by Donald Smith
I’ve written a lot about the Congressional Naming Commission (CNC). In my opinion, the CNC has expressed contempt, and even disgust, for the legacy of people who served for the Confederacy. I base that assessment largely on the opinions and judgments the CNC declared in the Preamble to its Final Report. That Preamble is reprinted, in its entirety and without editing, below:
“There is much the United States should commemorate about the American Civil War
The Civil War turned a slaveholding republic into a champion of liberty, equality and freedom, and our nation has continually expanded its definition and defense of those values ever since – both between its shores and throughout the world. Through the courageous service and sacrifice of more than two million United States Soldiers from 1861 to 1865, what could have been our nation’s end became, instead, our second American Revolution. It made our Union more perfect. The American Civil War was, as Abraham Lincoln immortalized at Gettysburg, “a new birth of freedom.”
Yet this rebirth and revolution came at a terrible price. Between those fighting for the United States and those fighting against them, an estimated 620,000 Americans died in the conflict, and the war’s total casualties numbered around 1.5 million. The conflict was deadly, devastating, and destructive: on a per capita basis, the Civil War was eight times more lethal for Soldiers and 10 times deadlier for all Americans than World War II. In absolute numbers, the Civil War killed more Americans than the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and all other conflicts before the Vietnam War combined.
The Civil War impoverished Confederate lands and bankrupted its treasury. The defeated Confederates lived in the literal ruins of the slave society they had fought to perpetuate. While the United States government took forceful steps to end the causes of slavery and subordination through Constitutional Amendments and direct interventions, the destruction caused by their triumph in the war also led it on a path of clemency and mercy towards former Confederates. To some extent, this binding of the nation’s wounds was inevitable, as it was the only way to prevent a long-lasting, immensely difficult, and perhaps logistically impossible occupation of the defeated and devastated Confederacy. While the historical facts of the Civil War remained unchanged over the last 160 years, our nation’s memory of that war has transformed dramatically over that time.
Most importantly, during the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century, the South and much of the nation came to live under a mistaken understanding of the Civil War known as the “Lost Cause.” As part of the “Lost Cause,” across the nation, champions of that memory built monuments to Confederate leaders and to the Confederacy, including on many Department of Defense assets. In every instance and every aspect, these names and memorials have far more to do with the culture under which they were named than they have with any historical acts actually committed by their namesakes.
The origins of the naming of these nine Army bases are both haphazard and historical. During both World Wars, the U.S. Army opened dozens of new training camps and supply depots throughout the nation to train and equip close to 20 million military personnel. Approximately four million men and women served in and around World War I, and more than 15 million served in and around World War II. Although summoned into existence by these wars, and formed by the particular needs of the nation’s military, the bases were ultimately placed and named largely due to regional and political considerations. Pressed for time while arming against immense opponents and global threats, the Army often deferred to local sensitivities and regional connections of a namesake while naming them. Timing and culture mattered; the “Lost Cause” and Jim Crow were prevalent throughout the South and contributed to the hasty naming of bases.
When the military asked local leaders for input, local white Southerners advocated for names they had been raised to revere: Benning, Bragg, Gordon, Hill, Hood, Lee, Pickett, Polk, and Rucker. As such, the federal government named many Southern bases after Confederates. Most of these camps closed after the wars, but these nine bases remained with names honoring those who fought for the Confederate States of America. As America’s armed forces grew in power and permanence, these bases did as well. The once temporary camps became long-lasting forts and training facilities, home to some of the nation’s most storied Soldiers and military units. Yet their namesakes remained.
In every case, these names speak far more to the times, places and processes that created them than they do to any actual history of the Civil War, the Confederate insurrection, or our nation’s struggle over slavery and freedom.
Although Americans owe much of their modern identity to the Civil War, they do not owe equal commemoration to both sides. Though often conflated, commemoration and history come from all sections of our society and serve different purposes for different people. History describes the people and places of the past in all their greatness and grimness, achievements and failures, nobility and notoriety. Commemoration elevates an act, event, or individual by bestowing it with communal esteem and honor. The best histories present humans and their choices in the context of the complex and complicated days they lived through, articulating those decisions and actions to inform us on the societies of our past. The best commemorations highlight individuals, movements and moments that epitomize the highest values of our present and motivate us as we shape our societies of the future. History recounts, explains, and examines. Commemoration celebrates, affirms, and extols. History is about who we were. Commemoration is about who we strive to be.
In passing the 2021 William M. “Mac” Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act, the United States Congress determined that Confederates and the Confederacy no longer warrant commemoration through Department of Defense assets. In its work on their behalf, the Namng Commission determined many historical reasons that support this decision, grounded in the clear and uncontested facts of the Civil War Era. In its work following the provisions of the FY21 NDAA, the Naming Commission has often heard through its engagements that removing Confederates from Department of Defense commemoration constitutes “erasing history.” The Naming Commission shares this sensitivity to protecting the past. Americans need to acknowledge all of our past, letting the entirety of our nation’s historic actions inform the purpose of our present initiatives. Changing what is commemorated, however, is not the equivalent of erasing history. In conducting its research, the Naming Commission confirmed that the American Civil War remains one of our most prominently told national stories. Despite the incredibly deadly nature of the conflict, the Civil War occupies an incredibly “safe” spot in our national historical memory. As such, the Naming Commission is confident that their decisions to identify these nine bases for renaming and recommend new names for them are emphatically steps that neither exclude history nor expunge our past.
Commemorations should evoke our past and inspire our future. The United States communicates through its commemoration, conferring honor upon people from our past whose lives or actions articulate the values we strive to uphold. In the full view of history and with the nation’s steadfast dedication to equality under the law as a guiding light for all Americans, it seems certain that these current Confederate names will only become even more inappropriate over time. The Naming Commission is honored to serve the nation by determining those Department of Defense assets that currently commemorate the Confederacy, and by researching and recommending new names that reflect the values and virtues of our nation’s communities, military and mission. The Naming Commission members are committed to drawing upon the best examples from our national past to inspire the best forces for our national future.
In the case of the nine bases addressed in this part of the report, the Commission voted unanimously on each of the names it is recommending.”
This is the official link the U.S. government provided when the CNC report was issued. Don’t bother following it — it no longer works. (Imagine that!) Fortunately, the University of North Texas has archived the report. As we discuss the CNC’s actions, and their implications, over the coming months, consider bookmarking this story, so you can easily read the report for yourself. (Something that Congress apparently doesn’t want you to be able to do).
Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members still live there.