In the aftermath of a wild weekend stemming from the chaos in Charlottesville and the ongoing discussion over free speech and white supremacy, many people saw a video of a mob of activists assembling in Durham, N.C., to tear down a statue dedicated to a Confederate soldier.
The mob celebrated its destruction wildly, symbolic of achieving some objective in the fight for whatever social cause the event represented. Authorities stood by while the statue was torn down, spit on, and kicked by the crowd. The previous events in Charlottesville which led to this display in North Carolina all stemmed from a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and the complicated role statues and memorials to the Confederate rebellion play in 2017 America.
It may come as a surprise then that the United States Army, the organization which bore the greatest burden in defeating the Confederacy, losing hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the process, would honor the memory of 10 Confederate officers by naming modern Army installations after them. The reason, like all subjects related to the Civil War, is complicated.
Army bases, which the Army refers to as a post, fort, or camp, actually have regulations which stipulate the requirements for naming. Generally, they are named only for distinguished soldiers, but the spirit and intent of how names are chosen has changed over time. According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History,
In the Continental Army, many posts and camps were named by the commander or supervising engineer for high ranking officers, including those still living,” and that “For much of the Army’s history in the 19th Century, the naming of posts was still mainly a local prerogative. For example, War Department General Order Number 79, dated 8 November 1878, left the naming of installations to the commander of the regional Military Division in which the installation was located.”
In the years between the World Wars, it became the common practice for the War Department to entertain recommended names for posts from installation commanders, corps and branch commanders, and the Historical Section Army War College, as well as from outside the Army. Public opinion and political influence sometime weighed heavily on the decisions.”
After public opinion refocused on the bases named after Confederate generals in 2015, Brigadier General Malcolm Frost, at the time Chief of Public Affairs for the Army, said:
Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history. Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies,” and “It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”
BG Frost’s comments tap into the real root of the issue, and why the Army chose to name its installations after former enemies. What is lost in the current debate over the legacy of the Confederacy was the difficult and painful process of reconciliation during the reconstruction years. How does a country put itself back together when its citizens just spent years killing each other wholesale? It seems counterproductive that the path for healing would be to castigate every southerner as an enemy forever. Stripping the south from its right to honor their war dead also seems like a surefire way to retain only bitter memories from an extremely divisive time in American history.
One could argue that no one suffered more during the Civil War than the U.S. Army, which was split in two to have its leaders and soldiers wage war on each other for years. And yet the Army as an organization made significant conciliatory efforts to forgive and heal the mistakes of that era. Perhaps how we should view the decision to name Army bases after Generals like Lee, Bragg, and Benning is not out of glorification of a lost and traitorous cause, but a sign of forgiveness, and that even after immense tragedy, our Army was able to find ways to unify and fight together once more.
Here is a list of every Army installation named after a Confederate Army leader.
Fort A.P. Hill, VA – Confederate Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell (A.P.) Hill
Camp Beauregard LA – Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard
Fort Benning, GA – Confederate Brigadier General Henry L. Benning
Fort Bragg, NC – Confederate General Braxton Bragg
Fort Gordon, GA – Confederate Lieutenant General John Brown Gordon
Fort Hood, TX – Confederate General John Bell Hood
Fort Lee, VA – Confederate General Robert E. Lee
Fort Picket VA – Confederate Major General George E. Pickett
Fort Polk, LA – Confederate Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk
Fort Rucker, AL – Confederate Colonel Edmund W. Rucker
Image from Wikipedia