Military Occupation, Emancipation, and the Civil War: Essential Scholarship

Historians of the American Civil War have authored an impressive and increasingly complex history of the common soldiers who waged the conflict. Explaining soldiers’ motivations to enlist, charting their steadfast commitment to the respective national causes, unfolding their multifaceted views on race and emancipation, and placing citizen-volunteers within their mid-nineteenth-century world, the rich scholarship on soldiering during the Civil War seems remarkably comprehensive. My new book In the Wake of War: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America draws on this resonant scholarly tradition to investigate how United States soldiers understood the era’s wars of military occupation, the layered conflicts waged well beyond the front lines. The book contends that military occupation—a central and contested component of our modern military tradition—is not a dead artifact of the American past.

In the Wake of War engages the perspectives of United States soldiers who served in three separate yet intimately connected military conflicts: the Mexican-American War, Civil War, and Reconstruction. The book thus aims to link the American Civil War to its broader cultural context, revealing how the events of 1861 to 1865 were shaped by a military ethos that preceded secession and which continued to influence the dawn of peace after Appomattox. The book argues strongly for the continuity of republican military culture from which historical actors gauged military occupation at once against the citizen-soldier tradition and the long-standing fears of standing armies, each of which posed significant implications for the conduct of occupation, the composition of volunteer armies, and the processes of state-sanctioned social and political change.

Approaching military occupation through the eyes of the occupier—rather than the occupied— reveals a war within a war, a conflict fraught with its own unique traits and spirit. These wars of occupation were just as complex, dynamic, and consequential as those waged on the front lines. Exploring how United States soldiers, who reflected the broader society from which they came, interpreted occupation on both ideological and practical grounds reveals an in-the-ranks perspective on an unprecedented role of American armies in international and domestic wars and crises. This history of military occupation thus reveals how occupation brought soldiers face-to-face with a host of critical problems in nineteenth-century America: the relationship between citizen and government; the balance between republican corporatism and democratic individualism; faith in the exceptional nature of Union; the complications of race in a white democracy; the intricate negotiation of gender roles; the limits of free-market capitalism; the boundaries of restricted warfare; the military’s simultaneously celebrated and ambivalent place in international affairs and domestic life; the role of standing armies in the American imagination; and the uncertain scope of the federal state in the nebulous transition from war to peace.

In the Wake of War contributes especially to a time-honored conversation on emancipation—particularly Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—and the enlistment of African American soldiers into Union armies. Race emerged as a central feature of the occupation experience. The book engages how the Proclamation spoke to white anxieties about military occupation, which shaped how African American men were integrated into federal armies and how they designed their own conceptions of military service and the purpose of military force.  The mass enlistment of African American soldiers pushed white leaders to define service in auxiliary forces along lines of race. The politics and rhetoric of emancipation served to confine black troops to limited roles, including the “dishonorable” duties of service behind the lines. Yet in so doing, black soldiers emerged on the front lines of occupation, using their new-found martial authority to great advantage in unbalancing traditional power dynamics in the South. African American occupiers defied the racial status quo and, from the points of their bayonets, destabilized the very society once guilty of their enslavement, underscoring the stunning impact of wartime emancipation.


While the act of writing history is often a solitary and sometimes lonely exercise, I am grateful to the community of scholars who have so richly influenced In the Wake of War. The following books (in addition to so many others) have shaped my own historical philosophy and have underwritten many of the arguments in the book.

Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011). Perhaps no other scholar has shaped my thinking on Civil War history more than Gary Gallagher. Emphasizing the idea of Union—the loyal citizenry’s conception of the American republic as the world’s unique experiment in democratic republicanism—Gallagher’s work reminds us that the Union’s war was conducted on the basis of limitation, guided by a degree of restraint, and always measured with an eye toward peace and a restoration of the republic. Emancipation, death of the “Slave Power,” and the enlistment of African American soldiers emerged as unanticipated but critical elements in this war for Union. Gallagher’s insistence on the contemporary power of Union in the loyal imagination, coupled with his belief that military institutions and affairs should assume a central place in our narratives, guide the intellectual basis of In the Wake of War.

Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 1995). Grimsley’s book was one of the first to treat Civil War-era military occupation as a problem of federal policy. Exposing the complex nature of waging wars against hostile civilians, Grimsley demonstrated the profound challenges of employing volunteer soldiers in nineteenth-century wars of invasion and occupation.

Stephen V. Ash, When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865 (University of North Carolina Press, 1995). Published the same year as Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War, Ash’s treatment of occupation focuses primarily on the social and political changes incurred at the southern grassroots. Like Grimsley, Ash compelled scholars to see how Union occupation unleashed rival power dynamics in the Confederate South and layered the region with competing loyalties contingent on proximity and reach of federal armies.

Mark E. Neely, Jr. The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction (Harvard University Press, 2007). Like Grimsley and Ash, Neely’s work sought to rewrite old Lost Cause narratives that indicted the Civil War as an unlimited total war. Placing the conflict within broader hemispheric, cultural, and racial contexts, Neely encouraged readers to see that the Civil War’s white combatants placed remarkable restraints on their conduct, limiting and reducing the scale of wartime devastation. The book, like In the Wake of War, suggests that American conduct during the invasion of Mexico was far different from that which occurred during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

William W. Freehling, The South vs. the South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2001). While I relied on the expansive literature concerning the processes of emancipation and the enlistment of African American soldiers into Union armies, no book sparked my thinking on the Emancipation Proclamation like Freehling’s work. Freehling pushed me to read deeply into the Proclamation, locating obscure and subtle meanings in Lincoln’s call for black troops, the implications of which shaped how occupation unfolded during both the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Mark Wahlgren Summers, The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2014). Like Gallagher’s work, Summer’s treatment of Reconstruction understands the concept of Union as the driving force of mid-nineteenth-century life. Occupation in the transition from war to peace thus inhabited a foreign space for loyal citizens who looked with skepticism at a powerful, expensive military state managing political affairs and regulating social conditions in the guise of what they imagined as an imposing standing army. Such institutions were antithetical to the very idea of Union preserved during the war.

Gregory P. Downs, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard University Press, 2015). Arguing that the war continued in a legal form in the months and years after Appomattox, Downs sees United States Army that occupied the southern states as the central institution in preserving the promise of emancipation. Only the army, as an extension of the federal state, could manage the chaos of Confederate defeat and provide critical safety to freedpeople embarking on new lives of liberation. But Downs recognizes, much like Summers and myself, that the very military power necessary to manage a robust occupation was stripped by a broader culture of democratic republicanism that looked askance at powerful domestic military institutions.

Andrew S. Bledsoe, Citizen-Officers: The Union and Confederate Junior Officer Corps in American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2015). I went to graduate school with Drew Bledsoe, with whom I have spent untold hours discussing the culture and ideology of the citizen-soldier in the early American and Civil War experiences. My understanding of citizenship, volunteer soldiering, and the republican military ethos—hallmarks of both his and my books—are drawn from our many conversations about the existing literature.

Numerous scholars recently have published excellent books on military occupation during the American Civil War. I have benefited greatly from their work and our mutual conversations. They all deserve mention here because their scholarship assumes a prominent place in the framing and conclusions of In the Wake of War.

  • Judkin Browning, Shifting Browning: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 2011)
  • Bradley R. Clampitt, Occupied Vicksburg (Louisiana State University Press, 2016)
  • Joseph W. Danielson, War’s Desolating Scourge: The Union’s Occupation of North Alabama (University Press of Kansas, 2012)
  • H. Dilbeck, A More Civil War: How the Union Waged a Just War (University of North Carolina Press, 2016)
  • Earl J. Hess, The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (University of North Carolina Press, 2012)
  • Michael D. Pierson, Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

Andrew F. Lang is assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University.

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