The United States honored the enemies of the Civil War by naming the army bases their name. Why?
How did the United States come to have nearly a dozen military installations named not after their heroes but their enemies – men who fought a war against the country and killed tens of thousands of people to defend the indefensible institution of slavery?
The last time I checked, the Confederate Army lost the Civil War. So isn’t it a bit wrong, to say the least, to name military posts after rebel officers who fought for the losers?
Yet that is exactly what the United States has done. That’s why today we have Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, named Braxton Bragg, an irascible Confederate general. There is also Ft. Hood in Texas, named after General John Bell Hood. And strong. Polk in Louisiana, named after General Leonidas Polk. Also Fts. Beauregard, Benning, Lee, Pickett, Rucker, AP Hill and Gordon dot the southern United States.
Many people have rightly called for these names to be removed – and last year Congress voted to do so. When President Donald Trump vetoed the legislation (of course he did!) His veto was overturned. A congressionally appointed committee is now overseeing the name change process and is due to report by October 2022.
But what mystified me for a long time is how these bases were named in the first place. Remember, it wasn’t Mississippi or Alabama honoring Confederate officers – it was the United States of America. He won the war, then honored the losers.
Does another country do this? In Paris, metro stations are named after French generals and French military victories, not Russian or British victories. Yet the United States apparently had no problem glorifying the leaders of a violent white supremacist insurgency.
Of course, it was a war between states, and one of the key goals at its end was to reunite the country. If we were to welcome the Southerners into the fold, we might not very well see them all as traitors and enemies in perpetuity.
But we had no obligation to glorify their defeated cause or to commemorate their leaders. Furthermore, the military installations were not named in the aftermath of the war as an act of spontaneous reconciliation. They were named several years later.
So how did it go?
It appears that many posts were established around the time of World War I, some 50 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Appomattox. The country needed camps to house and train troops. Southern cities have been pressing feverishly for them and for the economic benefits they would bring.
Military officials responsible for appointing posts, including the brigadier. General Joseph E. Kuhn defined only the most vague rules: the names should honor officers who had a connection to the region and who were “not unpopular” in the region, and they should be short, to save “office work”. Beyond that, the military didn’t seem to care much. In some cases, officials have actively sought to name the camps after Confederate commanders if southern divisions were to be accommodated there.
By this time, nostalgia for the glories of the pre-war “Lost Cause” of the South was at its height. Statues and memorials to Confederate leaders were erected. The film “Birth of a Nation”, a virulent and racist glorification of the vigilantes of the Ku Klux Klan, was released in 1915.
William Sturkey, professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says the military has left much of the decision-making to local authorities – and, of course, entirely white -. In an effort to build local goodwill, he allowed base names to be selected by small town government officials, businessmen and, in some cases, by local chambers of commerce.
pi. Benning in Georgia, for example, was named after Confederate General Henry L. Benning because the US Secretary of War accepted the recommendation of the locals of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Rotary Club.
Two decades later, as the United States entered World War II, it needed bases again; when is Fts. Hood, Pickett and Polk were created. According to Nina Silber, professor of history at Boston University, the Roosevelt administration named them after Confederate officers to woo Southern votes and gain Southern Democrats’ support for the war. (FDR once called Robert E. Lee “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”)
Frankly, it is shameful.
âTo the extent that the military sympathized with or celebrated Confederation, it helped to encourage the white nationalism we face today,â Sturkey said.
In 2015, Brigadier. General Malcolm B. Frost attempted to obscure the evidence by saying that the facilities were named for “individuals, not causes or ideologies”. Further, he said, âthe appointment was made in a spirit of reconciliation and not of division. “
But reconciliation cannot go further; if not, why did we fight the war in the first place?
And individuals are difficult to separate from their ideologies. That Robert E. Lee was a great Christian gentleman is all well and good, but when you give his name to a military installation, you celebrate him as a serviceman, that is, as a treacherous general who fought for slavery, America’s greatest moral failure.
The American position, then as today, must be unambiguous: we reject it and we will not honor those who led the fight to keep it alive.
It turns out that several of the Confederate officers in question were not highly respected military leaders. Bragg, Polk and Hood, for example, âwere widely viewed as failures during and after the war,â says Gary W. Gallagher, professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia. “Did anyone in Washington have a sense of humor?” “
If so, it’s not a lot of fun in hindsight. Let’s change these names.
Nicholas Goldberg is associate editor and opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times.