GETTYSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA – Gen. John Gordon led troops for the South at Gettysburg 150 years ago in the American Civil War, then later became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, the infamous white supremacist organization.
Yet, in a sign of a United States that is remains tormented by lingering racial issues, a military base in Georgia still carries the name of a man who declared slavery “the handmaid of civil liberty.”
Fort Gordon is one of 10 U.S. 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 1861-1865 Civil War, provoked by controversy over whether slavery should be allowed in the newly annexed western territories.
Southern states supported extending slavery in the west. Outvoted, 11 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.
Historian Brian Jordan, of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, said that 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.
The reality, he said, is the war was a “tragic four years,” costing thousands of lives and causing massive suffering. It was “a tragedy for American democracy” and did not resolve the country’s racial issues, Jordan said.
One sign that race remains a hot-button topic came last month when celebrity chef and Southern cooking TV star Paula Deen was booted from the Food Network after 10 years because of a racist remark she made years ago.
According to The New York Times editorial 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 the institution of slavery, he explained. Rather, “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.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned 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, the amendment gave former slaves the right to vote.