Occupation of the South

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The only Americans, other than American Indians, who ever experienced extended, large-scale enemy occupation were the people of the Confederate South. The "enemy" was the U.S. army, which set forth in 1861 to conquer the Confederacy and force the seceded states back into the Union. Over the next four years, the Union army occupied large sections of the Confederacy, especially in Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas, along the Mississippi River, and on the Atlantic coast. Many important Southern cities were captured, including Nashville, New Orleans, and Atlanta. Union troops in the invaded regions eventually numbered over half a million.

When the Civil War began, Northerners, including President Abraham Lincoln, believed that most Southerners were not "Rebels" at heart, but instead had been deceived into supporting secession by scheming politicians. The initial Union policy toward citizens of the occupied regions was therefore conciliatory, aimed at bringing the "misguided" to their senses and winning them back to the Union. Army officers took pains to ensure that the citizens were not abused by troops and that their property (including slaves) was protected. Soon, however, it became clear that Northern assumptions were wrong and that conciliation was fruitless. Most whites in the Confederacy were, in fact, devout secessionists, and in the invaded regions they demonstrated their Confederate patriotism and their hatred of the enemy by insulting Union troops, spying on them, and engaging in guerrilla warfare.

In 1862, the occupiers abandoned conciliation and began moving toward a harsh policy, which included imprisoning active secessionists and confiscating or destroying their property. Among the first commanders to crack down was Benjamin Butler in New Orleans. Fed up with the behavior of the women there (who were even more outspoken than the men), Butler decreed that any woman who insulted a Union soldier would be dealt with as a common prostitute.

The new policy was motivated in part by the desire to punish the obstinate Rebels. But it was also intended to help win a war that was turning out to be longer and harder than Northerners had anticipated by depriving the Confederacy of resources and destroying the morale of its people. The Union general who best exemplified the harsh policy was William T. Sherman, who led his army on a notoriously destructive march to the sea through Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864 through 1865. Sherman's men, however, actually exercised a good deal of

restraint, as did other Union troops; physical assaults by soldiers on unarmed citizens during the war were rare.

Hand in hand with the destruction of Southern resources under the harsh policy went the emancipation of the slaves. The slaves themselves took the first steps toward liberation, many of them fleeing to the Union invaders even when the conciliatory policy prevailed. The desire of the slaves to be free and to aid the Union helped move President Lincoln toward emancipation. The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which Lincoln justified as a measure to weaken the Confederacy's war effort, declared free all slaves in the rebellious territories. As the influx of runaway slaves increased, the army set up camps to house, feed, and educate them. Many freed slaves worked as wage laborers on plantations seized by the army. On the South Carolina and Georgia coast, the army undertook an experiment in which freed people were given land to farm on their own.

Slaves were not the only people in the South who took advantage of the Union invasion. Some Southern whites who remained loyal to the Union seized the opportunity to take revenge on their secessionist oppressors. Some poor whites defied the aristocrats who had long dominated Southern society. Like the freedom-seeking slaves, these insurgent Unionists and poor whites were aided by the Northern invaders.

After the war ended in 1865, the U.S. army occupied the entire South, but with a reduced force. Demobilization left fewer than forty thousand troops in the former Confederate states in 1866, and the number continued to decline thereafter. During Reconstruction (1865–1877), army officers and troops in the South were called on repeatedly, mostly for political purposes. They were assigned a major role in the restoration and readmission of the Southern states (accomplished by 1870 under Congress's Reconstruction Acts); and they were frequently employed to protect black voters and their white Republican allies from violence at the hands of ex-Confederates, particularly Ku Klux Klan terrorism. With the overthrow of the last Republican-dominated Southern state regime by the ex-Confederates in 1877, Reconstruction ended and with it the army's role in the South.

The military occupation of the South that began in 1861 had profound consequences, some short-lived, others long-lasting. The suffering and destruction were enormous, but the suffering abated with the war's end and the destruction was soon repaired. The liberation of the slaves, however, changed the nation in ways that continue to affect every American deeply, while the memory of those years of invasion and occupation helped shape a distinctive Southern mentality that endures to this day.


Ash, Stephen V. When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861–1865. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Grimsley, Mark. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Sefton, James E. The United States Army and Reconstruction, 1865–1877. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967.

Stephen V. Ash

See also:Ku Klux Klan; Reconstruction; Sherman's March to the Sea.

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Occupation of the South