History & Culture

The Reconstruction era (1861 to 1900), the historic period in which the United States grappled with the question of how to integrate millions of newly freed African Americans into social, political, and labor systems, was a time of significant transformation within the United States. Reconstruction began when the first United States soldiers arrived in slaveholding territories and enslaved people escaped from plantations and farms; some of them fled into free states, and others found safety with U.S. forces. During the period, Congress passed three constitutional amendments that permanently abolished slavery, defined birthright citizenship and guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law, and granted all males the ability to vote by prohibiting voter discrimination based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments). Congress also passed a series of Reconstruction Acts that divided the former Confederacy into five military districts and laid out requirements for re-admittance to the Union (except Tennessee). The experience of Reconstruction, and the rebuilding of the Union following the Civil War, played out across America and resulted in changes that fundamentally altered the meaning of citizenship and the relationship between Federal and state governments. Central to this drama was the former Confederacy where social, economic, and political changes dramatically transformed the region and where major activities of and resistance to Reconstruction took place. African Americans - across America - faced steep obstacles as they attempted to claim their newly won rights. Ultimately, the unmet promises of Reconstruction led to the modern civil rights movement 100 years later.

Despite the importance of Reconstruction, many Americans know very little about it. And what they do know is often outdated or inaccurate. Historians once portrayed the period as a failure and defined it narrowly as the years between 1865 and 1876. Now they see its broad triumphs and also its long reach. During this period Americans debated profound questions: What did freedom mean? What kind of country would this be? What kind of political system should govern it? What were the rights of citizenship, and who could be a citizen? They struggled earnestly – if not always successfully – to build a nation of free and equal citizens. Small wonder that Reconstruction is often called the country’s Second Founding. To this day the outcomes of the vast political and social changes of the Reconstruction era remain visible across the landscape. One place that embodies the themes of Reconstruction with special merit is Beaufort County, South Carolina. The significant historical events that transpired here make it an ideal place to tell critical national, regional and local stories of experimentation, potential transformation, accomplishment, and disappointment. In the Beaufort region, including the City of Beaufort, the town of Port Royal, and Saint Helena Island, many existing historic sites demonstrate the transformative effect of emancipation and Reconstruction

Portrait photograph of Robert Smalls

Learn about some of the people associated with the Reconstruction era

Photograph of historic Brick Baptist Church

Discover some of the places associated with Reconstruction in the Lowcountry and beyond

Collage of historic portraits of 19th century Black legislators

Learn more about the Reconstruction era by exploring some of these articles written by historians and park rangers.

Historic drawing of black and white voters
Reconstruction Era National Theme Study

In 2017, the NPS published a theme study on Reconstruction. This provides an overview of the era, as well as key locations.

Last updated: April 17, 2024

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