by Donald Smith
The week of January 16, 2023, was a big one for Virginia heritage issues in the Richmond area. Connor Williams, the chief historian for the Congressional Naming Commission (CNC) came to the American Civil War Museum to explain and defend the commission’s sweeping recommendations toward, and its disparagement of, Confederate memories on Department of Defense installations.
That week also saw the announcement that the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond would be renamed as part of a campaign to strip “racist history from military facilities,” according to a story in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
In the article, Sen. Mark Warner (D), a former governor of Virginia, praised the renaming. “Naming decisions should honor the patriotism of our veterans,” he said.
So, by highlighting that particular part of Warner’s statement, the Stars and Stripes apparently thinks that, in Mark Warner’s eyes, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire and the Virginia soldiers he treated during the Civil War were neither patriots nor veterans.
It is time for the General Assembly to act. The GA needs to convene a hearing to explore the CNC’s recommendations and let the CNC justify them.
The General Assembly now has enough evidence to conclude, or at least presume, that at least parts of the federal government want to assert that voluntary service in the Confederate armies, for any reason, was shameful and should be viewed nowadays with contempt. This stance is dismissive of and insulting to thousands of Americans in Virginia, the South, and across the country whose ancestors fought for many reasons besides defending slavery. All human beings feel their ancestors deserve respect if those ancestors behaved honorably. It’s human nature to feel an affinity for and pride in one’s ancestors. (Just look at the popularity of ancestry.com.)
The CNC’s recommendations appear to have spurred other elements of the federal government to act as well. Just two years ago, the VA had no plans to rename McGuire Medical Center. Yet here we are.
Up until now, the General Assembly could be forgiven for not challenging the CNC. Its recommendations weren’t released until last fall. (Right in the middle of a congressional campaign season, which is the ideal time to release findings that you don’t want people to examine and contemplate).
No longer. It’s one thing to change the names of Army bases. Confederate heritage supporters like me will — or at least should — readily concede there was a clear imbalance in the active duty Army bases named for Confederate versus Union generals.
We had Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, Fort Lee, and Fort Hood, but no Fort Grant or Fort Sherman or Fort Thomas. (And Confederate heritage supporters should also admit that John Hood and Braxton Bragg weren’t exactly great generals). And, several Virginia Military Institute cadets and alumni have admitted to me that before Stonewall Jackson’s statue came down, the Main Post did have an overpowering “Stonewall” presence that many folks found off-putting.
But we’ve come far beyond changing base names or moving statues. We’ve reached the point where even a Confederate doctor’s name on a federal facility is controversial, and where the head of VMI’s commemoration committee tells us that the institute simply had to sandblast Stonewall Jackson’s name off of Old Barracks because the committee couldn’t come up with a way to justify leaving it there.
We have come to a place where a congressional commission claims it had Congress’ blessing to scour Department of Defense facilities, look at every plaque, every street name, even every brick in the Ranger Walk of Fame at Fort Benning…
Here’s a quote from page 41 of Part 1 of the report, concerning Fort A.P. Hill:
In addition to the Fort A.P. Hill base name, the Department of Army identified numerous other assets named after 30 Confederate officers, one NCO, Civil War battles and A.P. Hill affiliates to include his wife, horse, and courier (Appendix F). The Commission recommends all of these assets be renamed.
If we have reached the point as a society and nation where Congress is directing the Army to dig up bricks from a memorial walk and terminate with extreme prejudice any public mention of a long-dead general’s wife and horse, then we are on the path to becoming what the British would call a “figure of fun.”
You don’t get to tell people, or other countries, how to perceive you. They won’t read your press release; they will look at the evidence, connect the dots they see and come to their own conclusions.
As former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson once said, an allegation unchallenged is an allegation believed. The same goes for assertions. The Virginia General Assembly should call a hearing, invite CNC commissioners and key staff to testify, and debate how Virginia should respond to the CNC’s assertions, judgments, and recommended actions. Legislation probably isn’t possible, but hearings or press conferences or press releases certainly are.
One of the commissioners, Rep. Austin Scott, R-Georgia, should be able to come to Richmond easily, or at least take questions via Zoom. Virginia deserves explanations on why commission members — two Army generals, one Navy admiral, one Marine Corps general, one congressman and a Yale professor — felt all of this was necessary.
Undoubtedly, we will all hear something at some point that makes us uncomfortable. But if we have reached the point where a Confederate doctor no longer deserves to be respected as a veteran and patriot, we need to start asking some pointed questions. Lots of them.
Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members still live there.