The Department of Defense is studying whether or not to rename military bases that are named for individuals who served in the Confederacy. This article will examine whether or not that is a good idea.
The late great Walter E. Williams, the highly esteemed Black economist, in an article last year at Creators Syndicate, said that “Article 1 of the Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the war between the Colonies and Great Britain, held ‘New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and Independent States.’
Representatives of these states came together in Philadelphia in 1787 to write a constitution and form a union. During the ratification debates, Virginia’s delegates said, “The powers granted under the constitution being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” The ratification documents of New York and Rhode Island expressed similar sentiments. At the Constitutional Convention, a proposal was made to allow the federal government to suppress a seceding state. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” rejected it. The minutes from the debate paraphrased his opinion: “A union of the states containing such an ingredient (would) provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a state would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.”
If succession had been prohibited by the new Constitution, it would not have been ratified. Thus, naming those who chose to leave the Union and serve the states of their birth and their new creation, the Confederacy, as “traitors” or “treasonous” as many advocates of renaming have done, is not valid as that possibility of succession by the southern states and northern states too was always anticipated by the framers. Using terms such as “traitors” and “treason” for those who fought for the Confederacy is disingenuous and historically inaccurate. It ignores our founders’ intentions which clearly envisioned succession as permissible if not likely considering the complexity of the situation at the founding.
I would ask anyone in favor of tearing down statues or renaming bases, statues and bases that represent all of our history, as tattered and torn as it is such as the tragedy of the Civil War, to put yourself in the shoes of those who lived in those troubled times. Imagine you were born in Mississippi in 1825 and you grew up there. You entered the Army or Navy and rose in rank by following the rules and being a good soldier or sailor. You were a military member not a politician or a historian. Most likely you had little education. You just did your duty for God and state and country as best you could. Most in this situation were of low rank but many of the more talented ones ended up as senior officers by the time the war broke out. Then, the unrest began and things started to unravel. Those who would tear down statues and rename bases and ships would have us believe that the right thing for my notional Mississippian to have done is he would have left Mississippi at once, traveled north and joined the Union, leaving his wife and children, his friends, his culture, his very life behind. That strains credulity. Records show that doing such was rare and from a practical standpoint nigh on impossible for most. An estimated 1,000,000 men served in the Confederate Army and Navy, most conscripted. Slightly more than 100,000 from the South, the vast majority who lived in close proximity to the Union from either northern Virginia or Eastern Tennessee, served in the Union Army. For any others, there was realistically little practical way they could have served in the Union forces even if they had wanted to but it was moot essentially due to able bodied men’s conscription early in the war for a 3-year terms of service. Are these people to be forever labelled as traitors or treasonous? Does that really seem right to you?
Let’s look more closely at the foot soldiers and sailors of the South. This group was made up of mostly poor, illiterate, disadvantaged whites. Only 2% of the whites in the South owned slaves. So, very few actual slaveowners served in the Confederate military….the vast majority were just poor whites who had little or no choice in the matter. They were victims of circumstances. The poor whites’ existence can be described as brutal, desperate, onerous, and short. When the South states succeeded and decided to fight for their right leave the Union, they drafted these men by the hundreds of thousands to preserve their economy and their way of life, a way of life they did not invent but one they inherited from their forefathers, and from history. The reality of the history of humanity is that slavery has existed through all recorded human history and still exists today. Are these soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy traitors? Did they have a choice? No, they just did what they had to do. They made an awful choice, one that they had to make, to fight for their state, their culture. It is the only one they knew and to expect them to have risen above it all and adopted an enlightened view of humanity is not realistic. It’s time to stop judging them even those who rose in rank such that their fame and accomplishments led the leaders who have preceded us to name things after.
In modern times our national identity is much different than it was in the early years of our country. The national identity was there but it was subsumed by state and local ties much more so than is the case today. Everything was far different then, technology, travel, communications, everything. We were much more a community of states than a cohesive country. It took two world wars to create the strong national identity that emerged after WWII and that persists to this day. At the time of the Civil War, loyalty to the states was much stronger than to the nation at large which explains the behavior of many in the Union Army and Navy choosing to resign and join the Confederacy. To reiterate, the concept of succession was not a new one having existed since the founding so it was not a surprise that the Southern states chose to do so when faced with economic disaster from the will of the North being imposed on them. This is not an apology for the evil of slavery. It is a realistic acknowledgement of the fiscal reality that Southerners faced, their economic destruction at the hands of the North. As evil as slavery was, the truth was that it was extremely common and accepted all over the world and was part of almost every country’s economy. At the time, there were far more slaves in other areas of the new world such as Spanish and French possessions, or countries who had broken free of their colonial masters much as we had but retained slavery as an economic system. At the time of the Civil War the slaves in America constituted only about 5% of the total slaves in the new world with most concentrated in the Caribbean, Brazil and other parts of South America. The Civil War was unprecedented. In the history of the world, only one country has ever fought a war to end slavery, the US. In 2021, according to World Population Review, slavery still exists in over 100 countries and in 6 countries it is still a large fact of life.
General Robert E. Lee has been up until recently one of the most admired and even venerated soldiers in our nation’s history. He served 32 years in the US Army after graduating second in his class and had the distinction of completing 4 years at West Point without ever being awarded a single demerit. He served honorably in the Army fighting bravely in the Mexican War. He was not alone in serving in the Confederate Army with records showing that 151 West Point graduates served as General officers in the Confederate Army. Even though the North and South fought brutal vicious battles there is ample evidence that the Armies and the soldiers had great respect for each other and personal animus against those who fought for the South was lacking. When Lincoln and Grant authorized Sherman to sit down and negotiate the end of the war, it was done with civility, dignity and compassion. Lee and others who fought unsuccessfully for the South were not vilified or condemned by the victors. For over a century Lee and others who fought valiantly for what they thought was right in the context of that time and their own cultures and states, were honored and admired, held up as exemplars of honesty, bravery, and accomplishment as soldiers and sailors. Only in recent years has history been revised to now view these once heroes as hateful, racist villains whose memory should be scrubbed completely from the landscape and from our minds. The leaders of the day at the end of the Civil War concluded that it was enough to have won the war and restored the Union to wholeness. Reconciliation and peace was the priority and the healing of the wounds of war. Now, revisionists and cancel culture advocates want to re-write the history of the peace at the end and fight the Civil War figuratively all over again. It should not stand. The move to remove Lee and others’ names is divisive and unnecessary and serves no meaningful purpose. There is no mandate from Black Americans for this erasing of our history, rather it is an invention of white liberals who are forever trying to stoke division and conflict among us to gain power and control.
I served proudly on the USS Richard L. PAGE (DEG-5). Richard Lucian Page was a lifelong Virginian entering the Navy in 1824 as a midshipman and serving in many ships and all around the world in our nation’s conflicts up until 1861 when the war broke out. He served 37 years of arduous often dangerous duty rising to the rank of Commander by the start of the Civil war. When the war broke out, he resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Navy as he saw that as his duty to his home of Virginia. He served bravely in combat in both the Navy and the Army and by the end of the war was a Confederate General in charge of the defense of Mobile, AL. He and his 400 men fought bravely against a far superior force of 3000 Union soldiers and eventually had to surrender when they ran out of powder. He was arrested and spent the remainder of the war in jail. Richard L. Page was a confederate naval and army officer over a hundred years ago. He served bravely and honorably his entire life most of that in the U. S. Navy and I would submit he served honorably in the Confederacy in the context that it was his belief and the belief of millions in the South backed up by the founders’ intent that states had a right to dissolve their relationship to the nation when injured or oppressed by the nation. Richard Page was worthy of admiration and that is why the leaders of the Navy in the 1960’s honored him by naming a ship after him. I suspect that the story of each base that is named for a Confederate has a similar story. The bases and the names are part of our history. The fact that a base or ship is named for a famous Confederate is not an endorsement of slavery or racism. Renaming things is part of cancel culture and I oppose going down that road. It will only serve to divide and once you accede to the cancel culture mob, there is no end in sight.