The Confederacy and Today’s Military

It goes deeper than base names.

Alex Horton reports for WaPo that “Erasing Confederate items from U.S. military will cost $62 million, panel says.”

Removing the last vestiges of Confederate history from the U.S. military, including renaming nine Army posts, will cost more than $62 million, a congressional commission said Tuesday.

The cost was summarized by the group tasked with a sweeping audit of the Defense Department to identify, rename, modify or remove assets that commemorate the battlefield exploits of those who fought during the Civil War to preserve slavery. There are 1,100 such items across the military, the commission found.

The project underscores how deeply rooted Confederate symbology is within the armed forces, a tradition-bound institution where some units still trace their lineage to key Confederate victories and commanders.

The nine installations to be renamed, all in former rebel states, have been a discussion point for years. But those talks reached a crescendo after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, which prompted a vast reexamination of race and racism in the United States. The commission was created in the next year’s defense policy bill.

The commissioners said in a call with reporters that, at Arlington National Cemetery, they recommended removing a statue atop a Confederate monument that depicts enslaved people, strip its bronze and leave the granite base and foundation. The commission previously decided that Fort Belvoir in Virginia, named after an 18th-century plantation on the same grounds, was out of its purview, deferring to the Pentagon to decide whether it should be renamed.

The deep-rootedness of the issue doesn’t surprise me in the least. The Lost Cause myth creation was incredibly effective, the South has long been disproportionately represented in the officer corps, and the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson have long since been incorporated into the US Army’s lore even though they fought against it.

Nor does the figure of sixty-nine miiiillllllion dollars seem like a huge price. It’s a one-time expense and we have an annual defense budget of $770 billion. We can absorb it.

How far we need to go to root these out is certainly debatable. The irony of things like renaming bases is that the vast majority of folks who train at them have no idea who the people they’re named after are. So, for example, I spent ten months at the Field Artillery school in Fort Sill, Oklahoma and had to just now Google who it was named after. (Brig. Gen. Joshua Woodrow Sill, a Union officer who fell at the Battle of Stones River.) I went to Airborne school at Fort Benning, one of the bases that’s being renamed, but had no idea who its namesake, General Henry L. Benning, was. (A prominent lawyer and judge who would later be Georgia’s Chief Justice.) A work colleague, a Black Army colonel who has spent quite a bit of time at the base (he’s an Infantryman) confessed he didn’t know, either, before the controversy over Confederate base names.

Now, I would argue that this actually makes it more reasonable to rename these bases. Even if the vast majority of Black soldiers serving on them aren’t offended by the name, why honor people who have long since faded from the history books? Certainly, Hal and Julia Moore are more worthy of being recognized at the home of the Infantry than Benning.

Still, it’s not obvious where one draws the line.

Defense One‘s Jacqueline Feldscher reports, “Arlington’s Confederate Memorial Should Go, Commission Says.”

The Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery should be dismantled, a panel of officials recommended on Thursday in their third and final report on renaming U.S. military bases, buildings, streets, and monuments that honor the Confederacy.

The Naming Commission, which was established by the 2021 Defense Authorization Act to address systemic racism in the military, is recommending that the statue on top of the memorial and all bronze elements of the monument be removed, but that the granite base should remain in place to avoid disturbing the graves nearby.

In an act meant to heal lingering animosities from the Civil War, Congress authorized the remains of Confederate soldiers to be reinterred there in 1900, eventually burying more than 400 Confederate troops in the graveyard. The monument was erected in 1914. “The history of the Confederate Memorial embodies the complex and contested legacy of the Civil War at Arlington National Cemetery, and in American culture generally,” says a description on the cemetary’s website.

The memorial includes a statue of a woman representing the “American South” surrounded by 14 shields representing the states that joined the Confederacy as well as Maryland, which remained neutral. The monument also includes a Latin quote that portrays the South’s position during the war as a “noble” cause, according to Arlington National Cemetery, using a common phrase of the revisionist “Lost Cause” movement of the early 20th century.

“It is problematic from top to bottom,” Ty Seidule, the vice chair of the naming commission, told reporters.

So Congress of the reunited United States, acting 35 years after the war, voted to inter 400 Confederate war dead at Arlington (which had been Robert E. Lee’s family estate). Fourteen years later, a monument was placed upon it reflecting the sentiment of the day that the history was “complicated.”

It seems strange, indeed, to reverse that decision six score and two years later. Hell, just add another plaque explaining the current understanding.

FILED UNDER: History, Military Affairs, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    but had no idea who its namesake, General Henry L. Benning, was

    Mr. Henry L. Benning.

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  2. Gavin says:

    Every time Arlington Nat’l Cemetery is referenced, substitute “The land of the traitor Robert E. Lee, Arlington Nat’l Cemetery”
    It always seemed bizarre to me both that people would assert and that other people would believe: “states’ rights” was something the South supported.. naturally, reality is that the South went to war because they were AGAINST the Northern states having and exercising their right to refuse the request of the Southern states to send back escaped slaves. Rewording for a more aggressive tone: The South did support states rights – as long as they were the only states with rights.

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  3. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I’m not sure I get what the “Mr.” swat was about in your comment. Care to elaborate?

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  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Benning was never a commissioned officer of the US military, so I see no reason to recognize the imaginary titles he and his militia buddies gave each other.

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  5. CSK says:

    @Gavin:
    If you read the Declaration of Secession for South Caroline, you’ll see that the only states’ right they were interested in preserving was the right to own slaves.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Gavin: The confiscated lands, per Erik Loomis’ usual phrasing. And he got off lightly at that. People talk of Lee as an honorable man who’s loyalty of course lay with Virginia. Most of the military age males in his family honored their oaths and fought for the United States.

    There’s a writer, I fear I forget who, who’s made a point of saying not Union or Northern but United States Army. Makes it clear who and what the the rebels were fighting. Who won the Civil War? We won.

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  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    @gVOR08:

    If you ever want to piss off a neo-confederate, insist on referring to Lee as Col. Lee 😉

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK: And the other state declarations.

    Sam Houston gave a speech when Texas was considering secession in which he bluntly told them if they did their sons would be killed, their homes and farms destroyed, and their wives and daughters immiserated. They ignored him. The aforementioned Erik Loomis @gVOR08: refers to Texas as the only state to commit treason in defense of slavery twice. (The Texans beef with Mexico was that Mexico had abolished slavery and was trying to enforce it in Texas.)

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  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Thanks. Now I see.

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  10. gVOR08 says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I like it. But I always refrain from asking about their affection for the Confederate Navy, since they all fly the Second Confederate Navy Jack instead of the Stars and Bars.

    I mentioned TX above. Lee was the U. S. Army commander in Texas. He happened to be in D. C. when Texas seceded. His second in command surrendered the forts, barracks, and arsenals to Texas and marched the troops out. General Scott offered Lee command of the army in the east. Lee declined and, as they said, went south.

    It’s easy to speculate about alternate history in which Lee is in Texas, feels duty bound to put up at least a token resistance (VA hadn’t seceded at that point), which likely would have locked him into the Union. Then imagine Lee instead of McClellan leading the Army of the Potomac. The war would have ended in mid 1862 as it should have, had anyone but McClellan commanded the Peninsula Campaign.

    Also, the Peninsula Campaign depended on the Union having retained Fortress Monroe, which gave them a secure landing area. Lee had been the engineer (= project manager) who built the fortress.

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  11. Jay L Gischer says:

    @gVOR08: I’d like to elaborate a bit more on the meeting between Lee and Winfield Scott. It seems that Lee responded to the offer of command in the East with the observation that both of his sons had already joined the Confederate Army and were in Richmond with that army. I’m pretty sure Lee, being a devoted family man, wanted desparately to not be the agent by which his sons were killed. Winfield Scott, however was childless, and said to Lee, “You are equivocating Lee. I have no room in my army for equivocators”. Lee went home and that night resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Army, serving as high general staff for the first year or so.

    I understand Scott’s remark to be masculinity shaming (in modern terms). Before 1860, most of what I have read about Lee tends to deepen my sympathies for him. I mostly identify with him. I fervently hope, however, that I have inoculated myself against toxic masculinity enough so that I could have, in Lee’s place, simply brushed off such an assault and insisted on a different posting, or sat the war out.

    Because I would not want to know that my own children were on the other side of that battlefield, either.

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  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @gVOR08:
    Lee owned a fortune in slaves. He followed the money. Everything else is bullshit intended to obscure the fact that he was a rich guy who was determined to stay rich.

    The men he led into battle, the men he got killed, were by and large working class southerners who did not own slaves and in fact were economically crushed by being forced to compete against slave labor. They were the MAGAs of their day – exploited by, despised by, ripped off by the people they trusted and looked up to. They fell for the line pushed by self-serving traitors like Lee, and they ended up dead or crippled for it.

    The US Army did its duty and preserved the Union. Southerners killed and died for a lie, a lie their descendants are still in many cases too fucking stupid to understand.

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    Correction: Lee only owned a few slaves, the slaves he used as, well, slaves, were owned by his father-in-law. He also believed slavery did more harm to Whites than to the slaves themselves. (No slaves were consulted for their opinions.)

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  14. Kathy says:

    @gVOR08:

    It’s how “literally” came to mean “figuratively”: Because people use it that way.

    Also, perhaps many today would think the Stars and Bars an early version of the US flag, or maybe some kind of state flag.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    Still, it’s not obvious where one draws the line.

    At celebrating racist traitors. Seems pretty obvious to me.

    By claiming that it is complicated, you are claiming the other side — slaveholders and those who would defend them — have a legitimate claim to honor.

    The Lost Cause was a terrible cause.

    Defense One‘s Jacqueline Feldscher reports, “Arlington’s Confederate Memorial Should Go, Commission Says.”

    Dig them up, and bury the remains of some slaves in their place.

    Or at least rename that spot Traitor’s Grove.

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  16. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08:

    The aforementioned Erik Loomis refers to Texas as the only state to commit treason in defense of slavery twice. (The Texans beef with Mexico was that Mexico had abolished slavery and was trying to enforce it in Texas.)

    I don’t know where I picked up that fun fact, but I’ve been mentioning it for decades. Texas really is special.

    I’ve always gone for the more neutral phrasing of “Texas is the only state to secede from two different countries to protect slavery.” I think that highlighting the fact that Mexico had abolished slavery before the US is a nice little bonus.

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  17. grumpy realist says:

    I always felt: leave the old statues alone, but attach a big honkin’ brass plate saying “Put up by a bunch of KKK-loving iidjits who hated Black Americans and President Lincoln.”

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  18. gVOR08 says:

    @Jay L Gischer: That’s not a version I’ve heard before. It doesn’t seem consistent with what I remember from various stuff I read years ago. You’ve made me curious. Do you have a source?

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  19. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    Most of the western hemisphere abolished slavery before America. If there’s an exception, it’s Brazil, which finally abolished it only in 1888.

    Mexico has had a bunch of constitutions, with the latest dating to 1917. A formal decree abolishing slavery was issued on September 15th 1829 by President Guerrero. The current constitution does reiterate this.

    Texas was a hot mess for a while*. Before Mexico’s independence in 1821, Spain had allowed Americans to settle in parts of Tejas, and many brought slaves along. That wasn’t much of an issue, as were taxes and tariffs, and having one of Mexico’s worst presidents (that’s saying a lot), Lopez de Santa Ana, in charge at the time.

    *And many times since.

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  20. Jay L Gischer says:

    @gVOR08: Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters by Elizabeth Brown Pryor

    Nothing Prior asserts in this book is inconsistent with anything else I’ve read, either.

    If Lee had made a different decision in 1860, it’s possible he would be nearly unknown now, though quite likely beloved by those who do know of him.

    As it is, he is the symbol of the Confederacy most likely to be reviled, precisely because he was the Confederacy’s best foot forward.

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  21. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy:

    Most of the western hemisphere abolished slavery before America.

    That is something the vast majority of Americans do not know, which is why I like to point it out as part of the Texas thing.

    We were taught that there was slavery pretty much everywhere, and that America was being exceptional in eliminating it, because we are a beacon of freedom, and that anywhere else than banned it first just did so because it wasn’t profitable there. (Ever tried to grow cotton in England? Of course they banned slavery, it was too expensive anyway so it was easy to ban)

    Which does sound a lot better than “a backwards nation dragging their feet into the 19th century.” If you’re building a myth of a nation, you’ll want to downplay that.

    And that’s the better, Northern education. I knew someone from North Carolina who was taught that there really weren’t very many slaves in North Carolina, slavery was more of a Mississippi and Alabama thing. (1850 census maps were a revelation to her.)

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  22. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher: For some reason in the last few weeks about three times I’ve seen some conservative say that the U. S. only received a fraction of the slaves taken from Africa. They seem to feel this is somehow exculpatory. And a reason we shouldn’t talk about slavery.

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  23. Chris says:

    @CSK: As a descendent of a signer of South Carolina’s secession document, I whole heartedly affirm your conclusion. It was about Slavery! May God forgive my slave holding ancestors and just in case their is any doubt I am against the subjugation of people and stand for liberty and justice for all!

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  24. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Chris: Ditto, speaking as a descendant of at least one Georgia slaveholder.

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  25. dazedandconfused says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I doubt that. Winfield Scott considered Lee the best general in the US Army and would’ve pushed hard to put him in charge. The war all but assuredly would’ve gone very differently had Lee been in charge of the Army of the Potomac instead of the calling the shots for the Army of Northern Virginia. Hard to imagine Lee making the same mistakes McClellan made in those first couple battles, very hard.

    Alternative History: What if McClellan had been so offended by Scott placing Lee in charge that he switched sides…and Jefferson Davis put him in charge of that The Confederate Army?

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  26. de stijl says:

    My predecessors arrived in the 1880s and wanted next to free farm land in Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin. And Swedish (or Norwegian, at a pinch) neighbors. A community.

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