It is easy to forget that historians divide the past into arbitrary packets, either by time or event (or both), in order to make our work more manageable. These packets have become so entrenched in the way history is taught and learned that we never question the nature of these temporal constructs. Such is the case with the study of Reconstruction. Though many textbooks begin the discussion of Reconstruction after the surrender at Appomattox, Reconstruction and the restoration of the Union was of uppermost concern from the first day of secession for Lincoln and the federal government.
Lincoln’s vow to preserve the Union (from the day he was elected) indicated his firm commitment to policies geared toward the reconstruction of the United States. Though Lincoln (to our knowledge) never outlined a specific postbellum plan for the political restoration of the former Confederate states, he did trial runs in states like Louisiana where Reconstruction-like practices were implemented, in order to assess potential solutions to the most vexing problem of the American crisis.
As our discussion of Reconstruction ramps up, it is important to remember that Reconstruction was a process not an event. The day South Carolina seceded the process began. As Union forces moved south, and began to occupy rebel states, the process of reconstruction continued. When the first slave escaped to Union lines the process of reconstruction was occurring. The more formalized transition of the south from a slave society to a free labor society, and the inherent incorporation of freed blacks into the political landscape of this society was a process of reconstruction.
Temporal constructs aside, the monumental task of bringing former rebel states back into the Union as functioning entities, whose constitutions and citizens upheld the civil rights of all Americans within their borders, was not a decade-long process but one which encompassed the years from 1860 through the 1960s.