Named For The Enemy

tags: military history, memorials, Confederacy, monuments

Ty Seidule is professor emeritus of history at West Point and a retired US Army brigadier general. He is the Chamberlain Fellow at Hamilton College. He tweets @Ty_Seidule.

As a newly commissioned second lieutenant, I reported to my first duty station at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, named for Braxton Bragg, one of 10 army posts that honor Confederate officers. The 10 honorees are a mishmash of middling tacticians, pro-slavery advocates, virulent postwar racists, and even a war criminal. 

As monuments tumble across the country, the US Army’s memorialization of Confederates has come under increasing scrutiny. While Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently banned the Confederate battle flag, the larger question remains: Why would the US Army ever honor the enemy? Robert E. Lee, for instance, has a post named after him in Virginia, a barracks at West Point, and a road at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York. Going further back, the army named a tank after him and the navy a ship. There was even a Lee Kaserne in Germany.

Yet Lee committed treason and was responsible for the deaths of more US Army soldiers than any other enemy general, ever. Despite serving in the US Army for over 30 years, he abrogated his oath and fought to destroy the United States to create a new nation dedicated to human enslavement. 

In the 19th century, US Army officers would have agreed that Lee and his comrades were traitors. As a West Point graduate wrote in 1864 about army officers who chose to fight against the United States, “Treason is Treason.” The founder of West Point’s alumni organization said after the war that Confederate graduates “forgot the flag … to follow false gods.” 

Monuments, however, tell us more about who erected them than the actual figure memorialized. Confederate monuments in the South served to reinforce white supremacy, much like lynching and legalized segregation. The army honored Confederates to support white supremacy as well.

During World War I, the War Department named five posts after Confederates that survive today. Before this period, local and then regional commanders named posts. During the war, when the army went from 100,000 to 4 million troops in 18 months, the War Department took over the naming, eager not to offend “local sensibilities.” Of course, this meant white sensibilities because Black Americans had no input at the time.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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