(This article first appeared on the site of The Washington Monthly on May 26, 2013.)
As it happens, I have an article today in the Times’ review section wondering why we continue to have US Army bases named after Confederate generals. There are at least ten: Forts Lee, Pickett and Hill in Virginia; Fort Bragg in North Carolina; Forts Gordon and Benning in Georgia; Fort Polk and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana; Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Rucker in Alabama. Some of these men were good generals, but most were mediocre at best. Most were ardent secessionists, some were slaveholders (Polk had several hundred), one was an accused war criminal, one became a leader of the KKK. But whoever may want to honor them, whatever they may want to honor them for, it does seem singularly preposterous to name US Army bases after men who led troops in battle against US Army soldiers.
As the writers among you know, the material one gathers in researching a piece often overwhelms the amount of space one gets to write, and that was the case here. For example, I learned that nine states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas—officially observe a separate Confederate Memorial Day. They fall on several different days, often consistent with when the flowers bloom, although in Texas it is commemorated in January, where the day is called Confederate Heroes Day. In Mississippi and Alabama, the birthdays of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee are celebrated together. Several states mark Jefferson Davis’s birthday in June, including Kentucky. Davis was born in Kentucky, but Kentucky never seceded from the union. Lincoln was born in Kentucky, too, but there is no separate holiday to mark that occasion.
What do the people in those states think they’re honoring? And in the case of the war dead, why do they need a separate day to do so? What does the separateness indicate?
If President Obama maintains tradition—and so far during his presidency, he has—tomorrow he will send a wreath to the portion of Arlington cemetery allocated for confederate soldiers. This confederate section was originally the result of some magnanimity on the part of President McKinley, a former US Army sergeant who fought at Antietam, who proposed that he federal government take over the care of confederate gravesites in the north. One result of this was the disinterment of bodies from several sites around Washington, including Arlington, and reinterment in this section at Arlington. Along the way, the Daughters of the Confederacy got involved and arranged for Moses Ezekiel, the most respected American sculptor of his day, to built a 32 foot statue on the site.
It’s an amazing statue, featuring one larger-than-life and 32 life-size figures, showing people in postures of pride, grief, sadness and courage. Among them is Minerva, the Roman goddess of war. She holds a spear in her right hand, and in her left arm is an obviously wounded woman. In the wounded woman’s left hand is a shield prominently labeled “U.S. Constitution,” a fairly direct statement of the view that the forces who wounded the woman were warring against the Constitution. The statue also bears a Latin inscription, which translated reads “The victorious cause was pleasing to the gods, but the lost cause pleased Cato.” This is a reference to the Roman civil war, in which the dictator Julius Caesar defeated the Pompey, and to Cato, respected as the most honest Roman of them all. In short, it says the wrong side won. But when that statue was finished, President Wilson, a native of Virginia, came to the dedication and placed a wreath at its foot, a Memorial Day custom that every president has followed.
I don’t know why so many people in so many southern states feel obliged to keep one foot in the past, to compartmentalize defenses and excuses for beliefs and behavior that should have been buried and forgotten long ago. But it is more amazing that those of us who not not share in those beliefs so mindlessly acquiesce in their preservation. We should not have US Army bases named after confederate generals. The US president should not send a wreath to sit under a statue that argues in a sneaky Latin fuck you that the United States was wrong to preserve the union, and to force an end to the slaveholders’ rebellion.