The United States Congress recently passed a military defense spending bill with a veto-proof majority. However, President Trump vetoed the bill, leading to a showdown with Congress. One of Trump’s objections was a provision to rename military bases that honored Confederate generals. Although Congress overrode Trump’s veto, the fact that base renaming became a political loyalty test is significant and unfortunate. But the so-called heritage that critics of base renaming want to protect is not the heritage Republicans should claim, unless they support a return to Jim Crow America.
Table of Contents
Why the Objection to Confederate Generals?
The main objection to the names of these bases is that they honor men who fought against the government and could be considered traitors. However, there may be a more sinister motivation behind the selection of these particular generals when the bases were established.
Currently, there are ten military bases in the Deep South named after Confederate generals: Camp Beauregard, Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, Fort Gordon, Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Hood, Fort Lee, Fort Pickett, Fort Polk, and Fort Rucker. But what qualifications set these generals apart from the hundreds of others who fought for the Southern cause?
A Poor Military Record
Many Confederate generals had served with distinction in the U.S. military before the Civil War. Some officers fought to preserve state sovereignty, a core principle of federalism. Many people at the time believed that state sovereignty, including slavery, was protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Robert E. Lee, for example, widely regarded as one of the best generals in U.S. history, had reservations about the legality of secession. Lee chose to serve his native state of Virginia instead of accepting a commission in the U.S. Army. While he owned slaves and a plantation (now the site of Arlington National Cemetery), Lee’s primary motivation to serve the South was loyalty to Virginia. He was not an ardent supporter of slavery or a slave economy.
However, a closer look reveals that Lee was the exception rather than the rule. Eight of the current bases named after Confederate officers had undistinguished and occasionally exceptionally poor military records. Braxton Bragg, George Pickett, and Leonidas Polk, in particular, could even be rated as incompetent. Others, like John Bell Hood, were known for being reckless and ineffective, especially towards the end of the war. Of course, there are mixed records among the other generals, except for Lee and Georgia’s John Brown Gordon, according to historians.
Supporting Jim Crow
Keeping the rebellion alive as part of Southern heritage was one motivation for naming these bases, but the historical context suggests something even more troubling.
During the early and mid-twentieth century, when these bases were established, white supremacy reached its apex as an ideology and tool of political oppression in the United States. In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s overtly racist movie, “Birth of a Nation,” was released to widespread commercial and critical success in Atlanta. In 1913, Americans elected an overtly racist Woodrow Wilson as president (with just 42% of the popular vote). Wilson subsequently reversed integration efforts under previous Republican presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, leading to the re-segregation of federal agencies and employment. The Ku Klux Klan rose to national prominence in the 1920s, expanding its influence beyond the South and into the Midwest and Mountain States.
Lynchings, once a form of mob justice applied to both blacks and whites, evolved into a tool primarily used against African Americans. While lynchings of whites dramatically declined after 1895, blacks continued to be the victims of this mob violence at high levels. From 1892 to 1900, blacks accounted for 60% of lynchings. From 1901 to 1950, that number rose to 92%.
The South systematically and intentionally developed a system of oppressing African Americans since the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Naming prominent military bases after heroes of the Lost Cause was likely a calculated way to reinforce the hegemony of white supremacy. George Pickett, for example, is best known for his role in “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg, widely regarded as the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” John Brown Gordon, although a good general, was also an ardent opponent of reconstruction and likely a member of the KKK.
This political strategy behind the base naming likely had far-reaching impacts. As the United States prepared for global wars in the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of African Americans from all over the country trained at these facilities. In Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s book, “Brothers in Arms,” he chronicles the experiences of the distinguished 761st Tank Battalion, an African American unit in World War II. These soldiers quickly realized that while the military spoke of equality, their lives were constantly in physical danger as they trained at these Southern bases.
Even famed baseball player Jackie Robinson, a Captain in the U.S. Army, was infamously court-martialed at Fort Hood in Texas for refusing to move to the back seat of a bus, despite army regulations requiring equal treatment. Although he was eventually acquitted, the racism embedded in the initial arrest and findings against him was palpable. Murders of African Americans were not uncommon, and local authorities rarely felt the need to investigate or prosecute accused murderers.
The Long Overdue Renaming of Military Bases
The renaming of these military bases is long overdue. While history should not be erased, we should not glorify evil and injustice. The principles that supported these injustices should not be honored through the symbolism inherent in the naming of U.S. military bases. Renaming these bases should be an easy decision.
To learn more about history, visit 5 WS.