Friday, February 9, 2018

Review of Lang - "IN THE WAKE OF WAR: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America"

[In the Wake of War: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America by Andrew F. Lang. (Louisiana State University Press, 2017). Hardcover, photo, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:249/336. ISBN:978-0-8071-6706-9. $47.50]

The subject of Civil War occupation has been a major part of numerous publications from Stephen Ash, William Freehling, Mark Grimsley, Christopher Phillips, Judkin Browning, Gregory Downs, Joseph Danielson, and many other notable Civil War historians. Needless to say, it's a broad area of study, and scholarly emphasis varies widely between these established works. Andrew Lang's In the Wake of War: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America adds its own fresh and insightful take on the topic, examining in depth the ideological collision between the requirements of wartime occupation and traditional assumptions regarding the proper role of the citizen-soldier in America's wars.

The American experience during the colonial and Revolutionary War periods instilled in its body politic an abiding mistrust in European-style standing armies and military garrisons. Citizens came to tolerate the maintenance of a small professional U.S. Army during the Early Republic and antebellum eras, but only as frontier protection and for garrisoning coastal forts. Rather than being widely supportive of a professional officer class and large permanent army, the American republican ideal of military service involved citizen-soldiers (officers and men) called to arms only in moments of great crisis. Serving largely under their own terms as free and equal white citizens of a republic, these disinterested volunteers would submit to the needs of the nation only as long as it took to defeat the enemy, then they would return home. While in the service, they would be respectful of the lives and property of non-combatants and refrain from interfering with the structure of society. As Lang's study demonstrates, all of these ideological tenets would be challenged by the American Civil War experience and its demands for large-scale military occupation.

In the Wake of War begins with an overview of the U.S. military's first great war of occupation, the 1846-48 conflict with Mexico. During that period, garrison duty represented the sole wartime experience of many volunteer regiments. In that capacity, citizen-soldiers who to a man volunteered to fight the national enemy in the field instead found themselves distastefully tasked with regulating civilian lives, enforcing martial law, guarding supply lines, and fighting insurgents. As Lang discovered, these volunteers raised practical and ideological objections to occupation duty consistent with those Civil War soldiers would make more than fifteen years later, the notable exception being that the hostile population in Mexico was foreign and of a different race. Lang does note that U.S. soldiers in Mexico and Union soldiers in the American South sometimes used similar language in describing local populations as lazy, ignorant, and culturally and economically backward, but there is an interesting body of scholarship (for instance, the work of William Shea and others in documenting the reactions of northern soldiers exposed to white society along the Ozark Plateau in Missouri and Arkansas) showing that northern impressions of southern society were often expressed in correspondence using repugnant terms similar to those previously reserved for a presumed inferior racial "other."

Before moving to more ground level aspects of his study, Lang offers readers a solid macro picture of Union occupation strategy during the Civil War, a coordinated effort that overall proved successful in balancing the needs of rear area pacification with frontline manpower. By the war's midpoint, over 40% of the total strength of the Union army was tied down in garrisons, making occupation duty the primary military experience of a great proportion of its citizen-soldiers. The author puts many of their most thoughtful concerns regarding behind the lines service to great use in the text, clearly outlining to the modern reader in what ways many volunteers felt the duties of occupation clashed with republican ideals of military participation. Even so, one has to wonder just how pervasive such thoughtful moments of philosophical contemplation truly were in the Union Army as a whole.

Regardless, the book does make clear that many Civil War soldiers identified occupation duty in the South with traditional views on the threats to liberty imposed by standing armies. Lang's study finds that even the most enthusiastic rebel-haters were nevertheless often deeply troubled by their roles in regulating the lives of free citizens, seizing or destroying private property, and breaking up societal institutions. In their view such actions, even when admitted to be at times necessary, both "corrupted" the republican citizen-soldier ideal on an individual basis and threatened free society as a whole.

Static garrison duty was perceived as debasing citizen-soldiers and their self-respect in other ways, too. Most readers are familiar with the literature of the illicit cotton trade, but Civil War garrison soldiers engaged in a myriad of 'informal economies' for personal gain. Viewing the war itself as cheating them of invaluable time and opportunity for career development, many serving volunteers felt free to engage in any economic activity of their choosing (even it is meant stealing) if the army wasn't going to require their presence at the fighting front. Others adopted the opposite position, believing soldiering for pecuniary gain corrupted the particularly cherished republican ideal of the disinterested volunteer and comprised an act undermining of both virtue and discipline. These conflicting expressions of American individualism were at odds throughout the war.

How counterinsurgency campaigns in occupied areas were conducted was another source of collective unease according to Lang's study. Arbitrarily governing civilian lives and commerce, constantly invading home spaces, destroying or confiscating private property, and killing suspected guerrillas or their civilian supporters without due process—the despised traits of despotic standing armies of occupation—caused garrison troops to question their idealized citizen-soldier conventions and romantic conceptions of war. Similarly, military emancipation directly conflicted with the conservative ideal that citizen-soldiers did not interfere with or make fundamental alterations to the structure of civil society. When it came to traditional American military culture, the irregular war and emancipation in particular caused soldiers to reconsider their belief systems.

Of course, one prominent group of Union soldiers had no qualms at all about abandoning republican traditions when it came to the preferred relationship between citizen-soldiers and society. While often expressing their own preference for active service at the front, black Union soldiers made the most of their opportunities as garrison troops to destroy slavery and all of its physical reminders, punish slaveholders, and reshape southern society. In Lang's estimation, United States Colored Troops used civil control, active patrolling of the countryside, and counterinsurgency operations to create their own citizen-soldier tradition, one that placed societal transformation at its very heart. This black enthusiasm for occupation and all it entailed carried over into the Reconstruction period, when freedmen and ex-USCT soldiers filled the ranks of state militia units serving at the behest of Republican governors. However, these all-black militia units came to be judged (often unfairly and from afar) by most northern and southern whites as more destabilizing than the civilian mobs and paramilitary forces they were created to combat, and they were ultimately dissolved. In Lang's view, the failure of biracial occupation (through a lack of enthusiasm on one side and perhaps too much on the other) during Reconstruction signaled "broader national commitments to antimilitarism and the principles of constitutional republicanism" (pg. 209) over racial equality.

In its examination of military occupation during the Civil War and Reconstruction, In the Wake of War powerfully underscores differences in contemporary white and black attitudes toward what the army's role should be (and could be) in changing society. Drawing upon strongly held fears of standing armies and garrisons dating back to the Revolution along with cherished citizen-soldier traditions developed since that time, white Americans recognized the need for a garrisoning presence in the South to both maintain control of conquered territory during the Civil War and enforce Reconstruction policies afterward but were deeply mistrustful of its potential for despotism. Southern blacks (and their ex-slave and freeborn northern allies) took the opposite view, understandably considering long-term military occupation to be a key pathway to gaining and maintaining black freedom and rights of citizenship. USCT units during the Civil War and Reconstruction-era black Republican militias alike relished their opportunity to contribute to the destruction of slavery and all its remnants while also using their military power to help impose equality on a biracial society and actively suppress local white resistance. However, Lang's book shows that these clashing citizen-soldier traditions, one old and conservative and the other new and revolutionary, could not co-exist at the time, and Americans as a whole ultimately chose "faith in democratic majority rule and self-determination at the ballot box ... over the idealism of racial equality" (pg. 235). The author is likely correct that proponents of the "lost moment" school of Reconstruction too often overlook the unshakable hold ideas of limited government and fear of domestic military intervention had on nineteenth-century American culture, but everyone can certainly recognize the bitter essential irony underpinning the events of the period, when there was widespread recognition of the necessary requirements for implementing and maintaining the loftier goals of the Civil War and Reconstruction only to have the very tools needed to achieve them voluntarily withheld.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blogger ID not required, but if you choose not to create one please sign your post with your name (no promotional information, please). Otherwise, your comment and/or link may be deleted.