Opinion | Military Base Names and the Cult of the Confederacy

President Woodrow Wilson transformed government into an engine of white supremacy when he took office in 1913. His administration separated a federal workforce that had been embedded for 50 years and taxed bathrooms white and “colored” separated in federal buildings. As historian Eric S. Yellen shows in his landmark book Racism in the Service of the Nation, segregation was only a prelude. The goal was to drive African Americans out of influential jobs and confine them to a “controlled and exploitable working class”.

Wilsonians paid homage to icons of white supremacy by naming military bases for Confederate traitors who had waged war on this country in an attempt to keep black people in chains. This gesture of federal loyalty ratified the “Southern way of life” at a time when African Americans were hanged, shot and burned alive before cheering crowds throughout the Old Confederacy.

The honor of naming was part of the alchemy that turned America’s most notorious enemies of the republic into secular saints. The long-held myth that rebel generals had no connection to racism became unbearable when contemporary white supremacists swaddled themselves in Confederate symbols.

A coronation

By the time the Virginia-born Wilson came to power, a Confederate cult known as the Lost Cause had successfully popularized an outlandish and racist version of Southern history. This narrative made slavery a benign institution loved by slaves, and it gave credit to the Ku Klux Klan for violently repressing black political expression after emancipation. The Lost Cause presented Confederate generals as honorable men who fought to secure “states’ rights” instead of human servitude.

Lawyer Michel Paradis argues that the honor of the nomination was “one of the crowning glory” of the Confederate propaganda machine. He put the rebels who had nearly destroyed the Union on an equal footing with those who had paid a heavy price to preserve it. It also eased the way for military champions of slavery to be enshrined in influential places of worship, including the Washington National Cathedral. He raised the architects of Jim Crow during the Southern Reign of Racial Terror that would last well into the 1960s.

Among the first federal recipients was General Robert E. Lee, who opposed the citizenship rights of free blacks and allowed his Civil War forces to kidnap them into slavery. A base was also named in honor of a secessionist ideologue, General Henry Lewis Benning, who believed that maintaining slavery was the only way to prevent African Americans from becoming citizens and public servants.

A man nicknamed “the black plague”

The Designation Commission had an abundance of highly decorated veterans, but it wisely refused to limit its definition of meritorious service to combat conduct. The resulting list of nominees spans what my Times colleague Helene Cooper described as “a multicolored swath of Americans, including women and minorities — two long-ignored populations who have served or supported the military since its inception. “.

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The Naming Commission’s recommendations have yet to receive approval from Congress and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III. If this list is accepted, Fort Bragg in North Carolina – named after General Braxton Bragg, “the most hated man in the Confederacy” – would be renamed Fort Liberty.

Fort Benning in Georgia would be renamed Fort Moore, after distinguished career officer Hal Moore and his wife, Julia Moore. She is remembered for re-doing the once ruthless process by which the military notified families of the death of loved ones. This appointment recognizes spouses and families who often dedicate their lives to the Army.

Fort AP Hill in Virginia would take the name of Dr. Mary Walker, an abolitionist and champion of women’s rights who became the first female surgeon in Army history. She worked as a Union spy and served several punishing months as a Confederate prisoner of war. She received the Medal of Honor based on the testimonies of General William T. Sherman and General George Thomas.

Fort Gordon in Georgia would be renamed in honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a career soldier who led the D-Day assault on Normandy in France in 1944, became a five-star general and ended his career as a President of the United States.

Fort Hood in Texas would become Fort Cavazos, after General Richard E. Cavazos, a native Texan who was twice awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and served with extraordinary bravery in Vietnam and Korea.

Fort Rucker in Alabama would take the name of Michael Novosel Sr., a much admired airman and Medal of Honor recipient who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam – where he was 47 when he flew a helicopter rescue that saved the lives of 29 men.

The Naming Commission exercise draws its emotional power from calling for the renaming of two Confederate-named bases after Americans who joined in military service at a time when blacks were confined to units separate areas primarily designated for work such as road construction or ship loading. .

Fort Lee in Virginia – named after the Confederate general – would become Fort Gregg-Adams, in honor of two of these Americans.

Lt. Gen. Arthur Gregg commanded logistics units around the world and was among the wave of African American officers who requested training in 1948, the year President Harry Truman ordered an end to segregation in the armed forces. As a young soldier in the 1950s, Gregg joined the Fort Lee officers’ club.

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Lt. Col. Charity Adams left her teaching post for the Army after the start of World War II. She became a highly regarded instructor at the Officer Candidate School and later commanded the first unit of African-American women to be sent overseas. The postal battalion she commanded in England delivered mail to and from nearly seven million troops in Europe.

World War I hero William Henry Johnson, who served during Wilson’s time, received the Medal of Honor he so richly deserved nearly a century after his service. By proposing that Fort Polk in Louisiana take Johnson’s name, the commission highlights the extremes to which the Jim Crow-era United States sometimes went so far as to deny the very possibility of African-American heroism.

At the start of the war, Johnson joined the separate unit that would become known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He may have spent the war in Europe digging latrines or loading supplies for the United States, but he was instead assigned to French forces.

One spring evening in 1918, Johnson and a comrade were on sentry duty at a forward position in the Argonne Forest when a German raid attacked. Johnson engaged two dozen Germans, killing at least four, and prevented the attackers from carrying off his wounded comrade. He continued to fight despite being injured 21 times.

He became the first American hero of the Great War and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest military honors. He continued to fight with French forces and eventually became known as “Black Death”.

Returning to the United States, Johnson never received adequate treatment for his numerous injuries. He died destitute in 1929. His grave in Arlington National Cemetery was unknown for most of the century and was located in 2001.

A decade later, an aide to Senator Charles Schumer of New York discovered a previously unknown 1918 memorandum from General John Pershing describing Johnson’s valiant performance in the field.

During the Medal of Honor presentation in 2015, President Barack Obama alluded to the delay in recognizing Johnson’s accomplishments when he said, “We believe it’s never too late to say thank you. .” Naming a Southern military base for a black hero who nearly disappeared in Jim Crow times would be a very visible way to break with the cult of the Confederacy.

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