On Nov. 30, 1864 the Civil War in what was considered the western theater effectively ended. After the bloody battle at Franklin, Tenn., Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee literally ceased to exist as a fighting force.
Hood, a Kentuckian and West Point graduate, wrecked his rebel army by smashing it against the breastworks of the Army of the United States against which he was in rebellion. The frontal assaults ordered by Hood, who was by all accounts himself a very brave man, severely wounded in earlier battles, left the field strewn with Southern dead.
“Never in any single-day battle during the entire war had that many Confederates soldiers been slain,” the historian and novelist Winston Groom has written of the Battle of Franklin. “In fact, Hood’s losses were double those of George Pickett’s famed charge at the height of the Gettysburg campaign. To add to the misery quotient, on no single-day battlefield of the war had so many generals been killed.”
Yet this is the soldier — a traitor to his nation, a brave but thoroughly reckless man when it came to the lives of his soldiers — that our country celebrates by putting his name on the largest military base in the country for training armored units of the U.S. Army.
By general agreement among Civil War historians, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, a North Carolinian, was among the very worst generals on either side. As historian Peter Cozzens has written: “Even Bragg’s staunchest supporters admonished him for his quick temper, general irritability and tendency to wound innocent men with barbs thrown during his frequent fits of anger.” In short, Bragg was a disaster as a military leader, not to mention a traitor to his country.
Yet this man was honored in 1918 when his name was attached to what is now Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, of which the legendary 82nd Airborne Division is a part.
Fort Benning, Ga., is named for Henry Lewis Benning, a mediocre Civil War general, but a world-class racist even by the standards of his time. As the New York Times noted recently: “Benning warned ... that the abolition of slavery would one day lead to the horror of ‘black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.’ ”
Fort Polk, La., is named for a West Point graduate, Leonidas Polk, who resigned his commission to become an Episcopal priest. His political connections, particularly his friendship with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, led to a general’s commission during the Civil War. Deficient as a battlefield commander, Polk also made an awful priest. He made it his task to use religion to justify owning his slaves. Polk’s military service is perhaps best remembered for his bitter quarrels with Bragg. The two hated each other and richly deserved each other.
All total, 10 different U.S. Army bases are named for Confederates who not only took up arms against their country, thereby violating their constitutional oath as officers, but who also fought to preserve slavery.
The American Civil War, at least until Donald Trump’s presidency, was our great national tragedy. But the losers of the conflict succeeded in remarkable ways in writing the narrative of the tragedy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy helped perpetuate the myth of “The Lost Cause,” the fiction that the Confederate cause was noble and its leaders chivalrous, by erecting in the early 20th century most of the statutes and monuments that lately have been coming down.
Georgia-born Margaret Mitchell cemented “The Lost Cause” myth in American culture with the publication of “Gone With the Wind” in 1936. The book remains an all-time best seller, but neither it nor the movie with its sanitized portrayal of a fight to preserve slavery, are history.
Mitchell, as the novelist Pat Conroy wrote, “was a partisan of the first rank and there never has been a defense of the plantation South so implacable in its cold righteousness or its resolute belief that the wrong side had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.”
The myth making, including the Confederate monuments and the misnamed military bases, has never been more under attack than it is right now. And it’s about time.
As historian Gary Gallagher, one of the great exposers of the myths of the Civil War, often notes, the terrible conflict wasn’t about some abstract notion of state’s rights or preserving a “southern way of life.” Our Civil War was fundamentally about the “peculiar institution” of human slavery. “One of the things that scared Confederates the most,” Gallagher says, “was that defeat would mean the loss of slavery and thus their control of black people.”
The president of the United States, of course, doesn’t read history and understands it not at all. So, he declares, “Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!,” and thereby rejects the removal of names of treasonous racists from 10 U.S. military bases. But Trump and all who cling to the gauzy legends are choosing not to reflect the reality of American history, but to revere the myths of it.
“We cannot be afraid of our truth,” then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in 2015 when he declared that his city’s legacy of reverence for the traitor class that sought to destroy the United States was over. It has never been more important to confront our truth.
While we’re at it, how about Fort Gavin to replace Fort Bragg in honor of Gen. James Gavin who jumped with his 82nd Airborne into Normandy in 1944 and later became a critic of American policy in Southeast Asia. Gavin’s wartime decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Cross and the Purple Heart. He was a true American hero.
There are many others vastly more deserving than Hood or Benning or Polk.
Michelle Alexander, who wrote a searching book about civil rights and our history called “The New Jim Crow,” says: “It’s not enough to learn the broad outlines of this history. Only by pausing long enough to study the cycles of oppression and resistance does it become clear that simply being a good person or not wishing black people any harm is not sufficient.”
A start at greater sufficiency at this moment of reckoning over history and racism would be white folks acknowledging that the symbols of oppression and the names of those that oppressed should not be glorified.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.