Renaming Military Bases Is “History Correcting Itself”

By Bill Bray

In the past year or so, there seems to be more than usual public commentary about America’s past, particularly concerning racial and social justice. Some believe the past is being distorted and “canceled” to serve a progressive social agenda. Others believe as a nation we have never honestly reckoned with it. Still others seem to want to ignore or forget it. Move on.

As the Department of Defense Confederate naming commission continues its work and prepares to make its recommendations on what bases, buildings, sites, and perhaps even ships should be renamed, it is instructive to read and reflect on how humans understand and interpret the past. Social scientists and artists, among others, have long wrestled with this phenomenon. Both know that the past is not something we can simply know, as if we were looking at it objectively from a distance. Instead, it is something we never fully know or escape. To a large degree we interpret the past through what we want to believe, and that insistently informs how we think about the present.

However, acknowledging that we cannot fully know the past does not mean trying to know it is a hopeless endeavor. On the contrary, societies must never stop trying to understand their pasts. The quest for a strong, shared understanding of the past is an important component to living harmoniously together. The past can never be forgotten. Claiming otherwise is delusional or disingenuous. Forgetting is impossible. The past matters more than most realize or want to acknowledge. History is more than perspective. There are facts. But contemporary human experience is meaningless without memory—without a past. The past is in the present as oxygen is in water.

Critics who claim renaming U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals is tyrannical, “woke cancel culture” are—probably partially in ignorance—advancing a hypocritical argument deeply offensive to the thousands of Union Army, Navy, and Marine Corps veterans. Following the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, these men formed a veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (there were GAR chapters across the northern states). While initially created to advocate for better veterans’ benefits, by the end of the nineteenth century the GAR chapters were engaged in a fierce public relations campaign to debunk the Lost Cause mythology narrative. They opposed pensions for Confederate soldiers, statues and memorials to Confederate generals in Washington and other northern states, and the display of the Confederate flag, among other things. While the term was not in use at the time, GAR members knew what many contemporary historians have since aptly demonstrated—the Lost Cause narrative was the greatest “cancel culture” campaign in American history. 

Take, for example, this statement from the Michigan GAR in 1903 in response to the widespread practice of putting Lost Cause literature in Southern textbooks: “There is a sentiment which endeavors more or less to place the disloyalty of the South upon the same plane with the loyalty of the North, which aims to make an act of disloyalty less disgraceful. I have no use for such sentiment. It is only a matter of time when history will correct itself and place them in the true light on its pages as traitors.” In 1914, the department commander for the Indiana GAR wrote, “While I have long forgiven my ex-Confederate brother for the terrible mistake he made in trying to destroy this Union of ours . . . you should remember and never forget it, that there was a right and there was a wrong . . . a government that fails to recognize the difference between a patriot and a traitor, a defender and a destroyer, would and should pass from the earth.” 

The GAR did not oppose forgiveness and reconciliation, only veneration built on a lie. They opposed what Major General Henry Thomas, a Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union, in writing to Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, called any effort to paint the “. . . crime of treason . . . with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government. . .” Sadly, just this year, the Confederate flag was brandished in the U.S Capitol during an attempted insurrection. History has still not corrected itself. Would it not be a wonder that the men of the GAR would be shocked that it has taken so long?

As the last of the Civil War veterans passed away in mid-century, the GAR had largely failed to counter the Lost Cause narrative and all that came with it for white and black Americans alike. For generations that came of age after World War II, including mine, in both the North and the South, the past was not understood independent of this narrative. It has infected both popular and academic literature. The long effort to resurrect the Confederacy as a noble cause has become part of the collective experience.

Thinking about the Past through Literature

One Southerner who would not be shocked at all began his writing career as this GAR campaign was in full fury. Perhaps no American writer dealt with the past more deftly and innovatively than William Faulkner. His technique of using inner dialogue across time—where past and present are intertangled and often indistinguishable, narratively—frustrates most first-time readers, but then, if they persevere, awakens them to how the past lives in all of us. Through so many unforgettable characters, Faulkner shows that experience is chaotic, disorienting, and often emotionally violent. Humans quickly order experience retrospectively to make sense of the world, a mechanism made possible only with memory—how they remember the past.

William Faulkner knew the past of his people well, but as an artist he was most interested in how they thought about the past, and how the past always lives in the present and determines the future. Past, present, and future are not neatly distinguished in the human mind, and Faulkner’s greatest achievement—the one that makes him perhaps the greatest writer in American letters—is how he demonstrated this narratively. In a 1956 interview with Jean Stein for The Paris Review, Faulkner remarked that, “The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully . . . proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as ‘was’—only ‘is.’ If ‘was’ existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.”

Most recently, Michael Gorra masterfully tackled how Faulkner dealt with how Southerners thought about the Civil War with his book, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War. With racial and social justice so prominent in the news today, no book from last year seems more relevant to me. It is an intricate blend of Civil War history, biography, and literary criticism.

As Gorra shows, Faulkner rarely includes Civil War scenes in his oeuvre, yet the war is always there, its traumas swirling just beneath the surface of both scenery and dialogue. Most of his characters know the Civil War only as a fragmented labyrinth of memories and myths passed down to them. They feel the past as their truth, while acknowledging, as Quentin Compson, one of Faulkner’s recurring characters, does in Absalom, Absalom!, that they do not fully understand their own history.

Readers of The Sound and the Fury (1929) know that Quentin kills himself on 2 June 1910, following his freshman year at Harvard. Absalom, Absalom! (1936) begins the year prior, in 1909, with a tortured Quentin discovering who he really is, a terrifying journey of self-awareness. Quentin is the past—an incarnation of the pathos of a region defeated and desperate for the balm of Lost Cause mythology. He bears the burdens of the racial divide that intensified following the failure of Reconstruction, and the rarely-acknowledged secret of Southern plantation heritage that would become the cardinal sin in the Jim Crow South—miscegenation.

Absalom, Absalom! appeared the same year Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind, for which she would win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Mitchell presented a highly romanticized, white-washed Civil War history to a still deeply racist country, and Americans loved it. While William Faulkner’s many flaws and contradictions regarding race are well documented, he, unlike Mitchell, was not popular with Southern segregationists. Complex depictions of the South’s post–Civil War reality were not their cup of tea. Faulkner was the far more courageous writer in never ceasing to search, through his literature, for what the Civil War really means for who we are and where we are going. 

Those charged with deciding whether to rename military bases named for Confederate generals or remove Confederate statues could do worse than to read William Faulkner’s books. As his character Gavin Stevens, the lawyer in Requiem for a Nun (1951), remarks, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Should a member of the GAR be alive today to witness a Confederate statue coming down or a base being renamed, he would never view it as an injustice or affront to Southern heritage. He would view it as history correcting itself—finally.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Featured image: Gettysburg Battlefield National Park. Photo by U.S. National Park Service.

20 thoughts on “Renaming Military Bases Is “History Correcting Itself””

  1. My Great-great grandfather Trost was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic(GAR). I’ve tweeted his picture during the war many times. @jkuehn50. His sword was a GAR sword, given to him in honor of his four years of service in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. He lived in Lexington Kentucky and he was always proud of his Federal service.

  2. Great perspective, and thought provoking.

    The GAR was still an influential political institution at the time of America’s entry into WWI, are there any records pertaining to their position with regard to the naming of installations at the time or shortly their after?

  3. I largely agree with the sentiments expressed here. The “Lost Cause” narrative has been poisonous and the treason of the Confederacy too often glossed over. This should not be ignored. Reconciliation was necessary after the war – and I am certain that Reconstruction writ large would have gone far, far better had Abraham Lincoln lived than it did with Democrat and racist Andrew Johnson at the helm – but it can be carried too far. However, I object to Captain Bray’s characterization of January 6th as an “insurrection” and with it the implied charge that anyone disagreeing with that characterization is analogous to a Confederate sympathizer. Insurrection means a violent, armed attempt to overthrow the government. Firing on Fort Sumter was insurrection. A bunch of unarmed idiots invading the Capitol was not.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I am hardly the first or only person to call what happened on 6 January an insurrection. It was a violent attempt to stop the Congress from fulfilling its Constitutional duty in certifying the 2020 election. The fact that those participating did not carry firearms (some did carry bats, clubs, etc) and were ‘idiots’, in your characterization, or that the attempt was hopelessly futile, does not mean it was not an attempted insurrection. In their 12 January memo, the Joint Chiefs characterized it as a “direct assault on the U.S. Congress, our Capitol building, and the Constitutional process. . .The rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to resort to violence, sedition and insurrection.”

      I also did not imply, or mean to imply, that anyone who disagrees with the characterization of the 6 January event as an insurrection is a Confederate sympathizer. Only that Confederate sympathizers found common cause with the insurrectionists.

      1. I was in Baghdad when it fell and the year after. I know what an insurrection looks like. What happened on January 6th was a riot and no more an insurrection than the CHAZ or 76 straight nights of rioting in Portland.

      2. Bill, great thought provoking article! Made me decide to add some Faulkner to this year’s reading list!

  4. The discussion is not about the name changes, per se, as many would agree with the motivations expressed in portions of the article. However the REASON for the change, now, is not related to the arguments presented here.

    As pointed out, “To a large degree we interpret the past through what we want to believe, and that insistently informs how we think about the present.” History is told through the lens of the personal experience and perspective of historians. Further, “History is more than perspective. There are facts.”

    So there are objective, documented facts that are ignored by these very same people seeking to revise history with CRT, 1619 Project, and “equity” dialogues. This perversion of history and perspective, not the reasoned reevaluation of the culpability of the Southern Generals for which bases are named (or statues were erected), is the reason for the destruction of monuments and the renaming of bases. It is a matter of a morally correct reinterpretation and motivation and one with baser, political motivation to support – symbolically – their perverted views of our history, culture and government.

    So this article appears to be a disingenuous attempt to paper over the real motivations and actions of the people and organizations behind this movement with a benign academic interpretation that is NOT shared by these people and organizations.

  5. The bottom line is that the Confederate fighters, and the civilians who supported them were traitors to the United States of America, no ifs, ands or buts about it. And therefore are and must remain ineligible for the honor of having US military bases or other facilities named after them.

    TrustbutVerify is totally and perversely wrong. The motivations for eliminating honors for traitors has zero to do with wokeness or liberal politics. Yet the original reasoning for naming honored facilities after dishonorable traitors was precisely the intent of practicing white supremacy and defending Confederate slavery and treason. The commenter got it bass ackwards.

    It is long past time to correct these evil and dishonorable names.

    As to the author’s other point, that the past is never past and is always subject to reconsideration by future peoples and peoples with different agendas, of course. The oldest saying is that history is always written by the winners of conflicts – which makes the naming of our existing US military facilities after proven dishonorable traitors not only wrong, but unprecedented and extremely peculiar.

    There are no Adolf Hitler Memorial Highways in Germany or the US, and no King George III universities in the US, and there never should have been a Fort Bragg or a Fort Hood.

    Where I most definitely do disagree with some of the loudest voices on this matter is renaming facilities or naval ships that are currently named after Civil War battles that the Confederates won. Such names, like Chancellorsville, do not honor the dishonorable traitors, they honor the bloody and consequential battles in which many thousands of completely honorable and loyal Union soldiers lost their lives defending our Union. After all, we also have a naval ship named the Bunker Hill, and another was named after the Coral Sea, and a former ship was named the Savo Island, all three of which battles were, at the time they were fought, American defeats, no matter how much revisionists later argued that they were actually strategic victories for America.

    Indeed, most of the battles fought by the American forces during the Revolutionary War were defeats of the Americans. But we persisted despite those defeats, and without the sacrifices of those defeated warriors we would not be a nation today. And we honor all those sacrifices, whether in victory or defeat.

  6. With all the pressing problems DoD is facing, shouldn’t the attention of DoD leaders be better focused on other issues?

  7. What ought not be forgotten is that the North invaded and despoiled a self-declared sovereign nation.

    “Four score and seven years” earlier, the self-declared sovereign nation of the United States declared its independence from an abusive government–and “four score and seven years” later the Confederate States did exactly the same thing.* Were the Americans of 1776 “traitors?” England certainly thought so, but that was their reality, not ours. But neither were those of the Confederacy traitors to their country, the CSA.

    Nowhere in the Constitution is it said that statehood agreements, voluntarily entered into by the states, are irrevocable and may not be rescinded–the North had exactly zero right under any law to invade the South. And to all of you military people, remember that your oath was or is to the Constitution and not to the government created under the auspices of that Constitution.

    Tear down any statues you please, and rename any bases, but the idea of the Confederacy–and, for that matter, the United States–“that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,” will not be erased.

    * And if you think the Southern states weren’t being economically abused by the North, you need to read a history not written by the North.

  8. Neither let us forget that great Union “heroes” such as Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan soon turned their battlefield skills against native Americans, for whom the Emancipation Proclamation meant nothing. Would not it therefore be just to expunge these names as well?

  9. RENAMING MILITARY BASES
    There are efforts to change our American history to serve a fundamental transformation of our country.

    The largest armed conflict in the 200 plus year duration of the nation was the U.S. Civil War. The four year conflict is measured in the number of American casualties with over 1.1 million.

    Consent of the governed – “the idea that a government’s legitimacy and moral right to use state power is justified and lawful only when consented to by the people or society over which that political power is exercised.”

    Treason – “the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill the sovereign or overthrow the government.”

    Secession – “the action of withdrawing formally from membership of a federation or body, especially a political state.”

    6 NOV 1860 – 18 of 33 States voted in favor of Lincoln for president.
    DEC 1860 – The South began a peaceful secession from the Union.
    4 FEB 1861 – Confederate States of America formed a new government.
    4 MAR 1861 – U.S. President inauguration.
    MAR 1861 – The South sent delegations to Washington, D.C. seeking a peaceful resolution. Lincoln rejected negotiations.

    4 APR 1861 – Lincoln ordered a naval military force to sail to South Carolina [3 warships (USS Pawnee, USS Powhatan, USS Pocahontas), USRC Harriet Lane, Baltic Steamer, three tug boats with barges, 300 sailors, and 200 troops.]
    11 APR 1861 – USRC Harriet fired on civilian merchant ship Nashville outside of Charleston harbor
    15 APR 1861 – Lincoln called for states to provide 75,000 troops

    19 APR 1861 – Maryland is invaded by troops from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania
    19 APR 1861 – Baltimore, Maryland forcefully occupied by Union troops
    22 APR 1861 – Annapolis, Maryland State Capital, occupied by Union troops
    29 APR 1861 – Maryland State Legislature directed no Union troops to transit through the state

    Here is a sample of the state legislative bodies and legal citizens of different states voting to secede from the Union:
    On 20 DEC 1860, South Carolina legislature with 169 in favor of secession to 0
    On 23 FEB 1861, Texas Referendum with 46,153 in favor of secession to 14,747
    On 23 MAY, Virginia Referendum with 132,201 in favor of secession to 37,451
    On 8 JUN, Tennessee Referendum with 104,471 in favor of secession to 47,183

    In response to the 15 APR request for troops by Lincoln.

    Missouri Governor C.F. Jackson’s response:
    “Your requisition, in my judgment, is illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary in its object, inhuman, and diabolical and cannot be complied with. Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry on any unholy crusade.”

    Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin’s response: “I will send not a man nor a dollar for the wicked purpose of subduing my sister Southern States.”

  10. it is worth noting that the US govt long ago pardoned Confederate soldiers. US Grant began this process when he forbad the firing of gun salutes at Appomattox saying, “The rebels are our countrymen again.” Robert E. Lee’s citizenship was restored by Congress in 1977.

    No doubt many Union veterans felt that Confederates were “traitors,” but secession itself was not declared illegal until 1869. Those officers joining the Confederacy resigned their commissions prior to that act and it was Lincoln who declared war to reunite the nation. The US before 1865 was a very different place and did indeed have a “new birth of liberty/freedom as Lincoln said it would in the wake of the war. Both Union and Confederate veterans put up memorials to their service in later years; not only for white supremacy in the south (it had been there since Reconstruction. ended,) but because, like today’s WW2 vets, that generation was dying. People seek to justify such mass casualties as were incurred in the Civil War through
    memorialization. I think people should keep that sentiment in mind before a knee jerk turn to white supremacy or lost causes as the sole reason for monuments. People no longer recognize those of the Civil War it seems as this last summer the Boston memorial to the 54th Mass regiment was vandalized along with a statue of US Grant; a man of conviction who ended prisoner exchanges with Lee because the Confederates would not treat African American soldiers as equal for exchange.

    we must be careful in demonizing the past so
    much that we no longer recognize it and fail to
    prevent future ruptures in the American family of states, people’s, faiths, and causes. The vilification of people who belonged to a very different United States over 160 years ago won’t make life better for those who live in our republic today.

    1. To say that the considered effort to remove statues of Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate leaders who fought in defense of a system that dehumanized an entire race, is a “knee jerk” response pointing to white supremacy as the cause does a massive disservice to the historians and civil rights leaders who for years have been arguing that venerating such men is just wrong, morally and historically.

      Robert E. Lee should be studied and remembered, but not worshipped. He fought in defense of an evil system, no different than Erwin Rommel did. Lee did next to nothing after the war to atone, unlike Longstreet who battled white supremacy in New Orleans. Why are there no statues to Longstreet in the South? Hmm, I wonder.

      This is not “demonizing the past” Steve. It’s clarifying and correcting it.

      https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-myth-of-the-kindly-general-lee/529038/

      1. That is your opinion and you are putting words in my mouth that I did not say. I said that Lee’s citizenship had been restored, not that he was a great person. He lived less than 5 years after the Civil War and did the country a favor at least in not disbanding his army for guerilla warfare as some of his junior commander’s advocated.
        Comparing the American South to Hitler’s Germany is way over the top. Slavery was indeed an evil system, but not Adolf Hitler’s genocidal destruction of multiple ethnic groups. Compare Lee to Rommel???? That is indeed demonizing the past with a character that if does not deserve.

        1. My only point in comparing Lee to Rommel is this: Rommel was a career Wehrmacht officer who served for Imperial Germany, Weimar Germany, and finally Nazi Germany. He was not involved in the Nazi genocide machine directly. He saw his loyalty to Germany and winning battles on the battlefield. He did become somewhat close with Hitler, but most evidence suggests Rommel thought the Nazi racial policy complete rubbish. And, of course, Rommel was implicated in the assassination plot against Hitler in July 1944 and Pais for it with his life. Ultimately, Rommel tried to save Germany from Hitler. But there are no Rommel statues in Germany or anywhere else for that matter.

          For generations students were taught (indeed I was taught in the northern high school) that Lee was against slavery but his loyalty to his family and the South was paramount. Thus, he was an honorable man who deserved veneration. This is a myth.

          1. The German statue culture died with the post-WW2 world, but as you know there was an FGS Rommel (and Lutjens and Molders as well.) I do not suggest that Lee be venerated. He was a great tactical commander but a poor strategist. He was however representative of a very different United States that existed before the Civil War; one that had regional loyalties ( created in part by slavery) unrecognizable to many Americans in the present. Lee is recognizable to many military historians as a tragic figure who made an ultimate poor choice that condemned him.
            from America’s best and brightest in 1860 to villain of the civil war. I am happy for communities to remove statues of Confederates, but hope that those doing the removal do not view Confederate generals as evil people, but victims too of a terrible slavery system whose war to erase killed hundreds of thousands of Americans of all races. Move those statues to museums and Civil War battlefields where they belong. No argument there from me!

  11. Every “woke” political participating in erasing yesterday’s history today will themselves be erased from tomorrow’s memory.

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