Graduate Student Interviews - Andrew Hargroder and the U.S. Army

John Legg's picture

Dear H-CivWar subscribers, 

Today we’re joined by Andrew Hargroder to discuss his dissertation project, “Under the Banner: Freedom, Slavery, and the U.S. Army Before the Civil War.” Hargroder is the Chief Editor of Civil War Book Review and a Ph.D. candidate at Louisiana State University. 

Welcome, Andrew! Thank you for participating in today’s Graduate Student Interview. After reading through your dissertation proposal, I wonder if you could briefly explain to the H-CivWar community your general topic? and historiographical contribution? Also, what led you to be interesting in the “civil-military” debate? 

Andrew Hargroder: Hi John, glad to be here. Thank you for this opportunity! My dissertation topic started off as two seemingly unrelated questions that kept grabbing my attention over the years. The first came to mind as I committed a great deal of time to reading slaveholders' letters, notebooks, and diaries from throughout the antebellum era. While researching, I kept stumbling across these random comments or assumptions about "military despotism," war, and slavery. 

This piqued my interest and eventually led me to uncover a complex philosophy of war that some slaveholders developed throughout the 1820s-1840s, very much tied to the larger proslavery ideology. The basic assumptions that pro-slavery ideologues and southern planters developed on war countered the traditional republican fears of a standing army and, in fact, called for a more active and visible federal government in supporting their slave society. Though slaveholders wrote less frequently on war than other philosophical concerns, their commentary on war and slavery revealed their expectations of the United States Army as a protector and enabler of their "peculiar institution." 

Unlike the first question which developed over years, the second concern hit me almost immediately. While reading Chandra Manning's Troubled Refuge, I came across a brief section where she mentions how enslaved people were fleeing to U.S. Army posts and picket lines even before the firing on Ft. Sumter. Once taken into custody by U.S. Regulars, many of them expected or hoped that they would seize their freedom. It struck me that, at least to my knowledge, no one had investigated why enslaved people were willing to place faith in the U.S. Army as a facilitator of their emancipation in 1861 when Army's record throughout the antebellum era was one of protecting slavery. Many have discerned or assumed that since Confederates and slaveholders had made themselves the enemies of the United States government, enslaved people opted for the old adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." But I remain unconvinced that this was the only reason.

So this question of slaveholders' expectations of the U.S. Army and the issue of why enslaved people fled to the Army so early in the war eventually converged into one project and sent me down this road to explore the complicated relationship that the Army had with freedom and slavery before the Civil War. 

That’s really fascinating. Could you delve more into your dissertation’s argument?

AH: My central argument is that the U.S. Army represented both a force for freedom and for slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Throughout the early republic and antebellum eras, the Army made the South safe for slavery. At the same time, the Army developed in ways that made military emancipation both possible and a reality by 1863. There are many factors that contributed to this development and innumerable actors who made it possible, including Army officers, abolitionists, enslaved men and women, slaveholders, and Native peoples. 

I hope to achieve several goals in my dissertation. First, I hope to lay to rest this notion of "states' rights" as a motivation for Confederate independence. It is entirely a post-Civil War invention and it played a marginal role in the coming of secession and war. In increasing numbers throughout the antebellum period, southern slaveholders and officials wanted the power of the federal government and the U.S. Army to protect and expand their slave society. When the Army seemingly wavered on that commitment, those slaveholders created a government and national army for the purpose of securing what the U.S. seemingly could not or would not.

My second goal is to recontextualize the antebellum civil-military debate in American military historiography. Enslaved and Native peoples shaped that debate in more important ways than previously acknowledged and republican fears of a standing army were more of a tool of political leverage and convenience than the governing political ideology on war by the 1830s.

Lastly, I hope to show Americans that their institutions are immensely complicated. The U.S. Army has been deployed as a crude instrument of political will and - as we've seen recently - an enforcer of "law and order." But it has also helped to secure expansive democracy and civil rights at critical moments when other institutions failed to do so. At once, the Army has been a facilitator of ethnic cleansing, a protector of slavery, and also the principal vehicle by which black Americans secured their freedom and made military emancipation a reality, even if it was sometimes limited and provided only "troubled refuge." Understanding this will open us to the possibilities and limitations that we should expect and demand of our nation's fighting force as we continue to define the meaning of freedom in American life.

As someone who studies Native American history during the nineteenth century, your topic interests me when you say that the U.S. Army served as a force for freedom and slavery in the years prior to the Civil War. I'm curious your thoughts on how this plays into the United States' ambitions to extend their power westward? 

My dissertation addresses westward expansion in several different ways. As the nation expanded, several factors determined whether the Army represented a force for freedom or slavery. The first was the mission. If that mission "nested" with slaveholding interests (ex. securing the southern borderlands or suppressing insurrections), the Army strengthened the place of slavery in the U.S. 

Another factor was one of civilian pressure. A significant motivation behind westward expansion among southern slaveholders was reducing the threat of mass enslaved resistance. So long as the United States shared borders with Spanish territories, Native nations, and - eventually - Mexico, slaveholders feared that enslaved people would continuously flee towards and ally themselves with these adversaries. In other words, the South could not be truly safe for slavery and the plantation system until those borders were pushed further out and those adversaries removed or eliminated. Southern slaveholders and officials heavily pressured the U.S. government to action. As a frontier constabulary force, the Army received a notable degree of that pressure directly from civilians. The Army facilitated the expansion of slavery and the plantation system by seizing new territories, then supporting state and local police systems in quelling slave revolts. At nearly every stage of expansion, from Louisiana-Spanish Texas border disputes in 1804, through Indian Removal, and to "Bloody Kansas," the Army found itself at the center of the national debate over slavery and westward expansion. 

Some missions took priority over or ran counter to the advancement of slaveholding interests. For example, Indian Removal undoubtedly opened up more of the South to speculators and prospective white slaveholders. But primary mission of the Army during the Florida War, to remove the Seminole peoples, at times led Army officers to make concessions. Similarly during "Bloody Kansas," the Army was tasked with maintaining the peace and policing violence between Border Ruffians and Jayhawkers. Southern slaveholders often interpreted the Army's actions as a betrayal; to not fight in direct support of slavery was to fight against it. 

Slaveholders were not the only group to pressure the Army. Throughout the antebellum period, enslaved and Native peoples also pressured the Army to make concessions for their interests. During the Florida War, many black Seminoles and former runaways fought against U.S. Regulars and eventually lobbied for their freedom in exchange for removal to Indian Territory. On an individual basis, enslaved people also tried to use the transient and hierarchical nature of the Army to either pursue their freedom or to gain a degree of agency that was otherwise impossible throughout the plantation regions of the South. 

Looking at the broader picture, the U.S. Army's relationship with slavery heavily influenced westward expansion, both in its justification and its conduct. 

Thank you for all of that. To end the interview, what are your plans once you complete the dissertation?

By the time I finish my dissertation and successfully defend it, I hope to have already landed full-time employment. I am applying for jobs in between writing my dissertation and running the Civil War Book Review. Although I maintain an interest in pursuing a tenure-track position, I am also considering opportunities in public history.

We appreciate having you along, Andrew!

Keep an eye out for our next interview in a few weeks. If you're interested in participating, please reach out to John Legg (jlegg5@gmu.edu) to be interviewed.