Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with Andrew Lang, Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University. Lang is the author of Waging Peace in the Wake of War: United States Soldiers, Military Occupation, and the American Civil War Era (currently under contract with Louisiana State University Press), as well as several scholarly essays.
CWI: What roles—political, economic, social—did the U.S. military play in the reconstruction of the South during the postwar occupation of the region? What was the nature of its interactions with Confederate veterans? With women? With free blacks? What regional variations did members of the U.S. military encounter during its occupation of the South in the Reconstruction era?
LANG: The U.S. military played a substantial role in the Reconstruction South. Following Confederate surrender, the Army was demobilized at a stunning, rapid pace, yet the institution retained important war powers which had guided Union arms to victory during the Civil War. In many ways, the Army assumed peacetime responsibilities with which it had rarely before been tasked, especially in politics and civil-military relations. The American tradition had long viewed a powerful military establishment, wielding strong political, economic, and societal influence, with suspicion. And yet it seemed that Union victory would not be assured without a substantial military force to maintain peace in the wake of wartime destruction while also ensuring the safety of freedpeople, southern Unionists, and Republicans who inhabited the South in the months and years after Appomattox. Serving as a formal peacekeeping force, overseeing elections and constitutional conventions, regulating local courts, policing the countryside, and engaging in a degree of counterinsurgency, the Army was perhaps the most important institution in the South during the Reconstruction era. This was true especially in managing the post-emancipation order. After playing a key part in the processes of wartime emancipation, the Army performed a crucial role in running the Freedmen’s Bureau, safeguarding African American rights, negotiating labor contracts and challenging the re-authorization of old planter regimes, acting as a buffer between freedpeople and former slave owners, and serving as a refuge to which freedpeople, notably women, could turn to report white transgressions and violence. As with most military occupations, the Army found that its presence in the South was welcomed warmly in some places and with much more hostility in others. Southern Unionists—white southerners who had opposed the Confederacy—as well as those pockets of the South that had long been under wartime military supervision, welcomed Union soldiers as forces of stability and protection. Some white southerners got along amicably with Union occupiers, while others expressed abject hatred and defiance, usually in areas hardly touched by Union patrols or in regions of formerly concentrated slave holding. Ironically, some evidence suggests that former Confederate soldiers—but certainly not all—were inclined to give Union soldiers the least amount of trouble. However, the occupiers eventually learned that some of those who had once filled the ranks of rebel armies were also those who joined the clandestine terror organizations that spread political and racial violence across the region.
CWI: What challenges did the U.S. military confront during its occupation of the South? What problems did occupation solve, both short-term and long-term in the postbellum South, and in what ways did the ultimate withdrawal of the U.S. military leave unfinished work for future generations? What were the long-term impacts of military occupation on national Reconstruction efforts?
LANG: The project of postwar occupation was, in many ways, a process both of nation-preserving and nation-building, both immensely complicated tasks. Restoring the Union, the principal aim of the North, was secured on the battlefield during the Civil War, but ensuring that the nation never again collapsed under the weight of rebellious forces was an unprecedented task. Wading into the uncharted waters of domestic peacetime military governance posed myriad challenges, especially since both the victors and the conquered, as well as a now formerly enslaved people, would continue to inhabit the same nation. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson both possessed relatively lenient and conservative visions for the process of reconstruction, which conflicted with Congress’s more rigorous, transformative aims. Ultimately, the U.S. Army implemented Congressional Republicans’ mandates for the rebellious states: managing constitutional conventions, keeping the peace on election days, and enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment. While the Army complied with Congress, always careful to maintain the tradition of civilian control over the military, officers and soldiers expressed generally tepid, ambivalent views about such unprecedented civil tasks. Perhaps one of greatest complications of the entire process of Military Reconstruction was balancing the republican tradition of a small, detached standing army while also helping to create a broader base of democratic participation. In the short term, the Army indeed succeeded in these endeavors, helping to create revolutionary conditions for freedpeople to vote and hold office. In the long term, however, a large, robust, continued occupation was not palatable to a nineteenth-century American society steeped in the traditions of limited government. The Army was thus simply not equipped—both in terribly low numbers of manpower and monetary aid—to battle white southern insurgents bent on “redeeming” the region through campaigns of violence and intimidation. Ultimately, and ironically, the Army was hamstrung by the very principals for which the Union had been preserved: republicanism and the limited influence of federal institutions.
CWI: What role did military occupation of the South play in public memory, both north and south, of the Reconstruction era?
LANG: Public memories have certainly shaped perceptions of Reconstruction, arguably to a greater and more troubling extent than many other topics in American history. William Dunning, a professor who taught at Columbia University in the early twentieth century, trained a cadre of students who interpreted Reconstruction as both a foolish and oppressive northern experiment in punishing a defeated and humiliated South. Declaring that the former Confederate states suffered under the weight of a widespread and despotic “bayonet rule,” the Dunning School painted a picture of United States soldiers, in the hundreds of thousands, trampling across the South, stripping rights from white citizens, and perpetuating a devastating, unwarranted military regime, which propped up an undeserving new class of African American politicians. Even before the Dunning School foisted this now defunct and long discredited interpretation, American popular culture was treated to similar portrayals in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), a silent film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan’s martial exploits in ridding the South of African American rule. Professional historians writing during the Civil Rights Movement, however, and taking a lead from W.E.B. DuBois’s fierce opposition to Birth of a Nation and the Dunning School, successfully dismantled interpretations of Military Reconstruction that reigned in the early twentieth century. Yet, some public misconceptions—indeed memories that have been long shaped by elements of popular culture—continue to inform perceptions about Reconstruction, some of which reflect the on-going debates about the Confederate flag, the causes of the Civil War, and the meaning of its aftermath and legacy.