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”