The Author’s Corner with Gregory P. Downs

Greg Downs is Associate Professor of History and Doctoral Faculty at The City College of New York. This interview is based on his new book, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard University Press, April 2015).

What led you to write After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War ?

GD: In my previous book, Declarations of Dependence, I had explored North Carolinians’ responses to a wartime and post-war government that seemed at once to be newly present and frustratingly out of reach. I argued there that popular encounters with expansive yet also limited wartime and postwar governments prompted a lost moment of popular hopes for government assistance. But the limited reach of government meant that people generally did not make claims systematically or bureaucratically but instead personally and eccentrically, asking for favors in return for love or prayers. 

As I finished that book I wanted to know more about the actual reach of government into the Southern countryside after the end of battlefield fighting. And I was interested in the burgeoning literature on the difficulty of running occupations. An essay I wrote on Albion Tourgee led me to think through his idea that the federal government had failed to provide the necessary tools for an effective occupation of the South.

So I began with the notion that I would write a history of the failed occupation of the South. I supposed I would quickly find the concrete information about where the Army was located and in what numbers and then would leap from that to an examination of the ideological, financial, and logistical limits on the occupation.

Instead, however, I discovered that the data on the Army’s presence after the Confederate surrenders was very thin, often based on scattered Secretary of War reports. I could not use it to answer the concrete question I began with: How many people lived in proximity to federal soldiers? For how long? And with what effect?

So I began to try to find out that information. At first I ran into many dead ends . Then, with the help of gracious archivists at the National Archives, I was able to narrow my primary search down to runs of about 100 boxes each in two different series in the National Archives.

Most of these boxes were full of monthly and trimonthly reports that had not been opened in decades. Many had notations from an effort to refile them and were still tied with decaying red string.

As I began to untie those strings, my assumptions unraveled. For as I began to make notes about the presence of outposts, I realized that the Army occupied far more places than we had thought in a much more geographically ambitious occupation than I had imagined. Eventually I found that the Army had occupied for at least a month more than 750 outposts in the ex-Confederacy. That data, as well as interactive maps built upon it and the list of boxes I drew information from, are all available at, a digital site constructed by Scott Nesbit and the University of Georgia Digital Humanities Lab, with support from the ACLS.

After Appomattox followed from my need to make sense of this data that did not fit scholarly assumptions about the Army’s role in Reconstruction or about the geographical reach of Reconstruction. I soon discovered that the Army was a much more significant and often transformative force than the much better studied Freedmen’s Bureau. And this was well known at the time. The extension of wartime to conduct an occupation of the rebel states was a crucial and bitterly divisive political question, one that fractured Republican coalitions and created unusual alliances of seeming Radicals like Thaddeus Stevens and seeming moderates like William Fessenden.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of After Appomattox?

GD: Instead of ending with Confederate capitulation in 1865, the Civil War entered a second phase then which lasted until 1871—not the project euphemistically called Reconstruction but a state of genuine belligerency whose mission was to shape the terms of peace. Using its war powers, the U.S. Army oversaw an ambitious occupation, stationing tens of thousands of troops in hundreds of outposts across the defeated South in order to suppress further rebellions, end slavery, and, eventually, create meaningful civil and political rights for freed people in the face of rebels’ bold resistance.

JF: Why do we need to read After Appomattox?

GD: After Appomattox aims to change the debate about Reconstruction, from one focused on ideological limitations to one that takes seriously the question of government power and efficacy. If we assume the federal government could accomplish whatever it willed, then it makes sense to read backwards from the failures and disappointments of government to find the ideological or personal limitations that caused those outcomes.

But that skips over a crucial question in 19th century governance, not just in the United States but around the world, as scholars like Charles Maier and Jurgen Osterhammel and C.A. Bayly have explored. States during this era faced severe crises of authority as they at once were expected to exercise new forms of sovereignty over their peripheries but also lacked reliable technological advantages over their subjects and citizens. By placing U.S. Reconstruction within this ongoing global struggle over the reach and efficacy of central governments, I aimed to ask new questions about the practical sovereignty of the United States. Treating outposts as pockets of sovereignty–in what Kate Masur and I call a Stockade State–I study the geography of power, in which army zones of control ended in contested zones and then in regions almost entirely out of government control. This spatial view of government builds upon the imaginative work on zones of sovereignty by scholars like Lauren Benton.

This viewpoint also allows me to explore the troubled and troubling relationship between force and freedom. For Reconstruction was not just a test of beliefs; it was also a test of brute strength. Freedom, in 1865, and rights, after 1865, had particular geographic meaning based upon the subjects’ proximity to federal officials willing and able to force white Southerners to acquiesce to their recognition. In turn this micro-interdependence between force and freedom fueled a similar story at Washington D.C. There, Congress increasingly had to rely upon the tools of war, including martial law and military supervision over governments, to change the Constitution. In ways we don’t always acknowledge, our basic rights are themselves products of martial law.

If we lose track of the interdependence of force and freedom, we can make a series of mistakes about Reconstruction and about governance generally. If we make freedom or rights of free people a piece of portable property that individuals carry or consume, we misunderstand the bleak fact that freedpeople taught to soldiers who in turn taught it to politicians: Freedom depended upon access to force. Freedom was only possible–for all people not just for freedpeople–within the arms of a functional and forceful state. If we do not keep this in mind, it is easy to turn a liberation story into a libertarian story. Instead, I trace the ways that freedpeople sought access to a government powerful enough to call upon for the assistance all people–even we contemporaries–need to make our rights felt. More broadly, if we lose track of this connection between force and freedom, we underestimate the ongoing requirements of defending rights. By their nature rights have to be defended with the threat of force; they cannot be defended solely by autonomous legal processes that lack that access to force nor can they be defended by rhetoric. To their credit many 1860s Republicans came to understand this bleak fact and sought desperately to construct usable governmental systems to protect rights against forceful infringements. In some crucial ways they did not succeed, but their efforts are useful reminders to us as we confront the rollback of certain civil and political rights today.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

GD: My family is from central Kentucky, quite near Lincoln’s birthplace. One version of a family story suggests that the Lincolns moved away, in fact, because they couldn’t stand some of my ancestors, which wouldn’t surprise many people who know us! More seriously the past felt very present in my life as a young person, in the form of public monuments like the Lincoln birthplace and like the Civil War cannonball “preserved” (actually reinserted) in a building across Elizabethtown town square, and in the stories of my grandparents, lifelong Kentuckians.

In seventh or eighth grade, an English teacher named Alys Venable gave me Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and T. Harry Williams’ biography of Huey Long, and from that moment I knew I would write about the past in one form or another. For a while I thought I would do so through both fiction and history. I attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and published a Flannery O’Connor Award-winning book of short stories, Spit Baths, in 2006. These days I only write history, in part because I have become so excited about what is possible in history writing that I have no mental space left over for fiction.

JF: What is your next project?

GD: I have a couple of projects that I am working on. One puts the U.S. Civil War in a sequence of revolutions that emerge out of a mid-century crisis in Spain and Spanish America. I want to follow up on the ideas raised in my AHR article “The Mexicanization of American Politics” and to follow the interconnections between mid-century stability crises in the U.S., Mexico, Spain, and Cuba. I am also trying to historicize the occupation of the ex-Confederacy by placing it within a 19th century world of occupations, and to shake the shadow of 20th century occupations that have in key ways over-influenced our understanding of Reconstruction’s boldness.
JF: Can’t wait to hear about your findings! Thanks Greg.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

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