Remembrance–the ongoing public process of acknowledging the importance of past people and events, is inherently political (as we know all too well here in the “Witch City”) but it strikes me that Civil War remembrance and reconciliation is particularly problematical. This point was brought home this past weekend when I read a provocative and powerful editorial in the New York Times entitled “Misplaced Honor”. In the piece, author Jamie Malanowski calls for the renaming of the ten or more U.S. Army bases that are named for Confederate generals, men who led soldiers who fought and killed United States Army soldiers; indeed, who may have killed such soldiers themselves. Malanowski acknowledges the historical reason for the names of these bases– most of which were built between the world wars when the need for national unity was paramount–but asserts that we cannot let these names stand now, when African-Americans make up about a fifth of the military. The idea that today we ask any of these soldiers to serve at a place named for a defender of a racist slavocracy is deplorable; the thought that today we ask any American soldier to serve at a base named for someone who killed United States Army troops is beyond absurd. Would we have a Fort Rommel? A Camp Cornwallis?
Apparently there is even a consensus among Civil War historians that several of these namesakes (like Braxton Bragg of Fort Bragg) were bad generals. When I visited the official sites of bases names for Confederates–Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, Ford Benning–there was nothing to be found about these generals, except bland statements that they were local. And that really is the crux of it. The only substantive rejoinder to Malanowski’s argument that I could find (here) so far argues that local communities should have sway in the naming, or renaming, of public places in their midst. Hopefully, at the very least, this conversation can continue.
Portraits of Confederate generals, including Henry L. Benning, namesake of Ft. Benning in Georgia, lower center, Illustrated History of the Confederacy, 1899 & the 41st Engineers building a bridge at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, 1942, Arthur Rothstein, photographer, Library of Congress.