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Jeffery Robenalt

"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

in Civil War Texas

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt
The aftermath of the Civil War left much uncertainty in the minds of Texans. Their economy was in ruins, their money was worthless, and they were faced with drastic changes to their basic way of life. Reconstruction was a long and burdensome process that affected the social, political, and economic lives of all Texans. Social Reconstruction meant establishing a new relationship between whites and former slaves, political reconstruction involved writing a new state constitution that rejected the concepts of secession and slavery, and economic reconstruction called for a new labor system to replace the institution of slavery.
Reconstruction President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet draft the Emancipation Proclamation
Wikimedia Commons
A new era dawned for those held in bondage when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The proclamation granted freedom to all slaves in Confederate states that remained in rebellion against the Union. However, since Texas was not under the control of the Federal government at the time the proclamation was issued, Texans ignored the historic document until the Confederacy surrendered in April 1865. On June 19, 1865, Federal troops under the command of General Gordon Granger landed on Galveston Island, and Granger, by the authority of the President, declared all slaves to be free. Though news of emancipation spread slowly to the estimated 250,000 slaves in Texas, June 19, now called Juneteenth, has long been celebrated by African Americans in the Lone Star State as the anniversary of their liberation.

Emancipation did little to make life easier for the freedmen. Many left their former masters and traveled to cities looking for work only to find themselves without a home or a job. Once there, they often banded together and established communities called “Freedtowns.” Others took to the road in search of long-lost relatives, while some remained on the plantations and worked for wages or a share of the crops they produced. The U. S. Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as the Freedman’s Bureau, to assist former slaves in making the transition from slavery to freedom. The Bureau provided food, shelter, and medicine to the freedmen, and assisted them to find jobs or represented them in court when necessary.

The Freedman’s Bureau began operations in Texas in September 1865 under the leadership of Major General Edgar M. Gregory. General Gregory was an abolitionist and he interpreted his chief goal as establishing a free labor system to replace the peculiar institution of slavery. Despite the fears of white planters that Gregory and his successors would overextend their authority, the actions of the Bureau proved to be fairly conservative. They began by pressuring African Americans to remain on the plantations and to sign contracts to work for wages or for crop hares. With no land of their own and few employment opportunities with others, the freedmen had little choice but to comply. While the planters complained publicly about the actions taken by the Freedmen Bureau, in private most of them found the sharecropper-owner relationship acceptable. In truth, when indebtedness was used as an additional control mechanism, the process of sharecropping was nearly as effective at keeping the former slaves on the plantations as the institution of slavery had been.

While most planters were in favor of the sharecropping system, other measures enacted by the Freedmen Bureau failed to gain popular support. For instance, the Bureau’s attempt to educate former slaves was often seen by whites as potentially destructive of good order, although the schools never received the financial support necessary to educate such a large black population. Bureau courts, which were responsible for adjudicating a wide range of matters from violence to breach of labor contracts, were also heavily criticized in situations where agents of the Bureau charged that blacks were being treated unjustly. In reality, the courts accomplished little except to irritate the whites who were brought before them.

The reconstruction plan presented by President Andrew Johnson posed a substantial threat to the status quo of Texas. Under the plan, the President would appoint a provisional governor for each former Confederate state. The provisional governor would then call a convention to nullify succession, abolish slavery, and repudiate the state’s Confederate debt. After the voters had ratified the actions of the convention, they would elect a governor, other state officials, and a legislature. The state would be fully restored to the Union when the legislature ratified the Thirteenth Amendment granting African Americans the right to vote. In the following election, conservative James W. Throckmorton defeated Unionist Elisha M. Pease, and the Eleventh legislature met for the first time on August 6, 1866.

In the view of the Republican abolitionists who controlled the United States Congress, the subsequent actions of the newly-elected Texas legislature were a repudiation of Presidential Reconstruction and, in effect, were designed to return the state as much as possible to the ante bellum status quo. The Texas legislature not only refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, but also enacted a series of “black codes” designed to regulate the labor of freedmen through forced apprenticeships, labor contracts, and vagrancy laws. In response, the Republicans in Washington refused to seat the senators and representatives who had been duly elected by Texas voters. Governor Throckmorton also added to the growing tensions with his constant complaints about United States Army interference in civil affairs and his efforts to field ranging companies to protect the frontier from marauding bands of Comanches.

The Congressional Reconstruction Act of March 2, 1867, brought Presidential Reconstruction to an end. Under the authority of the Act, Congress declared all existing Southern governments to be provisional and divided the South into five military districts under the command of the United States Army. Texas and Louisiana were placed in the Fifth Military District commanded by General Philip H. Sheridan. On July 30, 1867, Sheridan removed Governor Throckmorton from office at the request of his immediate Texas subordinate, General Charles Griffin. In his complaints to Sheridan, Griffin cited Throckmorton’s failure to cooperate in the punishment of individuals who had “committed outrages against loyal men, white and black.”

Despite Governor Throckmorton’s removal, complaints continued, and Griffin’s replacement, General Joseph Reynolds, eventually issued a series of special orders for the wholesale removal of hundreds of county officials across Texas. The men who replaced these office holders were required to take the “Test Oath” passed by Congress in 1862, stating that they had never voluntarily borne arms against the United States or given “aid, countenance, counsel, or encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility thereto.” This hit-and-miss policy continued in place until General Edward R. S. Canby, General Reynolds’ replacement, ordered that every county office filled by a man incapable of taking the loyalty oath would be considered vacant on April 25, 1869.

Under the provisions of Congressional Reconstruction, a convention once again met in Austin on June 1, 1868. Delegates to the convention were elected by all male citizens over the age of twenty-one, regardless of race, color, or “previous condition of servitude.” Only felons and those who had lost their right to suffrage for taking part in the rebellion were deemed ineligible for participation in the election of delegates. Drafting a new constitution produced political turmoil and uncovered a split within the new Republican Party between the moderate wing and the radical wing. The radical Republicans were in favor of greater rights for blacks, more restrictions on former Confederates, and a cautious program of economic development, but the moderates took control of the convention and included a provision in the new constitution that restored the franchise to former Confederates. The radicals appealed to the administration of President Grant, but Grant refused to delay the election.

In the December 1869 general election that soon followed the signing of the Constitution, radical Republican Edmund J. Davis was elected as the state’s fourteenth governor. On February 8, the elected members of the Twelfth Legislature assembled in Austin at the order of the military commander where they adopted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and selected the state’s two new United States senators. This completed the Presidential requirements for readmission, and on March 30, 1870, President Grant signed the act that readmitted Texas to the Union.

Both the administration of Governor Davis and the Constitution of 1869 proved to be exceedingly unpopular and hard to digest among the majority of Texans. After all, these were the very same people who had recently turned “thumbs-down” to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Now they were not only forced to abolish slavery, but they were also required to grant African Americans full citizenship and the right to hold public office. To make matters worse, these drastic changes were forced down the throats of angry Texans while many of their own traditional political leaders had been disenfranchised for no more than aiding the Confederate effort.

The Constitution of 1869 called for an entirely different view of government than had existed in Texas before the war. The power of the government was expanded and centralized in the office of the governor by lengthening the governor’s term of office from two years to four years, increasing his salary significantly, and giving him the power to appoint and remove elected officials. Social welfare programs, including a new public school system financed by taxation and the sale of public lands, were instituted for the first time. Legislation was also enacted to integrate African Americans more fully into the political system by granting them the franchise and making it possible for them to hold public office. Such drastic changes could never have occurred without the corrosive effects of the loyalty oath on the voting ranks and leadership of the Democrats and the restrictive umbrella of legislation imposed under Congressional Reconstruction.

The administration of Governor Davis proved to be even more unpopular than the Constitution of 1869. Davis was the first Republican governor in the history of the state and the last that would hold the office for more than a hundred years. Two of the most hated programs enacted by the Twelfth Legislature under Davis’ tenure were the creation of the State Militia and the State Police. The state militia system was controlled by the Governor. He was empowered to use the organization to maintain law and order whenever local officials either failed or refused to take action. Unlike the militia, the State Police were a permanent force with the authority to overrule local law enforcement officials anywhere in the state. Although relatively efficient, the organization was hated by the majority of Texans because much of the force consisted of former slaves used to put down demonstrations that opposed Reconstruction.

Another unpopular piece of Reconstruction legislation was the Enabling Act. The Act permitted Governor Davis to fill nearly 8,500 government jobs at every level that were left vacant by individuals who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Union. Such extensive authority to appoint officials was unheard of in Texas history where the concept of Jacksonian Democracy had always strictly limited the power of the governor. Governor Davis’ also enraged many Texans when he sent the State Police into Freestone, Hill, Limestone, and Walker Counties under a declaration of martial law to put down civil disturbances.

Given the punitive atmosphere of Congressional Reconstruction, it is no wonder that the Texas Constitution of 1869 and the administration of Governor Davis were so unpopular. They were set in place through the auspices of an army of occupation and a strong centralized government when Texans had always favored decentralization and a small, inactive, and cheaper government. The creation of the State Police and the State Militia, and the use of martial law enraged the majority of Texas Democrats, as did legislative control by the Republicans. Given this situation, it is understandable that Texans began a movement to undo everything associated with Reconstruction as soon as the state was readmitted to the Union and the oath of allegiance and military occupation came to an end.

The dismantling of Congressional Reconstruction began in October 1871 when Texans removed the state’s four members of the United States House Representatives in a special election. Then in late 1872, the Democrats regained control of the Thirteenth Legislature and immediately began to repeal most of the legislation enacted under Reconstruction, including reestablishing limits on the governor’s power. Governor Davis was also removed from office in 1873 and replaced by Democrat Richard Coke. In 1875, Texans continued their efforts to erase Reconstruction by holding a convention to replace the Constitution of 1869. The undoing of Reconstruction was eventually completed when the Constitution of 1876 was adopted.

© Jeffery Robenalt, December 1, 2013 Column
More "A Glimpse of Texas Past"

  • Davis, Joe Tom, Legendary Texans, Vol. 4 (Austin: Eakin Press, 1989).
  • Moneyhon, Carl H., Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980).
  • Moneyhon, Carl H., “RECONSTRUCTION,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mzr01) accessed October 17, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  • Nunn, William C., Texas under the Carpetbaggers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962).
  • Ramsdell, Charles W., Reconstruction in Texas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1970).
  • www.austin.edu/lpatrick/his1693/reconstr.html

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