In the current hysteria to purge all things Confederate from modern America, historian Jamie Malanowski opines that the next logical step is that, “President Obama and the Congress should rename military bases that honor rebels and terrorists.” Malanowski claims that since “about a sixth of our armed forces are people of African-American origin . . . when we dispatch them to fight for freedom from camps named after slaveholders, racists, and terrorists, the irony reaches an offensive level.”
The dictionary defines irony as “the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning.” And that is exactly what the United States did when it chose which Confederate leaders to “honor” when it named new Army bases in the South in the early part of the 20th century.
Consider the wartime records of those eponymous Confederates. Louisiana’s Fort Polk, as Malanowski pointed out, is named for the very “mediocre” Leonidas Polk. North Carolina’s Fort Bragg “honors” Braxton Bragg who, again according to Malanowski, was “vain”, “irascible”, and “indecisive”. John Bell Hood, for whom Fort Hood, Texas is named, was so reckless and foolhardy in his decisions that his subordinate, Nathan Bedford Forrest, reportedly said to his face at the Battle of Franklin, “If you were a whole man [by then Hood had lost an arm and a leg in separate battles], I’d whip you to within an inch of your life.”
Foolhardy was the mark common to most of the Confederate leaders “honored” with names on Army posts across the South. Henry Benning lost half his brigade attacking uphill against snipers hidden in the unforgiving terrain of Gettysburg’s Devil’s Den. (In another ironic twist, Benning, who was a delegate from Muscogee County–home of Fort Benning–addressed the Virginia secession convention saying that he would rather Georgia face “pestilence and famine” than remain in the Union. Thanks to Sherman’s “March to the Sea”, Georgia got both.) With Benning at Gettysburg was John Brown Gordon (Fort Gordon, Georgia). Injured at Malvern Hill, again at Shepherdstown, and four times at Antietam, Gordon too was a foolhardy man more adept at getting shot than he was at winning battles. Virginia’s George Pickett infamously marched his division across a mile-and-a-quarter of open ground against dug in cannon occupying the high ground of Cemetery Ridge.
The one rational Confederate general at Gettybsurg, General James Longstreet, argued to Robert E Lee that Pickett’s Charge was impossible. But the senile and strategically clueless Lee ordered it anyway. Lee, by the way, is “honored” at Fort Lee, Virginia. As for Robert E Lee’s wartime reputation, it is undeservedly earned early in the war, as it came mainly as a result of repeatedly besting George B. McClellan, who perhaps is the worst wartime general in the history of the United States. (Yet another irony is that one of the few Southern posts named for a Union general is Fort McClellan, Alabama.)
Absent among the names of Southern military bases are the Confederacy’s greatest leaders. James Longstreet, who a half-century before World War I understood that modern rifles made Napoleonic tactics obsolete, observed that the South both tactically and strategically benefited from defensive battles in a war of attrition. And when Lee wasn’t around and Longstreet could fight the way he wanted, he usually won. There is no Fort Longstreet. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who understood better than any American cavalrymen prior to Patton how to use mounted forces to overwhelm the enemy with speed and surprise, has no Camp Forrest named for him.* Fort Stewart is named for a Revolutionary War general Daniel Stewart and not for another successful Confederate cavalryman, “Jeb” Stuart. Fort Jackson isn’t in honor of “Stonewall” Jackson, but America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson.
Taken as a whole, the names of modern Southern military bases is a list of those Confederate leaders most responsible for the Confederacy’s defeat. So when black Americans today train at Forts Benning, Hood, Polk, and the like, they can console themselves with the knowledge that they are “honoring” those Confederate generals whose greatest contribution to America was that they were in charge, thus ensuring that the Confederacy would lose the Civil War. That’s what irony really looks like.
* There was a Camp Forrest, Tennessee but it was so named only from 1941 to 1946. Incidentally, Maj Gen George S. Patton was among those who trained there.
** These opinions are my own and are not necessarily those of the Department of Defense.