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after appomattox

29 july 2016

I'm no great expert on Reconstruction, but I've read standard histories including Eric Foner's definitive Reconstruction and more specialized books like David Blight's Race and Reunion. I was delighted (and distressed) to add Gregory Downs' After Appomattox to my list. Downs focuses on the political aspects of military occupation of the South in the immediate post-Civil-War period, and also studies the administrative and institutional details of that occupation. I found Downs' approach refreshing. Often there's a tendency either to overlook the role of the military in the Reconstruction period, or at best to treat military force as a kind of tap that politicians turned on and off and applied here and there in pursuit of their ends. Downs presents a more complicated intertwining of military and political dynamics.

If I was distressed to read After Appomattox, it was to be reminded of relentless Southern-white opposition to Reconstruction. In recent months I have been reading several books that were very difficult to get through, and that I was at a loss to treat adequately here: Douglas Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name, Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything, Michelle Alexander's New Jim Crow. One thread that links After Appomattox to all these books is a tenaciously-rooted opposition by reactionary white southerners to freedom, rights, and opportunities for all.

Another, of course, is progress. Downs concludes his book by noting that many opportunities were lost during Reconstruction, leading to nearly a century of segregation and disenfranchisement. But great positive gains happened as well. Freedpeople gained a space to organize politically and economically, and to build new lives and communities. Slavery ended in legal fact and in its most egregious effects (chattel status, prohibition on free movement, corporal punishment). The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments provided an ideal for later advances. Just as the 1950s-70s Civil Rights movement led not to utopias but to great gains, Reconstruction did the same, and it's important to balance disillusionment with appreciation.

Balance is a key theme in After Appomattox. Downs documents how military and political leaders tried to balance war and peace, civil society and military occupation, force and forbearance. In retrospect, Reconstruction seems easy, or at least a lot easier than the Civil War. Just occupy the rebel states with significant force for a long time, remake institutions, and wind down that occupation once the rebuilt institutions are robust enough. In historical hindsight, we often think that effective solutions were staring the victors in the face, and were missed because of lack of willpower – or worse, cynically racist suppression of civil-rights objectives. But Downs shows how several opposed agendas, often with something to be said for each side, could collide in the politics of the late 1860s.

Military occupation, after all, is just that. Troops, relying on the infamous bayonets that became a symbol of "carpetbag rule," dictated the terms of civic life in the occupied South, and ran a rough-and-ready justice system. Downs makes the intriguing point that "martial law," a term often invoked during and just after the Civil War, has very little agreed-upon meaning even among legal scholars. It boils down to "might makes right," constrained by an often-nebulous sense of "honor."

Honor can be in the eye of the beholder. Most occupying commanders saw a white population hell-bent on re-enslaving freedpeople, or failing that, using violence and fraud to create a new repressive caste order. Conversely, whites who resisted occupation saw the occupiers as despotic and rapacious. The real issue of course was that many of the occupying troops were African-American, and a prime goal of the occupation was to protect the safety and rights of African-Americans. That in itself, to their former masters, was inherently dishonorable and dishonoring.

As a result, the occupation, even when mainly defensive in nature, was utterly unacceptable to most of the white population, and they were going to resist till it was overturned. The Army's options were a state of perpetual counterinsurgency, or gradual retrenchment and ultimate withdrawal. Downs shows that even Radical Republicans did not have the stomach for perpetual counterinsurgency: the political willpower, perhaps, but not the financial stamina.

Fiscal concerns led to very uneven occupation. Many rural areas of the South never truly felt federal military enforcement. Freedpeople tried to get to the cities, railheads, ports, and other concentrations where soldiers were reliably stationed to enforce their rights. But as quasi-peacetime dragged on, those posts became fewer and further between. Downs treats this logistical aspect of the occupation extremely well, with access to archives and digital maps that vividly show the advance and retreat of federal power.

And Downs shows how occupation raised genuine questions about freedom and self-governance. The arbitrariness of martial law was anathema to small-r republicans of both parties. Consensus developed around a solution that involved guaranteeing constitutional rights, including the ballot, to freedpeople – and then stepping back and letting freedpeople claim their own place in a free country. Those who thought they could simply declare equality and then leave the South to its own devices now seem pretty naïve. But when faced with perpetual intransigence, there may be no good options.

An often-abstruse argument that Downs charts is that over the duration of the War itself. Did it end at Appomattox, or at later surrenders in North Carolina or Texas? Did it end in 1866, when President Johnson and Congress said it did for some technical purposes, or in 1871, when Georgia's federal legislators were finally seated? Could military courts function in peacetime? Could war persist when no regular troops faced the occupiers? These seem like technicalities, but they worried many decent and principled Union men. If you could maintain military control over civilians indefinitely in peacetime Alabama, you could do it in Chicago or Pittsburgh or Manhattan. The price of freedom, to some, seemed like eternal coercion. "By facing the force that undergirds our most precious rights, Republicans confronted truths we might rather ignore," says Downs (252). That they ultimately failed to reach some magical resolution of this dilemma is no disgrace, because we haven't really solved it either.

Intransigence continued for decades and continues today. In the wake of the Civil War, many Southerners wanted to shut down public-school systems rather than integrate them (or even to pay for separate-and-unequal education for blacks). Many Southerners today, with plenty of allies in the North, want to starve public education by punishing "underperforming" schools that, for all their underperformance, offer poor children of all races their most substantial opportunities in life. Voting rights, seemingly definitively won after the Fifteenth Amendment and then definitively re-won after the Twenty-Fourth and the Voting Rights Act, have been eroded by gerrymandering and Voter-ID laws. The struggle oscillates, with every progressive advance a little farther and more permanent. But the struggle continues, and ground gained in theory is often lost in practice until the next set of major reforms. The South has never completely acquiesced.

Downs, Gregory P. After Appomattox: Military occupation and the ends of war. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. E 668 .D74

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