My mother’s family came to America as part of the migration of lower-class Britons into Pennsylvania, down through the Shenandoah Valley and finally to the back countries of Carolina and beyond. They came as indentured servants, and by the eve of the Civil War they were living a life of poverty and loneliness in the woodlands of East Tennessee. I have little doubt that they were racists, and that, like most Southern Unionists, they had little sympathy for the plight of enslaved African Americans. But I also know that they were not traitors.
Many lower-class white families in Appalachia had little sympathy for the rebellion underway by slaveholding elites in the Southern flatlands. My family felt that way. The men declined to sign up for service in the Confederacy, and while one of them could not escape the draft, he shot his own toe off rather than take up arms against his country, and they sent him back to the homestead. The remaining men lingered at the farm and nervously tried to wait out the Civil War with their wives and children.
This vision of peace was shattered one day in the midst of the war when Confederate troops came marauding through the Tennessee hills. Led by Braxton Bragg, the Rebels tore through every settlement scouring the earth for fighting-aged men whom they could force into service for the Cause of Treason. They found one of the boys. The boy wouldn’t fight. So Braxton Bragg’s marauders took him out into the woods and killed him like an animal.
The war would end poorly for those of my family who survived. Like many poor white Southerners, they were plunged into sharecropping, and their only consolation could have been that they were not abused to the extent that Black people were across the state of Tennessee. But the story ended quite differently for the commander of the men who killed the boy. Braxton Bragg, after pussyfooting around and working for a life insurance company at the suggestion of Jefferson Davis, would be rehabilitated by Lost Cause mythmakers. Today, his name adorns the largest military base in America.
Explain this to me: why should a traitorous killer whose thugs bushwhacked my own ancestors because they would not commit treason, who lost nearly every battle he fought and was hated by the men under his command, be honored with the name of a military base that I support with my tax money? I take great pride in the men and women stationed at Fort Bragg, among whom are the 82nd Airborne and Delta Force, widely considered the greatest warfighters on Earth. But the installation’s name is a direct and mystifying personal insult. He killed my ancestors for loving their country. He was a killer. He was a traitor. And he was a racist.
And my chagrin at the veneration of Braxton Bragg can only pale compared to the generations of pain caused by the Lost Cause to the African American community. Black people were worked and beaten on Southern fields for 12 generations before Bragg went to war against America to keep them in chains. The ideology devised by Lost Cause polemicists would keep them subjugated for another 100 years after the premature end of Reconstruction, and mass incarceration and educational apartheid linger today as aftereffects of the Lost Cause’s dark sorcery. Yet every African American in America contributes to the treasury so that it can fund a place named after a man who fought to keep them enslaved.
Some Southerners–perhaps even some readers–would object that their own ancestors fought for the Confederacy. Or that Braxton Bragg was a North Carolinian, and should be commemorated in his native state’s mightiest military base. No, that won’t work. Every family has members who have done things the others would never defend–and few in recent generations have transgressed the bounds of decency to the extent that Confederate soldiers did between 1861-1865. Just because one’s ancestors fought for the Confederacy does not oblige one to honor the Confederacy. I certainly would not defend everything my ancestors have done. We in the present, like they in the past, have agency. We can choose a better path.
To whom, then, should Fort Bragg be dedicated? Another North Carolinian will do: Lawrence Joel. Born into poverty in segregated Winston-Salem, the African American Joel received the Medal of Honor for extraordinary valor in Vietnam. After he returned home, the city, still riven with racial strife, united to give him a celebratory parade. If Braxton Bragg had had his way, this American hero would have spent his whole life as a slave. That’s all you need to know about Braxton Bragg.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.