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When the armies of the Union and of the Confederacy were disbanded in 1865, two matters had been settled beyond further dispute: the Negro was to be free, and the Union was to be perpetuated.But, though slavery and state sovereignty were no longer at issue, there were still many problems which pressed for solution.The huge task of reconstruction must be faced.The nature of the situation required that the measures of reconstruction be first formulated in Washington by the victors and then worked out in the conquered South.Since the success of these policies would depend in a large measure upon their acceptability to both sections of the country, it was expected that the North would be influenced to some extent by the attitude of the Southern people, which in turn would be determined largely by local conditions in the South.
The situation in the South at the close of the Civil War is, therefore, the point at which this narrative of the reconstruction naturally takes its beginning.
The surviving Confederate soldiers came straggling back to communities, which were now far from being satisfactory dwelling places for civilized people.
Everywhere they found missing many of the best of their former neighbors.They found property destroyed, the labor system disorganized, and the inhabitants in many places suffering from want.They found the white people demoralized and sometimes divided among themselves and the Negroes free, bewildered, and disorderly, for organized government had lapsed with the surrender of the Confederate armies.
Beneath a disorganized society lay a devastated land.The destruction of property affected all classes of the population.The accumulated capital of the South had disappeared in worthless Confederate stocks, bonds, and currency.The banks had failed early in the war.Two billion dollars invested in slaves had been wiped out.Factories, which had been running before the war or were developed after 1861 in order to supply the blockaded country, had been destroyed by Federal raiders or seized and sold or dismantled because they had furnished supplies to the Confederacy.Mining industries were paralyzed.Public buildings which had been used for war purposes were destroyed or confiscated for the uses of the army or for the new freedmen's schools.It was months before courthouses, state capitols, school and college buildings were again made available for normal uses.The military school buildings had been destroyed by the Federal forces.Among the schools which suffered were the Virginia Military Institute, the University of Alabama, the Louisiana State Seminary, and many smaller institutions.Nearly all these had been used in some way for war purposes and were therefore subject to destruction or confiscation.
The farmers and planters found themselves "land poor." The soil remained, but there was a prevalent lack of labor, of agricultural equipment, of farm stock, of seeds, and of money with which to make good the deficiency.As a result, a man with hundreds of acres might be as poor as a Negro refugee.The desolation is thus described by a Virginia farmer:
"From Harper's Ferry to New Market, which is about eighty miles...the country was almost a desert....We had no cattle, hogs, sheep, or horse or anything else.The fences were all gone.Some of the orchards were very much injured, but the fruit trees had not been destroyed.The barns were all burned; chimneys standing without houses, and houses standing without roof, or door, or window."Much land was thrown on the market at low prices--three to five dollars an acre for land worth fifty dollars.The poorer lands could not be sold at all, and thousands of farms were deserted by their owners.Everywhere recovery from this agricultural depression was slow.Five years after the war Robert Somers, an English traveler, said of the Tennessee Valley:
"It consists for the most part of plantations in a state of semi- ruin and plantations of which the ruin is for the present total and complete....
The trail of war is visible throughout the valley in burnt-up gin-houses, ruined bridges, mills, and factories...and in large tracts of once cultivated land stripped of every vestige of fencing.The roads, long neglected, are in disorder, and having in many places become impassable, new tracks have been made through the woods and fields without much respect to boundaries."Similar conditions existed wherever the armies had passed, and not in the country districts alone.Many of the cities, such as Richmond, Charleston, Columbia, Jackson, Atlanta, and Mobile had suffered from fire or bombardment.
There were few stocks of merchandise in the South when the war ended, and Northern creditors had lost so heavily through the failure of Southern merchants that they were cautious about extending credit again.Long before 1865 all coin had been sent out in contraband trade through the blockade.That there was a great need of supplies from the outside world is shown by the following statement of General Boynton: