The Multiple Meanings of Military Occupation: A Report from the OAH

The Multiple Meanings of Military Occupation: A Report from the OAH

The United States’ prolonged military engagement in the Middle East has given new prominence and urgency to occupation studies across a wide range of disciplines, including our own. Taking seriously the need to contemplate and reckon with the multiple meanings of military occupation, a panel at the Organization of American Historians’ 2019 meeting, “Between Occupation and Liberation: Negotiating Freedoms across Three Centuries of American Military Occupations,” conceives of “occupation” as a distinctive category of analysis, encouraging scholars to compare race and gender across time and space.

The panel commenced with Lauren Duval’s (American University) paper, “Liberty’s Limits: British Military Occupation and Civilian Freedoms in the American Revolution,” a preview of her book manuscript. In August 1777, a British captain and a local apothecary knocked fists. Far more than a simple street brawl, court martial proceedings revealed the fight as a battle over domestic space and the labor within that space. British occupation during the American Revolution, Duval contends, brought the war home to civilians, disrupted hierarchies, disordered households, and challenged the patriarchal authority of civilian men. The absence of husbands and fathers, coupled with the presence of the British army, gave women and the enslaved an opportunity to change their life’s circumstances by negotiating labor or having social relations with British officers. As hierarchies crumbled, however, traditional means of protection eroded as well, leaving women exposed to sexual abuse or abandonment. According to Duval, occupation was not “a bid for freedom” but rather a period of intensive renegotiation where women and the enslaved could leverage their labor and status amid the chaos of war. Women especially were still held in a position of subordinate dependence, but amid the destabilizing forces of occupation, they could decide who they wanted to be dependent upon.

Andrew F. Lang’s (Mississippi State University) “Emancipation, Martial Discipline, and the Problem of Military Citizenship in the United States Colored Troops’ Civil War” examines the contested place of the United States Colored Troops within the narrative of occupation. According to Lang, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation relegated African-Americans to permanent auxiliary positions behind the lines. Segregated and removed from the battlefield, garrison posts “placed African American troops on the threshold of slavery’s death and within a new birth of racial discrimination.” While fighting to end slavery, African-American soldiers experienced new forms of discrimination in the army. These soldiers, Lang maintains, protested their role as garrison troops, protested pay discrepancies, and protested disciplinary inequalities. Indeed, protest emerges as the central theme of Lang’s argument. Refusing to be subjected to the army’s racial hierarchies, African-American soldiers wanted to be recognized and treated like the citizen-soldiers they were, not like the hirelings or laborers that army policy perceived them to be. Seeking a chance to prove themselves as men and citizens on the field of battle, these soldiers challenged what they considered direct violations of a citizen-soldier’s contract. Most means of resistance were non-violent, but peaceful protest sometimes failed. And, when it did, some African-American soldiers turned to mutiny. It was, Lang concludes, a limited victory. In June 1864, the army instituted an equal-pay provision for all soldiers, regardless of race. While still largely confined to garrison duty, “it appeared that they could successfully undermine the restrictive stigma authored in Lincoln’s Proclamation.”

Moving into the twentieth century, “Occupation’s Diaspora: Alonzo P. Holly and the Global Black Freedom Struggle” uses one individual’s life to consider the broader implications of the United States occupation of Haiti during the 1920s. Placing the Haitian diaspora in an international context, Brandon Byrd (Vanderbilt University) argues that occupation “certainly led to Haitian critiques of Western ‘modernity’ and calls for a return to African culture, [but] it also resulted in new forms of internationalist politics and thought.” As a man well-traveled and well-educated, Holly’s cosmopolitan life took him to Port-au-Prince, New York, London, and Miami. Having spent his life immersed within these African Diaspora communities, Holly actively opposed the United States occupation of the Caribbean and, as an opposing force, advocated for collective black internationalism. Byrd argues that this particular from of black internationalism emerged directly from the experiences of occupation, which had magnified the lingering problems associated with American imperialism. According to Byrd, occupation was, to borrow a phrase from W.E.B. DuBois, “but a local phase of a global problem.” And as such, global problems—racism, imperialism, colonialism—could be addressed at the local level.

Moving beyond the scope of their papers, these scholars placed occupation in the broader historiographical conversation during the session’s closing remarks. Facing a daunting, but revealing audience question—Why occupation?—these scholars contended with the meaning, possibilities, and limitations of “occupation” in American history. Seizing the question, Lang deemed occupation central to American martial, political, and cultural life. It is and was, he argued, an “uncertain but necessary” period “needed to achieve particular goals.” On the flip side of the same coin, leaders were uncertain just how to go about achieving those goals. Emerging from the maelstrom, created by uncertain and undefined objectives, was great dynamism on the ground. Participants, such as African American soldiers and freedmen, had ample room in which to act and redefine their social, political, or cultural roles. As Civil War garrison and auxiliary troops, Lang noted, African-American soldiers were behind military lines—intentionally kept far from the battlefield and far from a chance at battlefield glory—but that, in turn, left them as the vanguard of occupation. Given their unique position as the frontline occupation force, these blue-clad soldiers collapsed slavery from their place inside the South. What was intended by Washingtonians to be a conservative measure instead transformed into a powerful political force in the fight for emancipation. As a “contest of power” and “generative force,” occupation temporarily redefined the meaning of Civil War and Reconstruction for the overwhelming majority of the population. Concluding his remarks, Lang astutely declared that “occupation is normal in the American context, but also exceptional.” Building upon these same themes, Duval emphasized fluidity within the Revolutionary Era household. So, too, as did nineteenth-century soldiers in the USCT, absentee patriarchs, emboldened women, and stirred slaves negotiated and renegotiated their household roles, gender relations, and working conditions during the eighteenth-century British occupation. Diverging from his fellow panelists, Byrd portrayed occupation as a mirror magnifying societal problems, such as oppression, hierarchies, imperialism, colonialism, and other points of conflict on a global scale. And, by illuminating these social, political, and economic woes, occupation presented an opportunity for real change—a chance, however fleeting, for national absolution and redemption.

While defining occupation differently, and rooting their analysis within their own particular field of study, each panelist nonetheless portrays occupation as a fluid and defining moment of untold possibilities and endless potential—a moment worthy of extensive analysis. Few scholars today would disagree. But what, I wonder, about the instance when the troops, be it red-coated British, blue-clad federals, or civilian-clothed officials, took their leave. Then what? Do the changes so greatly fought for and so dearly paid for vanish into the peacetime abyss? The aftermath of occupation was a topic the panelists only briefly mentioned in their admittedly time-constrained presentations. Yet, post-occupation backlash does, in fact, underscore the powerful potential of occupation by demonstrating the strength needed to contain the forces of change unleased by war and its aftermath.

Spanning geographical boundaries and over three centuries, these excellent scholars offer compelling interpretative frameworks and methodological approaches for the future of occupation studies, approaches that will, no doubt, influence scholars of mid-nineteenth-century America as they continue to grapple with the ramifications of the Civil War. It was, as panel chair Gregory P. Downs (University of California, Davis) noted in his opening remarks, a Saturday 8:00am panel that was “well worth not hitting the snooze button” for.

Tracy Barnett

Tracy L. Barnett is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia and a Digital Humanities Research Fellow for UGA’s eHistory. Her primary research interest is the cultural history of the mid-nineteenth-century South and she is fascinated by male behavior—especially the bad and unsavory varieties. Her dissertation, “Armed, Drunk, and Dangerous: White Paramilitary Violence in the Civil War Era South,” is a study of white paramilitary organizations, firearms, and alcohol from the 1840s to the 1870s. She also has a forthcoming article, “Mississippi ‘Milish:’ Militiamen in the Civil War,” that will be published in Civil War History.

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