The Army Should Rid Itself of Symbols of Treason
“I, _____, appointed a _____ in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles for the government of the Armies of the United States.”
– Officer’s Oath, U.S. Army, 1830–62
“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
– Constitution of the United States, Article III, Section 3
Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, just made news for forbidding the display of Confederate symbols on Marine installations. But the debate over the Confederate battle flag, images, statues, and other symbols has been raging for years. Cloaked in terms of history and heritage, the continued use of Confederate symbols has often ignored the nature of that heritage, which is grounded in secession, oppression, and war. Today, one of the continuing holdouts on this issue is the United States Army, which currently names ten Army posts after Confederate generals. Often upheld as monuments to military history, they are indeed that, but that history does not belong to the United States. That history belongs to the Confederate States of America, to slaveowners, oppressors, and oath-breakers. To memorialize Confederate generals is to uplift symbols of treason. It should go without saying that the U.S. Army has no business doing this.
After the Charleston church shooting in 2015, the Army again resisted renaming its bases. Brig. Gen. Malcolm Frost, the Army’s director of public affairs, held the line: “every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history.” Under that logic, we could have posts named after Field Marshal Irwin Rommel, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, Gen. Iwane Matsui, Gen. Ernst Kaltenbrunner — the former two being honorable opponents and the latter two being convicted war criminals. You cannot separate a soldier from the causes he or she served. The individual cannot be separated from cause or conduct.
The cast of characters selected for memorialization is a mixed bag of miscreants. Several were slaveowners. Seven, including Robert E. Lee, were oath-breakers, having graduated from West Point and taken an oath to the United States. These officers should be singled out for opprobrium, and not commemorated. They violated those most sacred oaths, given freely, in the service of a rebellion against the very military they had once pledged to serve “honestly and faithfully.” They did neither. Indeed, Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard fired the first shots of the Civil War, on the Union garrison of Fort Sumter.
That accusation of oath-breaking cannot be levied against the remaining three, but that is hardly absolution. Maj. Gen. John Brown Gordon had no military background, was a slaveowner from a slave-owning family, and remained anti-reconstruction until his death. Brig. Gen. Henry L. Benning was a virulently pro-secession and pro-slavery politician for more than a decade before the Civil War — and for a decade after. Col. Edmund Rucker enforced a rebel draft order in pro-Union East Tennessee and maintained a long association with Nathan Bedford Forrest, tainting any Army legacy beyond redemption. Indeed, Rucker was never a part of the U.S. Army, and why he should be associated with an Army fort used for the training of aviators is unclear. All of these officers served an armed rebellion that resulted in the death of over 600,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians and the devastation of wide swaths of countryside. These men did nothing to deserve lionization by today’s Army, the descendent of the Union Army that fought valiantly, if imperfectly, against those who rose in revolt.
Despite claims that the war was less about slavery and more about states’ rights, that position is not supported by the evidence. The war was primarily about the southern states’ desire to keep people from a different race as property. The Declarations of Causes made by Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, and South Carolina are replete with mentions of slavery (83 times), while thin mention is made of rights (16 times). Records of the proceedings which led to the Ordinances of Secession are clear: The key issue was the institution of slavery and the differential between the northern and southern states as a result of this reprehensible practice. In the words of Henry Lewis Benning himself, before the Virginia Convention in 1861:
What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession? This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North-was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery. … If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is to be abolished. By the time the north shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that? It is not a supposable case.
Pay tribute to the soldiers who fought in the U.S. Army and not against it. It’s perverse that the Army has retained bases that honor rebels without a corresponding memorial to Union soldiers. Brig. Gen. William Bowen Campbell and Gen. George G. Meade still have their forts, but Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s was closed in 1999, Gen. Winfield Scott’s was renamed and closed. Where is Fort Grant (abandoned in 1905) or Fort Chamberlain, or perhaps Fort Sherman? Gen. Ulysses S. Grant became president and led Reconstruction efforts for eight years. The erudite and eloquent Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain earned a medal of honor at Little Round Top and later became governor of Maine. Gen. William T. Sherman? His results were unambiguous but his methods questionable. Still, we named a widely used medium tank after him — surely that is worth consideration as a new name for Fort Benning — home of the U.S. Army’s Armor Center.
We need not limit ourselves to the Civil War or to general officers; a base named after Gen. and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower or Pvt. Rodger Young would both commemorate the best the Army had to offer.
Today, more than ever, Americans are more widely (although by no means universally) equating confederate symbols and attitudes with pervasive racism and oppression, which was not ended by the Civil War. Indeed, by retaining those symbols we are perpetuating the philosophies that were the very foundation of the Confederate States, and the very rationale for treason. Today every single individual in the U.S. Army who enlists or accepts a commission swears an oath to support and defend the constitution of the United States. To elevate those who rebelled against those United States to a status which obscures their perfidy or conceals their service to a government founded on oppression rather than freedom should be unacceptable for a military service. Treason it was, and treason most foul, and it is not too late to reconsider the historical influences that led the Army to retain base names that commemorate officers whose cause was despicable, conduct dishonorable, and legacy disgraceful. We should not retain such obvious symbols of treason.
Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is mere weeks from retirement.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.