Stirring Up Civil War Memory on Memorial Day Weekend

Union Soldier in Forrest Hills Cemetery by Milmore
Union Soldier in Forrest Hills Cemetery by Milmore

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.

19 responses... add one

My question is: why Bragg? He wasn’t a very good general. We don’t have a Fort Burnside, or a Camp Hooker.(…Camp Hooker…mmmmm).

Kevin, you wrote:

“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. ”

Since these are Federal installations, aren’t their names properly within the purview of all of us? I have no particular opinion on the matter of a name change, but I doubt the bases can be described as local amenities. In addition, the young men and women who serve at these bases are sent from all over the country. In many cases they don’t have a choice in where they serve. Again, I’m agnostic on the name change, but the notion that a civilian living next to Fort Bragg has a superior claim over the name of that Federal fort to the soldier who serves there or the taxpayer in Vt. who pays for it seems misplaced. There would seem to a much broader stakeholder community for the name of a Federal military base v. a municipal park like the one in Memphis. We certainly would not leave all decisions about Gettysburg NMP up to the mayor of that town or the chamber of commerce. Nor could the New York City Council rename the statue in the harbor as “Trump Liberty.”

Thanks for the comment, Pat. I wasn’t trying to suggest that locals have any more claim to the names of federal installations than those serving therein. I completely agree with you that as federal installations all of us have a claim on how they are named. My problem with Malanowski’s editorial is that it comes off as superficial. It’s such a predictable and easy thing to complain about. All it does is antagonize. There is absolutely nothing constructive about it.

“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. ”

Okay, I’ll bite: What’s the message? And why is Malanowski’s outrage “highly suspicious”? I agree that some people would be very upset if the names where changed, but that’s not a powerful or interesting message.

Thanks for the comment, John. I think it’s suspicious in the sense that it comes off as contrived. I don’t get the sense that the names of the bases troubles Malanowski at all. He basically rattles off the names of these places with very brief references to their connections with the Confederacy. And the solution is that we change the names as if this constitutes a meaningful response. It’s little more than manufactured outrage.

Kevin,

I wouldn’t get too worked over Malanowski. He demonstrates beyond any doubt in his opinion piece that he has essentially no idea what he is talking about. On Memorial Day Weekend he needed a story and this is what he thought up.

Nathan Towne

I am not worked up at all.

On Memorial Day Weekend he needed a story and this is what he thought up.

You nailed it.

I wonder how many soldiers actually know who the particular base is named for and the history around that person and why the base was named for them. I would venture from my personal observations having served 20 years in the US military that most do not know or care.

The names themselves have become iconic. When I say Fort Bragg or Fort Hood I don’t even think of a Confederate general.

I feel like changing names is a slippery slope because how far so we go with this? I agree with Malanowski on many of the points in his article but if you start changing names. And I know other historians, like Gerry Prokopowicz, have also said that we would never have named a military base after people like Irwin Rommel or Isoroku Yamamoto I wonder how far we should go with it.

Besides renaming forts, should all Confederate monuments be torn down? And what about the use of Native American names and logos in sports? BTW, I’m a die-hard Redskins fan and I don’t want to see the name changed. What about food products like Aunt Jemima syrup or Uncle Ben’s rice? Or what about places like Negro Mountain in Western Pennsylvania? And what happens if you change the name to a person who is later discovered to be a child molester or a rapist?

I am not concerned at all with slippery slopes. The move to change the names of public sites is almost always a local issue and takes a great deal of pressure to accomplish. If the pressure is sufficient then the name will be changed whether it’s a building or syrup. We live in a democracy. How else should these decisions be made?

I don’t know if Kevin planned on this post turning into a full-blown debate on name changing, so I’ll keep it brief. But here in Oregon, racist (or perceived racist) place-names have been or are still being replaced: Darky Creek, Squaw Creek, and the like. It’s been a little bit controversial, but most Oregonians prefer that our place names don’t reflect a racist past (which have not done a great job coming to terms with). And let me assure you: “Redskins” is a racist term and needs to go, regardless of the fanbase.

I agree that a focus on changing names would not be a good use of activists’ energy. But we do need to talk about them, and the NYT op-ed seems to have had that effect here.

The problem is not unique to the South. I attended Northwestern University, where business classes are still taught in Arthur Andersen Hall (Arthur Andersen, a big donor, established the accounting firm which folded after it helped Enron to cook its books in the 1990s). I hope, perhaps in vain, that the University will make incoming students aware of the irony there.

No one seriously called for Brown University to change its name to acknowledge that it was founded by slave traders. But Brown did initiate an ongoing, thoughtful discussion of the issue: http://www.brown.edu/Research/Slavery_Justice/ . Historian James T. Campbell deserves some of the credit for the good work done there.

I hope my post isn’t interpreted as being against talking about such issues. My problem is that I don’t see Malanowski’s piece as doing anything constructive in that regard.

Perhaps an “interesting juxtaposition” Andy but not necessarily a contradiction. The bases are Federal installations that honor generals of the Confederacy. Levon Helm was a modern musician who openly supported Civil Rights during the 1960s and recorded with well known African American performers. While The Band occasionally did use the CFB as a background when playing the song, it in no way glorifies the Confederacy. It is a meditation on loss not a yearning for a return to slavery. In fact the song explicitly rejects “The South Will Rise Again” with the line “You can’t raise a Cain back up when he’s in defeat.” The fact that Joan Baez chose to record it, she of the March on Washington, is a pretty good indication that it was not seen as a white supremacist screed. I also note that the lyrics were largely written by Canadian Robbie Robertson who also wrote the Civil Rights song The Stones that I Throw.

Most of The Band members were Canadian. Actually I think Helm was the only one who was from the US.
The whole thing shows how any group will use anything for their purposes. I personally love what Shelby Foote said about the use of the CBF by the KKK and white supremacists during the Civil Rights era. I don’t agree with everything Foote said, but he made a point with how the flag was used in that era and how it became a hated symbol of racism far beyond anything like it prior to that time.

I’ll take the contrary point; who and what a nation chooses to honor by naming a facility or a ship is a real thing, and should not be allowed to become a question answered by mossy tradition, or (for that matter) vote counting in the legislature.

The names of units/formations, ships, posts, aircraft, etc. have an impact on those assigned to serve, with regards to unit pride and esprit d’corps; these are diffcult to quantify, but certainly exist, and in a pluralistic and multi-racial democracy, shouod be considered.

There is a difference between a ship named USS Liberty and one named USS Robert E. Lee, after all…there’s also a difference between the 82nd “All American” Airborne Division and the 1st SS “Liebstandarten Adolf Hitler” Panzer Division…

One of the issues that comes to mind immediately was the naming of the ballistic missile submarines that were first commissioned into the USN in the early 1960s; the traditional “sea creature” names for subs were set aside, and a series of “patriots” were adopted – which led to the USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Ulysses S. Grant being commissioned, along with USS Robert E. Lee and USS Stonewall Jackson – and this in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, and during two Democratic administrations.

Perhaps, to remove it from the realm of academics, call it the difference between “memory” and democracy…

Semper Fidelis

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