Summary of what end did LEGALLY (which is NOT the same as "how it changed people's lives"... see on that below):
13th - end of slavery
14th - former slaves recognized as citizens AND kept certain leading Confederates out of power
15th - right to vote to former slaves
What they actually did --
(A) 13th Amendment (end of slavery)
First, a semi-side note -- one answer apparently meant to inform us that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves. Actually, he's wrong on two counts. Not only has he confused the Proclamation (a Presidential act) with the 13th amendment (an act of Congress and state legislatures), but he knows nothing of the actual effects of the Proclamation. It INCLUDED the order for the military to carry it out -- which they did very effectively, so that ALL the slaves in the Confederacy had been freed by the war's end (last reaching Texas on June 19, 1865... thereafter declared "Juneteenth" in celebration). In fact, 180,000 had served in the Union army by war's end (kind of hard to do if you are not free!!)
One reason I issue these corrections (aside from being fed up with ignorant anti-Lincoln smears) is that the 13th amendment itself DID not free very many slaves.... since the Emancipation Proclamation and the emancipation acts of loyal border states had already done that, with the exception of a few in Kentucky.
But what it DID do was provide a legal GUARANTEE of freedom and that slavery would not return. (Since the Proclamation was a military action some might have tried to take it to court, arguing that it should be suspended once the war was over. The 13th amendment removed that possibility.)
What it did NOT do was guarantee any OTHER rights. Since Andrew Johnson didn't care much about the civil rights of blacks (UNLIKE Lincoln), he allowed Southern states to adopt a "minimalist" interpretation of the amendment, and winked at their new "black codes" which severely limited the rights of the freedmen (even making it easy to arrest them for vagrancy... which THEN allowed them to treat some as virtual slaves, since forced labor was permitted for convicted felons). Part of this was out of FEAR that this huge group of largely uneducated group (mostly so because Southern laws had prevented their education) being suddenly freed would go out of control, take jobs from poor whites, perhaps seek revenge on whites, and generally throw Southern society into chaos.
Thus, the 13th amendment DID protect the 'freedom' of most, but with severe limitations. In fact, bogus arrests for vagrancy, imprisoning for debt and ridiculously long sentences for minor crimes enabled Southern states, via their prison systems, to use a portion of the black population as virtual slaves -- chain gangs for state work and rented out to plantation owners, etc. This practice was gradually stamped out in the early TWENTIETH century... The last state to end the practice (Alabama) did so in 1928.
(B) 14th Amendment (U.S. citizenship)
When, under Johnson's plan, Southern states quickly , "Radical" Republicans were soon joined by moderate and conservatives AGAINST Johnson... and further acts were taken to try to guarantee real rights.
One of these actions was the 14th amendment, which specifically REVERSED the Dred Scott Decision's declaration that blacks could not be U.S. citizens, and announced their full rights as citizens. It did not specifically assure the right to vote, but it DID provide that any state that PREVENTED a portion of the male population from voting (indirectly referring to blacks, esp. former slaves) would lose that proportion of its representation in Congress. (This provision was rather cumbersome -- no method of enforcing it was ever decided on, much less carried out.)
But again, the amendment of itself was not enough to protect freedmen's rights. This required federal statutes and actions -- esp
1) the sending of the military into the South to defend "Reconstruction" governments (which included a number of blacks, Unionist Southerners [most of whom had always opposed secession] and transplanted Northerners [smeared as "carpetbaggers" only there to make a buck, though MOST of them were responsible and sacrificed to REBUILD the South])
2) specific provision of support for the freedmen (beginning with the "Freedmen's Bureau"), assisting them in finding their families, finding work (and negotiating contracts), and protecting their rights in court
3) support/pressure for universal education, including of blacks
This amendment, together with these other federal actions including the military support of state governments), DID change many lives in the first decade after the War. And SOME of these effects lasted, perhaps most of tall the expansion of education, even when the old Southern elites returned to power and sought to undo much of "Reconstruction" (though note that the amendment by itself did not accomplish these things).
But not all of these changes did last... esp. as in the 1880s-90s Southern states began to pass "Jim Crow" laws that treated blacks differently ("separate but equal" was the claim). The federal courts even allowed this (the hallmark case being Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896)... Blacks did not make major headway in these areas again until the 1950s-60s, when the federal government together with the civil rights movement, overturned Jim-Crow policies.
(C) 15th Amendment (right to vote)
Congress had expected that Southern states would respond to the 14th amendment by extending voting privileges to all blacks. But this amendment INSISTED on that, specifically requiring that the right to vote could NOT be withheld from any man on the basis of race or 'former condition of servitude'. This idea had gained steam in the North during the war as many saw how valiantly former slaves fought for the Union and how critical their efforts were to victory. But there was also the notion that the LONG-term protection of the basic rights of blacks could only preserved if they themselves had the power of the ballot.
So long as Northern troops supported the state governments, a large number of blacks DID exercise this right across the South (mostly voting Republican), and a number were voted into public office. Open resistance to this (and other exercises of rights by blacks) was led by the KuKluxKlan, though they were effectively put down by Grant, with strong Northern support.
Unfortunately, other white-only groups acting more subtly (some doing so by less violent means, or covering their tracks better) were able in the 1870s to neutralize much of the black vote... through simple fraud (such as ballot-stuffing and creating ballots with SYMBOLS to look like Republican ballots [e.g., Lincoln's face] to fool illiterate black voters) and intimidation, which including riots and lynchings of key Republicans (both black and white).
These methods were so effectively used in Mississippi in 1875 (abetted by Grant's hesitation at sending in more troops and pro-white groups offering false assurances that they would not attempt to prevent blacks from voting) that they were spread to the remaining "unreconstructed" states as the "Mississippi Plan" in the 1876 election, which effectively brought an end to Reconstruction.
Even so, in the late 1870s many Southern states allowed blacks to stay in government and showed some restraint and protection for black rights (Hayes had sought such assurances, which were offered and for a time honored).
But increasingly various means were used to try to EXCLUDE blacks -- not only fraud and some violence, but legislative means, including literacy tests (with "grandfather clauses" that permitted illiterate whites who had PREVIOUSLY had the right to vote to continue to do so) and poll taxes that poor blacks could not afford.
Again, these tactics would effectively curtail black voting for several decades, till the post-World War II era in which the federal government took new steps to assure voting rights (including also a Constitutional amendment to disallow poll taxes).
In short, these amendments DID make significant changes in the lives of African Americans --indeed FAR more than any other country has ever done or attempted to do in quickly extending rights to those who were recently serfs or slaves. But prejudices and various strategies severely limited the EXERCISE of the rights announced in these amendments. Yet the gains that WERE made (such as in EDUCATION). the fact that these amendments existed, and other necessary changes in American SOCIETY, eventually allowed for a much fuller realization --a century later-- of the promises these words contained.
Answered By: bruhaha - 12/5/2007