion the President was holding out the hand for genuine renewal of friendly relations. This attitude, however, was not reciprocated by the Confederate President. Though perhaps the comparison should not be overstressed, one finds quite the opposite note in the message (December 7, 1863) of Jefferson Davis to his Congress. After a depressing account of Confederate military reverses and of discouraging condition in foreign affairs and finance, the Southern Executive threw in bitter denunciations of the “barbarous policy” and “savage ferocity” of “our enemies.” At one point he referred to them as “hardened by crime.” (There were, of course, those in the North, though not Lincoln, who were saying equally hateful things of the South.) That enemy, wrote Davis, refused “even to listen to proposals . . . [of peace] of recognizing the impassable gulf which divides us.” This expression, the orthodox attitude of Confederate officialdom, must be remembered along with Lincoln’s other problems. If anyone doubted why the President, in his reconstruction plans and his wariness toward “peace negotiations,” realized the hopelessness of expecting high Confederate officials to consider a peaceable restoration of the Union, the reading of this message of Davis would have been enough to dispel such doubt.

It was obvious from the start that the President’s plan would not have smooth sailing, but on several fronts steps were taken to make it known and put it into operation. Army officers were instructed to take copies of the proclamation and distribute them so as to reach soldiers and inhabitants within Confederate-held territory. Aid and protection was to be extended to those who would declare loyalty. On the occasion of raids into enemy territory a number of men were to be detailed “for the purpose of distributing the proclamation broadcast among rebel soldiers and people, and in the highways and byways.”

On the legal or prosecuting front the effect of the pardon policy was explained in an instruction from the office of the attorney general of the United States to district attorneys throughout the country. It was made known that the “President’s pardon of a person guilty of ... rebellion . . . [would] relieve that person for the penalties” of that crime. District attorneys were therefore directed to discontinue proceedings in United States courts whenever the accused should take the oath and comply with the stated conditions.

Such a statement would make it appear that the transition from a kind of rebellious guilt to complete relief from penalty was easy, automatic, and practically instantaneous, but it soon became evident that the matter was not so simple as that. Lincoln found that he had to make a distinction in applying his offer of pardon in return for the oath. What about Confederate soldiers held by Union authorities as prisoners of war? On this point the President issued a letter clarifying the proclamation, declaring that his pardon did not apply to men in custody or on parole as prisoners of war. It did apply, he explained, to persons yet at large (i. e., free from arrest) who would come forward and take the oath. It was also explained that those excluded from the general amnesty could apply to the President for clemency and their cases would have due consideration.

What it amounted to was that Lincoln himself was generous in the application of his pardon both to soldiers and civilians, and the same was true of the attorney general’s office; but army officers were not prepared, in return for the oath, to deliver prisoners nor give up penalties for offences of various sorts, such as violation of rules of war. No one statement applies. Some enemies held as prisoners, on establishing loyalty, were discharged from custody by the President on assurance of good faith by three congressmen. This showed, as in many cases, that Lincoln’s general rules were subject to individual exceptions.

III With a scorn of fine-spun theories and an urgent wish to get ahead with the job of reconstruction, the President proceeded, so far as possible, to make restoration a reality wherever, and as soon as, any reasonable opportunity offered in the seceded South.

In Lincoln’s plan of reconstruction the effort in Louisiana was of vital importance. From the time that New Orleans fell to Union arms on May 1, 1862, the President saw, in terms of Federal occupation, an early opportunity to make reconstruction a wartime reality. Let Louisiana be restored, he thought, let this be done in a reasonable manner with Washington approval, let it be seen that the plan would work, and other states would follow. To go into all the details of the Louisiana story, treating its complications month by month, would be a tedious process. It will be convenient to reduce this elaborate Louisiana story to four successive phases: