The Renaming of Military Bases - What is Past is Not Prologue
By Hy Rothstein
“What is past is prologue" is a quotation by William Shakespeare from his play The Tempest. In contemporary use the phrase means that history sets the context for the present. This phrase does not apply to the decision to rename U.S. military bases. While Congressional and military leaders may have good reasons to take these actions today, we are very fortunate that the leaders of the post-Civil War period did not think like today’s leaders. If they did, it is very likely that the country would have been racked by insurgency and the Union would have not survived after winning the war.
Calls to rename military bases and other military assets began in earnest after the 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and the ensuing national reckoning on racial injustice. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act called for a commission to identify military assets that commemorate the Confederacy. As a result of the commission’s report to Congress, the services are moving to rename nine Army posts, two Navy ships, and remove or modify a host of monuments and tributes to the Confederacy.
History means more than simply what happened in the past. The full story behind the history reveals the truth. Equally as important, understanding past decisions requires one to walk in the shoes of those decision makers, to think in time. What we know and feel today about slavery is very different than what people knew and felt in 1860. Ignoring the story behind what was done more than a century ago and holding past leaders to contemporary standards is mistaken. Today’s standards will likely not hold in the next century either.
The ”Lost Cause” was a bad cause. Confederate claims that the Civil War was just, heroic, and not centered on slavery are incorrect. Even most of the Founders knew slavery was wrong. But the forging and adoption of the U.S. Constitution required “bargain and compromise” leaving imperfections in the document that were necessary to become a nation. President Lincoln personally favored immediate emancipation, but he also deeply supported the Constitution. The mainstream anti-slavery position of the new Republican party argued that the Constitution should be used to eventually end slavery, but the Constitution gave the President no authority to abolish slavery directly. Ending slavery was the goal but doing so was complex and politically challenging.
Many of the men who bases are named for were loathsome individuals by contemporary standards, perhaps some of them even by the standards of their time. And maybe some bases and other federal properties should be renamed, to include those named after undeserving people not associated with the Confederacy. But the story that ultimately allowed southern leaders to name forts in their states after the war is important, specifically the circumstances surrounding the surrender at Appomattox and the reconciliation that followed. It is also important to examine more closely the charge of “treason” that is vigorously used to justify renaming these bases.
On the surface, the charge of “treason” seems unequivocal. But in the mid-19th century reality was more complicated. The story can be traced to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The Convention was dominated by debate over the power, rights, and sovereignty of states versus the power to be allocated to a federal government. Edmund Randolph’s early proposal for a “national” government was followed by silence on the Convention floor. State representatives were stunned. Two of the three delegates from New York quit the Convention. Randolph’s proposal was viewed as an attempt to overthrow state governments. State loyalty had been American loyalty from the beginning.
The term “federal” replaced national but the states-rights issue remained front and center. The delegates ultimately acknowledged the need for a strong central government after James Madison helped alleviate some of the concerns by advocating the federal congress be granted distinct, enumerated, and hence restricted powers only. Madison also made it clear that using force against a state was impractical and unjust and would look “like a declaration of war.”
From the ratification of the Constitution through the Civil War loyalty to state almost always superseded loyalty to the federal government. The states effectively granted the federal government its authority and for many of the nation’s political leaders that authority could be withdrawn. Dual sovereignty allowed this. Today it is easy to claim the attack on Ft. Sumter was a treasonous act. But in 1861, the sovereign rights of states versus the supremacy of the federal government was still an open question. Therefore, for the South Carolinians, attacking Ft. Sumter was an act of securing the state, not treason. The Union’s victory partially settled the dual sovereignty issue.
The more important issues that are either underappreciated, unknown, or willfully ignored in current discussions are the decisions affecting surrender and reconciliation. The war’s termination and securing the country’s future was a remarkable achievement that required the active support of defeated Southerners. Obtaining this support was a non-trivial matter. It is not inconceivable to imagine that the Union might have failed in its goal to bring the country back together if shortsighted leaders had prevailed.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 701 words long, contains some of the most memorable phrases in American political oratory. The war was near its end, along with the institution of slavery. Lincoln did not speak of happiness, but of sadness. He did not judge the South. It offered Lincoln’s most profound reflections on the causes and meaning of the war. The "scourge of war," he explained, was best understood as divine punishment for the sin of slavery, a sin in which all Americans, North and South, were complicit.
The President sought to avoid harsh treatment of the defeated rebels by reminding everyone of how wrong both sides had been in imagining what lay before them when the war began four years earlier. The speech was a call for compassion and reconciliation and a justification for his pragmatic approach for binding the nation’s wounds. Lincoln rejected triumphalism while recognizing the unmistakable evil of slavery.
The President’s words provided the direction for Gen Grant when he met with Gen Lee in Appomattox a month after the inauguration. Lee’s aide de camp, Col Marshall, provides an account of the famous scene. The mood was solemn but friendly. There was small talk between Lee and Grant and their parties. The terms of surrender were exceedingly generous. Grant instructed his quartermaster to deliver food to the hungry Confederates. The next day many Union officers rode over to Lee’s headquarters to pay their respects. The leaders had begun to bind the wounds of war and start down the road to reunion. The scene was like an estranged family coming back together.
Gen Chamberlain, the hero of “Little Round Top,” was designated to receive the formal surrender on behalf of Gen Grant. As the defeated Confederate Army stood before him, he was deeply moved and took it upon himself to call the Union forces to attention and render a salute of arms as a token of recognition to a worthy foe. Chamberlain’s own words best describe the scene. “Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood; men whom neither toils and suffering, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;--was not such manhood to be welcomed back into the Union so tested and assured?...How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying to God to pity and forgive us all!”
Lee's military career ended, and his civilian life began when he returned to Richmond and his family on April 15th. The solitude did not last long. He was asked to become president of Washington College in Lexington. Lee was the perfect choice. He had been superintendent of West Point earlier in his military career, and he had a very recognizable name in 1865. Lee hesitated, but eventually accepted the position. He wrote to the college’s trustees that he believed, "it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony." Lee's personal involvement with many of his students reflected his desire to create a new generation of Americans.
In response to the bitterness of a Confederate widow, Lee wrote, "Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring [your children] up to be Americans." Lee’s efforts after the war were genuine, necessary, and critical for the future of our country.
In a letter to Thurlow Weed a few days after he delivered his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln stated that his message would not be “immediately popular,” with its inclusive message and refusal to lay blame. For Lincoln, “It is a truth which I thought needed to be told.”
The truth needs to be told today too. The wholesale renaming of everything linked to the Confederacy ignores the legitimate decisions of the past. The decisions and actions of many of the key Civil War leaders laid the foundation for reconciliation, reconstruction, and the very visible and tangible presence of African Americans today in the commercial, political, cultural, and social fabric of our society. Today’s leaders are not more virtuous than yesterdays. Renaming the bases will not erase centuries of racism. History must be studied with all its twists and turns to understand the context of its times. Doing so improves our ability to navigate the future. Now, “What is past is prologue" may become a reality when even more “virtuous” future leaders find fault with the people whose names will soon adorn many military bases replacing those names selected a century ago. Even Fort Liberty may someday require a name change.