The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Army continues to honor Confederate unit histories, even as base names draw scrutiny

A soldier in 1st Battalion, 167th Infantry Regiment of the Alabama National Guard, wears the “4th Alabama” tab in Afghanistan in 2013. The unit traces its lineage through 4th Alabama, which served in the Confederate Army. Soldiers in the unit stopped wearing the tab in July. (Bill Putnam/U.S. Army)

It was early September 1864 when Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan, with a reputation among Southerners as a swashbuckling gentleman, was surrounded by federal soldiers outside a Tennessee mansion.

Morgan fled across the lawn. A Union bullet shredded the general’s heart, a member of his staff wrote to Morgan’s wife, ending his campaign of ambushing and capturing U.S. troops.

Nearly 160 years later, Morgan’s legacy lives within 1st Battalion, 623rd Field Artillery Regiment of the Kentucky National Guard, which traces its lineage through a cavalry unit he commanded. Its members are officially nicknamed “Morgan’s Men.” On the radio, the commander is known by the call sign “Morgan 6.”

The names of 10 Army posts christened after Confederate officers have been under intense scrutiny following social justice protests last summer. But far from public view, the Army is also grappling with the other ways it lionizes aspects of the Confederacy, which killed and wounded more than 420,000 U.S. troops to protect the institution of slavery.

At least three units have official nicknames that honor their Confederate roots, according to a count by the Army provided to The Washington Post. One of them, a unit in Virginia, is called “Stonewall Brigade” after Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

At least three others have names tied to the Confederacy in other ways, the Army said.

Some commands have reviewed or phased out references that celebrate rebel heritage after the police killing of George Floyd renewed attention on Confederate symbolism in modern society.

A December law mandated removal of Confederate names from Defense Department property and created a commission to guide the process. The Army is working with the commission and the Pentagon to identify the Confederate nicknames, officials said.

All six units with designations tied to the Confederacy identified so far are within the National Guard, which absorbed some Confederate units and mottos after the Civil War.

Official unit nicknames, termed “special designations,” are nods to historic commanders, battles or units. The 369th Sustainment Brigade in New York, for example, officially became the “Harlem Hellfighters” in January — an ode to its lineage of decorated Black soldiers in World War I.

Units request special designations by submitting historical justification to the Army’s Center of Military History for approval. Changes follow the same process, and units must initiate the request, officials said.

The Morgan’s Men designation and other items with potential links to the Confederacy, such as patches and call signs, are under review, said Lt. Col. Stephen Martin, a spokesman for the Kentucky National Guard.

Part of the review will determine whether the unit should request to change Morgan’s Men and potential candidates to replace it, Martin said.

“The legacy of the Confederate States of America does not align with our values. We understand how offensive some of the special unit designations can be perceived, especially in light of their ties to the confederacy,” Brig. Gen. Hal Lamberton, the Kentucky adjutant general, said in a statement.

The 623rd, which received approval to call itself Morgan’s Men in 1969, could have picked a name from a different period in its rich history. Its lineage includes Union service after the Kentucky State Guard fractured in 1861, sending soldiers to opposite lines. They reconsolidated after the war. The unit later served in World War II and the Korean War.

But selecting Morgan’s Men at the tail end of the civil rights movement appears to be part of a broader embrace of Confederate mythology known as the Lost Cause, which reemerged as Black Americans fought for rights, said Adam Domby, an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston and the author of “The False Cause.”

The Lost Cause recast rebel traitors as morally righteous warriors defending states’ rights, Domby said, and spread the false belief that slavery was benevolent.

Morgan is a key Lost Cause hero in Kentucky mythmaking, said Patrick Lewis, the director of research and collections at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

“It does not surprise me they found Confederate ancestry to latch onto,” Lewis said of the 1969 decision.

The Army said there are 752 special unit designations, which can appear in armories and on correspondence and flags. In many cases, they double as radio call signs for the unit commander.

In Virginia, the 116th Infantry Regiment traces its ancestry through the American Revolution, World War I and the D-Day landings in France. But the unit is designated the Stonewall Brigade for its history under Jackson during the Civil War.

“Why associate it with the Confederacy and racism? It could easily be named the ‘Normandy Brigade,’” said a former member of the unit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid complications in his current assignment.

The commander of the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the parent unit of the 116th regiment, used the radio call sign “Stonewall” until November, said Cotton Puryear, a spokesman for the Virginia National Guard. It was replaced by “St. Lo,” a reference to the unit’s role in a brutal 1944 battle in France.

A diversity and equality council within the Virginia Guard is reviewing Confederate symbolism, Puryear said. The council will deliver recommendations to state adjutant general Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, including whether to make a request to change the Stonewall Brigade designation, Puryear said.

“We will follow a deliberate process that takes into account our organizational history, incorporates a modern context and the voices from across our formations,” Williams said in September.

Members of the 116th Brigade wore a shoulder patch depicting Jackson mounted on a horse for nearly 30 years, until it adopted a divisional patch in 2007.

Another unit, the 167th Infantry Regiment of the Alabama National Guard, began as a militia group in the 1830s and was organized as 4th Alabama Infantry in the Confederate Army in 1861.

The 4th Alabama surrendered at Appomattox in 1865 and was later absorbed into a band of militias that eventually became the Alabama National Guard. The unit repelled German attacks in pivotal battles in World War I and saw action in World War II.

But Confederate honors have endured, and the 167th’s special designation is “4th Alabama.”

Soldiers assigned to the unit wore tabs reading “4th Alabama” until last July. The tab, which was not authorized by the Army, was created to honor the lineage of the 167th and “display their military accomplishments on the battlefield,” said Maj. Jacqueline Whitt, an Alabama National Guard spokesperson.

Alabama’s adjutant general discontinued the tabs and use of the designation on official documents in July. The unit has not asked the Army history office to remove or change the designation, Whitt said.

In 1971, as the nation was engulfed in battles over school desegregation, the unit successfully petitioned to add 13 stars to its coat of arms, symbolizing 4th Alabama’s “battle campaigns in the War Between the States,” according to Army history.

The War Between the States is a term for the Civil War commonly used by Lost Cause proponents, Ty Seidule, a retired Army general and former U.S. Military Academy history professor, wrote in his book “Robert E. Lee and Me.”

The units that use designations associated with the Confederacy also include the 31st Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Brigade in Alabama. Its nickname is “Dixie,” in reference to its lineage from the Dixie Division in World War I consisting of National Guard units from the South. There are no plans to change the name, the Alabama Guard said.

In Mississippi, the 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team is called “Dixie Thunder.”

One designation, “Blue and Gray,” was coined for the 29th Infantry Division as a symbolic gesture of unity among soldiers from the North and South.