For most history buffs, the Civil War’s sesquicentennial ends on Thursday. That day in 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Appomattox. Most historians, though, acknowledge that the war’s most ambitious aim—full equality for black citizens—took many more years to accomplish, and even continues. But in his new book, After Appomattox, historian Gregory P. Downs makes a far bolder claim. Appomattox hardly ended the war: A full-scale military occupation continued for at least another five years, and without it, slavery may have persisted far longer than it did. Almost 100,000 Army soldiers remained in the South through the end of 1865, Downs meticulously documents, with up to 20,000 troops stationed there until 1871.
For decades, historians have brushed off this military presence as meaningless—by comparison, 1 million Union soldiers were in the South just before Lee’s surrender. But in After Appomattox, Downs makes the case that the final end to slavery, and the establishment of basic civil and voting rights for all Americans, was “born in the face of bayonets.” Put simply, the military occupation created democracy as we know it. Downs’ book couldn’t come at a more opportune time, as American forces once again face the difficult question of how long, and to what ends, an occupying army must stay in conquered territory. After more than a decade of fighting abroad, we may be too war-weary to see that military occupations are sometimes a good, even necessary thing.
Downs begins his account by pointing out that even after the Confederacy surrendered, slavery was not yet legally abolished. Congress may have passed the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, in January of 1865, but to become law three-fourths of state governments needed to approve it. The surprising hero here is President Andrew Johnson, who assumed office after Lincoln’s assassination on April 14. Though Johnson’s administration would quickly turn out to be a disaster for black civil rights, he played a critical role in ending slavery. Johnson claimed that as president, he had sole authority to end the war and would do so only if Southern states ratified the amendment. It was not an empty threat, thanks to those 100,000 federal troops instituting martial law in the South.
Johnson’s strategy worked: Seven of the 11 former Confederate states ratified the amendment by December of 1865. Yet the immediate aftermath also revealed just how tenaciously white Southerners held onto racial domination. Almost as soon as the occupying forces left, the states that formally abolished slavery began enacting Black Codes that made a mockery of freedom. Local Southern lawmakers denied blacks the right to testify in court, to vote, to own property, to move about freely without arrest.
In addition, newly formed white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia, manned by ex-Confederates, terrorized black communities, often with the aid of local residents and the police. Over three days beginning on April 30, 1866, white residents in Memphis killed 46 black men, raped six black women, and burned more than 100 black schools, homes, and hospitals. In July of 1866, 1,500 whites ruthlessly assaulted a group of 200 black federal soldiers that marched in New Orleans to support the state constitutional convention. Within moments, 34 black men and four whites were killed.
The federal government’s inability to stop the violence exposed the futility of a hasty withdrawal. Having pulled back the military from states in exchange for self-rule, there was little the federal government could do. Moreover, after strong-arming Southern states to pass the 13th Amendment, Johnson was eager to call the war over. But the Republican-dominated Congress resisted; what ensued was a colossal two-year battle between the Congress and the president over who had the ultimate authority to end the war. The Constitution said nothing on the matter, only dealing with foreign wars. Amid the legal confusion, Congress essentially arrogated the war powers to itself while Johnson—backed by the Supreme Court—did the same for himself. Congress saved the occupation, Downs argues, by reclaiming war powers in 1867. Had Congress relented to Johnson and accepted his peace terms, the South would have rejoined the Union without having to lift a finger on civil rights.
Yet in the crucial years between late 1867 and 1870, something remarkable happened. After Radical Republicans took control of the military, they reimposed strict martial law throughout the South. They doubled the number of troops from 10,000 at the end of 1866 to 20,000 a year later, where it remained for the next few years. They also demanded that Southern states hold new state constitutional conventions that included blacks in the process. Meanwhile, Congress passed the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed blacks basic civil rights like equal protection before the law, directly challenging the Black Codes. Stealing a line from Johnson’s playbook, Republicans offered Southern states an end to the occupation in exchange for approval of the 14th Amendment. By November of 1868, all but three states—Virginia, Texas, and Mississippi—had accepted.
The holdouts would have been wise to take the bargain. By the end of 1868, the far less forgiving Ulysses S. Grant was elected president. Confident that the former general would not fight with them over war powers, Radical Republicans avoided declaring peace and, in 1869, passed the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed blacks the right to vote. The remaining three states, plus Georgia—whose elected officials didn’t get to Washington in time to be sworn in in 1868—had to adopt the amendment for the occupation to conclude and to have their elected officials seated in Congress. Not until Georgia grudgingly accepted these terms in February of 1871 did the war truly end.
Downs hasn’t broken new ground with regard to the political battle between President Johnson and Congress. Where he has made an extremely valuable contribution is in detailing the precise dimensions of the military occupation. Historians of the post–Civil War period—aka Reconstruction—have been chary of studying the military’s role, in large part because Southern apologists have used it to claim themselves the victims of an overzealous federal government. But Downs isn’t bowed and is the first to tally the exact number of troops and where they were stationed throughout the occupation.
The brilliance of Downs’ argument is that he steals the central complaint of the apologists, yet reverses the conclusion: The federal government was overzealous—and that was a good thing. Congress had to impose martial law in order for blacks to gain basic freedoms. If military officers sometimes vacated racist local laws, if they removed ruthless sheriffs and judges, if they tried white supremacists in unfair military tribunals—all of which they did—they did so for necessary ends. Equality would come to the South no other way.
But if Downs has produced a remarkable, necessary book, he hasn’t produced an infallible one. His argument is cogent yet not entirely convincing. The military occupation may have been necessary, but it was not sustainable. As Downs illustrates, Northerners tired of the war quickly, voting out of office Republicans who supported a prolonged occupation. Meanwhile, white Union soldiers wanted nothing more than to go home after Appomattox, which left black soldiers to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the occupation. One thing that the occupation didn’t do—and, to Downs’ credit, he doesn’t say it did—was inspire the white backlash. From the moment troops began leaving the South in late-1865, white Southerners began stripping ex-slaves of any rights they tried to claim. The occupation was the consequence, not the cause, of Southern resistance.
But was the occupation a success? If you replace the word “occupation” with “Reconstruction,” it’s a question historians have been debating for decades. Downs essentially sides with the success camp. And when you read about the remarkable achievements of black men like Robert Smalls, it’s hard to disagree. Smalls was among the 76 black delegates chosen to take part in the South Carolina state convention in 1868. Only six years earlier he had been enslaved, earning his freedom by stealing a Confederate ship and piloting it to the U.S. Navy. The state constitution he helped write was remarkably progressive: It overturned the state’s Black Codes, enfranchised all black men, and created a public school system open to all people regardless of color. None of this, Downs convincingly argues, would have been possible without the military occupation, which helped register and protect black voters.
But it’s difficult not to let the immediate aftermath of occupation color your judgment. In November of 1870, one day after the army left Laurensville, South Carolina, thousands of whites got on horseback and murdered 12 black men, including a newly elected black legislator. Similar campaigns of terror occurred wherever and whenever the military left. In Georgia, Congress briefly pulled back the military after its first biracial elections in 1868. The result? Elected white officials refused to sit their elected black colleagues while 400 white vigilantes massacred 20 black men for marching in a political parade. Throughout the South, whites immediately voted black and white Republicans out of office, electing dozens of klansmen in their place. Without the military there to protect black rights, they crumbled almost as quickly as they were erected. That makes it hard to praise the occupation, one that left no durable peace. And it also raises the question: Are occupations that seem as though they must last forever even worth it at all?
After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War by Gregory P. Downs. Harvard University Press.