The term has two applications: the first applies to the complete history of the entire country from 1865 to 1877 following the American Civil War; the second, to the attempted transformation of the 11 ex-Confederate states from 1863 to 1877, as directed by Congress. Reconstruction ended the remnants of Confederate secession and ended slavery, making the newly-free slaves citizens with civil rights ostensibly guaranteed by three new Constitutional amendments.
Three visions of Civil War memory appeared during Reconstruction: the reconciliationist vision, which was rooted in coping with the death and devastation the war had brought; the white supremacist vision, which included segregation and the preservation of the traditional cultural standards of the South; and the emancipationist vision, which sought full freedom, citizenship, and Constitutional equality for African Americans.
Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson both took moderate positions designed to bring the South back into the Union as quickly as possible, while Radical Republicans in Congress sought stronger measures to upgrade the rights of African Americans, including the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, while curtailing the rights of former Confederates, such as through the provisions of the Wade–Davis Bill. Johnson, a former Tennessee Senator, former slave owner, and the most prominent Southerner to oppose the Confederacy, followed a lenient policy toward ex-Confederates. Lincoln's last speeches show that he was leaning toward supporting the enfranchisement of all freedmen, whereas Johnson was opposed to this.
Johnson's interpretations of Lincoln's policies prevailed until the Congressional elections of 1866. Those elections followed outbreaks of violence against blacks in the former rebel states, including the Memphis riots of 1866 and the New Orleans riot that same year. The subsequent 1866 election gave Republicans a majority in Congress, enabling them to pass the 14th Amendment, take control of Reconstruction policy, remove former Confederates from power, and enfranchise the freedmen. A Republican coalition came to power in nearly all the southern states and set out to transform the society by setting up a free labor economy, using the U.S. Army and the Freedmen's Bureau. The Bureau protected the legal rights of freedmen, negotiated labor contracts, and set up schools and churches for them. Thousands of Northerners came south as missionaries, teachers, businessmen and politicians. Hostile whites began referring to these politicians as "carpetbaggers". In early 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights Bills and sent them to Johnson for his signature. The first bill extended the life of the bureau, originally established as a temporary organization charged with assisting refugees and freed slaves, while the second defined all persons born in the United States as national citizens with equality before the law. After Johnson vetoed the bills, Congress overrode his vetos, making the Civil Rights Act the first major bill in the history of the United States to become law through an override of a presidential veto. The Radicals in the House of Representatives, frustrated by Johnson's opposition to Congressional Reconstruction, filed impeachment charges. The action failed by one vote in the Senate. The new national Reconstruction laws – in particular laws requiring suffrage (the right to vote) for freedmen – incensed white supremacists in the South, giving rise to the Ku Klux Klan. During 1867-69 the Klan murdered Republicans and outspoken freedmen in the South, including Arkansas Congressman James M. Hinds.
Elected in 1868, Republican PresidentUlysses S. Grant supported Congressional Reconstruction and enforced the protection of African Americans in the South through the use of the Enforcement Acts passed by Congress. Grant used the Enforcement Acts to effectively combat the Ku Klux Klan, which was essentially wiped out, although a new incarnation of the Klan eventually would again come to national prominence in the 1920s. Nevertheless, President Grant was unable to resolve the escalating tensions inside the Republican Party between the Northerners on the one hand, and those Republicans originally hailing from the South on the other (this latter group would be labelled "scalawags" by those opposing Reconstruction). Meanwhile, "redeemers", self-styled conservatives in close cooperation with a faction of the Democratic Party, strongly opposed Reconstruction. They alleged widespread corruption by the "carpetbaggers", excessive state spending, and ruinous taxes. Meanwhile, public support for Reconstruction policies, requiring continued supervision of the South, faded in the North after the Democrats, who strongly opposed Reconstruction, regained control of the House of Representatives in 1874. In 1877, as part of a Congressional bargain to elect Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president following the disputed 1876 presidential election, U.S. Army troops were withdrawn from the three states (South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida) where they still remained. This marked the end of Reconstruction.
In different states Reconstruction began and ended at different times; federal Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877. In recent decades most historians follow Foner in dating the Reconstruction of the South as starting in 1863 (with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Port Royal Experiment) rather than 1865. The usual ending for Reconstruction has always been 1877. Reconstruction policies were debated in the North when the war began, and commenced in earnest after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863. Textbooks covering the entire range of American history typically use 1865-1877 for their chapter on the Reconstruction era. For example, Eric Foner does that in his general history of the United States, Give Me Liberty!.  However, in his monograph Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988), specializing on the situation in the South, he starts in 1863.