Sunday, June 21, 2020

What's in a name?

As far as I know, there are 10 military installations in the continental United States that carry the name of Confederate officers.

They are, in no particular order (except alphabetical): Camp Beauregard in Pineville, LA; Fort Benning in Columbus, GA; Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, NC; Fort Gordon in Groveton, GA; Fort A.P. Hill in Bowling Green, VA; Fort Hood in Killeen, TX; Fort Lee in Prince Georges County, VA; Fort Pickett in Blackstone, VA; Fort Polk in Leesville, LA; and Fort Rucker in Dale County, AL.

To tell you the truth, I'd never given much thought to the names of these bases. Sure, through my interest in Civil War studies, I was aware that most of the names were of Confederate generals. If I did give it any thought, it was probably that I figured it was quaint Southern quirkiness to name bases in the South after Confederate military men.

But now, with the recent revisiting of anything Confederate, in part through the Black Lives Matter movement, a closer inspection is worthy. There is even growing congressional interest in changing these names to persons perhaps more deserving. Why, indeed, would you name an United States military installation after a Confederate soldier who ultimately failed? What kind of motivation does that set for a soldier?

And the Confederacy, after all, lost the Civil War – a war for the oppression and enslavement of an entire race of people. (And, it should be noted, that the Confederacy was never legally recognized internationally. Its only recognition came from within its own borders. Even the United States flag carried all 35 stars of the country during the course of the war. What Confederacy?)

As odd as it might be to name military bases after generals who lost, these particular names are especially curious:

General Braxton Bragg, of Warrenton, NC, was a commanding general in seven battles or campaigns in the Civil War, mostly in the western theater. He won just one of them – Chickamauga – and even that victory ultimately led to his defeat in the Chattanooga campaign several weeks later. So, yeah, let's name a military base after him.

Bragg, a surly sort who was often held in contempt by his own men, did not get along with politically appointed Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, who served in Bragg's army and with whom he often quarreled. Polk was also an Episcopal bishop, and he just might have been a better bishop than a general. A rebel without a clue. Yet he has a base named for him.

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard's claim to fame is that he was in charge during the bombardment of Fort Sumter when all hell broke loose. He did win at First Bull Run, too, but then more or less fell into disfavor with CSA president Jefferson Davis sometime after Shiloh a year later. He did convince Davis that the fall of Richmond in 1865 meant it was time to surrender. Kim and I have visited Charleston a few times, and we once took a horse-drawn carriage ride through The Battery where the tour guide told us that the PGT part of his name was ridiculed by locals as Peter Goof-off Two-timing Beauregard. So, yes. Camp Beauregard. Of course.

Ambrose Powell Hill and his Light Division were the stuff of lore early in the war, especially in the Shenandoah Valley under Stonewall Jackson. But then Gettysburg happened, and during that battle, he was virtually invisible. Maybe it was because he was suffering from a flare-up of the STD he acquired when he was a student at West Point. So, yeah, why not Fort A.P. Hill?

Major General George Pickett had long, golden locks that he regularly perfumed, which might have raised eyebrows in the Don't Ask Don't Tell era. His memorable moment came after the failed charge at Gettysburg that bears his name. After the charge, Gen. Lee asked him to recover his division. "General Lee, I have no division," replied Pickett. After the war, Pickett complained about Lee in an interview: "That old man ... had my division massacred at Gettysburg." Well, Fort Pickett does have a certain ring to it.

The Boll Weevil statue.
 Colonel Edmund Rucker was an acting brigadier general late in the war, but his higher rank was never confirmed by the Confederate congress. He served in the cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest and lost his left arm in the battle of Nashville. Fort Rucker is located near Enterprise, AL. There is no statue to Rucker that I know of, but Enterprise does have a statue to the Boll Weevil in its downtown square. The boll weevil statue was erected in 1919, during an era when the rest of the South was raising statues to Confederate soldiers. The insect was honored by the good people of Enterprise because the pest had devastated the area's cotton crop a few years prior and a different cash crop was needed. Consequently, struggling cotton planters became successful peanut farmers, thereby saving the local economy. The statue to the insect could be seen as witty satire by grateful locals.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. There are any number of military heroes better suited to name bases after: George Patton. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Harriet Tubman. Better yet, there are 3,520 medals of honor recipients from which to choose. That ought to be enough.

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