- In the Wake of War: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America by Andrew F. Lang
In the Wake of War: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America is an exceptional work and a major addition to the burgeoning literature on the Union military occupation of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Military historians focus overwhelmingly on where the action was: the battlefields on which the war was won and lost. Andrew F. Lang examines where the action was not: the mostly tedious, unromantic, and unsung duty of occupying strategically important sites in the Confederacy. Despite the greater lethality, most Union soldiers preferred service in the field armies. It was the type of service they imagined when they enlisted, and it accorded with their image of a citizen-soldier. Occupation duty, which entailed control of the local population and enforcement of the changing social order, flirtations with illicit trade, and no-holds-barred clashes with guerrillas, did not fit that image. In fact, such duty seemed more suited to a standing army, something that most mid-nineteenth-century Americans still regarded as alien to the nation's ideals.
Troops thought assignment to occupation duty made them second-tier soldiers: the top tier belonged to soldiers in the field armies. Partly for that reason, white volunteers rejoiced when the Abraham Lincoln administration authorized the formation of African American units but consigned them largely to garrison duty (something the Emancipation Proclamation made explicit), [End Page 187] thereby freeing up more white men for service in the field. Second-class status was demeaning to white volunteers but seemed wholly appropriate for the U.S. Colored Troops. Widespread was the assumption that black southerners were ideally suited for such fatigue duty because they were accustomed to the climate and to hard labor. Equally widespread was the stubborn conviction that black men would not make good combat soldiers, despite ample evidence to the contrary. But inarguably most widespread was the view that placing African Americans in the perceived second tier of military service affirmed the racial order.
African American soldiers understood what white people thought about them, and they naturally resented it, particularly the skepticism about their combat value. They did not, however, see themselves as second-tier soldiers but rather as black men helping midwife the birth of the postemancipation order. Occupation duty did not strike them as work suited to a standing army but rather as that of citizen-soldiers, though they had their own ideas about what the term entailed. African Americans, Lang writes, "embraced the opportunities of occupation, enforcing their conceptions of liberty and challenging planter legitimacy" (pp. 160–61). Occupation afforded them "the opportunity to cleanse the South of its slaveholding character, to eliminate the symbols of white supremacy, and to erase the artifacts of plantation life" (p. 173).
With the end of the war, white citizen-soldiers soon went home, leaving the regular army and African American volunteers to occupy the South. Lang argues that the U.S. Colored Troops would have been far more committed to postwar occupation, but the high command, seeking to avoid interracial trouble, consigned the black troops to the West, leaving Reconstruction in the hands of white troops who found the work distasteful.
Throughout the book, Lang makes use of republicanism as a major component of his interpretation, but I found this argument neither convincing nor necessary. The book would be just as strong without it.
Combining thorough research, lucid writing, and unusually perceptive analysis, In the Wake of War is one of the best books on the Civil War to appear in recent years.