Digital Mapping of Military Occupation in the Reconstruction South

This April marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. The sesquicentennial of the war has enabled an explosion in Civil War related scholarship. Indeed, dozens if not hundreds of new works have been released within the last four years. Frankly, it has been an exciting time to be a Civil War Era scholar. However, with the impending end of the sesquicentennial, historians have to grapple with how to build on this new scholarship. The coming years can provide us with an opportunity to rethink and challenge the periodization of the war. The Civil War did not neatly end on April 12, 1865 and Reconstruction did not automatically start on April 13, 1865. Over the last twenty-five years, scholars have argued about almost every aspect of the Reconstruction period. For instance, historians have debated when Reconstruction began, if it truly reordered Southern society, and why Reconstruction failed. By connecting these old questions with the knowledge gained over the last few years, Civil War Era historians may be able to present a clearer picture of what it is arguably the most misunderstood period of American history.

Gregory Downs, Associate Professor of History at CUNY, and Scott Nesbitt, Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Georgia, have created the opening salvo in what is hopefully a fruitful reexamination of Reconstruction. Their digital humanities project entitled, Mapping Occupation: Force, Freedom, and the Army in Reconstruction, was recently released for our viewing pleasure. Mapping Occupation tracks the development of the Union Army’s occupation of the South following the Civil War and shows us how deeply the Army penetrated Southern society. Not only do Downs and Nesbitt offer an intriguing way of spatially examining military occupation, they also create a digital platform that is easy to manipulate. And if all else fails, it always fun to play with maps.

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