Some have adopted extreme views of Reconstruction, even during Reconstruction itself, which have painted it as a vengeful punishment which the North inflicted on the South following the Civil War or, on the other hand, as a noble, even if perhaps misguided and obviously failed, attempt to reform the South along more egalitarian or even industrial lines. Others have conceded that Reconstruction is not accurately described by either of these extremes but was the best that could be done given the circumstances the nation found itself in. On the contrary, however, Reconstruction, when viewed in its totality, instead seems to be, like much else that results from the unique politics of the United States, a sort of compromise situation which satisfied almost nobody and disappointed nearly everybody. As a result, the legacy of Reconstruction is, like Reconstruction itself, a haphazard mix of positive and negative.
Although Southerners tended to view Reconstruction as an exercise in revenge on the part of the North, the reality is that there were very few punishments put on even the highest levels of Confederate leadership. For instance, although some Confederate leaders, such as Jefferson Davis, were jailed for a short period, none of the highest ranking or most important Confederate leaders nor average soldiers of the Confederate military were tried, convicted, or punished for treason, although there were voices in the North that wanted them to be. The worst punishment against those who had supported and worked within the Confederacy was to be barred from voting, but even this punishment was removed after only a few years.
Similarly, although many Northerners and some Southerners, especially the carpetbaggers who moved from the North and the scalawags, viewed Reconstruction as an attempt to reform the South along industrial and egalitarian lines, and although some historians have also painted Reconstruction this way, this is hardly an accurate portrayal of the full width and depth of Reconstruction. Rather than any attempt to fundamentally alter the Southern way of life, the larger part of Reconstruction was an attempt to reattach the South to the Union in as expeditious as a manner as possible. Particularly under President Johnson, this often meant conceding to Southern demands even against the interests of the greatest defenders of the Union, members of the Republican Party, and the newly freed blacks of the South.
Because of the haphazard nature of Reconstruction, in which concessions rather than the real interests of either side generally predominated and in which the interests of the weaker and less respected members of society, especially blacks, were often forgotten and rolled over, the legacy of Reconstruction is in large part one of division and necessary reform deferred. While the Union had the ability to integrate freed slaves and other blacks more fully into American society, giving them a place in the political, economic, and social fabric of the country, prejudices and personal political concerns prevented this from happening. Similarly, the Union could have sent a much stronger message to Southerners through adequately punishing former Confederate leadership and those who violated the civil rights of blacks following the war. Had the government done this and enforced the law properly, the entire era of Jim Crow laws, lynching, and segregation could have been prevented, as could many of the socio-economic ramifications of this era that continue to this day in the United States.
The Reconstruction failed to meet the needs of the nation at one of its most important junctures. In short, like much in American politics, the Reconstruction was largely a series of concessions and attempts at middle ground that in trying to please everyone satisfied no one. Had a stronger leader taken charge after the death of Abraham Lincoln and carried out a process of Reconstruction that met the needs of the United States at that time, many more years of hardship and conflict in the United States could have been prevented.