Why Fort Hood Needs a New Name

This piece first ran in The Dallas Morning News on June 16, 2013.

Fort Hood is the Army installation in Killeen, halfway between Austin and Waco. The base opened in January 1942, serving as a training center for soldiers joining artillery and anti-tank units. Today, it’s the Army’s largest active-duty armored post, a base where approximately 41,000 soldiers work.

It is also one of 10 functioning Army bases named for a Confederate general. There used to be many more. During World War I and World War II, the War Department opened a large number of new bases, many in the South, where the warmer weather permitted more time for training. Bases were customarily named after military heroes, and although ultimate responsibility for the choice rested with the War Department, civilian input was allowed and political pressure inevitable.

0616POI_malanowskiWEBIn the 1940s, sensitivities about the Civil War still ran high. Many people still had a personal connection with someone who had served in the war. There remained a need to bind the nation together more closely, and so no one really challenged the appropriateness of naming U.S. Army bases after generals who had led troops against the U.S. Army in battle. “We’re all Americans,” was the line.

Consequently, in Virginia, we still have Fort Lee, named for Robert E. Lee, a man universally admired for his personal integrity and military skills. Yet, as historian Ken Burns has noted, he was responsible for the deaths of more U.S. Army soldiers than Hitler and Tojo. Also in Virginia is Fort A.P. Hill, named for an officer whose peerless ferocity was increasingly undermined by the frequent periods of incapacitation he suffered from a syphilis infection; and Fort Pickett, named in honor of Gen. George Pickett, whose division was decimated at Gettysburg. Pickett was accused of war crimes for ordering the execution of 22 Union prisoners; his defense was that they had all previously deserted from the Confederate army. In the end, he was not charged.

In Georgia, there is Fort Benning and Fort Gordon. Henry Benning was a state Supreme Court justice who became one of Lee’s more effective subordinates. Prior to the war, this fervent secessionist inflamed fears of abolition, which he predicted would inevitably lead to black governors, juries, legislatures and more. “Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that?” Benning said in a speech in February 1861. “We will be overpowered, and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the Earth, and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination.”

Like Benning, John B. Gordon was another of Lee’s most dependable commanders. Before the war, Gordon sought secession as the first step to creating a slaveholding empire. Speaking at Oglethorpe University in June 1860, Gordon told the students that if they resisted threats to their “constitutional liberty” — i.e. the right to own slaves — then “the day is not far distant when the Southern flag shall be omnipotent from the Gulf of Mexico to the coast of Delaware; when Cuba will be ours, when the Western breeze shall kiss our flag, as it floats in triumph from the gilded turret of Mexico’s capital; when the well-clad, well-fed Southern Christian slave shall beat his tambourine and banjo, amid the orange-bowered groves of Central America; and when a pro-slavery legislature shall meet in council at Montezuma.” After the war, he headed the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. He “may not have condoned the violence employed by Klan members,” says his biographer Ralph Lowell Eckert, “but he did not question or oppose it when he felt it was justified.”

John Bell Hood was different from these men: not as good a general as Lee, but better than Pickett and Hill. He was certainly better than the irascible, incompetent Braxton Bragg (Fort Bragg, N.C.) and the indecisive, frequently disastrous Leonidas Polk (Fort Polk, La.), a bishop turned general who personally owned several hundred slaves.

Hood was not a fire-eating secessionist like Benning or Gordon, but he was quite clear-minded about the cause he had joined. (“Regardless of all other causes of difference,” he said in a speech after the war, “slavery …. was the secret motor, the mainspring of the war.”) Basically, he was a dashing, courageous, even romantic figure whose mixed record as a combat general has earned him admiration and criticism in equal measure.

Born and raised in Kentucky, Hood was a graduate of West Point’s class of 1853. He served as a cavalry officer in Texas, where he was wounded in a fight with Comanches at Devil’s River. Not yet 30 when the South fired on Fort Sumter, the striking Hood — 6 feet 2 inches tall, with blond hair, blue eyes and a thick, long beard — tried to enlist in a Kentucky regiment, only to find that Kentucky wasn’t going to secede. He then joined the Confederate army as a lieutenant.

Within a year, Hood was elevated to brigadier general, in command of a brigade of Texans, which became one of the most storied units of the war. Hard-fighting and hard-hitting, members of Hood’s Texas Brigade were known as Robert E. Lee’s shock troops, authors of stunning, table-turning attacks against Union forces at Fair Oaks, Gaines Mill, the Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam and at the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den at Gettysburg.

Respected on both sides, the Texans earned their reputation with blood. After Antietam, a fellow officer asked Hood where his division was. “Dead on the field,” Hood replied, and correctly; two-thirds of his brigade were casualties. The division also suffered heavy losses at Gettysburg; Hood himself was hit in the arm, which hung shriveled on his body thereafter.

Hood recuperated in Richmond, Va., where he was warmly received by Jefferson Davis and capital society. One of its central figures, diarist Mary Chesnut, wrote about him in August 1863. “When Hood came with his sad Quixote face, the face of an old Crusader, who believed in his cause, his cross, and his crown, we were not prepared for such a man as a beau-ideal of the wild Texans. He is tall, thin, and shy; has blue eyes and light hair; a tawny beard, and a vast amount of it, covering the lower part of his face, the whole appearance that of awkward strength. Someone said that his great reserve of manner he carried only into the society of ladies. Major Venable added that he had often heard of the light of battle shining in a man’s eyes. He had seen it once — when he carried to Hood orders from Lee.” By September, that fierce light was shining in Tennessee, where Hood again led his Texans in one of their characteristic assaults at Chickamauga. This time Hood lost his leg.

Hood again recuperated in Richmond, where he resumed his courtship of Sally Preston, the beautiful, intelligent, 18-year-old daughter of a wealthy South Carolina family. Buck, as she was known, was staying with Chesnut, and Chesnut very much wanted to introduce Richmond’s It girl to the Confederacy’s Most Eligible Bachelor. Eventually they met on a Richmond street; reportedly Hood studied her and then whispered a comment to a companion, Dr. John Darby. Later, Preston asked Darby what Hood had said. “Only a horse compliment,” Darby answered. “He is a Kentuckian, you know. He said you stand on your feet like a Thoroughbred.”

Hood did court Preston, and the attraction was mutual. Her parents, however, objected; Hood had no money, and was down to two limbs besides. The man who charged the guns of Devil’s Den took no for an answer. Preston said later that if he had proposed to her over her parents’ objections, she would have accepted.

In the spring of 1864, Hood was appointed a corps commander in Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Facing troops under Gen. William T. Sherman, Johnston was practicing a strategy of maneuver that avoided conflict while stalling Sherman’s progress to Atlanta. An exasperated Davis wanted Johnston’s army to attack Sherman, and so he sacked Johnston and replaced him with Hood.

What Davis wanted was what Hood did best. Before long, Hood launched four assaults on Union forces outside Atlanta, one more disastrous than the other. Hood’s casualties were so heavy that he could no longer protect Atlanta, and he withdrew, burning the supplies his men couldn’t carry.

With him went the Confederacy’s last chance at winning independence. Little progress had been made by Union forces that year, and the 1864 election was in doubt. Abraham Lincoln believed he was going to lose to a new administration already pledged to negotiate an ending. But when Sherman took Atlanta, Lincoln was saved.

Hood suffered two more catastrophic defeats at Franklin and Nashville before he was relieved of command. After the war, he ran an insurance business in New Orleans married and sired 10 children. In 1879, a yellow fever epidemic swept New Orleans, killing Hood, his wife and their eldest child. The surviving children were split up and adopted by several families. He was 48.

An interesting figure, no? Gallant, romantic, courageous, tragic — one could think of many worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon than to read a novel based on Hood’s life. And who would deny him the honors earned by his service, his dedication, his sacrifice? One would think that on Confederate Heroes Day, which Texas marks every January, much time would be spent recalling Hood’s many virtues.

But continue to name a U.S. Army base after him? No, that time is over.

When Fort Hood was named, the Army was segregated, and our views about race more ignorant. Now blacks make up about a fifth of the military. The idea that today we ask any of these soldiers to serve at a place named for a defender of a racist slavocracy is deplorable. Can we really expect any of our soldiers to tell Afghans or Iraqis that they are there for their freedom when they have come from a place named for a man who fought to keep people in bondage?

More important, we simply should not name U.S. Army bases after people who fought the U.S. Army in battle. Not Hood, not the incompetent Pickett, not the KKK chieftain Gordon, not the sainted Lee. The gesture honors one man, while it denigrates the struggle and the sacrifice of every U.S. soldier who faced him. It mocks them. It mocks the union they preserved.

There are better choices, soldiers whose service and sacrifice reflect the best of our values, rather than the outdated concerns of our ancestors. During the 20th century, 37 U.S. Army soldiers from Texas won the congressional Medal of Honor. To read the citations of their actions causes one’s chest to swell with pride. Any of them would be a better choice than John Hood.

One of them, Capt. Jon Swanson, whose Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously after exhibiting astonishing courage in Cambodia in 1971, was a native of San Antonio and a member of the 1st Cavalry, based at Fort Hood. I suggest the search begin there.


In an amazing story in The Huffington Post the other day, Laura Hibbard reported that fourth graders at the James A. Jackson Elementary School in Jonesboro GA were assigned a math problem referencing slavery. “A plantation owner had 100 slaves,” the question read, according to the station. “If three-fifths of them are counted for representation, how many slaves will be counted?” Reports Hibbard, “A school spokesperson said the question was meant to educate students on both social studies and math, and that the teacher would not be punished.”

What’s astonishing is that in January, students at Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Norcross GA were assigned word problems referencing slavery.

“Each tree had 56 oranges,” one question read. “If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”

A second question read “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”

Georgia’s Schools: Preparing today’s youth for the challenges of tomorrow.


I am sorry to see that a couple hundred dead-enders met in Montgomery, Alabama on Saturday to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis. I am sorry not because I object to grown-ups playing dress-up or even to people admiring aspects of the bravura Confederate spirit, but I do hate to see bad history promulgated as the truth. As Campbell Robertson reported in the Times:

“The Sons of the Confederacy’s principal message was that the Confederacy was a just exercise in self-determination that had been maligned by “the politically correct crowd” through years of historical distortions. It is the right of secession that they emphasize, not the cause, which they often describe as a complicated mix of tariff and tax disputes and Northern attempts to politically subjugate the South. . . .[S]lavery went unmentioned. Asked about the prominent speeches and documents that described the protection of slavery as the primary cause of secession, Joe Dupree of Mobile, Ala., said the question itself was wrong. “African slavery is a 4,000-year-old African institution that affected us a couple of hundred years,” he said. “It is, historically, an error.”

“Though the swearing-in was a re-enactment down to the antique buttons, there were contemporary political overtones. More than one speaker, insisting that “the South was indeed right,” extolled the Confederacy as an example of limited government that should be followed now, and said vaguely that the Southern cause was vindicated by a glance at the headlines every day. But even the politics on Saturday were tied up in a larger sense of grievance, a feeling of being marginalized and willfully misunderstood. Expressions of this feeling led to some rather unexpected analogies, like when Kelley Barrow, a teacher from Georgia, declared that people of Confederate heritage “have been forced to go to the back of the bus.””

I am very sorry these dedicated inheritors have studied the sources of their legacy so poorly. Would they do so, they would see that while the Confederate states did indeed claim the right to secede, none claimed to be seceding for states’ rights. In point of fact, when the idea of states’ rights was argued by Northern states seeking to ignore fugitive slave laws, Southern states strenuously objected. In South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession, specific mention is made of “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery”; of the Northern states’ failure to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” by failing to return fugitive slaves to bondage; of New York’s forbidding “slavery transit” and New England allowing blacks to vote. Most of the other seceding states argued the slavery line as well.

It is also false that secession was caused by disagreements over tariffs and taxes. This is, I’m afraid, a crock of shit. High tariffs were at the heart of the Nullification Crisis in the 1830s, but creased to be much of an issue thereafter. In 1857, tariffs were reduced to the lowest point since 1816, and the South’s representatives in Congress voted for the measure. Although the Confederate constitution largely copied the US Constitution, its authors made certain changes, most obviously about slavery and the rights of slaveholders. They made no changes about tariffs.

Finally, the Confederacy was hardly an example of limited government. For one thing, it approved the enslavement of a third of the population. Criticism of the government was punishable y death. And left to its own devices, it would have attempted the conquest of a slave holding empire in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

It is a sad thing that people feel “marginalized and willfully misunderstood.” But the Civil War has nothing to do with that.

On the up side, most of these geezers look pretty old. The report said that only a few hundred showed up. I’m guessing that by the bicentennial, they’ll be counted in the dozens.


I posted this interview with historian Julie Flavell on Georgian London, a wonderful site created by Lucy Inglis:

Here in the States we always think of Great Britain as the place America separated itself from; what is wonderful about When London Was Capital of America is how Julie Flavell (below) reminds us of how much 18th century Great Britain, most particularly London, was a place Americans were drawn to. In the years before the revolution, London was full of Americans: Southern plantation owners seeking culture, slaves hoping for a chance of freedom, Northern businessmen looking for profits. An American now living in Scotland, Flavell manages to recreate a moment when all Americans were loyal to the king, and made their contribution to the city’s color and excitement. Here she answers some questions about her book.

The thing I enjoyed most about your book is that by isolating this relationship at a particular moment, you remove it from the river of events, and let us see it fresh and on its own. In the mid-18th century, London was the center of government, commerce and culture that colonial Americans orbited. What were the some of the ways Americans were influenced by London? In return, what did London think of America, and how was it influenced?
The first thing to remember is that London was not a foreign city to colonial Americans. It was their capital city. They read about it constantly in the newspapers, bought London consumer goods, and conducted business with London traders. For colonial Americans it was also their only ‘big city’, because colonial cities were still really just towns by today’s standards. The kinds of urban lifestyles found in Georgian London would not be seen in America until the nineteenth century – slums, high crime rates, conspicuous wealth, artistic and literary groups. London was also the financial and administrative capital of the English speaking world. The United States has never had a city that combined all of these roles into one, so in that sense you could argue that London was the single most influential metropolis America ever had.

Historians have made much of the notion that colonial Americans in London felt like outsiders, because they could not live up to London society’s standards of fashion and good breeding. It has been argued that this difference between London’s elegant, high-style manners and the more democratic, provincial manners of the colonies marked the beginning of a distinct ‘American’ national character. The reality is that before the Revolution, Americans reacted to the ‘London experience’ in very much the same way as English people from the country. Like characters in a Jane Austen novel, some English and American visitors fit in perfectly, and loved London so much they never wanted to leave. Others found it noisy, sordid, or just plain expensive.

It seems natural to think that just before American independence, we should be able to detect an embryonic American national identity emerging from the colonists living in their original capital city, but that just wasn’t happening. Some red-hot American patriots who lived in London, like Virginian Arthur Lee, loved London and had no thought of living elsewhere until the fighting started in 1775. In other words, the American Revolution caused American nationalism, not the other way around. And London continued to exert a powerful influence on American long after independence.

For Londoners, America seemed a far-away proposition, best known as a place where tobacco and sugar came from, and where British troops went to fight the French and Indians. But in the years just before the Revolution they were becoming much more aware of their colonies on the other side of the Atlantic.

Some of the most interesting material in your book deals with the experiences of American slaves who accompanied their colonial masters to London. What did you discover?

My favorite story in the book is the story of South Carolina slave Robert Scipio, who came to London with his master, Henry Laurens, in 1771. A lot of American slaves were coming over to London as personal servants to white colonists, but Robert had his own ideas of what he’d do once he got there. He changed his name from Scipio – an obvious ‘slave name’ – to the very conventional English name Robert even before he reached England. And once he got to London he challenged Henry’s authority in many ways, in general proving hard to control. We can get most of Robert’s story from the published papers of Henry Laurens, right up to the point where he was arrested for a house burglary. Henry was hoping Robert would be sentenced to transportation to America, which would mean a return to the Laurens plantation. I was able to find out what really happened, though, and it was not at all what Henry expected. Instead of transportation, Robert was given a one-year jail sentence. Since Henry had to go back to America to participate in the American Revolution – he was a leading Patriot – Robert was effectively free. He and Henry never saw each other again.

Of course white colonists who championed American liberties while owning slaves were guilty of blatant hypocrisy, and Londoners were quick to point this out, especially once the Revolution got going. But the mud stuck on the British as well, because English merchants had made a fortune out of the slave trade, and in London slaves were being openly bought and sold, even though English law did not explicitly recognize slavery. Few Londoners before the Revolution took the trouble to protest. But the ugly sight of slavery in their streets was forcing British people to begin to question themselves and what their empire stood for. The really big movement against slavery would get going in Britain after the American Revolution.

One of the things that was such a fresh revelation was the realization that the southern colonies had more in common with the West Indies–both being plantation- and slave-based economies–than the south did with New England. Were people in Britain able to make much of a distinction between the northern colonies and these southern plantation colonies?

It was not ‘north versus south’ that was the dividing line in the eighteenth century, but New England versus everyone else. New England had a poor reputation in London as a region of underbred farmers and merchants, a place that was short on genteel types and was tainted by Puritan fanaticism. American colonists south of New England agreed with this. This negative stereotype persisted after the Revolution – in fact the character Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the typical unlovely New Englander as seen by educated New Yorkers like Washington Irving in the early national period. But in London there is no evidence that New Englanders could be spotted for what they were –there plenty of country bumpkin types coming into town from the English countryside, who looked much like New Englanders. So New Englanders pretty much blended in when they visited their capital.

Wealthy southern colonists were different – they looked and sounded like affluent Englishmen to a great extent, but their slaves set them apart. And Londoners sometimes claimed – with what truth it is hard to say – that West Indian and southern plantation owners acted ‘high and haughty’, and had a proclivity to beat underlings. This may have been just a stereotype – beating servants was certainly not an exclusively American activity. Englishmen still sometimes inflicted beatings on their servants in the eighteenth century, even beat them to death in a few notorious cases. But the existence of the stereotype shows that Londoners were very aware of the American plantation owners who were coming into the city in fairly large numbers just before the Revolution. Also, because Londoners were so much more aware of southerners than northerners, they regarded Americans as a mixed race people, something some white colonists didn’t like. But the fact was that whether slave or free, people of African descent were part of the British empire, and their presence was a challenge to the concept of liberty on both sides of the Atlantic, whether it could be something bigger than just a safeguard for white Britons and Americans.

It was interesting to read that many rich Americans came to London to get an education, but many parents were concerned about giving their sons too much exposure to London. Please explain.
In some ways London was the Las Vegas of the eighteenth century. It had every sort of amusement one could think of, and for young men in town on their own, there were all sorts of temptations. London had the dubious distinction of having more prostitutes than any other city in Europe. And it was unusual for its size – at 750,000 people, it was the biggest city in the western world. Scotsman James Boswell said that one of the attractions of London for him when he was a young man was that he could do whatever he wanted without the fear of being seen by someone who knew him. We take that kind of anonymity for granted in today’s big cities, but for a colonial youth coming to London for his education it would have been a total novelty, and probably one that would give him a fantastic sense of freedom. So sending your son to London for school or university had a risky side to it. This was something colonial parents shared with English parents – it was not just a colonial worry.

This is just an impression, but it seems that for all the powerful influence that Britain had on America, there was not a deep emotional attachment–at least not the deep attachment that seems to exist between Britain and some other places that had been part of its empire, such as India. Is that a fair reading? Certainly the British government was loathe to see America win its independence, but was this view widely held?

It’s a matter of degree, but eighteenth century Britons were not as aware of their empire outside of the British Isles, and of themselves as a great imperial power, as they would be in the nineteenth century. Even when there was fighting in America, for example in the French and Indian War, the average Englishman tended to see it as an extension of the wars with France rather than a war for empire. Even so, colonial Americans were generally accepted as fellow British subjects, and there were many everyday ties with America, which was much closer geographically than would be the imperial dominions of the nineteenth century. And you have to remember that the American Revolution was a civil war. It’s been said that if the American Civil War divided thousands of families, the American Revolution divided hundreds of thousands. Many of those families were transatlantic – my book tells about some of them. I think there was a far more pervasive private sense of loss after the American Revolution, both in Britain and America, than we appreciate today. It is a legacy neither side wished to hang on to.

Benjamin Franklin is probably the most famous of all the American colonists whose stories are told in your book. Why was his story told last?
The story of Franklin’s sojourn in London has long been taken as epitomizing the colonial American experience there before the Revolution – he was lionized as a scientist, then gradually lost influence in government circles because of his support for American resistance. The final act was his public humiliation before the Privy Council when he presented a petition from Massachusetts asking for the removal of their hated Governor Hutchinson. The War of Independence began not long after, and Franklin returned home. All this makes for a good story, and one that progresses naturally to American independence.

The chapters on Franklin came last in my book so that his experiences could be understood in the context of the experiences of many other colonists in London. He was a great man who tried to help solve the conflict between Britain and the colonies, and drew some fire upon himself in the process, but he also had personal limitations that account for some of his social difficulties in London.

Franklin, although famous, wasn’t typical at all, and neither was his experience. The ‘typical’ Americans in the eyes of Georgian Londoners were white plantation owners and their black slaves. When the Revolution began, many of them assumed the conflict would be short-lived, and that the colonies would remain part of the empire in some terms or other. The personal rejection experienced by Franklin just before he left London was not experienced by many of these southerners in London, even those who sympathized with the rebellion.

In my book, I examine how colonial Americans looked through the eyes of Georgian Londoners, instead of how London looked through the eyes of a national hero like Ben Franklin. Seen through London eyes, America’s British heritage is much more than a simple story of Anglo-Saxon roots. The colonists were a very diverse people who came from all parts of the Eighteenth century British empire, including Africa. And London’s world view was being challenged by the influx of its exotic and multiracial fellow subjects from the New World.