A Tarnished Legacy: Confederate Battle Honors and the Army National Guard

On July 18, 2020, an African-American woman took command of a military unit that once used to be part of rebel general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s famous “Stonewall Brigade.” Captain Candice Bowen became the first woman to command an infantry company in the Virginia National Guard, assuming command of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment. And that is absolutely wonderful.

The symbolism of a black woman at the head of an organization that once attempted to destroy the United States in order to keep people like her in slavery is a powerful one, and it speaks to the excellent strides that the Army and the National Guard are making. No longer does talent have to wait on race or gender for recognition. But this progress takes place in the shade of the legacy of segregation, racism, and hatred. The colors of Cpt. Bowen’s regiment are decorated with the battle streamers that commemorate the unit’s actions during the Civil War. For the Confederacy.

The 116th Infantry is not alone. Dozens of Army National Guard units from southern and border states carry streamers commemorating their Confederate service during the Civil War. Following World War I, the historical division of the War Department began allotting battle honors to Army units based on their historical campaigns and their lineage to encourage unit pride, esprit de corps, and capture the history of units that had been inactivated in post-war force reductions. In 1948, a Congressional resolution authorized Army units to carry campaign streamers commemorating Civil War service, which many units were already doing. In 1949 , the Army’s Awards Branch amended the requirement for streamers to only be presented for periods of Federal service by including Confederate service as well.

Now, historically speaking, this is a problem.

The way that Army lineage and honors works for National Guard units is that units have to be able to show a (relatively) unbroken line of service from their beginning to the present. When they are in state service, they receive no campaign honors. Only when they are in active Federal service can they receive credit for battles and campaigns (Army Regulations 840-10 and 600-8-22). This is why you don’t see any units with battle honors for the French and Indian War, even though dozens of National Guard units can trace their lineages back to 1754 and even earlier. There will never be a “LOUISBOURG 1745” streamer hanging from the colors of New England National Guard units that took part in that operation, because they were in the service of what is now a foreign power. Similarly, you won’t see National Guard units from Florida, California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico with campaign honors for Spanish service.

Why, then, is there an exception made for a rebellion that not only claimed to be a separate country but actively killed U.S soldiers, sailors, and marines, all in the name of protecting planters’ rights to own human beings of a different color? These units were clearly not in Federal service – the opposite of it, in fact, attempting to destroy Federal troops. Why, in 2020, do we celebrate the perpetrators of this rebellion, “conceived in iniquity, born in deception, nurtured in perjury and hypocrisy, carried on by murder and starvation?” [New Hampshire GAR Proceedings, 1908, page 67] Why do we “deliberately wish to glorify the doctrines of possession and destroy years of patriotic teaching by maintaining that it is as honorable to be a traitor as it is to be a patriot?” [New Hampshire GAR Proceedings, 1910, page 62] As U.S. Army veteran Elisha Hunt Rhodes said in 1910, the only value these streamers have is as “simply telling the story to your children of how you tried to pull down the old flag and how you failed.”

The streamers also carry on a false narrative that has been held for generations; one that the heritage of the Confederacy is therefore the heritage of the south. That the two go hand-in-hand. This is far from the case. First, out of the 9 million southerners at the time of the war, 4 million radically disagreed with the slaver’s rebellion – the slaves themselves. This is why it is mind-boggling to me to see a color guard made up of African-American Soldiers carrying colors with streamers commemorating the service of those who fought to keep them in chains. It is a dichotomy that stinks of the generations of post-Reconstruction racism established under the “Jim Crow” era of racial segregation and injustice.

Secondly, there is the heritage of the thousands of southerners who remained loyal to their oaths. As I highlight here, dozens of southerners held high command positions in the U.S. Army in the Civil War. Thousands of southerners enlisted in the U.S. military. The courage of these southerners to take a moral and Constitutional stand is remarkable, and should be the subject of more writing and more praise. As William Freehling points out in The South vs the South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Changed the Course of the War, U.S. victory came because the war was not the North versus the South. It was because it was the United States versus a breakaway minority that attempted to hold the nation hostage to slavery. Rather than celebrate those who broke their oaths, we should celebrate those who remained loyal. That is rich Southern heritage to take deep pride in.

I do not propose erasing periods of Confederate service from unit lineages; that happened and it is not something that should be forgotten; specifically so that we can avoid it in the future. However, it is time for the Department of the Army to remove the addendum that requires units to fly streamers for Confederate service. Acknowledging that service is one thing – celebrating it is another thing entirely. As the Army breaks out from the era of the Lost Cause and so-called Reconciliation (a period of appeasement of neo-Confederates), the removal of these symbols is not only the morally correct action but also the historically correct one as well.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

Cover Photo: Lt. Col. Kurt K. Kobernik and Command Sgt. Maj. Alvin N. Martin, II, uncase the unit colors for 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th IBCT, also known as Task Force Normandy, during a transfer of authority ceremony with the “Fighting Eagles” of 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team held Nov. 5, 2015. (US Army photo by 1st Lt. Buford M. Willie, Battalion S1, 1st Bn., 8th Inf. Regt., 3d ABCT, 4th ID

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