General John Gordon led troops for the South at Gettysburg 150 years ago in the US Civil War before becoming a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, the infamous white supremacist organization.
Yet, in a sign of a United States still tormented by racial issues, today a military base in Georgia carries his name, that of a man who declared slavery “the hand-maid of civil liberty.”
Fort Gordon is one of ten US military bases named after Confederate army generals — many of whom defended the practice of slavery, explained writer Jamie Malanowski.
“Now African-Americans make up about a fifth of the military. The idea that today we ask any of these soldiers to serve at a place named for a defender of a racist slavocracy is deplorable,” protested Malanowski, who wrote a book about the six months that preceded the war.
It was controversy over whether slavery should be allowed in the newly annexed western territories that provoked the Civil War in 1861.
Southern states supported extending slavery in the west. Outvoted, eleven of them chose to secede from the union.
“The War Between the States,” as it was later known in the South, was brutal and brutally divisive, with echoes that continue to today.
Yet even as battles raged, Abraham Lincoln was working to reunite the union symbolically as well as militarily.
At a memorial for the Battle of Gettysburg, fought over three bloody days in July 1863, Lincoln spoke of the shared heritage of the two sides: the Declaration of Independence, that created a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
July 1 is the 150th anniversary of the start of the battle, a turning point in the war.
Historian Brian Jordan, of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, said the fact that there are based named after southern generals “is less an issue than the civil rights movement” which will mark this year the 50th anniversary of the famous “I have a dream” speech by the late Reverend Martin Luther King.
For some historians and “in popular culture, it is remembered as a glorious war, a good war,” that ended with the abolition of slavery — without giving weight to the devastation wrought by the conflict, said Jordan.
The reality, he said, is the Civil War was a “tragic four years,” costing thousands of lives, and massive suffering. It was “a tragedy for American democracy,” Jordan said, and did not resolve the country’s racial issues.
One sign race remains a hot button topic came last week, when “southern cooking” television star Paula Deen was booting from the Food Network after 10 years because of a racist remark she made years ago.
According to New York Times newspaper op-ed writer Frank Bruni, “from her butter to her banter, she’s a Confederate caricature, and a reminder of a past that’s still too present.”
Tony Horowitz, another Civil War expert, wrote of “150 Years of misunderstanding the Civil War,” in an essay for The Atlantic magazine, and noted that recent work has stripped “much of the luster from the Civil War and questioned its sanctification.”
Few northerners joined the battle in order to end slavery, he explained: “They fought for Union.”
“Emancipation was a byproduct of the war, not its aim, and white Americans clearly failed during Reconstruction to protect and guarantee the rights of freed slaves,” he noted.
“In some respects, the struggle for racial justice, and for national cohesion, continues still,” he said.
When the US Supreme Court overturned on Tuesday an electoral law aimed at blocking racial discrimination in voting in former segregationist states, it said “Today the nation is no longer divided (as it was in 1965).”
But the four dissenting judges recalled that, when Congress renewed the law in 2006 by an overwhelming margin, it judged that “40 years has not been sufficient time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination following nearly 100 years of disregard for the 15th Amendment,” adopted in 1870 after the Civil War, and gave former slaves the right to vote.
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