The Week in Confederate Heritage

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Jun 11, 2020
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This week we start with this essay from Connor Williams, an advanced Ph.D. student at Yale University. “‘So,’ the man across the high-top cocktail table said, precise eye contact belying years of military bearing. ‘What’s your role in all this?’ Fishing my nametag from behind my tie, I replied with all the authority someone five weeks on the job could muster. ‘I’m the Naming Commission’s Lead Historian.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, pausing and planning his words. ‘Well, as a historian, how do you feel about changing the name of Fort Lee? Isn’t it, sort of, erasing history, given all that Robert E. Lee did as a leader and a strategist?’ It was the late summer of 2021. I had been thinking about this question all that afternoon on my drive to Petersburg from Washington, DC. I had also marveled, as always, at how with a few gallons of gas and a cup of black coffee, it had taken less than two and half hours to cover the same ground that accounted for more than two and a half months of vicious fighting in the Overland campaign of 1864. ‘Well,’ I offered, preparing myself to hear words in the neighborhood of woke, ‘it isn’t erasing history. We should study Robert E. Lee, of course, but should we commemorate him as a military hero? I mean, he was fighting against the United States, and for perpetual enslavement. What would have happened if Lee had won? What would our nation look like?’ “

He continues writing, “For a moment, silence reigned. My plate of crudité felt like grapeshot in my hands. Then the gentleman across from me, a Virginian and a decades-long veteran of civilian service to the military at Fort Lee, responded. ‘That’s really interesting,’ he said. ‘You know, I had never thought of it that way.’ Crisis averted. The irrepressible conflict dissipated. The point was taken. Somewhere, an angel playing The Battle Hymn of The Republic got their wings. Lest this vignette seem self-congratulatory, I desire no credit for any originality in my response. Such talking points are the warp and woof of seminars, lectures, podcasts and books on Civil War memory. Like all scholarship, they build on the efforts of others. I had most recently encountered the Lee counterfactual in Ty Seidule’s outstanding memoir Robert E. Lee and Me. But what struck me then—and has struck me again and again over the course of my work and reflections on the Naming Commission—was the sincerity with which the question was asked, and the ease with which the answer was accepted. Both demonstrate how much Civil War memory has changed over the past thirty years, due to the efforts of generations of scholars, teachers, and activists. That conclusion may seem surprising. Whether sitting around oval tables of our seminar rooms or looking out office windows onto campus quads, it is easy to imagine a Southland full of neo-Confederates ready to revolt at any criticism of Jefferson Davis, and ready to march in defense of Robert E. Lee. This is the sense one gets after watching documentaries like Civil War, or: Who Do We Think We Are?, reading coverage in the Atlantic Monthly, or simply reviewing news coverage on the contemporary curriculum fights in the state of Florida.”

He tells us, “To be clear, such adamant Confederate apologists certainly do exist, and are often the most vocal participants in any conversation. One emailed me recently, suspecting ‘one of [my] favorite people in history is Joseph Stalin,’ I ‘just do not like Southern folks,’ and that I was ‘descended from the Cromwellian Puritans who fought [his] Cavalier ancestors in England.’ A few others have called my cause ‘Marxist,’ ‘Maoist,’ ‘Fascist’ and, always, ‘Orwellian.’ Missives like these make it seem like the South is a scary place indeed for folks seeking to change commemorations. Yet my experiences with the Naming Commission indicate otherwise. Over the last two years, I have found such e-mails are the exceptions that prove the rule. And that rule is that no serious opposition has emerged to the Naming Commission’s work. We started our work with the support of 87 Senators, and ended it with about that same share. In fact, in engagement after engagement with the communities on and surrounding Army posts throughout the South, conversations indicated the opposite. The great majority of Americans the Naming Commission encountered were quite open to change. In fact, given the chance to weigh in on a new namesake, they even became enthusiastic about the process. They just had a few honest questions that needed answering before getting fully on board.”

According to Williams, “The first queries often involved simply wanting more knowledge about the old Confederate namesakes. After all, where but in a Civil War graduate seminar does one study Henry Benning, Leonidas Polk, A.P. Hill, or even Braxton Bragg? I specialize in the 19th Century United States, and still had to do some extra research on Edmund Rucker. Others—such as George Pickett, John Bell Hood, and John Gordon—had supporting roles in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, but still constitute specialized knowledge. Only Robert E. Lee was really a star in our collective memories. Thankfully, these men left a fairly clear paper trail. While their respective Civil War Encyclopedia entries remain frustratingly placid, their words and actions are clear. Benning’s speeches to secession conventions played on racial fears when imagining a nation under Abraham Lincoln. He proclaimed: ‘we [would] have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything…give me death or pestilence sooner than that.’ Hood’s letters to William Sherman professed how he and his compatriots would be ‘better to die a thousand deaths than to submit to live under you or your government or your negro allies.’ Gordon even threatened to ‘exterminate’ African Americans in a genocidal conflict. Each namesake made for fairly convincing evidence against their commemoration. So too did George Pickett’s war crimes, Leonidas Polk’s incompetence, and Braxton Bragg’s irascibility: the latter was almost fragged in the Mexican War.”

We read, “Even Robert E. Lee is not so marble as we might assume. Gary Gallagher’s excellent scholarship on Lee’s virulent retort to the Emancipation Proclamation, which the general called ‘a savage and brutal policy’ before sowing fears of black predation, almost always made folks reconsider ‘Marse Robert.’ It was equally helpful to point out that of the eight Virginians who were U.S. Army Colonels in 1861, Lee alone resigned his commission. He may have ‘followed his state.’ But he absolutely broke his oath. Ultimately, most Americans I met were fine jettisoning these honorifics to Confederates, especially after reading their self-professions of hatred towards the United States, their raw white supremacy, and ardent pro-slavery rhetoric. The second line of questioning came straight from Burkean conservatism. Some Americans feared the Naming Commission was the first step down a slippery slope. They worried this would start an avalanche of renaming. It might initially just take down Lee and Pickett. But what if it widened to cover Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson? Would it eventually careen into George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, obliterating every name they were raised to revere? Here, one cannot point purely to paranoia. Prominent op-eds have argued for those exact actions, and several highly publicized protests have spontaneously carried some of them out, causing us all to consider the extents to which commemorations should be changed.”

He continues, “In response, I developed an accurate-if-pithy point, grounded in the overwhelming Congressional support for our work and the concurrent lack of controversy. ‘If 87 Senators and 322 Representatives tell us to look at other commemorations, we will do that. But right now, we’re just looking at Confederates.’ I still support that point. The Naming Commission was a national project propelled by some and simply tolerated by others, but it nevertheless remains an inspiring example of bipartisanship. Funneled through the political will of legislators, our actions were dictated by men and women representing the vast majority of Americans. At the same time, our moderate style mattered. By and large, we cast our work not as parts of a broader revolution, but instead as acts of American patriotism. Our rhetorical power amongst the undecided came not from selling ourselves as a progressive mission of inclusion, but rather as a battle against treason. Confederates were unfitting for commemoration because of the immediate actions they undertook—killing United States soldiers, seizing United States property, and threatening our nation’s very existence. Less frequently addressed were the broader themes of conservatism, white supremacy, and white grievance that often surround Confederate memory. In part, our charter made this approach inevitable. By legislative mandate our point of exclusion was voluntary service in the Confederacy, and not support for enslavement or white supremacy. Had we been tasked to end commemorations for anyone who had supported the practice of enslavement, the large majority of antebellum politicians would have been on our list. A case could be made to include Abraham Lincoln. Had we included those who supported white supremacist doctrine, virtually all white antebellum Americans would have made our list. A case would have to be made to include Abraham Lincoln.”

He also tells us, “To be clear, Confederates’ movements towards perpetual enslavement absolutely mattered, and remained at the forefront of every conversation. One of the most empowering moments of my work was witnessing how a generation of schoolteachers and other mentors and guides have stamped out any vestiges of Lost Cause arguments amongst younger Americans. Slavery is no longer ‘just a way of life,’ an inevitable economic system, or (far worse) a ‘positive good.’ Virtually no one I encountered over two years of meetings entertained those notions, with the very few exceptions very much proving the rule. But our benchmark remained treason and insurrection against the United States. This leaves us with a paradox: one of the greater movements for monumental change throughout our recent history was enacted along one of the more conservative logics to do so. So, where has this work brought my thinking on Civil War memory? To return to that moment at Fort Lee, the many others like it I encountered, and the similar ones all historians are likely to encounter, three main observations stand out.”

He then goes into those observations: “First, historians should have more confidence that our decades of work fighting against the Lost Cause and highlighting Confederate treason really have paid off. The 1993 Hollywood film Gettysburg could not be made today. Ken Burns is getting hard questions from professional historians and non-academics. It’s hard to envision Shelby Foote emerging as an icon in 2023. Few Americans—especially those involved in spheres of politics or power—wish to defend an insurrection that committed treason for slavery. Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly learned this the hard way. This does not diminish the horrific acts white supremacy can and does fuel, often somehow spurred by some sort of Confederate memory. But it does mean that in a room of 75 lecture attendees, we should take motivation from the 73 who nod their heads in approval, and fret less over the two who stand up with loud questions. For the majority of Americans, the Lost Cause has, increasingly, lost. Second, we need to reflect that while many Americans condemn Confederates for both treason and slavery, amongst the undecided treason remains the more compelling argument. For better or worse, I learned that the most compelling response to questions about the Commission’s work was not to cite the 1619 Project, defend Critical Race Theory, or evoke John Brown’s body. Instead, it was to focus on the deeds of the Confederate namesakes themselves. They led forces that killed more United States soldiers than the Nazis did, in a war that was—per capita—ten times deadlier for Americans than World War II, and twenty times deadlier than the European Theater. Time and again, treason trumped all else in convincing Americans that men who had worn the gray did not deserve to be celebrated under the red, white, and blue. Lastly, nuanced historical arguments really do matter. Most Americans I met were ready to encounter the past as a complex place full of complicated issues, contingent decisions, and conflicted actors. Reductive statements on universal ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ will always divide us and inherently place some on the defensive. But by bringing our peers into our history as it unfolded and acknowledging the contradictions of our past, we can evaluate our commemorations on a scale of ‘better’ or ‘worse.’ This allows for individuals to interpret their own relationships to memory, while changing our commemorative landscape towards our highest aspirations for our future, and away from the most traumatic moments of our past.”

He goes on to conclude, “Ultimately, in reflecting on the Naming Commission’s work, a quote from Frederick Douglass looms up large, and proves incredibly—if belatedly—prescient. In 1894, the great orator sought, amongst the rise of all-white reconciliations, to remind Americans of the true cause and course of the Civil War. ‘Whatever else I may forget,’ Douglass wrote, ‘I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the republic, and those who fought to destroy it.’ To an extent, we should always remain frustrated that it took 125 years to make our national memory meet that of Frederick Douglass. But the Naming Commission also demonstrates that his vision is increasingly coming to pass, across large majorities throughout our nation. This is a moment worth celebrating, and a cause worth keeping after, one nuanced and patient conversation at a time.”

We next look at this story from North Carolina. ” Fort Bragg shed its Confederate namesake Friday to become Fort Liberty in a ceremony some veterans said was a small but important step in making the U.S. Army more welcoming to current and prospective Black service members. The change was the most prominent in a broad Department of Defense initiative, motivated by the 2020 George Floyd protests, to rename military installations that had been named after confederate soldiers. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations that erupted nationwide after Floyd’s killing by a white police officer, coupled with ongoing efforts to remove Confederate monuments, turned the spotlight on the Army installations. A naming commission created by Congress visited the bases and met with members of the surrounding communities for input. ‘We were given a mission, we accomplished that mission and we made ourselves better,’ Lt. Gen. Christopher Donahue, the commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Liberty, told reporters after the ceremony that made the name change official. The North Carolina base was originally named in 1918 for Gen. Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general from Warrenton, North Carolina, who was known for owning slaves and losing key Civil War battles that contributed to the Confederacy’s downfall.”

The article continues, “While other bases are being renamed for Black soldiers, U.S. presidents and trailblazing women, the North Carolina military installation is the only one not renamed after a person. Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule said at a naming commission meeting last year that the new name was chosen because ‘liberty remains the greatest American value.’ ‘Fayetteville in 1775 signed one of the first accords declaring our willingness to fight for liberty and freedom from Great Britain,’ said Donahue, referring to the city adjacent to the base. ‘Liberty has always been ingrained in this area.’ The cost to rename Fort Bragg — one of the largest military installations in the world by population — will total about $8 million, Col. John Wilcox said Friday. Most front-facing signage has been changed but the process is ongoing. ‘The name changes, the mission does not change,’ base spokesperson Cheryle Rivas said Friday. Fort Polk in Louisiana will be the next installation to change its name June 13 to Fort Johnson, in honor of Sgt. William Henry Johnson. The naming commission’s proposed changes must be implemented by Jan. 1. Several military bases were named after Confederate soldiers during World War I and World War II as part of a ‘demonstration of reconciliation’ with white southerners amid a broader effort to rally the nation to fight as one, said Nina Silber, a historian at Boston University. ‘It was kind of a gesture of, ‘Yes, we acknowledge your patriotism,’ which is kind of absurd to acknowledge the patriotism of people who rebelled against a country,’ she said.”

According to the article, “The original naming process involved members of local communities, although Black residents were left out of the conversations. Bases were named after soldiers born or raised nearby, no matter how effectively they performed their duties. Gen. Bragg is widely regarded among historians as a poor leader who did not have the respect of his troops, Silber said. For Isiah James, senior policy officer at the Black Veterans Project, the base renamings are a ‘long overdue’ change he hopes will lead to more substantial improvements for Black service members. ‘America should not have vestiges of slavery and secessionism and celebrate them,’ he said. ‘We should not laud them and hold them up and venerate them to where every time a Black soldier goes onto the base, they get the message that this base Bragg is named after someone who wanted to keep you as human property.’ Other Black veterans such as George Postell Jr., 56, who served at the base for more than four years with the 27th Engineers Combat Airborne Division before he was injured in a parachute jump, were hesitant to embrace the change. ‘I shared my blood, and I know a lot of my other brothers that did the same for the namesake of Fort Bragg,’ Postell said. ‘To me, it will always be Fort Bragg, no matter what they call it.’ James Buxton Jr., a U.S. Army veteran and president of the Fayetteville chapter of the NAACP, supports the base renaming. Buxton said he has seen the effects of racism associated with the base over the years — including the killing of a Black couple in the 1990s by soldiers in the 82nd Airborne who were neo-Nazis. But Buxton also called the new choice of name Fort Liberty ‘off the wall.’ He said he would have preferred the base retain the name Bragg but be redesignated to honor Edward S. Bragg, an accomplished U.S. lawmaker and Union general in the U.S. Civil War.”

The article goes on to conclude, “At last week’s ‘All American Week,’ a celebration of the 82nd Airborne Division and one of the last major events under the Fort Bragg name, several veterans expressed mixed feelings about the name change. Gregory Patterson, 64, a former member of the 82nd Airborne, who served in the Army from 1977 to 1999, joined scores of veterans for the celebration. Patterson, who is Black, said he understood why they changed the name, but in his mind, the name is associated with the place, not the person — and specifically as the home of the 82nd Airborne.’I’m still gonna call it Bragg, even though the person that they named it after wasn’t a good person,’ he said. Mark Melancon, 63, who served from 1983 to 1990, wore a t-shirt that read ‘Born at Benning, Raised at Bragg.’ Fort Benning, in Georgia, was renamed Fort Moore last month. Asked about the change to Fort Liberty, Melancon replied: ‘We’re not thrilled about that. It’s always gonna be Bragg, the way we look at it.’ The Bragg name, Melancon said, conjured up strong feelings and memories. ‘Home. The camaraderie that we had. The brotherhood.’ “

Finally, we have this interview from NPR. [begin quote]


A handful of states in the South have an official holiday, June 3, to honor Confederate president Jefferson Davis on his birthday. Though there’s not a lot of fanfare around it, some of those states still resist calls to remove Confederate holidays altogether. Here’s Justin Hicks from Louisville Public Media.

JUSTIN HICKS, BYLINE: Raoul Cunningham is president of Louisville, Ky.’s, NAACP, and he also knows a lot about Kentucky’s holidays.

RAOUL CUNNINGHAM: At one point, I was deputy commissioner personnel for the state.

HICKS: So Cunningham knew that Kentucky law observes Jefferson Davis Day. It’s still a workday for state employees, and many Kentuckians don’t even know it exists. But he says just having such a day in state law sends a message.

CUNNINGHAM: The fact that you still put them on a pedestal is more disgraceful. I’m not hurt by them. I am offended by them and resent them.

HICKS: Kentucky is one of about 10 states that still have Confederate holidays on the books. In most places, they come and go unnoticed, but in others, like Alabama and Mississippi, state workers get a day off. In Kentucky, a bill has come up multiple times that would remove Confederate holidays. Chad Aull is a Democrat who introduced it this year, but it was ignored.

CHAD AULL: We could not get it assigned to a committee to even have a hearing.

HICKS: Oh, by the way, Kentucky was never even officially a Confederate state, but it is where Jefferson Davis was born. Karen Cox teaches history at the University of North Carolina. She says the holiday started with groups that promoted the Lost Cause, a movement that reframed the root causes of the Civil War at the turn of the century. Now many Confederate groups are just a fraction of the size, but their holidays remain.

KAREN COX: They’re the Lost Cause leftovers (laughter). Most states don’t officially observe it anymore. For the states that do, it’s a waste of taxpayer money, is what it is.

HICKS: Florida still has Jefferson Davis’s birthday on the books, too. Bob Holladay, a history professor in Tallahassee, thinks if it is observed, it should not be a celebration.

BOB HOLLADAY: I hope they’re very somber about it. I don’t know very much to celebrate about the Civil War. I hope that they’re commemorated as a tragedy, you know, which it was.

HICKS: Meanwhile, in Kentucky, lawmakers say they will just keep trying to get rid of Confederate holidays.

For NPR News, I’m Justin Hicks in Louisville.[end quote]

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