The Lost Cause’s Long Legacy

Why does the U.S. Army name its bases after generals it defeated?

Bettmann / Getty / The Library of Virginia / The Atlantic

Ten U.S. Army bases are still named in honor of Confederate generals. Donald Trump has strenuously resisted any effort to rename these bases, saying that they are “part of a great American heritage.” But what heritage are they commemorating exactly?

Naming these bases was one of the crowning achievements of those who sought to perpetuate the Lost Cause. A revisionist history that gained popularity in the 1890s, the Lost Cause recast the Confederacy’s humiliating defeat in a treasonous war for slavery as the embodiment of the Framers’ true vision for America. Supporters pushed the ideas that the Civil War was not actually about slavery; that Robert E. Lee was a brilliant general, gentleman, and patriot; and that the Ku Klux Klan had rescued the heritage of the old South, what came to be known as “the southern way of life.”

A principal goal of the Lost Cause was to reintegrate Confederate soldiers into the honorable traditions of the very American military they had once fought against. Members of the Lost Cause movement had lobbied to have newly built military bases named after Confederate generals several times without success. But during Woodrow Wilson’s second term as president, they found a more hospitable reception. Thanks to Wilson, the Lost Cause ideology came fully into the mainstream, reaching the apex of its influence as America entered the First World War.

Born and raised in Virginia, Wilson was the first American president to hail from the South since the Civil War. He was 8 years old when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Though Wilson grew up to become a northeastern Ivy League academic, the president of Princeton, and later governor of New Jersey, his southern political base saw him as a champion of the Lost Cause. And he didn’t let them down.

As president, Wilson imposed Jim Crow–style segregation on the federal civil service and the Navy, which had been integrated for the previous century, and when he hosted the first-ever screening of a feature film in the White House, the honor went to The Birth of a Nation. An adaptation of the Thomas Dixon Jr. novel The Clansman, the film brought the myth of the Lost Cause to the silver screen in a racist paean to the defeat of Reconstruction through the terrorist violence of the KKK.

In 1916, Wilson narrowly won reelection. Most political historians attribute his success to his promise of isolationism—his slogans were “America First” and “He kept us out of war”—as Europe burned itself to the ground in what was then called the Great War. Within a few months of his reelection, though, following a renewed wave of German belligerence, Wilson mobilized the nation for war.

While the Great War was more politically popular than it had been just months before, the United States simply did not have a military capable of fighting in it. The National Guard and Army totaled little more than a quarter-million men combined. Needing to build an army quickly, Congress enacted the first federal draft since the Civil War. On June 5, 1917, every American man from the ages of 21 to 31 was legally obliged to register for conscription, with the expectation that 2 million of them would be imminently called to serve.

Increasing the size of the Army tenfold created a massive logistical problem. Where could so many men train before shipping off to Europe?

The solution was to quickly build 32 new encampments—now called bases—distributed over 14 states. Sixteen were to be located in the South, a decision justified on the grounds that the warmer climate would allow for year-round training outdoors. But the choice of the South was a sensitive political matter, and not only because it had believed in Wilson’s campaign promises of “America First” isolationism.

Only 40 years earlier, President Rutherford B. Hayes had withdrawn the Army from the former Confederate states, marking the end of Reconstruction and the return of white supremacy under the guise of Redemption. In 1878, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act to forbid the deployment of the Army to assist in law enforcement, which really meant federal civil-rights-law enforcement. Ever since, the Army had maintained a light footprint below the Mason-Dixon line.

Reestablishing a large Army presence in the former Confederate states risked touching a still-raw historical nerve. But Wilson was the Lost Cause president, and he put that mythology to full use to bolster support for the war effort. During the first week of June 1917, the United Confederate Veterans hosted their 27th reunion, in Washington, D.C., the first such reunion outside the former states of the Confederacy. Nearly 100 Confederate soldiers were welcomed into the Capitol building, where they held a mock session of the Senate. And a parade of Confederate veterans, dressed in gray uniform jackets and waving the Stars and Bars, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the tune of “Dixie” as Wilson welcomed them from the grandstand.

A Sons of Confederate Veterans newsletter described the scene as “the men who made history half a century ago saluted the man who is making history to-day and who stands for the principles for which they gave their lives.” At Arlington National Cemetery, Wilson and the first lady appeared for a solemn commemoration held in the shadow of the Confederate Memorial—a landmark that the United Daughters of the Confederacy had fought for and built in 1914. An honor roll of Confederate veterans was read, religious songs were sung, and, as one local paper reported, “thousands crowded the grounds and heard the eulogies pronounced on those who died for the Lost Cause.”

The main event was a celebration at Washington’s Arcade Auditorium, where thousands came to hear their president speak. Wilson sat as the guest of honor on a dais flanked by American and Confederate battle flags. His address was a full-throated embrace of the Lost Cause: “There are many memories of the Civil War that thrill along the blood and make one proud to have been sprung of a race that could produce such bravery and constancy.” To a standing ovation of applause and rebel yells, Wilson warmly recalled how “heroic things were done on both sides.”

With the deadline to register for the draft that very day, Colonel Robert E. Lee, a grandson of the Confederate general, took his turn at the podium. Lee assured the president that the sons of the South could be relied on to “forget all local animosities” and mobilize to fight in the Great War just as they had for the Confederacy.

When it came time to name the new Army bases, just a month later, Brigadier General Joseph E. Kuhn, who was tasked with setting up the camps and leading a naming committee, followed Wilson’s lead. In announcing the plan for the bases, Kuhn said that every “effort has been made to select names of federal commanders for camps of divisions from northern states and of Confederate commanders for camps of divisions from southern states.” Among them were Camp Beauregard, Fort Gordon, and Fort Lee.

The cover of the August issue of the magazine Confederate Veteran crowed that “for the first time since the War between the States, the United States government officially paid a tribute to the military genius of noted Confederate war chieftains in naming four of the training camps, where the selective draft army and national guardsmen will be prepared for service in France.”

The peculiarity of naming Army bases after Confederate generals did not go unnoticed at the time. A pointed op-ed in The Cleveland Gazette lamented, “Since 1861 to 1865, the South has won back all that it lost in that memorable struggle except its slaves.” And The Boston Globe reported the announcement of the new bases with a raised eyebrow: “In the list of names announced tonight, Lee, Gordon, Beauregard, and Wheeler take their places beside Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Meade and more than a score of others who fought for the Union.”

The Lost Cause had won. Fort Bragg and Fort Benning were established the following year. Then, in the mobilization for the Second World War, new Army bases built in the states of the former Confederacy were christened with the names of Confederate generals—including Fort A. P. Hill, Fort Hood, Fort Pickett, Fort Polk, and Fort Rucker.

Trump is correct when he says that the names of the 10 Army bases that honor Confederates are a question of heritage. But is that a heritage the Army should be commemorating? After Kuhn’s plan was adopted, Confederate Veteran published an essay titled “Why Did the Confederate States Fight?” Its conclusion was that the war was not about slavery. Instead, “every Confederate soldier, however poor in worldly goods, cherished in every fiber of his nature this sense of race superiority as his patent of nobility, and instinctively he felt that he was fighting to maintain that superiority against a party intent on making the negro his equal. He cared nothing for slavery, but he fought for his own race standing.”

The premise of the Lost Cause was that this worldview was as worthy as the proposition that all men were created equal. Continuing to commemorate that cause, most especially within the institution of the military, is an act of political neutrality on the question of white supremacy. It insists, to borrow Wilson’s (and later Trump’s) phrase, that equal respect is owed to both sides.