Yale scholar helps U.S. military rename Confederate memorials
Two years ago, Connor Williams, an advanced doctoral student in history and African American Studies at Yale, was invited to help reshape how Americans memorialize the U.S. Civil War.
Williams was selected to be lead historian of the Naming Commission (formally known as the Commission on the Naming of Items of the Department of Defense), an eight-member panel that the U.S. Congress charged with identifying all the nation’s defense assets that commemorate the Confederacy — including nine military bases in the South — and developing a plan to modify or rename them.
His job as lead historian was to ensure that the commissioners got their history right. He advised them as they considered renaming or altering the hundreds of U.S. Department of Defense assets — bases, roads, buildings, monuments, and military insignias — that celebrate those who betrayed the United States in defense of slavery. He also helped write the historical sections of their reports to Congress and recommended new names for some bases.
Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III approved the commission’s recommendations, including the renaming of the nine bases, and ordered that the changes be implemented by Jan. 1, 2024.
For Williams, a scholar of public memory and mentee of Yale historian David Blight, who recommended him for the job, the posting was an exciting chance to engage with fellow Americans in an act of historical remembrance that affects all citizens — and continues to stir intense passion.
He concluded his work with the commission late last year, and has now returned to Yale to complete his doctorate. His dissertation, “A Race on the Frontier: African-American Lives, Labors,and Communities in Northern California, 1850-1915,” shares the stories of African-American communities around San Francisco from the Gold Rush to World War I.
Williams recently spoke with Yale News about his experience with the commission and how his Yale training prepared him to guide its historical work. The interview has been edited and condensed.
How did people in the communities where the bases are located react to the commission’s charge?
Connor Williams: I learned very quickly that many people who genuinely care about history, care about facts, and care about memory didn’t hate the idea of removing Confederate names. They just didn’t quite understand why those names should be removed. They’d learned that Robert E. Lee was a heroic general and that his leadership in the war right through his surrender at Appomattox were proud moments in our country's history. In many ways, my job was to explain all the incredible scholarship over the last couple decades and explain it to folks who had strong and honest questions.
Sometimes it also was my job to get yelled at by neo-Confederates. I’d hear them out and let them know that their voices were being heard.
What case did you make justifying the name changes to those initially opposed to them?
Williams: The case began with this fact: Whatever one wants to think about the Confederates — whatever they believed about states’ rights or the right to secede from the Union — they were insurrectionists who unquestionably killed hundreds of thousands of U.S. Army soldiers. This is where history really helps because many people sincerely believe that during the war, the United States had split into the Union and the Confederacy — separate, equal nations each with its own government.
But if you served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, you belonged to the same military in which George Washington served and Colin Powell would later serve. If you served in the Confederate Army, you belonged to something with no antecedent. I agree with President Lincoln, who held that our union was perpetual and that the Confederates were still Americans — albeit disloyal ones — who had committed treason. Aside from that, the Confederacy never did many things that are common to nations. It never signed treaties. It never was recognized by a foreign government. Its currency quickly became worthless. It never truly protected its borders. It did field a powerful insurgent army. But over the course of the war, that army ceded territory the size of continental Europe, which is also not a great track record.
Explaining this history required getting people to consider the Civil War as it really unfolded, not as the fantasy portrayed in stories like “Gone with the Wind” or in the Lost Cause mythology that entirely distorts Confederate history.
How did your Yale training support your work?
Williams: In terms of addressing public memory, David Blight’s mentorship and my training at Yale were indispensable in providing me the tools and mindset to meet people where their memories were as opposed to where I wanted their memories to be.
Many believe that we drew power as a nation from enduring a civil war, reconciling, and becoming stronger as a result. We were made stronger by our civil war, but not because we reconciled. We were made stronger because an insurrection for enslavement was crushed, four million men, women, and children were freed, and our Constitution was amended to revolutionize access to citizenship and the rights it entailed. Lee didn’t surrender at Appomattox to make the United States stronger. He surrendered because the U.S. Army had him surrounded.
My Yale training also helped me discuss our Civil War at different levels with different people. Some had virtually no knowledge of the war and wanted to quickly understand the most major moments. Others were “buffs,” and really wanted to discuss the third day of Gettysburg or General Hood’s strategy after Atlanta. Altering between the rhetorical skill to appeal to the first and the factual knowledge to engage with the second defined a large part of each day.
Ultimately, these issues come down to three things: memory, history, and commemoration. Memory is something that’s individual or collective but exists within us. History, on the other hand, is the dispassionate recreation of the past from the facts. In this case, the facts clearly demonstrate that the Confederates committed treason to defend slavery. Commemoration is trying to find the best parts of our past that will inspire us for the future. So memory and history are about who we were, or who we think we were. But commemoration is about who we want to be. And as a nation committed to equal rights for all under the law, we just cannot commemorate a movement that committed treason for slavery.
What was the process for recommending new names?
Williams: Candidates for the new names needed to meet a set of criteria. First, the commissioners wanted candidates with a connection to the mission or the region of the post, and ideally both. They wanted people who demonstrated extraordinary valor or military service. They wanted the aggregate list of candidates to reflect the current composition of the armed services. They also wanted stories that could inspire the soldiers of tomorrow. Lastly, they preferred candidates who are deceased.
We initiated a lengthy process for soliciting and considering recommendations for new names. We collected about 35,000 of them. They came from a broad swath of Americans, and the vast majority were very thoughtful. I then worked with a team of supporting historians to winnow them down, ultimately writing up short sketches of about 150 individuals. We narrowed that down to a short list of 87. I then presented the list to the commission, which specified its recommendations for new names in its final report to Congress.
What’s an example of one of the new names the commission has recommended?
Williams: I was grateful and impressed by the commissioners’ desire to consider stories that really make us think about American history. Perhaps the best example I can give is two Black men, Freddie Stowers and Henry Johnson, who served with distinction in World War I. Both received the Medal of Honor posthumously (because no African Americans, no matter how deserving, received the honor for actions during World War I and World War II, or for decades afterwards). Their names were candidates to replace that of Confederate General Leonidas Polk at Fort Polk in Louisiana.
Stowers was killed leading a charge against a machine gun emplacement. Johnson survived the war and had received the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor, but received no formal award from the United States. In fact, the Army didn’t even document his war disability properly, so he couldn’t get proper care for the 21 combat wounds he suffered. In a Jim Crow society, he faded into obscurity, developed an alcohol abuse problem, and died a dozen years later. I advocated for Johnson’s story out of full respect for his life, and also because it forces Americans to consider Jim Crow and our country’s failure to take care of its Black military veterans. The commissioners agreed.
In some ways, it might have been easier to choose Stowers, who died heroically leading a charge. He certainly deserves recognition. But we ultimately saw the most potential in stories, like Johnson’s, that expose the best of America while also encouraging us to reflect on the ways our country has fallen short of its ideals.