There is an old tabloid newspaper expression that some stories are “too good to check.” The same is true of family legends. One of my family legends is that my Uncle John Casey, my father’s considerably older brother, was one of the Army officers who in the early 1940s located the land in Central Texas that would become Camp Hood, eventually Fort Hood.
I haven’t done the work of trying to locate the 80-year-old obscure Army records that would verify or disprove his involvement in selecting and acquiring the original 1,800 acres near Killeen that would become the training center for tank warfare during World War II. I’ll say this: It could have happened.
I never knew Uncle John. I met him as a child two or three times, I think mainly at family funerals. He was by that time a colonel, the only one of my five aunts and uncles to leave St. Louis. He was probably a major in the early 1940s.
When my sister’s husband was a soldier at Fort Hood in the 1970s there was a Casey Library.
Then there was the comment by my father’s Aunt Mary to my mother. Aunt Mary was a self-described “blind, convent-bred widow.” She had attended Catholic schools and some family members joked unkindly that her brief marriage led her husband to commit suicide. She was, however, quite blind and, heedless of the light, would sometimes call my mother quite late at night out of loneliness.
During one of their meandering conversations my mother mentioned that I had decided to attend college in Texas.
“Oh no,” Aunt Mary exclaimed. “John went to Texas and he never came back.”
My mother thought she probably meant Uncle John, but it could have been John Kennedy, who had been assassinated in Dallas a couple of months earlier and held a special place in Irish Catholic families.
I will hang by this slender cord of standing to present my thoughts on the controversy over renaming Fort Hood. Not that there is much of a controversy. Top Pentagon leaders are open to studying issues involved in renaming Fort Hood and nine other bases named after Confederate leaders.
At the age of 33, General John Bell Hood became the youngest officer on either side to be given command of an army. He was bold and brave — having returned to service after losing a leg in battle — but his boldness led to some foolish tactics and losses that decimated his troops. He was not one of the Confederacy’s brighter stars.
What’s more, he knew exactly what he was fighting for. Seven years after the war, he told a soldiers’ reunion the Yankees were fighting for “freedom of the negro, and the independence of the Southern Confederacy was the only means to avoid the immediate abolition of slavery.”
Still, the fort’s name has its defenders. President Donald Trump is one of them, relying on the “slippery slope” and the “preserving our history” defenses.
The “slippery slope” argument has some validity. Exactly where to draw the line is problematic. But honoring people such as Hood, whose nomination rests solely on their service in defending slavery and ending the union, is well on one side of the line. I would argue that the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose wealth was built by people they owned, fall on the other side of the line. Certainly, their lives are studded with hypocrisy, but their contributions are fundamental to the founding of a nation that has, with fits and starts, committed itself to progress in matters of freedom and equality.
The argument that by removing statues and renaming bases we are “erasing our history” is plain silly. The Civil War has been called the only known war in which the losers wrote the history. In doing so, especially in stating that it wasn’t about slavery, it is the promoters of Southern “heroes” who have covered up our history. They were, it should be said, abetted by the unabashed racism of the North.
We are now in a remarkable period when a majority of Americans appear ready to look at that history in all its ugly reality. Polls show such a majority favoring Black Lives Matter and even the conservative leadership in Austin agreed to remove a plaque in the Capitol that proclaimed that the Civil War was not about slavery.
Three years ago, when the issue came up in the wake of the racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Dallas Morning News quoted the then 77-year-old Bell County Republican Party Chair Nancy Boston: ”Renaming Fort Hood, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Some people are still angry at the white man for slavery. That’s just how the world was back then.”
She’s right. Some people are still angry about slavery. And some are still angry at the Nazis for the Holocaust. But few people blame today’s white Americans for slavery any more than people blame today’s Germans for the Holocaust. There would be plenty of anger in Germany, however, if people there were defending statues of Himmler, Eichmann, Mengele, and Goebbels. And there is justifiable anger today for the still strong remnants of racism that survive from the time of slavery.
Southern military bases are said to have been named after Confederate heroes as an act of reconciliation. So if they are to be changed — also as an act of reconciliation — after whom should they be named? That question should lead to a wonderful and uplifting conversation.
LULAC is pushing to rename Fort Hood after Vietnam war hero Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez. I could support that. Consideration could also be given to the 25 African Americans who received the Medal of Honor for their service for the Union Army during the Civil War. Some were escaped slaves who faced torture and death if they were captured. Other nominations are open.
One last thought. In the course of researching this column, I ran across a story about a hundred African American soldiers at Fort Hood who gathered one night in 1968 for a protest. They had learned that they were to be dispatched to Chicago to protect against riots during the Democratic Convention. By this time, the nation had been racked by ghetto uprisings in the wake of the assassinations that year of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. These soldiers reasonably assumed that they were being sent to the Chicago ghettoes to aim their rifles and bayonets at their own people. As it turned out, of course, most of the rioting at that convention was by the Chicago police against young white demonstrators.
Forty-three of those protestors were court-martialed. As part of reconciliation, if any of them suffered a conviction and loss of benefits, their convictions should be reversed and their benefits restored. Perhaps Roger Stone could recommend this to President Trump.