When America Joined the Cult of the Confederacy

President Woodrow Wilson transformed government into an engine of white supremacy when he took office in 1913. His administration segregated a federal work force that had been integrated for 50 years and imposed separate white and “colored” bathrooms in federal buildings. As the historian Eric S. Yellen shows in his iconic book “Racism in the Nation’s Service,” segregation was just a prelude. The goal was to drive African Americans from influential jobs and confine them to a “controlled and exploitable class of laborers.”

The Wilsonians paid homage to the icons of white supremacy when they named military bases for Confederate traitors who had waged war on this country with the aim of keeping Black people in chains. This gesture of federal fealty ratified the “Southern way of life” at a time when African Americans were being hanged, shot and burned alive before cheering crowds all over the former Confederacy.

The naming honor was part of the alchemy that transformed America’s best-known enemies of the republic into secular saints. The long-running myth that the rebel generals had no connection to racism became insupportable when contemporary white supremacists swaddled themselves in Confederate symbols.

Congress broke with the myth of the noble Confederates last year, when it voted to expunge from Defense Department assets “names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia” that commemorate the Confederate States of America. The same legislation established the Naming Commission, which has proposed new names for nine Army installations in the South. This exercise has thrown a spotlight onto the Wilsonian role in the process that granted treasonous generals their federal halos.

A Crowning Achievement

By the time the Virginia-born Wilson came to office, a cult of the Confederacy known as the Lost Cause had succeeded in popularizing an extravagantly racist version of Southern history. This telling cast slavery as a benign institution beloved by the enslaved, and it valorized the Ku Klux Klan for violently suppressing Black political expression after Emancipation. The Lost Cause presented Confederate generals as honorable men who fought to secure “states’ rights” instead of human bondage.

Woodrow Wilson, center, from left, on the steps of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., at his inauguration in 1913.Credit…Library of Congress

The legal scholar Michel Paradis argues that the naming honor was “one of the crowning achievements” of the Confederate propaganda machine. It put rebels who had nearly destroyed the Union on an equal footing with those who had paid a high price to preserve it. It also eased the way for the military champions of slavery to be enshrined at influential houses of worship, including the Washington National Cathedral. It elevated the architects of Jim Crow during the Southern reign of racial terror that would last into the 1960s.

Among the first federal honorees were Gen. Robert E. Lee, who opposed citizenship rights for free Black people and had allowed his Civil War forces to kidnap them into slavery. A base was also named for a secessionist ideologue, Gen. Henry Lewis Benning, who believed that sustaining slavery was the only way to prevent African Americans from becoming citizens and officeholders.

That myth of the noble Confederacy held sway in the American military for more than a hundred years. It faltered in 2015, when a Confederate flag-waving white supremacist murdered nine African Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church. The myth collapsed in 2020, when protests following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer bolstered efforts to remove Confederate iconography.

A Man Called ‘Black Death’

The Naming Commission had an abundance of highly decorated veterans to choose from, but it wisely refused to limit its definition of meritorious service to conduct in battle. The resulting roster of nominees covers what my Times colleague Helene Cooper has described as “a multicolored swath of Americans, including women and minorities — two long-ignored populations that have served in or supported the Army since its inception.”

William Henry Johnson became the first American hero of the Great War and received the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest military honors. He continued to fight with French forces and eventually became known as “Black Death.”Credit…Getty Images

The Naming Commission recommendations must still meet the approval of Congress and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III. If this list passes muster, Fort Bragg in North Carolina — named for the failed general Braxton Bragg, “the most hated man in the Confederacy” — would be renamed Fort Liberty.

Fort Benning in Georgia would be renamed Fort Moore, after the distinguished career officer Hal Moore and his wife, Julia Moore. She is remembered for remaking the once callous process through which the Army notified families about the deaths of loved ones. This nomination recognizes the spouses and families who often devote their lives to the Army.

Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia would take the name of Dr. Mary Walker, an abolitionist and champion of women’s rights who became the first female surgeon in Army history. She worked as a Union spy and served several punishing months as a Confederate prisoner of war. She was awarded the Medal of Honor based on testimonials from Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. George Thomas.

Fort Gordon in Georgia would be renamed for Dwight D. Eisenhower, a career soldier who led the D-Day assault on Normandy in France in 1944, became a five-star general and finished his career as president of the United States.

Fort Hood in Texas would become Fort Cavazos, after Gen. Richard E. Cavazos, a native Texan who twice received the Distinguished Service Cross and served with extraordinary valor in Vietnam and Korea.

Fort Rucker in Alabama would take the name of Michael Novosel Sr., a much admired aviator and Medal of Honor recipient who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam — where he was 47 years old when he performed a helicopter rescue that saved the lives of 29 men.

The Naming Commission exercise draws emotional power from the fact that it calls for rechristening two Confederate-named bases in honor of Americans who rallied to military service at a time when Black people were confined to segregated units mainly designated for work like building roads or loading ships.

Fort Lee in Virginia — named after the Confederate general — would become Fort Gregg-Adams, to honor two of these Americans.

Lt. Gen. Arthur Gregg commanded logistics units around the world and was part of the wave of African American officers who applied for training in 1948, the year that President Harry Truman ordered an end to segregation in the armed forces. As a young soldier in the 1950s, Gregg integrated the officers’ club at Fort Lee.

Lt. Col. Charity Adams was a highly regarded instructor at Officer Candidate School who later commanded the first unit of African American women to be sent overseas.Credit…Getty Images

Lt. Col. Charity Adams left her teaching job for the Army after the start of World War II. She became a highly regarded instructor at Officer Candidate School and later commanded the first unit of African American women to be sent overseas. The postal battalion she commanded in England delivered mail to and from nearly seven million soldiers in Europe.

The World War I hero William Henry Johnson, who served in the era of Wilson, received the Medal of Honor he richly deserved nearly a century after his service. By proposing that Fort Polk in Louisiana take Johnson’s name, the commission highlights the extremes to which the Jim Crow-era United States sometimes went to deny even the possibility of African American heroism.

At the start of the war, Johnson joined the segregated unit that would become known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He might have spent the war in Europe digging latrines or loading supplies for the United States but was instead assigned to French forces.

The Harlem Hellfighters.Credit…Getty Images

On an evening in the spring of 1918, Johnson and a comrade were standing sentry at a forward position in the Argonne Forest when a German raiding party attacked. Johnson engaged two dozen Germans, killing at least four, and prevented the attackers from carrying off his wounded comrade. He continued fighting though wounded 21 times.

He became the first American hero of the Great War and received the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest military honors. He continued to fight with French forces and eventually became known as “Black Death.”

Returning to the United States, Johnson never received adequate treatment for his many wounds. He died destitute in 1929. His gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery was unknown for most of the century and was located in 2001.

A decade later, an aide to Senator Charles Schumer of New York discovered a previously unknown 1918 memorandum from Gen. John Pershing describing Johnson’s valorous performance in the field.

At the Medal of Honor presentation in 2015, President Barack Obama alluded to the delay in recognizing Johnson’s exploits when he said, “We believe that it’s never too late to say thank you.” Naming a Southern military base for a Black hero who was nearly erased during the age of Jim Crow would be a highly visible way of breaking with the cult of the Confederacy.

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