This month marks the 150th anniversary of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House, an act we remember for ending the fighting of the American Civil War. Then came Reconstruction, an era of legal reshaping that would continue until a compromise following the presidential election of 1876 gave the White House to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for a cessation in federal enforcement of the rights of the nation’s black citizens.
In After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War, historian Gregory Downs calls for a revision to the familiar timeline outlined above, arguing that 1865 marked not an end to the war but a transition to a long second phase of ambitious military occupation. The Civil War couldn’t end with Appomattox, he shows, because slavery itself had not yet ended, and continued bondage throughout the South ensured the need for military force to finally make good on the freedoms won:
Destroying slavery and constructing freedom depended upon the military’s authority to override state laws, displace judges and sheriffs, arrest outlaws, proclaim emancipation, oblige planters to provide contracts, transfer freedpeople’s legal cases to military-backed courts, and try violent white Southerners in front of military commissions—in short, to run an occupation of the South that would have been illegal in peacetime. From that occupation would emerge new rights, new governments, and a newly expanded democracy. Constitutional protections that we still take for granted—due process, equal protection, birthright citizenship, the vote—were by-products of martial law.
Looking at the period after Appomattox in this way entails a general reconsideration of both how we define war and how we describe the time that comes after fighting but before peace. As Downs writes, the Civil War went not straight from conflict to reconciliation but from battle time, to postsurrender wartime, to peacetime:
For four years, between 1861 and 1865, the United States waged an open, flagrant war against the Confederate rebellion. But the United States remained in a state of wartime for three years after surrender in some rebel states and for more than five years in others before finally returning to peacetime in 1871.
Statistics regarding U.S. Army deployments from 1865 to 1870 were a critical source for Downs as he pieced this past together, and through his work he compiled a database of troop movements culled from tens of thousands of documents. Along with Scott Nesbit, University of Georgia Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities, Downs has made that information available via Mapping Occupation, both an interactive tool for viewing and interacting with dynamic mappings of U.S. Army posts and a portal for directly accessing the underlying data.
This past weekend Eric Foner, dean of Civil War historians, wrote in the New York Times of “Why Reconstruction Matters,” and of how many of the debates and issues dominating American politics today echo those with which the nation was preoccupied in the years after the Confederate surrender. With After Appomattox and Mapping Occupation, Downs better equips us to learn from that past, plagued as it was by institutional and legal collapse, questions of popular legitimacy, financial issues, demobilization of the army, and outbreaks of violence from paramilitary groups. Indeed, his work resonates for all wars where the cessation of military battles and the transition to peace defies our greatest hopes of smooth passage.