Lincoln’s Plan For Reconstruction

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Not until February, 1865, was an election held in Tennessee which had importance in terms of popular voting for fundamental state reorganization. After that there loomed, as always, the serious obstacle of congressional opposition. Tennessee was not to be admitted to the Union until 1866. Yet as early as September 11, 1863, Lincoln had written to Governor Johnson: “All Tennessee is now clear of armed insurrectionists.” Insisting that “Not a moment should be lost” in “reinaugurating a loyal State government,” the President insisted, as in Louisiana, that prudent steps be taken without delay. Discretion was left with Johnson and “co-operating friends” as to ways and means, with the presidential injunction that the reinauguration should not be allowed to slip into the hands of enemies of the Union, “driving its friends . . . into political exile.” “It must not be so,” wrote Lincoln. “You must have it otherwise.”

In September, 1863, Andrew Johnson said to his people: “Here lies your State; a sick man in his bed, emaciated and exhausted . . . unable to walk alone. The physician comes. Don’t quarrel about antecedents, but administer to his wants . . . as quickly as possible. . . . This is no . . . metaphysical question. It is a plain, common sense matter, and there is nothing in the way but obstinacy.” Johnson’s simile of the sick man and his suggestion as to the ineptness of those administering to him could have covered a great deal more territory than Tennessee.

II Events of 1863 and early 1864 in Arkansas proceeded with little difficulty so far as that commonwealth itself was concerned. It was a sparsely settled state, with 435,000 inhabitants in 1860, of whom 111,115 were slaves. Illinois, of comparable area, had nearly four times the population. It was chiefly in the southeastern part, in the plantation area near the Mississippi River, that slaveholding was concentrated. Throughout most of the state there were few slaves, in the northern portion hardly any. People of the Ozark mountain region had little in common with the few cotton-growing magnates. To the vast majority of the people the abolition of slavery would produce no serious reordering of their lives and economy.

The state had avoided secession until swept away by the post-Sumter excitement; when secession was adopted it was done reluctantly. Even after secession, considerable Union sentiment remained. According to a contemporary account, pertaining to the situation in 1863, “Citizens of distinction came forward to advocate the Union cause; among others, Brig.-Gen. E. W. Gantt, of the Confederate army, once held as a prisoner of war.” The shift of General Gantt from Confederate to Union allegiance was, as he said, part of a popular movement; Union sentiment, he noted, was “manifesting itself on all sides and by every indication.” For many who were of like mind with Gantt the open declaration of loyalty to the Federal government, especially after the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg, came naturally. It was like snapping out of an abnormal situation.

Military events provided a considerable impulse toward Union reorganization, especially the Union victories at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and the Helena-Little Rock expedition of General Frederick Steele, U. S. A., against Sterling Price, C. S. A., which resulted in Confederate evacuation of Little Rock on September 10, 1863. With this Confederate reverse a large part of the state was brought under Union control.

Lincoln kept in touch with Arkansas affairs, notifying General Steele that he, as in the case of Banks in Louisiana, was “master” of the reorganization process. “Some single mind,” wrote the President, “must be master, else there will be no agreement in anything.” He had ample reason to realize the truth of this statement.

The pattern of the Arkansas movement reveals much as to Lincoln’s plan in practical operation. Sentiment developed in meetings, with Union resolutions, in large parts of the state. Delegates were chosen in such meetings (by no more and no less authority than is usual in such popular movements under the stress of abnormal conditions) for a “convention” designed to make a new regime constitutional and legal. Lincoln encouraged the holding of the convention, welcoming it as a fulfillment of his plan as announced in December, 1863. On January 20, 1864, he indicated that the reorganization emanated from citizens of Arkansas petitioning for an election, and directed Steele to “order an election immediately” for March 28, 1864. When, on counting the votes for a Union-minded governor and for changes in the state constitution, the number should reach or exceed 5,406 (that being ten per cent of the Arkansas vote of 1860), Lincoln directed that the governor thus chosen should be declared qualified and that he should assume his duties under the modified state constitution. (As a minor detail, when it was found that the Union convention in Arkansas was planning the election for March 14, not March 28, the President quickly acquiesced in the convention plan.)