I just watched Wanda Sykes’s Not Normal on Netflix. It was taped more than a year ago, but it was timely as she urged that we confront present and past racism. She recounts that when she returns to Virginia she sees off the interstate “a big, giant Confederate flag. Every time I go home and I pass that flag, it hurts me to my core. It fucking hurts. ‘Cause it’s racist. It’s racist and it’s wrong. And I’m sick of this bullshit of ‘Well, that’s part of my Southern heritage.’ Well, your heritage is shitty. It’s garbage. Your heritage is trash. The atrocities that happened under that flag, are you proud of that shit? – Yeah. – What the fuck? There are so many other things about the South that you can be proud of. Right? Moonshine. Dollywood. Come on. You got to love Dolly Parton and Dollywood. Clay Aiken. Come on. Why don’t you tear down those statues and put up a statue of Clay Aiken drinking moonshine, wearing a Dollywood t-shirt.”
Maybe, just maybe, Sykes is seeing some progress. A statue of Jefferson Davis, for example, was torn down in Richmond, Virginia. Such a de-pedestalization has not been uncommon in the past few years, but it is remarkable that NASCAR—yes, NASCAR, with its deep Southern good-ole-boy roots— recently banned the Confederate flag, something that could not have been predicted even a few months ago. I was surprised even further when the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of Defense both said that they were open to the renaming of at least ten military installations honoring Confederate soldiers. On the other hand, I was not surprised when the Tweeter-in-Chief, apparently blindsiding the Pentagon leaders, slammed the gates on that possibility: “My Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!” Our history, Mr. President, undermines our “Greatest Nation” status.
This military controversy did teach me something. I had not known that some of our army installations were named for Confederate soldiers. Curious, I did an intensive, twenty-minute internet research, and I found that Ft. Bragg in North Carolina honors Braxton Bragg. He fought for the United States in the Seminole Wars and the Mexican War, but, although he opposed secession, he was a Confederate General in the Civil War.
I don’t know how the North Carolina fort came to be named after Bragg other than that he was born in that state, but I assume that it came at a time when many in the South maintained that the Civil War was not truly about slavery and that instead it was about states’ rights — that it was the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression. This wishful propaganda, of course, was revisionist history. Perhaps we might explore this further another time, but let us not doubt that the South’s core purpose in seceding was to preserve slavery. Historians have demonstrated this time and again. All Americans should be offended by the honoring of those who fought and killed to maintain the enslavement of Americans.
In addition, it is remarkable that we would honor those who were traitors and committed treason. For example, wouldn’t you be offended to have a statute of Benedict Arnold in your town square? “Benedict Arnold” became synonymous with “traitor” shortly after the American General Arnold defected to the British during our Revolution. We would never erect a monument to that traitor. But Arnold, before his switch, was an American hero and had a major role in the battles around Saratoga and Lake Champlain that helped secure our independence. Benedict Arnold does have a sort-of memorial at Saratoga—a sculptured pair of boots (Arnold was wounded in the leg there) with an inscription that mentions a “brilliant soldier” without giving Arnold’s name. This, however, commemorates his bravery fighting for the new United States. We don’t have memorials commemorating his time battling for the British against the United States for the simple reason that we don’t honor Americans who fought against the United States. Unless, that is, they fought against the United States from 1861 to 1865.
Many of us have not recognized Confederate soldiers as traitors and treasonous, but we should. They made war on the United States. The constitutional Framers carefully defined “treason”: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid or Comfort.” The Confederacy levied war against the United States. Confederate leaders knew they could be charged with treason if they lost the war, just as Revolutionary leaders expected Great Britain to hold them treasonous if the War for Independence failed.
A major issue after the Civil War was whether to charge the leaders of the Confederacy with the constitutional crime of treason. Jefferson Davis was so charged, but he was never tried. United States officials concluded that the desired reconciliation of the country would be harmed by treason trials, and on Christmas of 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a “pardon and amnesty” for treason to “every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection or rebellion.” A result of Johnson’s proclamation is that we don’t see the Stonewall Jacksons and the Robert E. Lees as traitors, but, of course, they were. And if we saw them as traitors, we might wonder more about why there are so many memorials to them. If Braxton Bragg had been tried for treason, I can’t imagine that we would have a military installation named after him.
We should not honor anyone who fought for slavery and against the United States, but there is another curious thing about honoring Bragg. He was a terrible general. The noted Civil War historian James MacPherson puts Bragg in the “bumbler” category. One summary states: “Bragg is generally considered among the worst generals of the Civil War. Most of the battles in which he engaged ended in defeat. . . . Bragg has a generally poor reputation with historians. . . . The losses which Bragg suffered are cited as principal factors in the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy.” Even in his day the Confederate General was detested: “Bragg was extremely unpopular with both the men and the officers of his command, who criticized him for numerous perceived faults, including poor battlefield strategy, a quick temper, and overzealous discipline.” Jefferson Davis recognized Bragg’s flaws and relieved him of command.
Why would we honor someone who fought to maintain slavery, was a traitor, and was a bad and unpopular military leader? The only answer might be that it is because he was so inept, and Braxton Bragg thus helped the United States to win the Civil War. Surely that is a curious reason, to say the least, to have a Ft. Bragg.