This editorial by Jamie Malanowski, which appeared today in the New York Times, reminds me of Edward Sebesta’s petition to have President Obama end the practice of sending a wreath to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. In the end it stirs up emotions, but fails to produce anything constructive. Malanowski’s contribution to our collective conscience this Memorial Day weekend is to remind the public that 10 military bases located around the country are named after Confederate generals. And you guessed it, those names need to be changed.
Malanowski begins with the questionable assumption that the “humble idea” of decorating graves “quickly spread throughout the country, and the recognition of common loss helped reconcile North and South.” It didn’t. Decoration Days were incredibly divisive throughout the period between the 1860s and the early twentieth century. Recent studies by Caroline Janney, William Blair, and John Neff suggest why this was the case.
It’s not that I am against changing the names of public places, but in most cases the push is local. For example, consider the recent controversy in Memphis, Tennessee surrounding the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. These are questions that need to be resolved by the members of the community.
Apart from Fort Lee in Virginia you will be hard pressed to find anyone who can identify John B. Gordon, Braxton Bragg, or John Bell Hood. That is apparently irrelevant in light of the moral outrage felt by Malanowski.
But that was a time when the Army was segregated and our views about race more ignorant. Now African-Americans make up about a fifth of the military. The idea that today we ask any of these soldiers to serve at a place named for a defender of a racist slavocracy is deplorable; the thought that today we ask any American soldier to serve at a base named for someone who killed United States Army troops is beyond absurd. Would we have a Fort Rommel? A Camp Cornwallis?
We do ask that they serve at such bases (both black and white) and as far as I know there is no groundswell of disapproval at any of these bases. In fact, one could argue that not changing the names at a time when black and white men and women serve in integrated units is a more powerful message to hear on this Memorial Day weekend. At least it’s more interesting than this selective and highly suspicious outrage.
Changing the names of these bases would not mean that we can’t still respect the service of those Confederate leaders; nor would it mean that we are imposing our notions of morality on people of a long-distant era. What it would mean is that we’re upholding our own convictions. It’s time to rename these bases. Surely we can find, in the 150 years since the Civil War, 10 soldiers whose exemplary service not only upheld our most important values, but was actually performed in the defense of the United States.
Here is a better idea. Head down to your local cemetery and spend a few minutes reflecting on the men and women who have given their lives for this nation. And if you have a Civil War era gravesite in your area spend a few minutes reflecting on the sacrifice that helped to preserve this Union at its most crucial hour. That’s a more honest contribution to our Civil War memory on such an important weekend.