What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

By Patrick F. Cannon

In my distinguished Army career, I had the pleasure of spending time at five U.S. Army forts. I’m ashamed to say that I was never much interested in who they were named after. When you’re drafted and thrust unwillingly into the clutches of lunatic officers and sergeants, who require you to march through muddy swamps and bogs, who they actually named these backwoods hell holes for is the last thing on your mind.

Recent events, however, have led me to inquire into this for the first time. On the day of my induction, early in 1961, we future soldiers gathered at the Chicago building set aside for that purpose. After a cursory physical exam to determine if we were still breathing, we boarded a bus for Central Station, the long gone Illinois Central terminal at 12th and Michigan. We boarded an overnight train for St. Louis. It was the first and only time I traveled in a Pullman car with upper and lower berths. I snagged a lower berth, but didn’t get much sleep, due to the exuberance of my fellow soldiers (we had already been sworn in).

We went from the train to a bus, and onward to Fort Leonard Wood. As it happened, I later found out who Wood was. He appeared prominently in biographies I read of Teddy Roosevelt, John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. A Harvard-trained physician, he was  the only doc to become chief of staff of the US Army. A recipient of the Medal of Honor, he was the actual commander of the famous Rough Riders, although Teddy Roosevelt hogged all the glory.

I was only to stay there for a couple of weeks. After being fitted for uniforms by the justly famous Army tailors, we mostly tried to avoid KP and other duties while waiting to be assigned to a basic training unit. As it turned out, this was to be at Fort Benning, Georgia, a long bus ride away. Then, as now, a major training center, it was named after Brigadier General Henry Benning, who earned his high rank serving in the army of  the Confederate States of America (CSA). To put it as gently as possible, he was a traitor. After the Civil War, he returned to Columbus, Georgia to practice law. As it happens, Columbus is the nearest town to Ft. Benning, which straddles the Georgia/Alabama border, and it’s easy to imagine the House Armed Services Committee, led by segregationist Southern Democrats for much of the 20th Century, naming the fort after a local boy who shared their sympathies.

After basic training, I was sent to Signal School at Ft. Gordon, also in Georgia, but nearer the South Carolina border. The nearest city was Augusta, famous as home of the Augusta National Golf Club, site of the famous Masters golf tournament. The golf club has had many distinguished members, all white males until fairly recently, but I digress. The fort, still home to the Signal School, is named after Lt. General John Brown Gordon, another CSA stalwart and traitor. If anything, he was an even more rabid segregationist. In addition to having an army fort named after him, his grateful Georgians elected him to the US Senate in 1872. Oh, and he was apparently head of the Ku Klux Klan in the Peach State.

After leaving Fort Gordon, I was briefly at Fort Dix, New Jersey while awaiting a troop ship to take me to France. Major General John Adams Dix was from New York, and was a veteran of both the War of 1812 and the Civil War. He was later elected Governor of New York.

After my happy stay in France was over, I was sent to Fort Irwin, California, home of the army’s desert training center. It was in the middle of the Mojave Desert, 45 miles from the nearest town, which happened to be the unlovely Barstow. It was named in honor of Major General George Irwin, a division commander in World War I. George was the middle general in a family of soldiers. His father served the Union in the Civil War; and his son was a division and corps commander in World War II. He entered West Point from New York State; his father was born in Ireland, served as a medical officer, and was another recipient of the Medal of Honor.

My stay at Ft. Irwin – where our neighbors were scorpions, rattlesnakes, tarantulas and coyotes – was interrupted by my signal company’s assignment to support armored division maneuvers at Ft. Hood, Texas. All of our equipment – we were a combat support signal company – and ourselves were flown there on C-130 transports. It was October, 1962, so our stay in this jewel of the Texas hill country was ended by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Alas, we had to convoy back to California, which took three days.

The fort was named for a more famous Confederate general, John Bell Hood, the youngest man to be made a full general in the Confederate army. He had a sterling record until he faced William Tecumseh Sherman, who defeated him in a series of battles that culminated in the capture and burning of Atlanta. Although born in Kentucky, this graduate of West Point served in Texas as a young officer and adopted it as his home. When the Civil War started, he volunteered to be an officer in their militia. No doubt this noble gesture resulted in this major army fort being named in his honor.

Yet, he was another traitor, and along with Benning and Gordon, should have his name removed from the fort. Many in the current army agree with this, but our perverse and stupid  president disagrees, preferring to pander to his base. By the way, each of these men was an admitted and avowed racist, who went to their graves believing that African-Americans were inferior. If the Defense Department would like some suggested replacement names, I could start with Benjamin O. Davis, Sr, the first African-American to become a general in the service of his country.

Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. It may have begun sooner, but the current enthusiasm for changing or canceling names on buildings and such caught my attention when Yale decided to rename one of its colleges several years ago. Calhoun (no relation to Algonquin J.) was the original honoree. Thus began the hunt for prominent names associated with slavery, its aftermath and ethnic or racial prejudice in general.

    Probably like most people I had no idea who Benning and many of the others were, let alone their backgrounds. And to be honest, now that I know, it hardly seems so important.

    I imagine finding names for places and structures is no easy task. Colleges usually give the honor to generous benefactors or exceptional leaders. In the case of the military, I imagine they look for prominent military figures. The Fort being in Georgia, for example, was likely named after Benning because he was a Southern military figure. It would have been astounding if they had named it after Sherman or Grant.

    I have mixed feeling about this renaming business. On one hand, I can see if a name is truly objectionable to a population why it should be changed. On the other, it is not as if the fort itself actively practices or promotes racism. The name is historical. Our history has its admirable moments but also its dismaying ones. History is like that, and I feel it’s good to know the positive and the negative of the past. Auschwitz and Dachau, no longer murdering Jews, are still standing despite the horror they symbolize. But we learn from that.

    Much of this name-cancelling is chasing ghosts. It does not change human nature. And much of it is making political hay in an election year. It starts with tearing down statues and ends with tearing people down. As for Yale, it seems Elihu Yale who gave the school his name and an historically large grant, was active in the slave trade, which contributed to his fortune. Will Yale now change its thus tainted name? Similarly, the Democratic Party was the champion of slavery before the Civil War and of Jim Crow after it. The KKK was its terrorist arm. Will it now recast its identity with a new name? Or at least, pay reparations?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see no reason to honor traitors, even if they’re historical figures that the local folks like. We’re not erasing them from history, just from a United States facility. P.S. The Democratic Party is happy to forget it’s history!

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      1. If they were convicted of treason, I would concur. They were apparently honored for military achievements, not the side on which they fought in the civil conflict. They were wrong, but they are still Americans.

        As for the Democrats, they may be too happy to have us forget their mistakes, and too eager to pin them on others!

        Liked by 1 person

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