Why They Fought — and Deserve to be Remembered

Units descended from both Confederate and Union forces are now part of the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 138th Field Artillery Brigade. These campaign streamers, from the brigade’s colors, commemorate that service. Streamers with a gray top commemorate Confederate service, blue tops honor Union service.

by Donald Smith 

Soldiers go to war for many reasons — home, country, duty, glory, personal adventure. But, in the midst of battle, soldiers fight for their comrades — “the man to the left of me, the man to the right of me,” as the saying goes. Good soldiers are driven by an intense desire to not let their comrades down. That drive is one of the main reasons why Americans have always honored combat soldiers. Now, the United States Congress has arguably left out one segment of America’s past fighting force — Confederate soldiers — and indicated that those men don’t deserve the same level of respect from today’s military.

The Congressional Naming Commission’s Final Report — which has mysteriously gone offline — says in its Preamble: “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.”

Most people think that translates to changing some Army base names. Apparently the CNC thought much, much more broadly. It construed its authority to mean that it should pass judgement on any and all symbols of the Confederacy, no matter how large or small, anywhere within the DoD. Specifically, it determined it had the prerogative to comb through battle streamers on Army unit flags and cast a thumbs-down judgment on some.

“Since 1925,” wrote the CNC, in Part III of its report, “the U.S. Army has recognized the Confederate service of certain Army National Guard units to establish a historical connection between pre-Civil War organized militia units and the 20th-century Army National Guard. Current U.S. Army policy authorizes units to display campaign streamers for Federal service in a named campaign. Since 1949, some units have been authorized to display unique campaign streamers to denote their service in the Confederacy during the Civil War. These Confederate campaign streamers are authorized for display as an exception to the Army policy of requiring Federal service …. There are 52 Army National Guard units that display the distinctive Confederate campaign streamers to denote Confederate service.”

Not anymore, said the CNC.  “The Commission recommends the Secretary of Defense direct the Secretary of the Army to REVOKE the 1949 exception to policy that facilitated the adoption of battle streamers NOT associated with U.S. Army service. As such, all battle streamers that commemorate the Confederacy should be removed.” Congress, so far, seems to agree with this. There’s no sign that Congress has done anything to stop or delay the implementation of the CNC’s recommendations — which it can do, if it has the will.

The CNC’s action directly challenges an important principle that most Americans have comprehended and respected for centuries: the actions of the soldiers are not the same thing as the actions of the politicians and generals who send soldiers into battle. Men joined the Confederate Army or Navy for many different reasons. Some, to be sure, wanted to protect the institution of slavery. (Even though 70% of Southern white families didn’t own slaves, according to the 1860 census.) Others joined because they wanted to serve their state, or sought adventure and glory, or feared being scorned by the folks back home if they didn’t enlist. In 1862 the Confederacy enacted a conscription law, so many Confederates HAD to join.

Once a soldier joins a unit, though, especially one that sees extended combat, he builds a bond with his fellow soldiers. That bond carries them through tough and deadly times; it spurs them to do heroic things and risk their lives. That courage, and shared suffering and sacrifice, is what’s symbolized and commemorated by the streamers attached to Army regimental flags.

The 116th Infantry Regiment, Virginia Army National Guard, is descended from the Stonewall Brigade. It has nineteen campaign streamers for battles fought while in Confederate service. Each of the streamers has the name of a campaign — Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness — where regimental soldiers fought, suffered, died and distinguished themselves. They are a rich part of the unit’s — and our — legacy. Politicians in Southern state capitals were the ones who decided to secede from the Union and endorse slavery. Privates, sergeants and junior officers in the 116th Infantry Regiment, and others like it across the South, defended roads and charged entrenchments because they had been ordered to. The campaign streamers commemorate them!

One of the most poignant moments of Band of Brothers was a speech a German general gave to his soldiers as they surrendered to Easy Company. “You’re a special group,” he told them. “You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

The officers and soldiers of Easy didn’t interrupt the general’s speech to lecture him and his men that none of their courage and suffering mattered because they’d fought for Nazi Germany. The Americans listened respectfully, because they had the same special, unique bonds forged only in combat.  

The Union Army recognized that, too. At Appomattox, when the Confederate infantry marched in to formally surrender, the commander of the Union contingent called his troops to attention and salute arms. (General John B. Gordon, commanding the Confederates, saluted back). The Armies of the Potomac and James had no problem saluting the Army of Northern Virginia.  They felt and understood something that, apparently, the CNC didn’t. (Or wouldn’t).

The CNC is now disbanded, and its PR representative’s email no longer accepts messages. The one commissioner who is a member of Congress, Austin Scott of Georgia’s 8th district, refuses to discuss its judgments or why it reached them. His press aide said he “is unable to comment per commission request.” Therefore, the responsibility now falls on Congress. Congress created the CNC.  Does it agree with all of its recommendations? If it doesn’t, then it has all sorts of ways to avoid the implementation of those it doesn’t support.

Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members still live there.