Illinois Monument on Cheatham Hill
The Illinois Monument on Cheatham Hill outside Atlanta. Photo courtesy National Park Service

I was born in the South, grew up there and worked at Southern newspapers for 15 years. I have a great affection for the region. But President Trump’s defense of naming Army bases after Confederate generals brought back a stream of bad memories.

There was a popular phrase when I began my career in the 1970s — “New South” — that meant throwing off the “Burden of Southern History,” as the author C. Vann Woodard put it, and burying once and for all any appreciation for the slave-owning antebellum era. Progressive governors like Jimmy Carter in Georgia and Bill Clinton in Arkansas epitomized this new South, and both went on to be elected President.

But there was always a group of Southerners who preferred to wallow in the old South, arguing that the Civil War was a noble struggle to save a special Southern way of life. They displayed Confederate battle flags, celebrated Southern history, endlessly argued over which side had the better army, and paid homage to memorials like the giant sculptures on Stone Mountain in Atlanta.

We all knew that behind such spirited defense of the old South was a tinge of racism. There was nothing noble about what the Confederate Army sought to defend. The Confederacy was created to preserve a fundamentally evil economic system based on buying and selling human beings for cheap labor.

Moreover, it was a stupid system. At a time when the North was rapidly industrializing, an agrarian economy based on slavery was little advanced from ancient times. The wealthy planters built grand homes, but it was a charade. The brilliant future Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, who was running a military academy in Louisiana when the war broke out, put it succinctly to one of his Southern friends: “The North can make a steam-engine, locomotive or railway car, hardly a yard of cloth or shoes can you make.”

It took a few years, but the emerging industrial colossus that was the Union strangled the Confederacy. Union gunboats patrolled the Mississippi River, leveling key cities like Vicksburg. Northern railroads supplied Union soldiers with the latest weapons. The U.S. Navy, which soon grew larger than the British Navy, blockaded Southern ports, cutting manufactured supplies from overseas. And Sherman’s troops, many armed with the latest repeating rifles while the rebels still used aging muskets, cut the Confederacy in two.

There are many ways to remember the great tragedy that was the Civil War. Plenty of excellent histories have been written. The national battlefield parks and memorials from Gettysburg to Shilo to Andersonville allow one to visualize the history.

My wife and I used to walk our dog on Cheatham Hill in the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park outside Atlanta. It was on this hill that the Confederate troops achieved a rare tactical victory over Sherman’s army. It was an isolated event. Sherman’s much more numerous and far better supplied troops began a series of flanking attacks that ended in the capture and destruction of Atlanta. For the South, it was like Germany and Japan in 1945.

I liked Cheatham Hill because its towering monument, topped by an eagle, is to the 3,000 soldiers of the Illinois regiment who died on June 27, 1864. It is a memorial to men who gave their lives for the liberating, anti-slavery Union cause.

When President Trump defends Confederate generals, he’s defending a morally bankrupt version of history. Those generals were traitors — West Point graduates for the most part who renounced their oath to defend the Constitution and took up arms against their country. They aren’t heroes, but tragic figures on the wrong side of the arc of history.

Trump may please his base by defending Confederate generals, blowing the usual racist dog whistle. But cooler heads in America prevailed on Thursday when the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would require the Pentagon to rename the bases.

Even Trump’s party realizes that, 155 years from the end of the Civil War, it’s past time to erase the names of Confederate generals from American military bases.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego. Early in his career he worked at newspapers in Tampa, Memphis and Atlanta.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.