The Author’s Corner with Hampton Newsome

The fight for the old north state

Hampton Newsome is an independent historian and co-editor of Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans. This interview is based on his new book, The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864 (University Press of Kansas, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864?

HN: I was drawn to this project by the intriguing mix of military and political issues involved with the battles in eastern North Carolina during the first half of 1864. These events, which included Confederate attacks on New Bern and Plymouth, form a compelling story complete with battles on land, naval combat between ironclads and wooden gunboats, Unionist resistance to the Confederacy, and a crucial state election.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864?

HN: In attacking key Union positions in North Carolina during the first months of 1864, Confederate leaders sought to secure vital supplies for Robert E. Lee’s army and to dampen a growing peace movement that threatened to pull the state out of the war. These military operations, particularly the capture of the Federal garrison at Plymouth in April, helped achieve these goals for the rebellion.

JF: Why do we need to read The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January-May 1864?

HN: This book provides an in-depth look into a compelling chapter of the war that has received limited attention in the past. It covers George Pickett’s New Bern expedition, Robert Hoke’s assault on Plymouth, the fall of “Little” Washington, and Hoke’s final approach on New Bern in May. Although the study focuses on specific military engagements, it also sets these events in a broader context. It delves into the gubernatorial contest between Governor Zebulon Vance and William Holden, emancipation in the state, the activities of North Carolina Unionists including those recruited into Federal units, the construction of Confederate ironclads, and Union strategy for coastal North Carolina.

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

HN: Though I’m not a historian by profession, I have a long-standing interest in the Civil War. I’ve always been drawn to learning about battles and campaigns as well as the broader political and social picture behind those events.

JF: What is your next project?

HN:  I’m gathering research on several Union raids in Virginia and North Carolina in 1863.

JF: Thanks, Hampton!

The Author’s Corner with Albert Louis Zambone

daniel morgan a revolutionary life

Albert Louis Zambone is an independent historian and writer.  This interview is based on his new book Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life (Westholme Publishing, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life?

AZ:  a. I was asked to write it.

b. However, this project was a delight rather than an assignment: As a child, the first American Revolution monograph I read was Don Higginbotham’s Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman. Higginbotham so inspired me that I persuaded my mother to make me a hunting shirt so that I could be Daniel Morgan for Halloween. I was astonished to discover that no-one knew who Daniel Morgan was.

c. I’ve long wondered how a few people were able to rise in the status-conscious, hierarchical world of colonial Virginia. When the opportunity to write about Morgan arose, I realized that he was the perfect case study of social mobility in a relatively immobile and hierarchical society.

d. I’ve always been drawn to story, and Morgan’s life is by turns sprawling, romantic, tawdry, tragic, heroic, cinematic, operatic. Once I bit into it I couldn’t let go.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life?

AZ: Daniel Morgan—by turns homeless runaway, illiterate, wagoner, brawler, literate, freeholder, plantation owner, militia captain, victorious general, Federalist Congressman, owner of immense acreage—demonstrates both that colonial America was a time of boisterous, churning possibility and that the Revolution provided yet greater possibilities that would have otherwise been unimaginable. Morgan’s life also complicates the cherished American ideal of individual self-fashioning, illustrating how community, fortune, and place shape individuals.

JF: Why should we read Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life?

AZ: First, it’s a good story, since it’s based on an interesting life. Second, as historians, biographies provide us with a “lab” for testing historical hypotheses. I think Morgan’s life gives us the opportunity to examine everything from the historical geography of the Shenandoah and the status theory of elites, to the radicalism of the Revolution and the eighteenth century market revolution.

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

AZ: Probably when I was about four years old, living in Greenwich, New Jersey, the colonial village a drawing of which decorates your blog. In Greenwich, the past remains a presence, and it captivated me. More importantly, my family encouraged my interest in history, and fed it with book after book. I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history of all kinds, especially the history of early America. Maybe when I was three or younger—as P.G. Wodehouse said, what I was doing before then, I don’t know, just loafing I suppose. Then, for many reasons, I was first trained as European medievalist, and then left it for the history of early America. It felt like coming home—though I think that training as medievalist is the best historical training that there is, as you must interrogate sources of all kinds, learn peculiar technical, and grapple with perspectives unusually different from your own.

JF: What is your next project?

AZ: My colleague Lendol Calder and I are working together on a project that uses his “uncoverage” model of teaching history and historical thinking to create a textbook of American history. Naturally we refer to it as the “untextbook.” After that, I hope to return to thinking about colonial elites in the early American South. I’d like to focus on a family, or several families, in part to explore the change in family life over a century and a half; their cultural inculcation; and their fashioning of the surrounding society, and how it fashioned them. In the meantime, I stay busy at work on my podcast Historically Thinking, found on iTunes and all the other usual places, having conversations interesting people about the fascinating nooks of the past, and how they think about them.

JF: Thanks, Al!

The Author’s Corner with Aaron Sheehan-Dean


Aaron Sheehan-Dean is Professor of History at Louisiana State University. This interview is based on his new book The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War?

ASD: Several years ago, I was invited to write an essay for edited collection on violence in different Civil Wars (Greek, Russian, Finnish, etc.).  The US Civil War was supposed to provide a nineteenth-century example against which the classic civil wars of the twentieth century could be compared.  I expected a challenging but manageable, essay-length project.  Instead, I wrote 20,000 words and realized I had generated more questions than answers.  How exactly did participants in the war balance violence and restraint?  Under what conditions did violence escalate or diminish?  How did the guerrilla war and the regular war intersect?  What kind of violence was committed against non-combatants, women in particular?  Most of the previous answers to these questions have considered only one side of the story – the Union’s – and it seemed to me that any complete answer would have to consider the perspectives and experiences of people on both sides.

JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of  The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War?

ASD: The Civil War was both violent and restrained. This strange mixture of malice and charity derived from the fact that Northerners and Southerners crafted competing moral explanations for how they waged war.

JF: Why do we need to read The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War?

ASD: One of the great appeals of teaching and writing on the Civil War is the huge audience interested in this part of the past.  My hope is that that community of readers will join me in using the history of the US Civil War to think about how we wage war today.  Given that I began this project in 2010, it was clearly influenced by reporting about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  History does not offer easy to follow guides to behavior, but by resuscitating the debates among Civil War Americans about what kind of conduct they accepted in war and what they rejected, it may help us to approach our own actions with greater awareness.  In democracies, the army is an extension of the people and regular citizens as well as soldiers need to think seriously about the moral ramifications of military actions.  Participants in the Civil War did this – Confederates argued with Federals, Republicans argued with Democrats, women argued with men, enslaved people and free people of color argued with slaveholders and army officers.  All these arguments help us see the contours of the conflict in a way that illuminates questions we should continue to ask about our conduct today.

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

ASD: After college I worked on Capitol Hill for US Senator Carl Levin (I am originally from Levin’s home state of Michigan).  During my time there, I began reading more history and also giving tours of the US capitol.  These projects gradually merged until I could only give tours when I could take two hours and lead people through the nooks and crannies of the building (this was pre-9/11 when a staff pass would enable access to the Senate and House floors and almost every part of the capitol).  I found that I enjoyed talking about the American past more than I enjoyed the policy work I was doing as a staff member and so applied to graduate school.  I am still trying to find a classroom as remarkable and captivating as the capitol building but I continue to love the daily process of helping students understand the past and what it means to them.

JF: What is your next project?

ASD: Last Spring, I gave a series of lectures at the University of Florida which will become a short book, entitled Rebels at Home, Rebels Abroad: War and Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century. The project contextualizes the US Civil War around the other ongoing civil and national conflicts of the mid-century: the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Polish Rebellion of 1863, and the Taiping Rebellion. Americans at the time were familiar with all these events and the ways they spoke about them shaped how they understood their own conflict (and vice versa). The US Civil War, as we are now learning, did not happen in a vacuum (no war ever does) and these concurrent conflicts structured how people around the world conceptualized what was happening in North America.

JF: Thanks, Aaron!

“The Strategic Implications of American Millennialism”


After reading this post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, a friend sent me Major Brian L. Stuckert‘s 2008 study of the impact of dispensationalism on American foreign policy.  The paper was written as part of Stuckert’s education at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The paper is over seventy pages long and does a nice job of explaining dispensationalism to a military audience.  Stuckert’s “conclusions and recommendations” for the U.S. Army are worth considering:

“The enemy is a spiritual enemy. It’s called the principality of darkness. We, ladies and gentlemen, are in a spiritual battle, not a physical battle. Oh, we’ve got soldiers fighting on the battlefields, we’ve got sailors, marines, airmen, coast guardsmen out there fighting against a physical enemy. But the battle this nation is in is a spiritual battle, it’s a battle for our soul. And the enemy is a guy called Satan – Satan wants to destroy this nation. He wants to destroy us as a nation and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.” – U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Lieutenant General Boykin, 2003

A 2003 survey found that more than two-thirds of evangelical leaders view Islam as a religion of violence bent on world domination.181 Following the events of September 11, 2001, many Christian opinion leaders began to speak of President Bush’s election and policies as “divinely inspired.” This attitude can present challenges to rational decision making processes. While some political commentators have theorized that the administration’s unwillingness to admit errors is the result of arrogance or political calculation, it is more likely that the administration believes they are doing the will of God and will be vindicated in the end. In other words, intelligence or analysis that seems to support invasions or other administration policies are interpreted as an affirmation of God’s will, while information is to the contrary is viewed with suspicion – perhaps an effort by Satan to deceive or mislead.

As President Carter explained to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, what people believe as a matter of religion, they will do as a matter of public policy.185 There is a tendency on the part of Americans to view foreign policy and international affairs as a “clash of moral opposites.” This tendency may make it difficult for U.S. policy makers and strategists to perceive and act upon subtleties that may lie outside our conceptions of moral absolutes. Military leaders have the difficult task translating this religiously tinged policy into successful strategy and operations. War is primarily about politics. While geography and technology play a role, in order to be successful military leaders must be able to see the political goals as clearly as possible. Because of the influence of pre-millennialism, it can be difficult for military leaders to see themselves and their government accurately and state policy goals objectively.

Because religion in America directly impacts policy, military leaders and planners must learn to recognize the tenets and implications of American millennial thought. Millennialism has always been a feature of the American culture and has shaped not only the objectives of U.S. government policy, but also the way in which we interpret the words and actions of other actors on the international stage. Millennial ideas contribute to a common American understanding of international relations that guide our thinking regardless of individual religious or political affiliation. Millennialism has great explanatory value, significant policy implications, and creates potential vulnerabilities that adversaries may exploit. By gaining insight into and embracing intellectual honesty where our own prejudices and proclivities are concerned, we can greatly improve the quality and clarity of our decision-making.

Pessimism and paranoia are two possible results of pre-millennial influence. In the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, the Joint Staff describes the near-term future as one characterized by “a pervasive sense of global insecurity.”188 There are actually many reasons to trend toward optimism. The U.S. military has no rival and our power is truly global in nature. U.S. military spending always exceeds that of the next several major nations combined. The U.S. military regularly enjoys a position of leadership on the international stage and effectively uses military power to intervene in the affairs of other states. Decision makers should guard against unwarranted pessimism. We should consider whether a contemplated decision or policy is either overly optimistic or pessimistic. Dispensational pre-millennialism typically causes a predisposition toward pessimism in world affairs and a general worsening of international relations. A pre millennial reading of Bible prophecy paints a dismal picture of a world disintegrating toward a cataclysmic end where we are forced to confront the wrath and judgment of God. Assumptions and plans based on this worldview will be less than ideal. 

In the same manner that we so assiduously study the culture and thinking of others,
potential adversaries may study us, to include the ramifications of millennial thought, and gain significant advantages. Millennial thought and its policy implications may create strategic transparency that affords adversaries an advantage in decision-making. In other words, by studying the tenets and predictions of dispensational pre millennialism, one could, to some extent, predict U.S. government actions and reactions. This would certainly prove more useful in areas that figure prominently in dispensational pre-millennialist eschatology, such as Israel. An extension of this strategic transparency might include an ability to provoke or manipulate American policy and subsequent action. With or without the efforts of adversaries, American millennialism may increase the fragility of or even disrupt coalitions. Finally, adversaries could easily transform an understanding American pre-millennialism into a highly effective set of information operations themes and messages or psychological operations efforts to achieve a variety of results with American leadership or the population at large. By recognizing these potential vulnerabilities, American strategists can take action now to mitigate the effects.

Based on what we know about the effect millennialism has on our thinking, we may incorporate additional considerations into policy formulation and evaluation to assist ourselves in the identification of defects, diminished objectivity or unwarranted biases. As a result of millenarian influences on our culture, most Americans think as absolutists. A proclivity for clear differentiations between good, evil, right, and wrong do not always serve us well in foreign relations or security policy. Policy makers must strive to honestly confront their own cognitive filters and the prejudices associated with various international organizations and actors vis-à-vis pre-millennialism. We must come to more fully understand the background of our thinking about the U.N., the E.U., the World Trade Organization, Russia, China and Israel. We must ask similar questions about natural events such as earthquakes or disease. An ability to consider these potential influences upon our thinking may greatly enhance objectivity.

The inevitability of millennial peace through redemptive violence and an exceptional role for America have been and continue to be powerful themes running throughout the security and foreign policies of the U.S.191 Official U.S. government policy expresses these themes in a number of ways from the National seal that reads Novus Ordo Seclorum – the New Order for the Ages – or the nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile known as the Peacekeeper. Whether Americans seek to subdue the continent to realize their Manifest Destiny, conquer the Soviet Evil Empire or rid the world of Saddam Hussein, millennialism imparts an unusual degree of certainty and fortitude in the face of difficult situations. Judis points out that, for the same reasons, millennialism is usually “at odds with the empirical method that goes into appraising reality, based on a determination of means and ends.”192 As demonstrated by American history, millennialism has predisposed us toward stark absolutes, overly simplified dichotomies and a preference for revolutionary or cataclysmic change as opposed to gradual processes. In other words, American strategists tend to rely too much on broad generalizations, often incorrectly cast in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and seek the fastest resolution to any conflict rather than the most thoughtful or patient one.

Read Stuckert’s entire monograph here.

George Washington Did Not Like Military Parades

Bastille Parade

Trump was quite enamored with the 2017 Bastille Day military parade in Paris (via Creative Commons)

I got to know Lindsay Chervinsky a few years ago during my stint as a visiting fellow at Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.  Her book project, “The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution,” is going to make a big splash when it appears in print.  She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

Last week Chervinsky published an excellent and timely piece in The Washington Post titled “Why George Washington rejected a military in his honor (and why Donald Trump should, too).

Here is a taste:

This year, on Nov. 11, the federal government will throw a parade to celebrate the nation’s military past, including period costumes and reenactments from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and both world wars. To accompany the soldiers and veterans, the air will be filled with many generations of military planes. The parade is intended to proclaim U.S. military dominance, rather than the typical somber reflection at the cemetery. A White House report admits that the cost for the celebrations could exceed $30 million.

The significantly expanded parade comes at the request of President Trump, in an effort to one-up the Bastille Day celebration he witnessed last July in France. By celebrating current military strength, rather than honoring veterans’ service, the parade breaks with a long tradition of civilian leadership dating back to President George Washington.

Washington, the first in the pantheon of American military heroes to become president, refused pomp and circumstance as the trappings of monarchy, not a virtuous republic. If the parade occurs, it will demonstrate Trump’s contempt for civilian authority and flout the established governing norms of the republic.

On Oct. 24, 1789, President Washington entered Boston on the back of a large white stallion. This visit was the first time he had returned to the city since the Continental Army had liberated it from the British fleet in March 1776. Washington could have ridden into Boston a conquering hero with full fanfare — parades, feasts, military demonstrations, fireworks, cannons and countless toasts.

Instead, the day before his arrival, Washington pleaded with Gov. John Hancock to limit the celebrations. He then informed Maj. Gen. John Brooks, commander of the Middlesex Militia, that he would not review the militia or observe any special military maneuvers. As a private man, he could only pass down the line of troops assembled to greet him. There would be neither military parades nor any military operations for the newly inaugurated civilian leader.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Andrew Lang

58ed00a62953dAndrew 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!

The Second American Revolution

e82cf-afterappomatoxOver at the Washington Post blog “Made by History,” University of California-Davis historian Gregory P. Downs asks us to remember the Third Military Reconstruction Act (July 19, 1867).

Here is a taste:

Not many of the people who toasted the American Revolution on July 4 will gather Wednesday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a key moment in the Second American Revolution: the long-forgotten Third Military Reconstruction Act passed on July 19, 1867.

It is not hard to see why people celebrate Independence Day and forget the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, even though that period was, in many respects, a Second Founding that re-created the republic and the Constitution. Independence Day kindles thoughts of successful military struggle against a now-foreign enemy in service of famously high-minded ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that make Americans proud.

The Second American Revolution, by contrast, pitted Americans against other Americans, Confederate slave owners, and came on the heels of a bloody conflict that ripped the nation asunder and still sparks conflict today. The Second Founders’ reliance on the military to police society and polling places, rather than to defeat enemies, also makes us queasy. And their foundational documents, such as the Third Military Reconstruction Act, read like enumerations of authority, not eloquent evocations of liberty.

Nevertheless, the events surrounding the Third Military Reconstruction Act may actually tell us as much, or even more, about this country, its potential and its predicaments, than the words penned in Philadelphia. For the act arose from a genuine constitutional crisis — a confrontation between a belligerent president and a cautious Congress over whether generals should follow the law or their increasingly unhinged commander in chief.

Read the rest here.

Downs visited the Author’s Corner on April 27, 2015 to talk about his book After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War.

The Author’s Corner with William Hogeland

Black SnakeWilliam Hogeland is a writer and historian.  This interview is based on his new book Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: When I stumbled over the story of the first war this nation ever fought, I had strong feelings that its obscurity had to be undeserved.  As I began to explore the story and its nuances, that impression only grew.  Not I think its one of the two or three pivotal events of the American founding, and that both its importance and its strange obscurity are revealing of the deepest themes in American life.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: Victory in the war of 1791-1794 to conquer what is now the Midwest — the war in which the nation’s army was first formed, against strong political opposition to forming a national army — ignited American empire. The desire of speculators and developers — George Washington is probably the most famous — to gain possession of that territory had been integral to American independence and American nation; defeating and removing the people of indigenous nations formerly occupying that region begins with the founding generation, and with the Washington administration, and is a hallmark of the republic’s founding. 

JF: Why do we need to read Autumn of the Black Snake?

WH: It’s pretty hard for me to claim that anyone really needs to read my book. I hope the characters, action, and themes I’ve discovered in the story I tell will make it rewarding reading for anyone interested in the origins of the nation and the key issues we continue to struggle with today. 

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

WH: I began telling stories of the American past after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. I didn’t think that project would necessarily continue after my first book, The Whiskey Rebellion, so an exact “why” is hard to come up with, but I was interested at that moment in violence and terror in the American origin story. 

JF: What is your next project?


JF: Thanks, Bill.

The National Endowment for the Humanities Funds “Dialogues on the Experience of War”


Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

This month  Auburn University is ending six-month program called “Dialogues on the Experience of War.”  Veterans and community members have been invited to participate in conversations on World War I and the Vietnam War in six different Alabama communities.

Here is a taste of the program:

The Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities is proud to announce the launch of “Dialogues on the Experience of War,” a reading-discussion program on World War One and the Vietnam War, in six communities throughout the state. The Center was one of 17 recipients of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for programs that bring perspective and context to the experience of war through the study of literature.

The six Alabama communities participating are Auburn, Collinsville, Ozark, Phenix City, Valley, and Wetumpka. The program will begin September 2016 and end March 2017. Veterans and community members are invited to sign-up for the free program by finding their community representative at Recent veterans of the global war on terror are particularly encouraged to participate.

The program provides an opportunity to discuss the experience of war in World War One and the Vietnam War from the perspective of memoir writers and fictional characters in stories and film. World One War resources include the memoir of Congressional Medal of Honor winner John Lewis Barkley, a short story anthology, and the popular 1925 silent film The Big Parade. Vietnam War resources include Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, journalistic account Dispatches, and the Academy Award-winning film Platoon.

Dialogues on the Experience of War is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the Standing Together initiative, which emphasizes the innovative ways in which the humanities can engage military veterans and communities. “Because veterans account for only 7 percent of our country’s population, there is a pressing need for community programs that bring veterans and nonveterans together in conversation,” said NEH Chairman William D. Adams. “NEH’s Dialogues on the Experience of War grants will allow veterans and community members to explore together the experiences of war using humanities texts as the means of deeper understanding.”

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at

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Andrew Bacevich Weighs-In on Trump’s Appointment of Generals to His Cabinet


Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich is an historian of international relations, security studies, and military history.  He is a former Colonel in the United States Army and he is an emeritus professor at Boston University.  He is also a prolific writer and, in my opinion, one of the country’s leading public intellectuals.

Bacevich is troubled by Donald Trump’s decision to appoint generals to high-ranking cabinet positions.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Commonweal: “American Junta.”

First, in contrast to, say, Marshall or Eisenhower, this latest crop of generals to occupy the upper rungs of the national security apparatus includes no one who has actually won a war. True, they have gained vast experience in the management of armed conflict, as their stacks of campaign ribbons and personal decorations testify. But if the ultimate measure of generalship is victory, they have come up short. As Trump himself once remarked, they haven’t “done the job.” So we may wonder what exactly qualifies these particular generals for the various offices to which they are about to lay claim.  

Second, and more importantly, even as he surrounds himself with generals, Trump himself—in contrast to the several presidents mentioned above—gives little evidence of possessing even a rudimentary grasp of the precepts and practices that govern the American civil-military tradition.

That tradition rests on two pillars. The first is the principle of civilian control, which the commander-in-chief asserts. The second is the military professional ethic, to which members of the officer corps subscribe. Yet here too, the president has a role to play, by respecting and therefore helping to sustain the code of “Duty, Honor, Country.”

Adherence to principle and ethic are necessarily imperfect. Some amount of tension between the two is inevitable. But together, they apportion authority and responsibility, establish boundaries, and define distinct but complementary spheres of action. In so doing, they function as twin sentinels guarding against the possibility of the nation with the world’s most powerful military succumbing to praetorian rule.

Whether Trump actually understands the American civil-military compact is an open question.  So too is his willingness to abide by its provisions. Indeed, to judge by statements he made during the presidential campaign, Trump is either ignorant of established practice or simply disdains it.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Jon Scott Logel

DesigningGotham.jpgJon Scott Logel is Associate Professor in the War Gaming Department of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. This interview is based on his new book, Designing Gotham: West Point Engineers and the Rise of Modern New York, 1817-1898 (LSU Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Designing Gotham?

JL: My research into the relationship between the men of West Point and New York City began while I was an American History instructor at the U.S. Military Academy.  One of my additional duties at the Academy was to provide tours of the West Point Cemetery and the various figures interred there.  At the pyramid tomb of Egbert L. Viele, I had to explain that he was a graduate from the class of 1847, served in the Mexican-American War, was the first designer of Central Park, and was a Union general in the Civil War.  It was the phrase “the first designer of Central Park” that left me concerned that I might be em­bellishing Viele’s legacy, especially given the rightful place of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the history of the park.  So in an effort not to be embarrassed while leading tours, I began my research.

The project expanded from Egbert L.Viele into a larger question of what was the relationship between the graduates of West Point and the rise of New York City in the nineteenth century.  Specifically, how were graduates such as Viele, George S. Greene (1823), and Henry Warner Slocum (1852) able to influence the politics, culture, and urbanization that occurred in Gotham from 1817-1898.  What I discovered is that this dynamic relationship of engineering expertise and the rise of the modern city fostered the professionalization of the civil engineering field, and influenced the manifestation of American progressivism at the turn of the twentieth century.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Designing Gotham

JL: West Point graduates who came to New York City before, during and after the Civil War leveraged their professional relationships and military experiences to influence the transformation of New York into a modern metropolis by 1898. Moreover, in New York, these West Point engineers with their city peers contributed to the development of civil engineering, professionalization, and civic administration in the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read Designing Gotham?

JL: Most histories of New York marginalize or ignore the role of West Point graduates in the building and development of the city.  This book not only recovers the experiences of these military figures in the city, it also describes a time when the relationship between American military and American society was more intertwined than today.  The primacy of engineering in the Military Academy curriculum led to an American officer corps that was more pre-disposed to building aqueducts, canals, and railroad than fighting wars.  As a result, military-learned ideas and actions served as the forerunner to the reform impulse that accompanied American urbanization more than a century ago. 

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

JL: In 1998, the United States Military Academy selected me to attend graduate school and then teach U.S. history to the cadets.  For two years I studied at Syracuse University under a cadre of gifted professors.  Scott Strickland, Peggy Thompson, David Bennett, Bill Stinchcombe, Roger Sharp, and Stephen Webb provided a foundation in American history and the finest example of how to be an historian.  At West Point, I became committed to the field and have remained fixed on leveraging historical context for understanding current challenges.

JF: What is your next project?

JL: At the Naval War College we have been experiencing a renaissance in the art of war gaming.  Many leaders in the Navy have looked to the war games of the interwar years as their model for how to be innovative and respond to the prospect of future wars at sea.  My current project seeks to understand the interwar experience of American Naval leaders who studied at Newport and how that experience affected their World War Two actions and decisions.  In many ways, this project is similar to Designing Gotham in that I am seeking to explore the connections between an institution of military education and the outcomes manifest in its graduates.

JF: Thanks, Jon!

The Author’s Corner with Willem Klooster

thedutchmomentWillem Klooster is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Clark University. This interview is based on his new book, The Dutch Moment: War, Trade, and Settlement in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Dutch Moment?

WK: As a Dutchman working on the Atlantic world, it has always been obvious to me that a book focused on the Dutch Atlantic in the seventeenth century – the period in which the Dutch were so active worldwide both militarily and commercially – was missing. Dutch historians dealing with the wider world have traditionally privileged Asia, the domain of the Dutch East India Company, while North Americans have been mostly interested in New Netherland, which was actually fairly marginal to the main developments in the Dutch Atlantic. I felt that it was my task to right this wrong by writing a work that encompassed all aspects of the Dutch Atlantic in that century without making it a textbook.

JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Dutch Moment?

WK: In 3 sentences, if you don’t mind: The mid-seventeenth century formed a specific stage in Atlantic history that was marked by activities that connected the Dutch to other colonial realms, especially the infant English and French colonies that remained afloat in no small part due to Dutch commercial assistance. On the other hand the Dutch Atlantic had a distinctly violent side, as expressed in the endless battles with their Iberian enemies and Dutch relations with indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans. What helped undo the short-lived Dutch empire was not only Iberian fighting power or nonwhite revolts, but eventually the refusal of unpaid and poorly fed white soldiers and sailors in Dutch service to defend the imperial outposts.

JF: Why do we need to read The Dutch Moment?

WK: By following the Dutch around in the Atlantic basin, we get a new perspective on the Atlantic world at large, and not a peripheral one, since the Dutch were so entangled with other empires, either as warriors or merchants. More particularly, the book reveals the pivotal role of Brazil, where the Dutch elites were willing to wage a seemingly endless war in order to control the production of the world’s foremost sugar colony. This war was the largest conflict between European powers in the seventeenth-century Atlantic, which historians have underappreciated.

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

WK: Although my Leiden dissertation dealt with Dutch trade in the Caribbean, it was not a traditional treatment of the flow of goods between colonies and metropole. Both the Dutch and Spanish archives suggested the existence of close, albeit usually illegal, commercial ties between inhabitants of the Dutch colonies and residents of other empires. I had therefore come to see my subject matter through an Atlantic lens by the time I finished my doctorate in 1995. That same year, I came to the United States as a Fulbright student, and soon found myself in the orbit of Bernard Bailyn, precisely when he started to organize his Atlantic History Seminars. I still think of myself primarily as an Atlanticist rather than an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

WK: The next project is already finished: I just submitted the manuscript of The Second Dutch Atlantic, 1680-1815, a book that I coauthored with Dutch historian Gert Oostindie. It picks up where The Dutch Moment leaves off, taking the story of the Dutch Atlantic through the early nineteenth century. During my sabbatical next semester, I will embark on the following project, a biography of a well-traveled French marquis whose life intersects with the Age of Revolutions in surprising ways.

JF: Thanks, Willem!

The Author’s Corner with Stephen Howard Browne

IdesStephen H. Browne is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Advisor for the Rhetoric Minor at Penn State University.  This interview is based on his forthcoming book, The Ides of War: George Washington and the Newburgh Crisis (University of South Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Ides of War?

The Newburgh crisis had always seemed a pivotal but under-appreciated moment in the revolutionary experience. Because it was resolved through the person and the speech of George Washington, it begged for treatment by a scholar in rhetorical studies and early America. It was my great fortune to be in a position to tell a story with all the drama, poignancy, color, and historical richness one could reasonably ask for. So I did!

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Ides of War?

 My central thesis holds that the Newburgh crisis represents a classic confrontation between the rival claims of military and civil authority. Washington, I argue, was the only man living who possessed the character, power, and rhetorical resources capable of resolving that crisis to lasting effect.

JF: Why do we need to read The Ides of War?

Well, if you will forgive the immodesty, I might suggest several reasons.  First, it provides the fullest and most detailed treatment of this crucial episode to date.  Second, it offers a multi-disciplinary examination of both its historical and rhetorical importance.  Third, it corrects conventional views of Washington as reticent, averse to speech, and uneasy with the English language. None of this is true.  Fourth, it is just a great story. Trust me on this!

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

My graduate training and work thereafter have been housed in departments other than history; early on, however, I latched onto the idea that no one discipline owns the subject, and, recklessly perhaps, invited myself to the feast. Far from feeling like a pariah, I have been blessed by a welcoming, instructive, and challenging host of historians ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

My next book project is currently underway and is tentatively titled ‘Beloved Country’: George Washington and America’s First Inauguration. It seeks to tell the story of GW’s trip from Mount Vernon to NYC; features the parades, parties, and rituals of national affirmation that attendant to the journey; and punctuates the narrative with a full-scale treatment the inaugural address.

JF: Thanks Stephen!

The Author’s Corner with Todd Braisted

GrandForageTodd Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association, and on the advisory council of Crossroads of the American Revolution. This interview is based on his new book, Grand Forage 1778: The Battleground Around New York City (Westholme Publishing, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Grand Forage 1778?

TB: I was approached by the Journal of the American Revolution to know my thoughts about a possible series of books on lesser-known campaigns and events of the American Revolution, and what possible topic I thought might be of interest.  That which is little written about or discussed is always of interest to me, as I enjoy learning new things, as opposed to simply a new spin on previously covered events.  The operations around New York City in the second half of 1778 was perfect for that: a plethora of small events that all intertwined as a campaign, but which had never been discussed as such.  I was honored when they agreed to that as one of the two lead volumes of the series.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Grand Forage 1778?

TB: While the large battles are often studied and dissected by historians, the smaller events often fall through the cracks or are ignored. Grand Forage shows how global events and logistics conspired in ways not fully realized by many of the participants then, or by students today.

JF: Why do we need to read Grand Forage 1778?

TB: At its heart, history is made up of stories. Grand Forage uses the accounts, and very often the exact words, of many of the participants of small actions and events not generally seen by the public.  While a battle may mean one thing to a general, the viewpoint of a soldier in the ranks is quite often something completely different.  Those sorts of accounts, culled from period letters, memorials, journals, pension applications, etc. open a window on the past that I believe brings the period to life.  The Civil War has always enjoyed a greater awareness today, in part, I believe, to photographs and an abundance of written material from everyday soldiers.  It makes a connection with people today.  That is a harder task with the American Revolution, where the fashion and language can seem far more archaic and antiquated, making them less well understood or appreciated by a modern audience.  It’s my hope Grand Forage brings this period of history to life for people today, particularly those in the geographic areas where the events took place, which too often are now the scene of urban sprawl.

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

TB: I knew I loved history from the time of grade school.  Growing up in Dumont, Bergen County, New Jersey history was literally everywhere you looked.  Indeed, several houses in town had been plundered and burned during the American Revolution.  The street I grew up on was a major thoroughfare at times for both armies during that war.  In reading the popular histories of the war though, little or no mention was made of these actions and events.  I wanted to dig deeper, and without the filter of modern spin or biases.  I started primary research entering my sophomore year of high school, and never looked back.  Loyalists in particular fascinated me, in part because the field appeared to be wide open here in the United States.  I have never had the opportunity to utilize my knowledge of history as a professional career, but through writing, research, interpretation and preservation, I would like to think I have done my part, in some small way.

JF: What is your next project?

TB: That is already started!  I am the project historian for the town of Fort Lee in researching the history of the 1781 battle there involving about 750 Loyalists & Rebels, an event that almost led to what perhaps would have been the bloodiest local action of the war.  Again, this is one of those little known or studied actions that fascinates me.  The findings will be a part of the National Park Service Battlefield Preservation Program that the town received a grant for in 2015.  After that, it is back to my research roots, i.e. Loyalist studies.

JF: Thanks, Todd!

The Author’s Corner with Peter Macleod

McLeodPeter Macleod is Director of Research at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Canada. This interview is based on his new book, Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution (Knopf, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Northern Armageddon?

PM: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham is the most important single event in Canadian military history. So for an eighteenth-century Canadian military historian like myself, it’s almost impossible NOT to want to write about the battle at some point.

Moreover, I found previous histories of 1759 to be deeply frustrating. There were many fine works by fine historians, but they tended be about the campaign and devote very little space to the actual engagement. I wanted to examine the battle in detail in order to understand how and why it turned out the way it did. In the end, I concluded that decisions by individual soldiers, sailors, and warriors, rather than the efforts of James Wolfe and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, determined the outcome of the battle.

At the same time, I wanted to trace the link between troops exchanging fire and the course of North American history. (Too many military histories simply assert that a given battle is important, without going into detail as to why.) So Northern Armageddon ends with chapters that portray the battle as one event in the transformation of the continent from a Native American homeland to a region occupied by two settler nations, the United States and Canada.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Northern Armageddon?

PM: American soldiers, sailors, and merchant ships played important roles in the siege and capture of Quebec in 1759. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was an American as well as a French-British battle, and influenced the course of American history.

JF: Why do we need to read Northern Armageddon?

PM: To understand how American sailors on the St. Lawrence River and American soldiers fighting a battle on top of a cliff in Canada helped to pave the way for American independence. 

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

PM: I became an American historian as I researched and wrote Northern Armageddon. To my considerable surprise, wherever I looked in I had thought was a French-British-Native American battle I kept running into Americans. The Rangers and Royal American Regiment, I already knew about. But I had no idea that fleets of American merchant ships were sailing up the St. Lawrence, New England sailors were serving in the Royal Navy, and American soldiers were taking their places all along Wolfe’s battle line. Before long, I had reached the conclusion that the attack on Quebec was an Anglo-American operation that would not have been possible without American participation.

JF: What is your next project?

PM: Backs to the Wall: the Battle of Sainte-Foy and the Conquest of Canada, which will be published this fall.

The battle of the Plains of Abraham has an intriguing but little-known sequel. Six months later in 1760, the same French and British armies met again on the same battlefield. This time, the French won a dramatic victory and besieged the British garrison of Quebec. Inside Quebec, British morale collapsed. For a while, it looked as if they might take back the city and overturn the results of 1759. 

The Royal Navy arrived in time to break the siege and American merchant ships resupplied the garrison. But the French victory at Sainte-Foy reminds us that history is not graved in stone.  The Plains of Abraham may be an important battle, but if things had turned out differently in the spring of 1760 it would be a historical footnote.

JF: Thanks, Peter!


The Music of the Seven Years War

laxer-bagpipes-copyOver at Borealia, Daniel Laxer, a recent Ph.D from the University of Toronto, argues convincingly that music was an important part of the soldier experience in the Seven Years War.

He concludes:

Military musicians and their instruments were crucial to the experiences of soldiers and the outcome of battles in the Seven Years’ War. They were the vital conduits of social control, loudly broadcasting the orders of the commanding officers. This military structure was not employed by First Nations warriors, whose alliance was greatly coveted by both sides of the conflict, and whose tactics often relied on stealth and surprise.[15] The major battles of the war in North America utilized standing armies with military musicians. Drums, fifes, and bugles sounded in camps and while marching, and contributed greatly to the din of battle. Bagpipes proved their utility and were employed in subsequent conflicts by the British army. The prominence of military musicians would decline over the following century and a half, as armies changed their tactics with more powerful weaponry and mechanization. Yet in the Seven Years’ War, military instruments were integral because they allowed the officers to command and maneuver armies of many thousands of men. While the marching tunes were often cheerful, the enormous death and destruction wrought by the conflict was anything but; beyond the tens of thousands killed and wounded, entire towns such as Quebec were virtually destroyed and had to be rebuilt. Military instruments were part of the cacophony of destruction, shaping experiences of the war as well as the subsequent musical culture of Canada.

Read the entire piece here.

Quote of the Day

Actually, this quote comes from yesterday (Thursday–January 7, 2016):

The post-Civil War South has been so invested in promoting the Confederacy that it actually named  a military base after Braxton Bragg.  This is a clear example of Confederate heritage trumping mediocrity on the battlefield. 

W. Fitzthugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina at the plenary session on Confederate monuments at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.

The Author’s Corner with Nathan Perl-Rosenthal

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California. This interview is based on his new book, Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Citizen Sailors?
NP: Unusually for a first book, Citizen Sailors did not start out as a dissertation.  I had the inklings of the idea for it while reading R.R. Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolution way back in college.  A footnote to a discussion about connections between the American and French Revolutions got me wondering what role sailors might have played in that story.  It took me more than ten years, dozens of visits to archives and a whole bunch of writing to eventually work out the story that I had to tell about mariners in the revolutionary era, which became Citizen Sailors.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Citizen Sailors?
NP: Citizen Sailors shows how mariners, as trans-national actors, became central to forging the idea of American citizenship during the four decades after the United States declared its independence in 1776.  It argues that sailors helped to create a precociously modern model of nationality in the early republic—nationally administered, instantiated in paper citizenship certificates, and available to men of all races—that for a time challenged the forms of local and racialized citizenship with which we are more familiar in the nineteenth century.
JF: Why do we need to read Citizen Sailors?
NP: You don’t need to, but I hope you will want to.  I wrote the book in dialogue with a number of fields: the history of the American Revolution, maritime history, the history of citizenship, and Atlantic studies.  So if you are interested in any of those areas, Citizen Sailors has something to say to you.  In its most basic sense, this book offers a new account of the long struggle for American independence with unfamiliar protagonists at its heart and an unusual trajectory.  Citizen Sailors is part of a new scholarship that sees the formation of a sovereign American state as among the most important outcomes of the American Revolution.  The book shows how mariners were at the center of the struggle over American sovereignty in the decades after 1776 and were crucial to the United States’ efforts to define individuals as American citizens—or, in other words, to define a new political community.  The United States made itself into an independent nation in good measure by making mariners into American citizens, and protecting those to whom that status had been extended.
At the same time, Citizen Sailors offers the first transnational history of early U.S. citizenship, showing how foreign notions about nationality and international pressures shaped American ideas about citizenship circa 1776 to 1815.  Early American ideas about citizenship developed as much in dialogue with the wider world, I argue, as they did within the confines of the new nation’s borders.  The book also shows, in line with a growing body of scholarship more focused on institution-building, that citizenship in the early Republic was a federal issue—indeed, that the federal government went out of its way to claim and defend seafaring U.S. citizens.  In so doing, it offers a new way of thinking about why sailors mattered in early modern history: not only as central players in protest movements and merchant capitalism but also as co-creators of the modern state.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
NP: Some very wonderful high school teachers engaged me in studying American history, but it wasn’t until my second year of college that I seriously considered it as a career.  (Until then, I thought I was going to be a biologist.)  History as a discipline promised a wonderful marriage of the creative process—forming conjectures about the past and writing about it—with the rigors of assembling documentary evidence and testing hypotheses against it.  After my first time in an archive, I was hooked on that work and the thrills of discovery that you can have in there.
JF: What is your next project?
NP: My next project will be a wide-angle cultural history of politics in the age of revolution, circa 1760 to 1815, which will be related to my dissertation but with a different conceptual framework and a good deal of new research.
JF: Thanks, Nathan!

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