Why are there U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals?
Memorial Day week seems as good a time as any to reflect on something that probably comes as a surprise to most patriotic Americans — the fact that some U.S. military facilities are named for men who fought against the U.S. Army.
HERE‘s the situation:
In the complex and not entirely complete process of reconciliation after the Civil War, honoring the dead with markers, tributes and ceremonies has played a crucial role. Some of these gestures, like Memorial Day, have been very successful. The practice of decorating the graves arose in many towns, north and south, some even before the war had ended. This humble idea quickly spread throughout the country, and the recognition of common loss helped reconcile North and South.
But other gestures had a more a political edge. Equivalence of experience was stretched to impute an equivalence of legitimacy. The idea that “now, we are all Americans” served to whitewash the actions of the rebels. The most egregious example of this was the naming of United States Army bases after Confederate generals.
Today there are at least 10 of them. Yes — the United States Army maintains bases named after generals who led soldiers who fought and killed United States Army soldiers; indeed, who may have killed such soldiers themselves.
Only a couple of the officers are famous. Fort Lee, in Virginia, is of course named for Robert E. Lee, a man widely respected for his integrity and his military skills. Yet, as the documentarian Ken Burns has noted, he was responsible for the deaths of more Army soldiers than Hitler and Tojo. John Bell Hood, for whom Fort Hood, Tex., is named, led a hard-fighting brigade known for ferocious straight-on assaults. During these attacks, Hood lost the use of an arm at Gettysburg and a leg at Chickamauga, but he delivered victories, at least for a while. Later, when the gallant but tactically inflexible Hood launched such assaults at Nashville and Franklin, Tenn., his armies were smashed…
Another installation in Georgia, Fort Gordon [above], is named for John B. Gordon, one of Lee’s most dependable commanders in the latter part of the war. Before Fort Sumter, Gordon, a lawyer, defended slavery as “the hand-maid of civil liberty.” After the war, he became a United States senator, fought Reconstruction, and is generally thought to have headed the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. He “may not have condoned the violence employed by Klan members,” says his biographer, Ralph Lowell Eckert, “but he did not question or oppose it when he felt it was justified.”
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.