Few things unite a fractious Congress during these divisive times, but removing the names of men who committed treason to preserve slavery brought them together. Months ago, the House and Senate passed versions of the defense authorization bill with veto-proof majorities, but now The Post reports “softening” among Republicans.
The two-thirds majority in each house needed to override a presidential veto may be in danger, and some members are searching for ways to revise the bill, pushing the decision about renaming the Army bases into the next administration and the next Congress.
Such temporizing would be a disgrace in this year of racial reckoning. Congress should take a stand, letting the president know that it will override his veto and withdraw the honors for these Confederate generals, who constitute a motley assortment of pro-slavery activists, postwar white supremacists, poor tacticians, traitors and war criminals.
John Brown Gordon, namesake of Fort Gordon in Georgia, never served in the U.S. Army. After his service in Confederate gray, he led the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, a group of racist terrorists he called a “brotherhood of … peaceable, law-abiding citizens.” In 1868, Gordon gave a speech to Black people in Charleston, S.C., in which he promised that if they demanded equal rights, he would lead a race war and “you will be exterminated.”
The Fort Pickett Army National Guard installation in Virginia is named for George Pickett, immortalized in history for leading a failed charge at Gettysburg in 1863. The following year, Pickett ordered the summary execution of 22 U.S. soldiers who had had once served in the Confederate army. He hanged the men in front of their families. After the war ended, he fled the country because he feared he would be charged for war crimes.
Fort Lee, also in Virginia, is of course named for Robert E. Lee. He and his wife, Mary Custis Lee, enslaved many people; during the Gettysburg campaign, Lee’s forces kidnapped Black people and brought them back to Virginia for return to their owners or for sale. After the 1864 Battle of the Crater in Virginia, Lee’s troops massacred Black prisoners of war.
Army posts named for Confederates Braxton Bragg in North Carolina, John Bell Hood in Texas and Leonidas Polk in Louisiana honor some of the worst-performing generals of the entire Civil War. The other Confederates among the 10 Congress targeted are similarly contemptible.
Why does the United States honor such a hodgepodge of enemy generals?
The names of these military posts really tell us more about who chose them and when. The Army bestowed the designations during World War I and World War II, when racist segregation policies in the military reflected society at large. But the naming was also sometimes done to appease White Southerners. The Columbus, Ga., branch of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the leading neo-Confederate organization, recommended the local Army camp take its name from Confederate general Henry Benning. Before the war started, Benning had said he preferred “pestilence and famine” to Black equality.
While history tells us who we were, changing the 10 Army post names could better represent who we are and aspire to become.
Consider that Fort Lee is home to the Army’s logistics branches: transportation, quartermaster and ordnance. U.S. Army logisticians have been among the finest the world has ever seen, and they have often included many Black soldiers. During World War II, the drive into Germany by Patton’s Third Army depended on the support of the famed Red Ball Express. Three-quarters of the military truckers were Black.
Today, the Army’s logisticians support the U.S. and allied militaries around the globe, from Afghanistan to Somalia to the Philippines. Fifty percent of those soldiers are Black. Yet their home base honors a former U.S. Army officer who fought against the United States to create a new country dedicated to human bondage. Robert E. Lee chose treason to preserve slavery.
This nation should honor those who fought bravely to defend it, not its enemies. U.S. soldiers deserve to serve on military posts that reflect the best of America, not the worst.