150 Years Ago This Week: A weak start to Reconstruction

May/June 1865

At New Orleans, on Friday, May 26, Confederate Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, acting for Gen. Kirby Smith, the Confederate commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, entered into a military convention with Union Maj. Gen. Peter Osterhaus, representing the overall Federal commander of the area, Maj. Gen. Edward R.S. Canby. Under the terms of surrender, all resistance would cease and officers and men were to be paroled under terms similar to those offered at Appomattox on April 9.

Afterwards, Gen. Smith agreed to make the surrender effective June 2 at Galveston. The last significant Confederate force in the field had surrendered; some troops, including those of Maj. Gen. Jo Shelby, refused the terms and simply scattered to Mexico, the far west, or just went home. The next day, President Andrew Johnson ordered most of the persons imprisoned by military authorities to be discharged.

President Johnson in Washington on May 29 issued an amnesty and pardon proclamation to all persons who “directly or indirectly participated in the existing rebellion” with some exceptions. All property rights were restored except for slaves and in special cases. An Oath of Allegiance would be required of such individuals; “henceforth, the said persons will fully support, protect and defend the Constitution and abide by all laws.”

This oath was opposed by the Radical Republicans in the Congress; they wanted an oath that could be taken only by those who had never directly or indirectly supported the Confederacy. The president’s proclamation followed the moderate pattern set down by Abraham Lincoln, except that persons who had actively participated in the rebellion and had taxable property of more than $20,000 were excluded from the amnesty.

Others excluded from the terms of the proclamation: those who held diplomatic or civil offices; those who had left U.S. judicial posts; all officers above the rank of colonel in the Army or lieutenant in the Navy; all who left the U.S. Congress to join the South; all who resigned the U.S. Army or Navy to evade duty in resisting the rebellion; all who had mistreated prisoners of war; all who had been educated at the West Point or Annapolis academies; the governors of the states in rebellion; those who left homes in the North to go to the South; those who engaged in destroying Federal commerce; and anyone who had violated previous oaths.

However, those who were excluded could petition President Johnson where ”such clemency will be liberally extended as may be consistent with the facts of the case and the peace and dignity of the United States.” Johnson was liberal in granting such clemencies; the proclamation was deemed a moderate reconstruction policy.

Union troops for most of the rest of 1865 in Texas and along the Rio Grande River were engaged in guerilla operations with former Confederates escaping into Mexico. As the trial of the Lincoln conspirators continued in Washington, President Johnson declared on Thursday, June 1, a day of humiliation and prayer in honor of Lincoln.

Out on the high seas, the Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah continued to destroy Union shipping and whalers in the Pacific, unaware of the collapse of the Confederacy. The next day, June 2, Gen. Smith at Galveston accepted the terms of surrender established at New Orleans on May 26. Southern naval forces operating on the Red River in Texas officially surrendered on Saturday, June 3. The British government officially withdrew belligerent rights from the Confederacy, and President Johnson lifted military restrictions on trade in the U.S. except on contrabands of war.

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