The US Reconstruction Anniversary Timeline – May 18 to June 7, 1865

"The levee at Memphis, Tenn.-Hauling sugar and cotton from their hiding-places for shipment north" in 1862.  (Library of Congress)

“The levee at Memphis, Tenn.-Hauling sugar and cotton from their hiding-places for shipment north” in 1862. (Library of Congress)

It’s time for some catching up (yay! some spare time!). Before looking at timeline events, let’s check out this week’s Reconstruction city focus: Memphis, Tennessee. This is also a very good time to reintroduce Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose plantation in northern Mississippi was not very far from Memphis. As well, Memphis experienced an influx of freed slaves after the war (as did other cities), and is a good example of some details of how black Americans handled the transition from slavery to freedom.

And it was at this time that General Grant signaled to CS General E. Kirby Smith that he, Grant, was not fooling around. Kirby Smith (and Texas) took the hint. (Edit: Actually, I’ve just learned that Grant sent such an enormous force to Texas because he totally wanted to continue the Civil War in French-occupied Mexico. Seriously. Since Seward, who kept his job under President Johnson, had recovered enough from his accident and the attack on him by the Lincoln assassination conspirators to thwart Grant, the Juarez Mexican ambassador Matias Romero, and an assortment of capitalists and Gun Club members – hey, was Jules Verne aware of this? – it didn’t happen. Since it is outside the scope of Reconstruction, I won’t go into it here, but the whole thing is quite interesting. I read about it in Walter Stahr’s 2012 biography of William Seward.)

A rail trip from Gainesville, Alabama, to Sunflower Landing, Mississippi

Jack Hurst (source 18) gives a vivid description of the South that Forrest would have seen from his rail car as he journeyed home to Sunflower Landing in northern Mississippi after spending a few days in Gainesville after the surrender. According to Hurst,

Long-unpaid and half-starved ex-Confederate soldiers were breaking into their late government’s quartermaster stores and, soon, even civilian ones on their journeys homeward, and guerrillas who had stolen from both sides during the war continued their depredations even more ferociously, unfettered by legal restraint. Most of the South, in which Federal decree had outlawed existing local order, had become a land without law, as the U.S. military authority – never to become very pervasive – was still aborning. Thousands upon thousands of refugees, who had wandered across a shrinking Confederacy since their homes had fallen beneath the inexorable Federal advance, were joined by other tens of thousands of newly freed slaves, who wonderingly initiated their first legal treks across the boundaries of their home communities, some seeking relatives sold away from them, some the rumored succor of Federal authorities, and some presumably just a feel of their lives’ first freedom to go where they pleased.

The South had become a melting pot of misery. In Memphis the week Forrest arrived home at his plantation in northern Mississippi, daily publication of the [Memphis] Bulletin belied the anarchy threatening the region; the newspaper’s columns, though, often reflected it…

…[F]rom Meridian to Jackson, Mississippi, the train [that Forrest was taking back to his home] was crowded with soldiers and other refugees, and the tracks were in such poor condition that at one point the rails spread, causing the train to run off them…

Forrest being Forrest, he took charge of the situation, getting the men on board to use levers to pry the track back into position. It worked and the trip resumed.

Memphis in the 1850s.  (Source)

Memphis in the 1850s. (Source)

Occupied Memphis during the war

In June 1862, thirty-six years after Memphis incorporated, the city surrendered to Union troops. It was quite a prize. Just before the war, Memphis had some 23,000 residents and was a major cotton center as well as a transportation center. At Memphis, you had your choice of four railroads and regular steamboat service to all points north and south. The city also had eight banks – that seems like a lot, but in 1860, over $21 million of cotton was traded in Memphis (that’s 1860 dollars, I think). (20)

As the city came under Federal occupation, some people moved farther south into the Confederacy, but many remained and waited to see what would happen. Prices soared and business plummeted, but the US command treated residents with cautious respect at first. Municipal government, urban schools, and churches were allowed and no one was hassled, as long as secession was not discussed. General Buell did not make slavery an issue and returned runaway slaves to their masters. In these early days, US President Lincoln and his commanders believed that the majority of Southerners had been hoodwinked by the hot-blooded secessionists and would be glad to rejoin the Union. They misunderstood the Southern spirit. In Tennessee, including Memphis, after enduring jeers, songs of “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag”, and other provocations from the citizenry, and concerned about guerrilla activity as well as spying and smuggling money and goods to the Confederacy, US authorities cracked down, seizing property and sending men AND women to jail for southern sympathies. Authorities required oaths of allegiance and retaliated on civilian populations after guerrilla attacks. Runaway slaves were allowed to stay in various “contraband camps” near major cities. Some of these camps had appalling conditions, but others were managed well. The contrabands were encouraged to enlist in the US Army (some 20,000 of them did) or contract for wages with white landowners (some of whom were Yankees who now owned abandoned or confiscated plantations). (19, 20)

Memphis, with its rail connections and location on the Mississippi River, was naturally an important military center for troop disbursement as well as a supply depot. Other newcomers arrived, too, including Northern civilians (including railroad workers, mostly Irish) and freed or escaped slaves. In 1863, the city’s population was 35,000, not counting the soldiers! (19)

There were plenty of problems. Military rule and overcrowding disrupted local economy. Unemployment, inflation, and shortages of food and housing were big problems. Union troops did provide food when necessary both for humanitarian reasons and to avoid bread riots. (19)

Memphis after the war

The Memphis Chamber of Commerce reorganized in 1865 after the war ended in April and immediately started inviting business establishments into Memphis. It worked, despite a magnitude 5 earthquake in August. By autumn of that year, a visitor from Kentucky commented, “Memphis astounds me with its rush and roar of business. So soon after the war it is wonderful. I predict that it will be the greatest city in the Mississippi Valley, St. Louis not excepted.”

This river town’s location and history, as well as the speed with which Tennessee was readmitted to the Union, definitely helped it to rebound quickly after the war. But in 1870, a yellow fever epidemic broke out that was so bad, the city had to return its charter and be governed by the state in 1879. The yellow fever did eventually end, and Memphis resumed its growth in the 1880s.

The city’s black population soared after the war as thousands of freed slaves poured in. It offered them some unique advantages. Thanks to the postwar cotton business, there was a big unskilled labor market for workers who could do the same type of work that slaves had done on the plantations. People now had to deal with new problems of unemployment and budgeting wages to provide all necessities. They did so with the same types of community aid that had flourished during slave times. In Memphis, as elsewhere, black Americans turned to religion and benevolent associations for social support and political power. (21)

An online search doesn't reveal any authenticated pictures of Forrest in civilian clothes.

I looked around online but couldn’t find authenticated pictures of Forrest in civilian clothes. If you’ve got one, know that someone on eBay sold an unauthenticated one for $500 – there’s a market! (Or you could share it with us for free – G)

Nathan Bedford Forrest

By the end of May, per source 18, Forrest was at Sunflower Landing, near Coahoma, Mississippi. He faced two problems, one financial and the other legal. Notes on his plantation had gone unpaid during the war, and he needed cash. He immediately hired some of his ex-slaves and sowed corn, which prospered. The legal issue, of course, was getting amnesty from the North. He was in the category of officers who would have to seek it in person from President Johnson. According to Hurst in source 18, Forrest felt he would get amnesty. He knew Frank Blair – a Northerner who was now a neighbor. Blair was one of Johnson’s advisors and had pointed out to Johnson that pardoning prominent Southerners would gain the president political support. Wall Street also had an interest in seeing cotton production returning to profitable levels as soon as possible. Another factor in leniency toward Confederates was the reaction of Northern whites to the influx of freed blacks. At around this time, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Ohio all passed referendums that kept blacks from voting.

As Forrest settled back into civilian work, he invited seven US officers to northern Mississippi and became partners with one of them in some farming operations. Over the summer, as crops grew and the war-torn country rested, political activity picked up in northern Mississippi. And that’s where we’ll leave Mr. Forrest, until September.

The Reconstruction Timeline

Now let’s take a look at what was happening during the military post-war mop-up as well as in Reconstruction around this time of year, 150 years ago.

May 18: Military: “Ulysses S. Grant directed Maj. Gen. Edward R. S. Canby to send a substantial military force to the Rio Grande to be commanded by Sheridan and also arranged to send the 25th Army Corps from Va. to Tex.” (5, including quote)

May 21: Military: “Ulysses S. Grant instructed Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele concerning his role in the expedition to Tex. and directed Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas to send the 4th Army Corps from Tenn. to Tex.” (5, including quote) “Edmund Kirby Smith sent his top subordinate, Major General John B. Magruder, to discuss surrendering with General Edward R.S. Canby in New Orleans upon learning of Philip Sheridan’s appointment.” (10, including quote)

May 22: “Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina arrived at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Varina was eventually returned South, while authorities placed Davis in shackles and held him in solitary confinement at the fort. Authorities later bowed to pressure to remove the shackles. In 1868, one of President Johnson’s last acts in office was to pardon Davis, who never stood trial.” (10, including quote) President Johnson lifts trade restrictions on the South, except for Texas. General Grant tells his Alabama commander to prevent the Alabama legislature from meeting. (5) Mary Lincoln and her sons move out of the White House. (10)

May 23: A pro-US government of Virginia is set up in Richmond. (10)

The Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac is held in Washington, D.C. (4)


Lincoln would have liked it. Source


May 24: The Grand Review of Sherman’s Army is held in Washington, D.C. (4)

It's not clear if this is the Army of the Potomac or Sherman's army.  That's the presidential reviewing stand in the background.  (Library of Congress)

It’s not clear if this is the Army of the Potomac or Sherman’s army. That’s the presidential reviewing stand in the background. (Library of Congress)


May 26: Military: “General Edmund Kirby Smith’s subordinate, Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, surrendered the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department to Major General Peter J. Osterhaus, representing Major General Edward R.S. Canby at New Orleans. Smith received the same terms granted to Robert E. Lee. This ended all effective organized resistance.” (10, including quote)

May 29: President Johnson issues his “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction.” Paragraphs four and five apply to Forrest (Forrest believes).

Also on this day, “President Andrew Johnson appoints William Holden as provisional governor of North Carolina, a blueprint for his plans of Presidential Reconstruction. Holden was instructed to call a constitutional convention of men who had signed an oath of allegiance to the United States.” (4, including quote [link added]) According to source 10, “The ‘North Carolina Proclamation’ restored civil government in that state. Johnson appointed William Holden as provisional governor; Holden was to organize a convention to draft a new state constitution. Convention delegates were required to swear allegiance to the U.S., reject the ordinance of secession, repudiate the Confederate war debt, and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Ten percent of registered voters were required to approve the constitution before elections could be held for local, state, and federal offices.

The ‘North Carolina Proclamation’ violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of a republican form of government for each state because Holden was not popularly elected, and 10 percent of the voters overruled the other 90. Nevertheless, Johnson used this as the template for restoring the remaining conquered states (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas) to the U.S.”

May 30: “The Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War concluded that the U.S. massacre of Native Americans at Sand Creek last November was ‘the scene of murder and barbarity.’ The conduct of Colonel John M. Chivington disgraced ‘the veriest savage,’ and Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans’ testimony consisted of ‘prevarications and shuffling.’ President Johnson demanded and received Evans’ resignation. (10, including quote)

June 2 Military: CS General E. Kirby Smith surrenders the Trans-Mississippi armies. Per source 10, “Confederates surrendered their last remaining seaport at Galveston, Texas. This was the last naval act of the war. Of 471 ships and 2,455 guns in active service during the war, only 29 vessels and 210 guns were active by December. General Edmund Kirby Smith approved the 26 May agreement made on his behalf by Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner surrendering his forces under the same terms granted to General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Some Confederates, including part of Jo Shelby’s command, refused to surrender and fled to Mexico, headed West, or just went home.”

June 6: Unionists in Missouri pass a new state constitution.




(1) The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

(2) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).

(3) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor (1868).

(4) Blue and Gray Timeline.

(5) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.

(6) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).

(7) CWSAC Battle Summaries

(8) Timeline 1865. State of Tennessee

(9) Up From Slavery. Booker T. Washington

(10) The Legacy of the Civil War: May and June 1865.

(11) The American Civil War Photo Gallery.

(12) Capture of Jefferson Davis.

(13) The Papers of Jefferson Davis, timeline. Rice University.

(14) Reconstruction Timeline. Mount Holyoke College.

(15) The American Presidency Project – Presidential Documents.

(16) Andrew Johnson Timeline. National Park Service.

(17) Georgia History Timeline/Chronology 1865.

(18) Nathan Bedford Forrest. Jack Hurst. Knopf. New York. 1993.

(19) Tennesseans and Their History. Paul H. Bergeron, Stephen V. Ash, Jeanette Keith. Univeristy of Tennessee. Knoxville. 1999.

(20) Tennessee: A Short History. Robert E. Corlew. University of Tennessee. 1981.

(21) Toward A New South? Studies in Post-Civil War Southern Communities. Edited by Orville Vernon Burton and Robert C. McMath, Jr. Greenwood Press. Westport. 1982.

Categories: American Civil War, Reconstruction

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