The Remnants Of The Confederacy

Tuesday, March 9, 2021
Image credit: 
Poster US 7445, Poster collection, Hoover Institution Library & Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster US 7445, Poster collection, Hoover Institution Library & Archives.

Perhaps there was nothing more troubling during the dismal events of January 6, 2021 than the picture of the bedraggled individual carrying the battle flag of the Confederacy through the hallowed halls of the Capitol. Only a few days before the Congress of the United States had called for the renaming of U.S. Army forts in the South which carried the names of Confederate generals, a measure that had passed over the veto of President Trump. It represented a measure long overdue for a variety of reasons. Normally this author is not in favor of renaming or removing the remnants of the past whether they be names or statues. But in this case, there are good solid reasons. The most obvious is that for the most part they were named by local authorities well after the Civil War had ended. It is also clear that it is in thoroughly bad taste to name military institutions after generals who were defending slavery, when so many of the soldiers, defending us and stationed at those institutions, are African Americans.

But it is also obvious that it is hardly fitting to have these institutions named after officers in the United States Army, who had betrayed their oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, which they had sworn when they had received their commissions. The fact that they had resigned their commissions when they decided to join the Confederacy does not remove the oaths they had sworn. In effect they were traitors to the nation they had sworn to protect and defend. And as traitors they took part in military operations that reached well beyond the confines of the Confederacy.

Normally the naming of major military institutions is also a reflection of the supposedly high competence in battle and the leadership displayed of the individual who received the honor. That is hardly the case with a number of these Confederate generals. Braxton Bragg is perhaps the most egregious example with a level of incompetence that hardly justifies the naming of a military institution after him. Bragg was disputatious, irascible, and bad tempered. He actually caused a mutiny among his corps commanders, while the enlisted ranks who served under him viscously hated him. He was also a disastrously incompetent general.

John Bell Hood gained considerable fame as a brigade and then division commander in the Army of Northern Virginia. After losing an arm at Gettysburg, he transferred to the Army of Tennessee defending Georgia as a corps commander. There he proceeded to stab his new commander, General Joe Johnston, in the back with a series of letters to Jefferson Davis and others in Richmond in the hope that he could replace his boss in command the Army of Tennessee. He received his wish in July 1864 and proceeded to launch a series of ill-considered attacks that wrecked his army and eventually allowed Sherman to take Atlanta. Hood then launched his army northwards, which allowed Sherman to send a portion of his army back to defend Nashville, while he and 60,000 of his fittest men destroyed the rest of Georgia in his march to the sea. In Tennessee Hood managed to suffer two catastrophic defeats at Franklin and Nashville, which finally destroyed the Army of Tennessee.

Leonidas Polk, a bishop in the Episcopal Church, spent his portion of the war as an undistinguished corps commander. He was responsible for making the decision in September 1861 to invade Kentucky, which had declared its neutrality. That move would allow Ulysses Grant to launch the most important strategic move of the war, namely the seizure of Forts Donelson and Henry, which would open the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to Union exploitation. Polk would spend the following years quarreling with his superiors and finally ended his military career when an artillery shell, ordered by no less an individual than Sherman, cut him in half.

About the only thing that one can say about these three generals for maintaining their names is that there were few Union generals who contributed as much to the Union cause. There is, thus, every reason for renaming those installations in honor of individuals who possessed impressive credentials for leadership and maintained their sworn oath to support the Constitution.