The Reconstruction Act is not a single piece of legislation, but rather several acts and supplemental legislation enacted by the US Congress between the years 1867 and 1868, after the American Civil War. The first Reconstruction Act, placed into law on March 2nd, 1867, divided the Confederacy into five military districts, under the command of Union generals. By the end of 1868, a total of four Reconstruction Acts had been enacted, authorizing military leaders to organize, supervise, and assist with registration of African American male voters to help institute new governments within former Confederate states. Other stipulations were also set forth through the Reconstruction Acts, including requirements for rejoining the Union.
Between the years 1865 and 1867, Congress proposed various plans for the first Reconstruction Act. Then president, Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation in 1867, preferring his own plan for reconstruction developed in 1865. Under Johnson's plan, re-establishing state governments was left to white Southerners, offering African-Americans no voice in politics or voting. In effect, Johnson's Presidential Reconstruction plan placed former Confederate powers back in control of Southern governments, with formerly seized lands restored to such individuals. In March of 1867, Congress overruled Johnson's veto and the first Reconstruction Act passed into law.
Upon establishing the first Reconstruction Act and selecting military commanders for each southern district, Congress realized the difficulty commanders faced from resistant white leaders, farmers, and merchants. Each subsequent Reconstruction Act passed by Congress gave military commanders more responsibility and duties with regard to establishing new governments in southern states, as well as establishing requirements for reunification. In short, the four Reconstruction Acts established military districts in the South; demanded new state constitutions, approved by Congress, for all Southern states rejoining the Union; required that all men in all Southern states be granted the right to vote; and required that states ratify the 14th Amendment, which established African-Americans as legal citizens, as a condition of readmission to the Union.
As an era, Reconstruction actually began under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War. The era came to an end in 1877. Between the years 1863 and 1869, numerous constitutional amendments and legislative acts abolished slavery, awarded citizenship to African Americans, and prohibited barring people from voting based on race or previous social station. Primary laws and amendments enacted included the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the four Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868.
Given the volatile and unprecedented era, each amendment and act built on freedoms, laws, and requirements for reunification set forth by Congress. New laws and acts were put in place to address various issues that arose during the Reconstruction Era. On both sides of the debate, the Reconstruction Act presented conflicts of interest and ideology, often resulting in further division rather than resolution between the North and South, Democrat and Republican.