Andrew Lang is assistant professor of History at Mississippi State University. This interview is based on his new book, In the Wake of War: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America (Louisiana State University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write In the Wake of War?
AL: Ever since I entered the field of Civil War history, I have been deeply interested in the experience of the common soldier, who lived as an extension of a rich and complicated nineteenth-century America. Historians have produced a remarkable literature on these volunteers, explaining their motivations to enlist, the trials of living as fiercely democratic and individualistic males who served in a hierarchical and disciplined military ethos, the traumas of combat, and their perspectives on Union and emancipation. As a graduate student who came of age during the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I sensed that wars possess a confusing underside, one in which soldiers engage civilians, enact dramatic social and political changes, function as a policy arm of the state, and attempt to shape the conditions of peace in spite of continued insurgent warfare. In short, the US’s current wars revealed the complications of military occupation, which I knew had to have an origins story. Although my book certainly does not gauge the past according to the understandings and biases of the present—in fact, it does quite the opposite—it was nonetheless conceived with an eye toward the questions that we ask today about the military’s role within democratic life. I thus embarked on a project to understand the complicated experience of serving as a volunteer soldier within the ranks of United States armies of occupation during the Mexican-American War, Civil War, and Reconstruction.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of In the Wake of War?
AL: The book argues that the Civil War era ushered in the long age of American wars of military occupation, and the work thus considers these occupations through the eyes of the occupier, revealing dynamic internal wars that were just as complex and consequential as those waged on the front lines. I suggest that the republican military tradition—both the citizen-soldier ethos and the cultural discomfort with standing armies—underwent significant strains from the advent of occupation, by changing the disposition of volunteer armies, in managing the complicated processes of civilian pacification and state-sanctioned emancipation, and in negotiating the confusing dawn of peace during Reconstruction.
JF: Why do we need to read In the Wake of War?
AL: The book aims to link the American Civil War era 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 nation after Appomattox. Exploring how United States soldiers, who symbolized the 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 central problems in nineteenth-century America: the relationship between citizen and government; the tensions between democracy and republicanism; the Union’s perceived exceptionalism; the explosive issue of race in a white democracy; the limits of free-market capitalism; the boundary between formalized and irregular warfare; the place of standing armies in the American mind; and the uncertain role of the federal state in charting the murky transition from war to peace.
The book also reconsiders the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that Abraham Lincoln used to invite African American men to serve in Union armies. The proclamation’s language fit within the context of Lincoln’s anti-slavery politics, white soldiers’ anxieties about serving in armies of occupation, and contemporary questions about the fitness of African Americans for citizenship. Indeed, by placing black soldiers in garrisoned and auxiliary roles, the Proclamation attempted to marginalize the advent of black soldiering. Yet by doing so, African American troops wound up on the front lines of occupation, facilitating slavery’s demise everywhere Union armies of occupation moved. The complexion and purpose of wartime and peacetime military occupations changed fundamentally as African American soldiers embraced military power to occasion decisive social and political changes across the national landscape.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AL: The very first course I took in college was a survey of early United States history. I was captivated by the ideas and presentation. Coinciding with the events of September 11, 2001, which transpired during that same semester, I was drawn immediately to issues of historical context, notions of change over time, and America’s place in the world. Little did I know it at the time, but the professor in that course would become one of my closest professional mentors and personal friends. It was among the greatest privileges of my life to send him a signed copy of my book seventeen years after I took his survey course. I knew that I wanted to pursue the study of Civil War history when, during the summer of 2003, my dad and I took a trip to the Antietam battlefield, a haunting landscape filled not with the glory of the past, but instead with the horrors of a cataclysmic battle. I had spent much of the summer reading on the Civil War in preparation for an upper division course in my recently declared history major. I had thought that I would pursue a legal career, but that day at Antietam sealed an everlasting fascination with the central event in United States history. I have not looked back since.
JF: What is your next project?
AL: I had the good fortune two years ago to be asked by a senior scholar to serve as the lead writer for a co-authored book on the American Civil War in a global context. We have nearly finished a first draft of the manuscript, which argues that Americans of diverse persuasions—Unionist and Confederate, black and white, soldier and civilian—interpreted the coming, conduct, and consequences of the war through the lens of “American civilization,” or what we in the twenty-first century might refer to as “American exceptionalism.” The book argues that the Civil War era can be understood as a crisis of American identity, one that at once considered the United States a unique and chosen nation and one that feared for the United States’ place in a world consumed by perceived radicalism and revolution. Disunion and war resulted from a failure to forge a consensus on the roles of democracy, slavery, liberty, race in a republican “civilization.” The war, its great social changes, and its long aftermath served as referendums on this crisis of “civilization.”
My next individual project, of which I am still in the very formative stages of conceptualization, will be a cultural history of the demobilization of Union armies and the dawn of peace in the weeks, months, and years following the dissolution of the Confederate States of America. While many unresolved issues lingered in the wake of Appomattox, consuming the United States in political turmoil and social violence, the end of formal hostilities shaped how Americans understood life in a republic absent the state-sanctioned violence of public war. Fearing that the Civil War’s continuation beyond the formal surrender of armies might consume the United States in the same chaos and turmoil that plagued wars and revolutions in Europe, Central America, and the Caribbean, the implications of a defined peace directly influenced the foundations of, implementation of, and resistance to, postwar reunion policies. Ultimately, I want to highlight the role of nineteenth-century American fears of a large military state and subsequent commitments to anti-militarization after 1865 in shaping the meaning and process of postwar restoration.
JF: Thanks, Andrew!