THIS STORY goes back decades: A soldier assigned to Fort Polk was relaxing with friends between watching for snakes and picking bugs off his uniform. (Fort Polk, in Vernon Parish, La., isn’t as swank as, say, Fort Sill in Oklahoma.) He complained about his assignment, as everybody does at Fort Polk. Even the name of the place, he said, comes from a third-rate president that nobody remembers.
Huh? said his buddy. Do you really think this fort is named for President James K. Polk?
It was then that our young friend learned Fort Polk was actually named for the first Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Louisiana—and Confederate general in the Civil War—Leonidas Polk, not President Polk. And that day the young soldier got a great big helping of the oddity of American history, and how Americans remember their history. Imagine, somebody who led troops against the Union honored by having a Union fort named for him.
Many current forts in the Union military were built as wars and rumors of wars were noised about in the run-ups to World War I and World War II. It made things go smooth locally to name some of these forts after officers in the Confederacy. And some of the choices were odd indeed.
One of the top forts in the United States is Fort Bragg in North Carolina, home of an Airborne corps, the 75th Rangers and headquarters for Army Special Ops. But Braxton Bragg is generally considered one of the worst generals in American history. Almost everywhere he went, defeat for his troops followed. Even when he was commended for bravery, it was in a loss (Battle of Shiloh), and he was a poor strategist. But at least his troops hated him.
This column has been mostly against the scrubbing of American history by removing statues. We once argued that such thinking would eventually lead to somebody suggesting taking down statues of George Washington, too. That day has come. You can read the story here: arkansasonline.com/617stat/
But there is a more mainstream view about the names of United States military bases. Last week, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee voted to establish a commission to help remove “names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederate States of America.” The vote was bipartisan, although one senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton, sits on the committee and voted against the measure. But even some of the chamber’s more starboard-leaning types have retreated on the topic.
Doubtless, the state of things in America is helping push all sorts of change. If naming some of these forts in the South was political, then renaming them will be, too. Even conservatives feel these winds. They can stand athwart of history yelling “stop!” as Buckley said, but history never seems to listen.
There aren’t a lot of polls, yet, on the renaming of Army forts, but some of us imagine that most Americans have no idea these bases were named after Confederates. It’s likely that most people in 2020 won’t be opposed to renaming military bases. But We the People shouldn’t whitewash our shared history, either.
This nation, like all nations, has a checkered past, including the original sin of slavery. Which took a disaster of a war to excise. Leonidas Polk existed. Braxton Bragg existed. And they not only fought for the losing side, but the wrong side, and we should say that. If for no other reason than to let our posterity know that we understand that. And help guide their actions.
There could be plaques or signs or some sort of change-of-command panel to provide historical context, which could amount to a teachable moment not only for current soldiers, but those to come.
Why were these former Confederates given this honor? (We should note that most of those who served in top spots in the Confederate army also served the Union before 1861.) Who was Gen. Bragg? Who was Gen. Polk? Who were Henry Benning, P.G.T. Beauregard, John Bell Hood and A.P. Hill? And there are no doubt a number of names in the queue for new honors. Such as Fort Eisenhower, Fort Patton, Fort MacArthur, Fort Bradley, Fort Marshall … .
Instead of taking away the value of historical context—as some would do today—we should add to it. To do otherwise would be not only our loss. But a loss for everyone in the future.
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