This month’s Foundry Series, The US Military and Rebuilding after War, Cecily Zander, Ph.D. candidate, Pennsylvania State University. We reached out to get more insight into what influences her work.
How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?
I grew up in Colorado, where the history I received involving the Army tended to focus on the Indian Wars or the building of the transcontinental railroad. Colorado became a state in 1876, and helped get Rutherford Hayes elected by lending the Republicans its electoral votes—which led to the compromise that ended Reconstruction. So my view of American history was profoundly shaped by the West. When I started to piece together that knowledge with the bountiful research that historians have done concerning the South during Reconstruction, where the Army was also heavily involved, I realized I had a larger story tell about the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Unfortunately for me, this meant my dissertation would be about the entire nation, rather than a specific region. The research process has taken me from Texas to North Dakota and from Washington DC to California. I am constantly amazed by what I am finding, and it is the search for new material and voices to add to my project that I find continuously compelling.
What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?
Something I have found lacking in the historical work on the subject of the United States Army is a failure to account for the consequences the experience of the Civil War had for the army as an institution. Too often, I think, historians have written about the history of the army as two different organizations, one in the antebellum period and one in the postbellum period. I would argue for a great deal more continuity—and could point to the occupation of Mexico City during the U.S.-Mexico War as a precursor to the army’s experience occupying the former Confederacy, by way of an example.
I have also been surprised by the sheer amount of materials the officers and soldiers of the Regular Army produced and the variety of subjects that make their way into official reports. Intense policy discussions, proposals for social reform, and systems for measuring daily weather conditions often exist in the same reports!
How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
We are currently in the midst of Reconstruction’s sesquicentennial anniversary. The federal government has plans to establish a national monument to Reconstruction. Debates over how to remember the Civil War and its aftermath rage in the press and among historians. The men and women of the United States Army are currently posted across the globe doing the same work their predecessors undertook during the Reconstruction era. All of these facts point to a need to come to terms with the successes and failures of the national effort to rebuild the nation after a bloody civil war. The history of Reconstruction is relevant to issues ranging from the necessity of military interventions in civil affairs, providing humanitarian aid at home and abroad, and the protection and expansion of civil rights. Beginning a conversation on the subject is critical and worthwhile.