OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Gregory Downs

Portrait of Gregory Downs
Image Credit: Dan Havlik

Gregory Downs is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis. A specialist in post–Civil War history, he is the author most recently of After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (2015), which considers the use of the U.S. Army in occupying the South to create new forms of freedom, and a companion website Mapping Occupation, created with Scott Nesbit. Downs is also the author of Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (2011) and has written on the interaction between the U.S. Civil War and the Mexican wars of the 1860s. He is a coeditor, with Kate Masur, of The World the Civil War Made (2015), and is currently working a book on the American Civil War in a period of global revolution. Also a prizewinning fiction writer, he is the author of the short-story collection Spit Baths (2006).

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Although Americans typically imagine that the Civil War concluded with the famous Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, the legal status of war and the use of war powers continued for almost another 6 years. Understanding Reconstruction as a continuation of war and war powers helps us see the boldness of Reconstruction and also the perils of peace that would follow the restoration of civil law between 1868 and 1871.
Although the 13th Amendment was crucial for ending slavery, it could not destroy the institution by itself. Instead, slavery endured deep into the summer and fall of 1865 in parts of the South. What killed slavery in the end was also force. By exploring the role of soldiers and slaves in overthrowing the final islands of slavery in the summer and fall of 1865, we can understand the power of slavery and also the way 19th century Americans understood freedom to be a claim for attention from higher powers.
Americans who lived through Reconstruction almost invariably described it as a period of revolution equal to, or perhaps more potent than, the first American Revolution. Undoubtedly Reconstruction created enormous political, social, economic, and cultural change, including the creation of the 14th and 15th Amendments, civil rights legislation, and the growth of African-American grassroots politics. But they meant something more than that when they talked of revolution. They meant that Reconstruction's leaders went beyond normal, constitutional politics. Like other revolutions in world history, Americans transgressed normal boundaries in order to create what they hoped would be a new order of society. By placing Reconstruction within the context of other revolutions, this lecture helps us see anew the boldness of American Reconstruction.
Prior to his infamous and ill-fated "Last Stand" on the Plains in the mid-1870s, George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were based in central Kentucky for nearly two years. Except for one period where they were sent to Chicago to police the city after the great fire, they spent most of their time trying to put down Ku Klux Klan-style terrorists who assaulted African-Americans and tried to prevent them from voting. Using Custer's time in 1870s Kentucky and 1865 Texas, this essay explores the Army's efforts to impose order upon violent white southerners, and examines the interconnections between its role in the West and in the South.