A New Angle on the Freedmen’s Bureau: A Conversation with James Downs

Jim Downs
Jim Downs. Image courtesy of Connecticut College.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

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 James Downs. Downs is an Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut College. He recently published Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012), which tells the largely unknown story of the many former slaves who died at the moment of freedom. Dr. Downs has also published on the representations of slavery in museums and historic landmarks in the United States, England, and the Bahamas. He is currently working on two book projects—the first on the international outbreak of the 19th-century cholera epidemics, and the second on the history of sexuality. The recent recipient of a prestigious New Directions Fellowship, Dr. Downs is spending the 2015-2016 academic year on sabbatical as an Andrew W. Mellon fellow at Harvard University.

CWI: What was the Freedmen’s Bureau? Who operated it, and what purposes did it serve?

DOWNS: The Freedmen’s Bureau was a federal government agency that helped to ease former bondspeople’s transition from slavery to freedom. Established by Congress in 1865 as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land, the Freedmen’s Bureau negotiated labor contracts; established provisional schools; constructed schools and began the first-ever system of federal medical care—building over forty hospitals, employing over 120 physicians, and treating an estimated one million formerly enslaved people. Continue reading “A New Angle on the Freedmen’s Bureau: A Conversation with James Downs”

The Occupation of the South: An Interview with Andrew Lang

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Andrew Lang
Dr. Andrew Lang. Image courtesy of Mississippi State University.

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. Continue reading “The Occupation of the South: An Interview with Andrew Lang”