A debate simmers over whether United States military bases should be named for Confederate generals. Many military personnel pass through the bases in question without realizing the background of those for whom the bases were named. Others know and are disgusted.
Understanding the history concerning the generals in question is central to the debate. Let’s take the most prominent as a sample, Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Many argue that General Lee was not a traitor to the United States and that he only stayed loyal to his home state. This view ignores historical facts. Lee was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy who ranked second in his class. He swore an oath to uphold and defend the United States Constitution from all enemies both foreign and domestic.
During the run-up to the Civil War, Lee agonized over whether he should resign his U.S. Army commission so that he could serve an enemy of the United States. He understood well that to do so violated his sacred oath. Nevertheless, he decided to betray his country.
The President of the Confederacy commissioned Lee as an officer. He advanced to the rank of full general in command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which inflicted heavy casualties on the U.S. Army, although General Ulysses S. Grant eventually forced Lee to surrender at Appomattox, Va. on April 9, 1865.
Lee had a choice when his state seceded. He did not have to betray his oath. Other southern generals stood by their oath and served honorably in the Union Army. For example, Lee’s fellow Virginian, Major General John Newton, chose to stay in the U.S. Army. Interestingly, Newton invaded Florida near the end of the war while in command of mostly Black troops.
Lee acknowledged that he was a traitor to the United States, and he lived with the disgrace the rest of his life. After the war, he applied for a presidential pardon, which was never granted. However, his full rights of citizenship were restored posthumously in 1975.
Make no mistake, by fighting for the Confederacy, Lee fought to preserve slavery. The Confederate Constitution created a slave republic. The Confederate Constitution in Article IV, Sec. 2 (1) provided: “The citizens of each State ... shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of the Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.” South Carolina’s Declaration of the Cause of Seceding asserts that northern states denied southern states the rights of property in slaves and that the northern states denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.
As veterans, we are insulted that military bases are named for traitors to the United States. Compounding the affront is the fact that Black comrades-in-arms have to serve on these bases knowing that they are named for traitors who fought to keep their ancestors in chains and who supported white supremacy.
Naming U.S. military bases for Confederate generals also belittles the contribution Black soldiers made to win the war for the Union. By the end of the war, roughly 200,000 Black men served in the Union Army and Navy and nearly 40,000 died.
Instead of naming U.S. military bases for traitors and white supremacists, they should be named for American heroes and patriots. For instance, we should consider founding father Thomas Paine, a veteran and abolitionist. His political pamphlet, Common Sense, turned the American Rebellion into a revolution for an American government by and for the people. Another good choice is Robert Smalls, an escaped slave who stole the confederate navy ship, CSS Planter, and delivered it to the Union Navy. Smalls went on to pilot the ship for the U.S. Navy and was credited with saving it during an attack at Secessionville.
Paine’s words still ring true: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” It’s simply wrong to name U.S. military bases after traitors and white supremacists.
Gene Jones is an United States Air Force veteran and is the president of Florida Veterans for Common Sense, Inc., a veterans’ advocacy organization that educates the public on national security and veterans’ issues.