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The Saga of Reconstruction

It may be difficult to imagine the total devastation of the South after the Civil War. Cities were destroyed, houses and slave quarters were burned, farmland was ruined, and one out of every five men who went to war never returned. Historians Cliff Kuhn, Marcellus Barksdale, and Gene Hatfield describe the chaos and uncertainty of the period. It was especially difficult for former slaves who were left homeless with nowhere to go. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who was a noted writer and speaker, wrote about the need for land. He said that the federal government believed it had done enough by freeing the slaves and now it was up to them to make their own way. Douglass called on the government to give former slaves the land that had been abandoned as federal troops advanced. Marcellus Barksdale comments about land affording the owner a feeling of control over his or her life. In January 1865, General Sherman offered black leaders abandoned land in the Sea Islands along the Georgia coast. It never happened. Gene Hatfield reports that many African Americans believed there was a promise of 40 acres and a mule for freed slaves. While a few former slaves were given land grants, they were revoked when the original white owners were pardoned by Pres. Andrew Johnson. Many former slaves became sharecroppers, some on the very plantations they had worked as slaves. Sharecroppers had nothing: no mule, land, house, plow, fertilizer, or seed. Everything was provided by the landowner in return for half of the crop produced. Under this economic system, former slaves soon were indebted and found themselves under a different type of bondage.

Teacher tip: Brainstorm with students to create a list with this heading: “Problems in the South after the Civil War” After the class generates entries for the list, assign each entry to a smaller group of students to develop a potential solution to the problem.