3.4 The Old South: Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877)



(33 states)


(37 states)
















North Carolina





Percent of U.S. population





Key events that shaped law and society:

  • The Civil War and emancipation, together with continuing industrialization and westward migration, fundamentally re-shaped American society between 1861 and 1877.  This was particularly true in the South.
  • The coastal upper South was deeply divided over the war.  Delaware and Maryland (reluctantly) chose to stay with the Union, and Virginia and North Carolina reluctantly chose to leave.  Union forces quickly occupied western Virginia at the start of the war and local Unionists, who had long resented the eastern planters’ dominance of Virginia politics, took the opportunity to form a new state, West Virginia, which Congress admitted to the Union in 1863. 
  • Emancipation began well before Abraham Lincoln issued his famous 1863 proclamation.  Many border state slaves took advantage of wartime disruptions to flee to Union lines.  After some initial hesitation, Lincoln decided to treat them as contraband of war, thus making them free.   Other slaves used military service as a path to freedom after Lincoln decided in 1863 to allow enlistment of black troops. 
  • The coastal upper South was a major theater of war:  the great opening and closing battles (Bull Run and Appomattox) were fought in Virginia, and another of the war’s crucial battles (Antietam) was fought in Maryland.  The war devastated the Confederacy: by 1865 a large portion of Southern men of military age had been killed or wounded and the South was in physical and economic ruin.  
  • The former Confederate states went through several phases following the war.  With encouragement from Washington, local Unionists formed new governments; they abolished slavery but also enacted codes designed to keep Southern blacks in a state as close to slavery as possible.  The North reacted strongly against this, and in 1867 Congress divided the former Confederate states into military districts and refused to readmit them until they had enacted constitutions giving the vote and a meaningful political voice to blacks.  Reconstruction governments in Virginia and North Carolina enacted laws giving basic civil and political rights to blacks but they, like other southern (and many northern) states, balked at expanding social rights:  segregation would remain the norm.  Reconstruction governments also tried to recover from the economic devastation of war by bringing the South more into the mainstream of the industrial and transportation revolution, and they belatedly enacted Jacksonian reforms such as homestead laws and married women’s property rights.
  • Delaware and Maryland were not subject to Reconstruction but they went through their own postwar crises over emancipation.  Maryland Unionists enacted a new constitution abolishing slavery in 1864, but for a time ex-slaveowners were able to use the state’s apprenticeship laws and black laws to keep effective control of Maryland blacks.  Conservatives regained control in 1867 and enacted a new constitution but tampered little with existing laws.   Even though slavery was nearly extinct in Delaware before the war, Delawareans vigorously protested a formal extinction of slavery and enacted just enough postwar reforms to placate Congress.   
Baltimore rioters attack Union troops (1861) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Richmond, Virginia (1865) - Courtesy Imperial War Museum and Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Nast, "The Union as It Was," Harper's Weekly (1874) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons