Difficult to Broach

I feel a bit of uncertainty about broaching this subject on a day set aside for unity. But I couldn’t help but mention it after reading this opinion piece by Jamie Malanowski from the Times on May 25th. The gist is that there are 10 U.S. military bases named after Confederate generals. At the risk of stating the obvious, these are men who broke their allegiance to the United States, fought against the United States and either directly or indirectly were responsible for killing numerous members of the United States Army (mainly Army, though Marines and Sailors too.)

This is a complicated story, there are a lot of choices and compromises that were made to stitch the American union back together in its inner places, after it had been forced back together by military victory.

The Civil War ended almost 150 years ago. And from this distant perspective most of us see it as a short interlude in the country’s history when the country briefly broke in two and then was put back together. Today we treat it as pretty much a given that after 1865 it was never again seriously considered that the South might be another country or might again try to break the federal union. Looking at the full expanse of human history, that’s not the only or most likely outcome. And it’s not an accident. If you look at the political and cultural history of the United States in the 35 years after the Civil War, a number of decisions were made to make that possible.

One of the most obvious and most damaging was the decision to cede to the Southern States the decisions about how it would deal with the millions of black citizens created by the War. But that was part of a whole fabric of choices – some explicit and other implicit – to gauze over what had actually happened in the war.

The official records of the Civil War were published by the War Department as The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Even here you can see the process of normalization and forgetting mid-way. You have the title “War of the Rebellion” which captures both the official and actual version of what the war actually was – a rebellion against the government of the United States, a description you almost never hear today. And at the same time you have the “Union” and “Confederate” Armies described on equal terms. Needless to say, the U.S. government never accepted that such a thing as the ‘Confederate States of America’ existed. They were all U.S. citizens in a state of rebellion against the legitimate government.

As part of the process of national reconciliation those facts were intentionally forgotten. The U.S. government eventually took over the care of Confederate graveyards. And on the cultural level, the two sides were increasingly seen on equal terms. Two sides, two armies with equal valor, honor and history. But all part of the past. If you dig a little deeper you see that part of this tacit compromise was the decision to mollify Southern defeat by elevating Southern ‘valor’ above that of the North. It’s no surprise this was done in the South. But in the 1880s and 1890s this was increasingly done in the North as well. A tacit bargain: you lost, we won, and we’re all living in the USA. But we’ll let you win in the battle of memory and valor and nostalgia. Both a cause and effect of this national reconciliation was the slackening Northern commitment to protecting the former slaves, now citizens in the South, and their eventual abandonment.

Coming from my point of view, it genuinely seems outrageous that Confederate generals who were – let’s not paper over the facts – traitors are honored by having massive U.S. military bases named after them. There’s a major difference between respecting and honoring sacrifice – which exists separately from the political movement you’re fighting on behalf of – and honoring people in this way.

Today most of us probably see the problem as the fact that these guys fought to protect slavery. And whatever revisionist nonsense you hear out there that is unquestionably true. But that’s only one part of the equation. At least as big in my mind is that these men were traitors – rebels against the democratic ideal and the federal union around which any American patriotism has to be based. Taken together these two things are a really, really big deal. One can only begin to imagine what Union soldiers who died on the battlefield would make of all this.

Clearly, the federal government’s abandonment of its African-American citizens is the biggest harm done by all of this. But there are myriad related harms, perhaps the most important of which is the valorization of the Confederacy itself and all the knock-on effects of Confederate flags flying over state capitols and the way that the myth of Southern valor has become a touchstone for the still potent force of political white supremacist groups.

As you can see, I have pretty strong feelings about this, always have. I could go on and on on this point. If it were up to me, the whole ‘Confederate’ entity would simply be treated as a rebellion, no different from other American citizens who’ve gone to war against the United States. And yet I also recognize that I and all the rest of us live in a country that has benefited for more than a century from not having perennial paramilitary conflicts, a whole section of the country that has to be held in check by force. It’s very easy to ignore this possible alternative American history – one arguably bought by the valorization and glamorization of the Confederacy and the decision to consign what were then known as the ‘freedmen’ to a century of semi-freedom.

I won’t conclude this with any grand conclusion. Despite my own commitments, perhaps because of them, I’d rather focus on the complexity of the choices Americans made a century ago. Or to put it a bit differently, to be honest about how many – but not all – of us have benefited from those choices. But circling back to the original question, perhaps this is a question worth revisiting. Perhaps we’ve come far enough – regardless of the equities at stake 100 or 75 years ago – that we can revisit this question.

Why are men who turned traitor against our country for a terrible cause and were responsible for the deaths of so many American soldiers honored by having some of our largest military bases named in their honor?

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