Treason Made Odious Again: Reflections From the Naming Commission, and the Front Lines of the Army’s War on the Lost Cause

Treason Made Odious Again: Reflections From the Naming Commission, and the Front Lines of the Army’s War on the Lost Cause

“So,” the man across the high-top cocktail table said, precise eye contact belying years of military bearing.  “What’s your role in all this?”

Fishing my nametag from behind my tie, I replied with all the authority someone five weeks on the job could muster.  “I’m the Naming Commission’s Lead Historian.”

“Oh,” he said, pausing and planning his words.  “Well, as a historian, how do you feel about changing the name of Fort Lee?  Isn’t it, sort of, erasing history, given all that Robert E. Lee did as a leader and a strategist?”

 It was the late summer of 2021.  I had been thinking about this question all that afternoon on my drive to Petersburg from Washington, DC.  I had also marveled, as always, at how with a few gallons of gas and a cup of black coffee, it had taken less than two and half hours to cover the same ground that accounted for more than two and a half months of vicious fighting in the Overland campaign of 1864.

“Well,” I offered, preparing myself to hear words in the neighborhood of woke, “it isn’t erasing history.  We should study Robert E. Lee, of course, but should we commemorate him as a military hero?  I mean, he was fighting against the United States, and for perpetual enslavement.  What would have happened if Lee had won?  What would our nation look like?”

For a moment, silence reigned. My plate of crudité felt like grapeshot in my hands.  Then the gentleman across from me, a Virginian and a decades-long veteran of civilian service to the military at Fort Lee, responded.  “That’s really interesting,” he said.  “You know, I had never thought of it that way.”

Crisis averted.  The irrepressible conflict dissipated.  The point was taken.  Somewhere, an angel playing The Battle Hymn of The Republic got their wings.

Two white men, one older and one younger, speaking in conversations.
Over the course of their service, the Naming Commission heard from thousands of Americans.  Here, Lead Historian Connor Williams and Major General Timothy Williams (no relation), Adjutant General of the Virginia National Guard, discuss Confederate History at the Virginia War Memorial.  The Virginia National Guard was one of the many military organizations who conferred with and supported the Commission in its work.

Lest this vignette seem self-congratulatory, I desire no credit for any originality in my response.  Such talking points are the warp and woof of seminars, lectures, podcasts and books on Civil War memory.  Like all scholarship, they build on the efforts of others. I had most recently encountered the Lee counterfactual in Ty Seidule’s outstanding memoir Robert E. Lee and Me.[1]

But what struck me then—and has struck me again and again over the course of my work and reflections on the Naming Commission—was the sincerity with which the question was asked, and the ease with which the answer was accepted.  Both demonstrate how much Civil War memory has changed over the past thirty years, due to the efforts of generations of scholars, teachers, and activists.

That conclusion may seem surprising.  Whether sitting around oval tables of our seminar rooms or looking out office windows onto campus quads, it is easy to imagine a Southland full of neo-Confederates ready to revolt at any criticism of Jefferson Davis, and ready to march in defense of Robert E. Lee.  This is the sense one gets after watching documentaries like Civil War, or: Who Do We Think We Are?, reading coverage in the Atlantic Monthly, or simply reviewing news coverage on the contemporary curriculum fights in the state of Florida.[2]

To be clear, such adamant Confederate apologists certainly do exist, and are often the most vocal participants in any conversation.  One emailed me recently, suspecting “one of [my] favorite people in history is Joseph Stalin,” I “just do not like Southern folks,” and that I was “descended from the Cromwellian Puritans who fought [his] Cavalier ancestors in England.”[3]  A few others have called my cause “Marxist,” “Maoist,” “Fascist” and, always, “Orwellian.”  Missives like these make it seem like the South is a scary place indeed for folks seeking to change commemorations.

Yet my experiences with the Naming Commission indicate otherwise.  Over the last two years, I have found such e-mails are the exceptions that prove the rule.  And that rule is that no serious opposition has emerged to the Naming Commission’s work.  We started our work with the support of 87 Senators, and ended it with about that same share.[4]

In fact, in engagement after engagement with the communities on and surrounding Army posts throughout the South, conversations indicated the opposite.  The great majority of Americans the Naming Commission encountered were quite open to change.  In fact, given the chance to weigh in on a new namesake, they even became enthusiastic about the process.  They just had a few honest questions that needed answering before getting fully on board.

The first queries often involved simply wanting more knowledge about the old Confederate namesakes.  After all, where but in a Civil War graduate seminar does one study Henry Benning, Leonidas Polk, A.P. Hill, or even Braxton Bragg?  I specialize in the 19th Century United States, and still had to do some extra research on Edmund Rucker.[5]  Others—such as George Pickett, John Bell Hood, and John Gordon—had supporting roles in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, but still constitute specialized knowledge.  Only Robert E. Lee was really a star in our collective memories.

Thankfully, these men left a fairly clear paper trail.  While their respective Civil War Encyclopedia entries remain frustratingly placid, their words and actions are clear. Benning’s speeches to secession conventions played on racial fears when imagining a nation under Abraham Lincoln. He proclaimed: “we [would] have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything…give me death or pestilence sooner than that.” Hood’s letters to William Sherman professed how he and his compatriots would be “better to die a thousand deaths than to submit to live under you or your government or your negro allies.” Gordon even threatened to “exterminate” African Americans in a genocidal conflict. Each namesake made for fairly convincing evidence against their commemoration.[6]  So too did George Pickett’s war crimes, Leonidas Polk’s incompetence, and Braxton Bragg’s irascibility: the latter was almost fragged in the Mexican War.[7]

Even Robert E. Lee is not so marble as we might assume.  Gary Gallagher’s excellent scholarship on Lee’s virulent retort to the Emancipation Proclamation, which the general called “a savage and brutal policy” before sowing fears of black predation, almost always made folks reconsider “Marse Robert.”[8]  It was equally helpful to point out that of the eight Virginians who were U.S. Army Colonels in 1861, Lee alone resigned his commission.  He may have “followed his state.”  But he absolutely broke his oath.[9]

Ultimately, most Americans I met were fine jettisoning these honorifics to Confederates, especially after reading their self-professions of hatred towards the United States, their raw white supremacy, and ardent pro-slavery rhetoric.

Over the course of its work, the Naming Commission found more than 1100 Department of Defense assets requiring removal, renaming, or modification, including Army and Navy ships, building displays, Air Force recreation areas, unit insignias, and the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.”

The second line of questioning came straight from Burkean conservatism. Some Americans feared the Naming Commission was the first step down a slippery slope.  They worried this would start an avalanche of renaming.  It might initially just take down Lee and Pickett. But what if it widened to cover Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson?  Would it eventually careen into George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, obliterating every name they were raised to revere?  Here, one cannot point purely to paranoia.  Prominent op-eds have argued for those exact actions, and several highly publicized protests have spontaneously carried some of them out, causing us all to consider the extents to which commemorations should be changed.[10]

In response, I developed an accurate-if-pithy point, grounded in the overwhelming Congressional support for our work and the concurrent lack of controversy.  “If 87 Senators and 322 Representatives tell us to look at other commemorations, we will do that.  But right now, we’re just looking at Confederates.”  I still support that point.  The Naming Commission was a national project propelled by some and simply tolerated by others, but it nevertheless remains an inspiring example of bipartisanship.  Funneled through the political will of legislators, our actions were dictated by men and women representing the vast majority of Americans.[11]

At the same time, our moderate style mattered.  By and large, we cast our work not as parts of a broader revolution, but instead as acts of American patriotism.  Our rhetorical power amongst the undecided came not from selling ourselves as a progressive mission of inclusion, but rather as a battle against treason.  Confederates were unfitting for commemoration because of the immediate actions they undertook—killing United States soldiers, seizing United States property, and threatening our nation’s very existence.   Less frequently addressed were the broader themes of conservatism, white supremacy, and white grievance that often surround Confederate memory.[12]

In part, our charter made this approach inevitable.  By legislative mandate our point of exclusion was voluntary service in the Confederacy, and not support for enslavement or white supremacy.  Had we been tasked to end commemorations for anyone who had supported the practice of enslavement, the large majority of antebellum politicians would have been on our list.  A case could be made to include Abraham Lincoln.  Had we included those who supported white supremacist doctrine, virtually all white antebellum Americans would have made our list.  A case would have to be made to include Abraham Lincoln.

To be clear, Confederates’ movements towards perpetual enslavement absolutely mattered, and remained at the forefront of every conversation.  One of the most empowering moments of my work was witnessing how a generation of schoolteachers and other mentors and guides have stamped out any vestiges of Lost Cause arguments amongst younger Americans.  Slavery is no longer “just a way of life,” an inevitable economic system, or (far worse) a “positive good.”  Virtually no one I encountered over two years of meetings entertained those notions, with the very few exceptions very much proving the rule.[13]  But our benchmark remained treason and insurrection against the United States. This leaves us with a paradox: one of the greater movements for monumental change throughout our recent history was enacted along one of the more conservative logics to do so.

One of the main arguments that the Naming Commission made and the American people accepted was that Confederates had committed treason by fighting and killing United States Soldiers and Sailors. As such, their commemoration was therefore especially inappropriate on military bases—including West Point and Annapolis—where America’s armed forces continue to train and sacrifice.

So, where has this work brought my thinking on Civil War memory?  To return to that moment at Fort Lee, the many others like it I encountered, and the similar ones all historians are likely to encounter, three main observations stand out.

First, historians should have more confidence that our decades of work fighting against the Lost Cause and highlighting Confederate treason really have paid off.  The 1993 Hollywood film Gettysburg could not be made today. Ken Burns is getting hard questions from professional historians and non-academics.[14]  It’s hard to envision Shelby Foote emerging as an icon in 2023.  Few Americans—especially those involved in spheres of politics or power—wish to defend an insurrection that committed treason for slavery.  Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly learned this the hard way.[15]  This does not diminish the horrific acts white supremacy can and does fuel, often somehow spurred by some sort of Confederate memory.  But it does mean that in a room of 75 lecture attendees, we should take motivation from the 73 who nod their heads in approval, and fret less over the two who stand up with loud questions.  For the majority of Americans, the Lost Cause has, increasingly, lost.

Second, we need to reflect that while many Americans condemn Confederates for both treason and slavery, amongst the undecided treason remains the more compelling argument.  For better or worse, I learned that the most compelling response to questions about the Commission’s work was not to cite the 1619 Project, defend Critical Race Theory, or evoke John Brown’s body.  Instead, it was to focus on the deeds of the Confederate namesakes themselves.  They led forces that killed more United States soldiers than the Nazis did, in a war that was—per capita—ten times deadlier for Americans than World War II, and twenty times deadlier than the European Theater.  Time and again, treason trumped all else in convincing Americans that men who had worn the gray did not deserve to be celebrated under the red, white, and blue.

Lastly, nuanced historical arguments really do matter.  Most Americans I met were ready to encounter the past as a complex place full of complicated issues, contingent decisions, and conflicted actors.  Reductive statements on universal “rightness” or “wrongness” will always divide us and inherently place some on the defensive.  But by bringing our peers into our history as it unfolded and acknowledging the contradictions of our past, we can evaluate our commemorations on a scale of “better” or “worse.”  This allows for individuals to interpret their own relationships to memory, while changing our commemorative landscape towards our highest aspirations for our future, and away from the most traumatic moments of our past.[16]

Ultimately, in reflecting on the Naming Commission’s work, a quote from Frederick Douglass looms up large, and proves incredibly—if belatedly—prescient.  In 1894, the great orator sought, amongst the rise of all-white reconciliations, to remind Americans of the true cause and course of the Civil War.  “Whatever else I may forget,” Douglass wrote, “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the republic, and those who fought to destroy it.”[17]

To an extent, we should always remain frustrated that it took 125 years to make our national memory meet that of Frederick Douglass.  But the Naming Commission also demonstrates that his vision is increasingly coming to pass, across large majorities throughout our nation.  This is a moment worth celebrating, and a cause worth keeping after, one nuanced and patient conversation at a time.

[1] Ty Seidule.  Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause.  New York: McMillan Publishing, 2021, p. 235.

[2] For more, see Rachel Boynton (Dir.) Civil War (Or Who Do We Think We Are?). Boynton Films Production, 2021.  Also Clint Smith, “Why Confederate Lies Live On.” The Atlantic Monthly, June 2021.

[3] E-mail received by the author, titled “To the fake historian.” March 26, 2023.

[4] The Naming Commission’s Final Report to Congress was submitted in three parts during the summer and fall of 2022.  All were accepted by Congress without alterations, and have since passed to the Department of Defense, which is currently implementing all their recommendations.

[5] Indeed, scholarship on Rucker’s actions in the Civil War remain relatively unknown, and exist mainly thorough his mentions in dispatches and other official records.  A descendant has published a laudatory biography, The Meanest and Damnest Job, but even this remains grounded in reports and war documents.

[6] Henry Benning, “Speech to the Virginia Convention.” In Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001. Letter, John Bell Hood to William T. Sherman, September 12, 1864.  In Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1886), pp. 121–124.  John Gordon, “Sound Advice to Negro Voters.”  As reprinted in Columbia Daily Phoenix, Vol. 4, Page 2 (September 23 1868).

[7] Seidule, Robert E. Lee and Me, 142-151.

[8] Letter, Robert E. Lee to James A. Seddon.  January 10, 1863.  The Lee Family Digital Archive (Web).  Accessed 20 April 2023.

[9] Seidule, Robert E. Lee and Me, 223.

[10] Among other news coverage, see Charles M. Blow, “Yes, Even George Washington.” The New York Times, June 20, 2020. Livia Gershon, “Controversial Teddy Roosevelt Statue Will Be Moved From NYC to North Dakota.”  Smithsonian Magazine, November 23, 2021. “Protestors Knock Down Roosevelt, Lincoln Statues in Portland,”, October 12, 2020.

[11] Connor O’Brien, “Senate Hands Trump His First Veto Override.” Politico, January 1, 2021.

[12] For more, see The Naming Commission, Final Report to Congress.  (Government Publication, September 20, 2022).

[13] One such opponent has been Dr. Ann Hunter McLean, who is leading a fringe group against the Naming Commission, and whose views were so controversial that they caused her requested resignation from Governor Youngkin’s Virginia Historic Resources Board. (Gregory Schnieder, “Youngkin Appointee Who Defended Confederate Statues Resigns From Board” The Washington Post. August 3, 2022.)

[14] Keri Leigh Merritt, “Why We Need A New Civil War Documentary.”  Smithsonian Magazine, April 23, 2013.

[15] Philip Bump, “Historians Respond to John F. Kelly’s Civil War Remarks: ‘Strange,’ ‘Sad,’ ‘Wrong.’” The Washington Post, October 31, 2017.

[16] For more on memory, history, commemoration, and reconciliation, see Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History.”  Representations: Special Issue, Spring 1989, 7-24.  See also Susan Neiman, Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.  New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2019.  David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Historical Memory.  Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. Carolyn Janney: Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.  Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

[17] As quoted in David Blight, “‘For Something Beyond the Battlefield:’ Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War,” The Journal of American History 75, No. 4 (Mar., 1989): 1156-1178.


Connor Williams

Connor Williams is an advanced Ph.D Candidate at Yale University, where he is jointly a member of the History and African American Studies Departments. From 2021 to 2022, Connor took a leave of absence to work as Lead Historian for the Naming Commission—the organization created by Congress to identify all Department of Defense Assets commemorating Confederates or the Confederacy, and to make a plan for their removal, renaming, or modification. Over two years, the Commission met with thousands of Americans, toured ten military installations in the southern United States, and identified more than 1100 Defense assets to be renamed. The most high profile of these were nine defense installations like Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, and Fort Hood, but they also included vessels, street names, monuments, building displays, insignia and other paraphernalia. Congress accepted the Commission’s final reports without modification in September 2022, and the Secretary of Defense gave his complete and enthusiastic endorsement. By legislative mandate, all these assets will be renamed by the end of 2023. Connor has since returned to Yale, where he is in the final steps of finishing his doctorate. Although the Naming Commission wrapped in October 2022, he continues to write, and speak on how his experiences intersected with broader issues of Civil War history, memory, education, commemoration, and its role in public policy. He also continues to advise defense entities on the Naming Commission’s rationales and recommendations via a gratuitous services agreement. He welcomes questions or comments at

6 Replies to “Treason Made Odious Again: Reflections From the Naming Commission, and the Front Lines of the Army’s War on the Lost Cause”

  1. The premise of this post is facile. A group of people commit an ostensibly treasonous act in the interest of remaining true to their home. How can we conclude without qualification that their act was in fact treasonous? The analysis here is simplistic, almost Trumpian.

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