- Republicanism, Race, and ReconstructionThe Ethos of Military Occupation in Civil War America
In the spring of 1871, the Nation, a leading journal of political and cultural opinion, published an editorial that captured the condition of the post–Civil War South. Reflecting mainstream northern beliefs and citing biracial suffrage, office holding, citizenship, and “possession of common civil rights,” the author applauded the gains of Reconstruction, from which “the negroes and Unionists [are] guaranteed a voice in the Government, [and are] secured in the exclusive control of it.” Another powerful force, however, threatened to impede this progress. The insurrectionary Ku Klux Klan, the author cautioned, had “taken the field against the new regime,” terrorizing African Americans, unionists, and Republican state governments. The Nation thus called upon the federal government to take decisive action, recognizing that such a call to arms raised important questions: Should the United States Army, now composed only of several thousand regular troops stationed in the South, intervene on behalf of law, order, and moral decency, protecting the great social and racial revolutions of 1863, 1865, and 1868? Or, abiding by constitutional tradition, should the peacetime army instead remain relatively idle and demobilized?1
The editorialist explained that the national government did not possess “the duty of protecting life and property” once the individual states had been reconstructed into their original place within the Union. The author warned that any situation in which the army assumed extra-constitutional authority might carry serious consequences. European powers, “if dealing with the South,” would deploy one hundred thousand soldiers to suppress the dissidents, “patrol[ing] the roads with clouds of cavalry, and fill[ing] the streets with swarms of police.” The author remarked that although Americans clamored for a restoration of order, “we [instead] vote a regiment of cavalry or two companies of infantry to put it in motion—that is, about enough men to make one county tolerable safe.”2
While supportive of the improvements made in the South, the Nation remained guarded about the very military intervention that could protect [End Page 559] those gains, conscious of implications that appeared to the writer even more troubling than the threat of the Klan. “If we once get into the habit of treating the Constitution as a mere expression of opinion, to be set aside whenever its observance seems inconvenient,” the author resolved, “we have sown the seeds of anarchy.” Preservation of the American tradition, in which citizens defined the scope of government, necessitated that black and white southerners, buttressed by local and state institutions, should independently solve the region’s violent chaos. Thus, the United States Army “cannot interfere effectively,” the editorial concluded, “and had better not interfere at all.”3
With these words, the Nation revealed a crisis within the nineteenth-century American military tradition, which began during the Civil War and ultimately defined the course of Reconstruction. The army incurred intense examination, and one of the key points of debate related to its role as an institution of military occupation during war and peace. Although the army conducted its first official forays in martial governance during the Mexican-American War, it was not until the 1860s and 1870s that civilians and soldiers began to scrutinize this quickly emerging component of the nation’s military tradition.4
This essay explores how Union soldiers, white and black, volunteer and regular, steered the national dialogue along both ideological and practical grounds, debating how the United States Army should function as a force of occupation in domestic wars and crises. Union soldiers, who served within biracial armies of occupation in both the wartime Confederacy and postbellum South, strove to articulate precisely what military occupation meant in the nineteenth-century American context. The occupiers exhibited a diverse host of opinions, articulating that their peculiar form of service—governing other citizens on American soil during war and peace—was something unique and exceptional in the nation’s short history.5
The American experiment with occupation, as the editorial in the Nation indicated, encompassed two competing forces: republicanism and race. Republicanism defined white Americans’ citizenship, individual liberty, and protection of natural rights by government, while limiting the coercive scope of governing...