01
Dec 17

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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20
Oct 17

Writing Hood’s Texas Brigade: Books on Civil War Soldiers and Families

Over the last fifteen years, historians have increased their focus on the indelible link between Civil War military units and their families and home communities. This connection played a defining role in soldiers’ decisions to volunteer, to continue or abandon their military service, and veterans’ ability to adapt to postwar life. While historians have recognized the influence of regional and cultural traditions, class, and age in shaping enlistment or desertion patterns, it is only recently that scholars have come to appreciate the significance of Civil War units as communities in their own right that reflected the values of the families and towns in which they were raised and to which many of them returned.

As a war and society scholar by training, my research and writing were first influenced by this new approach to Civil War unit histories about ten years ago. Early drafts of my book Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit focused on traditional questions of military service: Why did these men volunteer? Why did they continue to serve? What drew them to this unit? What motivated them in combat? What made this such an elite brigade? How did the war change these men? I came to realize, though, that while I was studying the men in battle, in camp, and on campaign, they focused instead on events at home. They worried about their wives managing their farm, the diseases that plagued their children and livestock, and economic devastation that could follow poor crops and worse weather. Texas Brigade soldiers certainly discussed the war and what it meant to them, their families, and their communities. They struggled to describe the horrors of a battlefield and the fear and exhilaration combat inspired. But this was only a part of their wartime experience. To capture the full picture, I realized that I had to study their families and home communities too. Not just their socio-economic backgrounds, but rather the familial and community connections that I saw reflected in their companies, regiments, and brigade. I noticed references to men on neighboring farms in letters home, and how casualty lists often predicted long term economic as well as personal hardships for entire communities. Only by incorporating these issues could I understand the Texas Brigade’s full experience in the Civil War.


Seeking the help of other scholars, I turned most often to these books (and sometimes to conversations with manuscripts in progress) while writing Hood’s Texas Brigade:

Ward Hubbs’ Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community (University of Georgia Press, 2003) and Richard M. Reid’s Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Ward Hubbs and Richard Reid were models of the argument that, when analyzing a Civil War unit, scholars must examine soldiers and their home communities as one entity. Companies and regiments become their own communities, but their families constantly pulled on them, supported them, and inspired them. A volunteer’s civilian roots, Reid and Hubbs remind us, could infect soldiers with petty grievances, but they also offered a much-needed support structure and could inspire a tremendous willingness to sacrifice.

Lesley J. Gordon’s A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2014) examines a unit known during the war for their failures rather than their successes. But through the veterans’ and their families’ efforts to reclaim their honor and redefine their service, a broken unit became a celebrated regiment.

In Shades of Green: Irish Regiments, American Soldiers, and Local Communities in the Civil War Era (Fordham University Press, 2017), Ryan W. Keating rightly argues that it was connections to soldiers’ home communities, more than their ethnic traditions, that proved their strongest motivating influence.

In General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (Free Press, 2008), Joseph T. Glatthaar analyzes the socio-economic influences, political connections, and relationships between officers and men that helped make the Army of Northern Virginia so successful but that also sowed the seeds of its defeat.

These works influenced my conclusion that when we study Civil War soldiers’ military service, it’s not just their service that we need to understand. Units raised from neighborhoods and small towns were reflections of their families and the entire community. When regiments were celebrated or castigated in the press or long after the war, so too were the families and communities from which they came. Sweeping studies of Civil War soldier service and motivation like James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades or Kenneth Noe’s Reluctant Rebels were path breaking, but historians are right to now argue that service in specific units and a man’s home community could have just as much influence on a soldier’s wartime behavior than the more commonly studied factors of age and socio-economic background.

In the Texas Brigade, for example, men volunteered to serve over a thousand miles from home despite the fact they could have fought much closer to their homes without dishonor. They returned to their brigade after capture or wounds despite the unusually high casualty rates their regiments suffered, and they made these dangerous decisions when desertion rates in the army overall were rising. The officers and men of the Texas Brigade expected much from each other and gave much to each other, they came from families who were able to sustain that level of sacrifice. These men returned to communities where the brigade’s veterans and families continued to support one another long after the war ended. They remind us that this new approach to writing unit histories — which examines the interconnected experiences of soldiers, families, and home communities — is essential to more fully understanding the Civil War generation.


Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D. is author of the forthcoming Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit with LSU Press. She is professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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