The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Renaming military bases is not erasing history. It’s erasing propaganda.

A sign at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., one of numerous U.S. Army bases named for Confederate leaders. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

Fort Grant, named for the greatest American military strategist and general — a man who, uniquely, took the surrenders of three separate conquered armies, at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Appomattox Court House — did not survive long into the 1900s. No fort today is named for him.

Fort Sherman, named for Ulysses S. Grant’s partner in war and successor as head of the U.S. Army, was abandoned shortly after the Spanish-American War.

Fort Thomas, named for the stalwart Virginian who — unlike Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson — remained faithful to his soldier’s oath while rivaling them both in military skill, closed in 1964.

Several reserve units are all that remains of Fort Sheridan, named for the greatest 19th-century U.S. cavalry general.

And Farragut Naval Training Station, named for the indomitable admiral who gave the Navy some of its most stirring victories — “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” — closed in 1966.

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Of soldiers and sailors loyal to the nation during the Civil War, only two are honored in the names of prominent military bases. Fort Meade in Maryland, home to the National Security Agency and other cyberwarfare forces, commemorates George Meade — whose successful defense at Gettysburg left Lee 0-for-2 on Union soil. Fort Dix in New Jersey, now wrapped into Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, recalls John A. Dix, a political general considered too elderly for combat. Fort McPherson, outside Atlanta, bore the name of a Union hero who served under Sherman. It was closed in 2011.

By contrast, 10 active-duty facilities memorialize Confederate leaders of widely differing competence, from the tragic figures of Lee and his sacrificial lamb George Pickett, to bumbling Braxton Bragg and incompetent Leonidas Polk. A bipartisan move in Congress to rename these bases is opposed by two Senate whippersnappers vying for future Republican presidential nominations, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Hawley denounced the project as “attempting to erase that part of our history,” but that’s a weak defense and deserves no credence.

The White House video of Trump's visit to St. John's Episcopal Church in D.C. erases the violent attack on protesters by authorities that preceded it. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/The Washington Post)

What Hawley calls erasure is simply a sign of a healthy, vibrant nation busy making new history rather than languishing in the past. The story of a living people is constantly erased, revised and compressed to make room for new stories and a richer history. Union generals are not the only ones removed by history from center stage. In his day, Winfield Scott was praised by no less an authority than the Duke of Wellington, vanquisher of Napoleon at Waterloo, as “the greatest living soldier.” The military installation named in his honor was decommissioned in the 1980s. George Dewey, the highest-ranking officer in U.S. Navy history, has no naval base named for him.

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Time, like a great army, marches on.

Furthermore, what would be erased by renaming the bases is precisely the opposite of history. The honors paid to these 10 men were part of a remarkably successful propaganda campaign, a deliberate and concerted attack on history waged across generations.

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Long before Winston Churchill supposedly said it, Missouri politician George G. Vest claimed in 1891 that “history is written by the victors.” Not in the case of the Civil War. For the first 100 years, the history of America’s bloodiest conflict was interpreted primarily through the lens of Southern apologists. They occupied positions of power at leading universities and dominated the writing of America’s textbooks. Indeed, one “Lost Cause” historian, Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson, became president. In the White House, Wilson held a special screening of D.W. Griffith’s influential film “The Birth of a Nation,” a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan partly inspired by one of Wilson’s books.

Growing up in the 1960s — out West, not in the South — I was taught in school that Republican abolitionists were dangerous radicals (when, in fact, they were champions of human rights). I learned that Northern tariffs provoked the war, not Southern slavery. I learned that post-war attempts to bring a measure of equality to the former Confederacy were examples of corruption and carpetbagging. I learned that Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk butcher and a bad president, while Robert E. Lee was the epitome of military genius and personal integrity.

We called that “history” class. It ran the gamut from highly debatable to maliciously false.

The tragic irony of this propaganda machine was that the South bore the weight of it. The attempt to break up the United States through secession was a human and economic disaster for the South. The men who led that self-destructive project, men like the fire-eating Georgian Henry Benning and the relentless Texan John Bell Hood, did far more lasting damage to their own states — physically and psychologically — than they ever did to the North. Nostalgia for those men and their era left the region trapped and backward for a century, until the end of Jim Crow at last enabled the rise of a New South.

Old times that never were are best forgotten. Look away, Dixieland.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Harry Anderson: My experience at a Confederate-named Army base shows why we need to rename them all — now

Eugene Robinson: Trump might go down in history as the last president of the Confederacy

The Post’s View: Trump won’t remove Confederate names from military bases. So Congress and the Pentagon should.

Paul Waldman: Why Donald Trump is standing up for the Confederacy

Robert W. Lee IV: Robert E. Lee is my ancestor. Take down his statue, and let his cause be lost.