Reconstruction is one of the most complex topics to tackle in thinking about the aftermath of the American Civil War. At the end of the war many recognized that the South would have to be remade both socially and economically. What this new South would be was a matter of considerable debate around the country. Unlike today there were very few examples to follow; no international standards existed. Today, however, guidelines do exist. For example, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) has published such post conflict guidelines. According to the OECD
The objective of post-conflict reconstruction is not to return to pre-crisis conditions but to lay the foundations for peace and sustainable development.
In achieving this transition the OECD identified four central operational focal points. Central to the reconstruction enterprise is economic reconstruction. Next, they identify individual security as “…the cornerstone of political and economic stablisation,” which “will have a determining influence on the entire reconstruction effort, ranging from the restoration of productive sectors of the economy, the return of capital, to the collection and disposal of weapons.” A third element concerns the re-establishment of the rule of law, allowing people to return to their homes and renew a productive life. Finally, the OECD identify the disarming and reintegration of former soldiers into society as a central activity to reconstruction.
With these OECD points in mind at the end of American Civil War what foundations for peace and sustainable development were being laid?
The simple answer – very few. The challenges, of course, were huge. Former combatants needed to be reintegrated into the economy. Former slaves were equally in need of integration into a profoundly changed economy, and their social place needed to be carved out. The destruction wrought by the war also needed to be repaired. It was no simple task. In addition, however, not all the combatants were convinced that the war was truly over. While military campaigns were over, there emerged more sinister campaigns of organized violence intimidation.
Reconstruction’s task was made more difficult by the centuries long practice of slavery. Not only did the period of reconstruction include rebuilding a shattered economy, but it also included addressing the structural inequities of slavery. Slaves had been denied the right to own property, accumulate wealth, or acquire education. To address these matters the Lincoln Administration backed legislation to establish the Bureau of Freedmen and Refugees, or simply the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau was run out of the Department of War. In today’s parlance the Bureau had three primary functions; to provide humanitarian relief to ex-slaves, to build capacity among former slaves through education, and to provide dispute resolution between ex-slaves and the white population. The failing of the Freedmen’s Bureau was not in its execution, but rather its short duration. The Bureau ended effective operations in 1869 and finally closed doors in 1871. The great difficulty with the Freedmen’s Bureau was that it fell afoul of the combined evils of weak political will and inattention.
No other institution or practice emerged to match the visionary Freedmen’s Bureau. Those who envisioned the reconstruction mission did not grapple with moral or attitudinal aspect found in reconciliation. Today we could envision calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or for community dialogues to bring opponents together. Had this happened perhaps the campaign of violence and intimidation might have been smaller.
You might well ask, so what? I think there is an important lesson to be drawn. It seems the height of blindness for any reflective American to actually believe for a moment that reconstruction and reconciliation will take only a few years. The Freedmen’s Bureau did stellar work for the few years of its existence, but it was overcome by the deep seated feelings and ideologies hardened by violent conflict. Today, international bureaucrats, military and state leaders implement reconstruction and reconciliation programs with timelines as short as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Instead, post Civil War reconstruction and reconciliation took multiple generations, arguably only coming to an end with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and the economic empowerment of the South.