[May 2017 update] With the removal of a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard on Wednesday morning, New Orleans has now removed three monuments to Confederate leaders in the past four weeks. The monument at Lee Circle is next. Other American cities are considering similar action. At Fort Hamilton, the military doesn’t even have any statues or columns to take down, it just has to change some street signs. How much longer will it take?
[Original June 2015 article] There are only three crimes defined by the Constitution of the United States, with treason – levying war against the United States – being the most serious.
So it seems kind of weird that the U.S. Army – the service one fights against when committing treason – would ever put the names of leading rebel military figures on the streets that run through its bases. But the Army did it anyway, quite a long time ago, too.
In its garrison at Fort Hamilton, the main thoroughfare is named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and a shorter strip through the residential section of the base is named for General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Lee and Jackson at Fort Hamilton
It isn’t a random connection. Both Lee and Jackson were stationed for a time at Fort Hamilton – Lee, before the war with Mexico, and Jackson, after.
Then Captain Lee’s role in the development of Fort Hamilton was significant. Stationed at Fort Hamilton in 1842 when the base was barely over ten years old, Lee was the post’s engineer, with primary responsibility to “strengthen and waterproof the defensive works at the Narrows” and enable Fort Hamilton to supplement the artillery located offshore at Fort Lafayette (which is now the site of the Brooklyn-side tower of the Verrazano Bridge).
Lee’s demeanor had left an indelible impression on the residents of the village of Fort Hamilton, as described in the 1912 oral history Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus by Charlotte Rebecca “Bleecker” Bangs. Two of Lee’s sons lived with him, and were playmates of the children of the Town of New Utrecht’s leading families. Lee’s neighbors thought of him as “courteous man and honorable soldier,” and upon reassignment to Winfield Scott’s expedition force in the Mexican-American War, “his departure was deeply regretted, for he had quite won the hearts of the townspeople by his uniform courtesy and lovable disposition.”
Major Thomas Jackson, who first met Lee in Mexico, came to Fort Hamilton after the war with the First Artillery. The eccentricities that he would become known for as a rebel general in the Civil War were also noted by local residents while he was garrisoned at Fort Hamilton, including strict rituals of chopping wood every day and keeping the same bedtime every night. Jackson was known to be a finicky eater that preferred soft foods, and carried his own cheese and crackers to official functions. He was perhaps best known as a very pious man, earning an obsessive reputation as an “earnest churchgoer.”
Imprisonment Of Lee’s Son At Fort Lafayette
The goodwill felt by local residents towards both men was not diminished by their decision to take part in an armed insurrection against the United States in order to preserve their home states’ authority to allow and enforce the legal enslavement of human beings.
During the American Civil War, Lee’s second-oldest son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, was taken prisoner by Union forces in July 1863 shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, and was detained in Fort Lafayette for nearly a year before a prisoner exchange. In that time, some of the Fort Hamilton residents that remembered the Lees with fondness sought to ease the conditions of his captivity, including one childhood friend who “every day sent delicacies” to the younger Lee.
A National Reconciliation With A Heavy Dose Of Apartheid
I wasn’t able to find any information on when and why the garrison’s main thoroughfare was named for the most famous rebel leader, though a 2000 study by the Army Corps of Engineers (PDF) indicates that the Avenue bore Lee’s name as early as 1899.
From one point of view, this shouldn’t be surprising. In the post-war years, Robert Lee was a leading Southern proponent of rapprochement with the North, and given his highly-revered status in the South, encouraged others – Northerners and Southerners alike – to do the same. This could help explain why the Army would eventually ignore his role in the insurrection and name a major road in a Northern base after him.
But unfortunately, that view disregards the fact that the national reconciliation that took place during and after the Reconstruction years was largely a white one. Through either obstinance or naiveté, Lee also helped frustrate efforts to advance civil rights for newly-freed slaves. In 1868, Lee signed onto a letter endorsing Ulysses S. Grant’s opponent for President that stated, “the idea that the Southern people are hostile to the negroes and would oppress them, if it were in their power to do so, is entirely unfounded. They have grown up in our midst, and we have been accustomed from childhood to look upon them with kindness.”
Of course, white oppression of blacks is precisely what happened – the North’s willingness to reconcile with the white South was done at the cost of turning a blind eye to 100 years of Jim Crow, segregation, voting booth discrimination, and a host of other legal oppressions we would now describe as apartheid.
In addition to the street naming, Lee’s house on the grounds of the base is also maintained by the Army.
Stonewall Jackson was killed by friendly fire during the war in 1863, so he never had the chance to take even half-hearted steps to redeem his decision to fight on the side of slavery. So the Army’s decision to name a street after him is somewhat more baffling.
Charleston, Al Sharpton, and the Modern Backlash Against Confederate Idolatry
This hasn’t been an issue with significant traction until this week, as part of the rapid backlash against the pervasiveness of Confederate symbols in mainstream American culture in the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting. As several Southern state governments traditionally sympathetic to the display of the Confederate army battle flag on official grounds have reversed course, attention has recently focused on other Confederate symbols, like streets named after rebel military leaders.
It was in this context that Business Insider writers Hunter Walker and Armin Rosen brought Fort Hamilton’s General Lee Avenue to the fore of the local conversation. This led to Brooklyn Congressman Hakeem Jeffries to immediately call for the road’s renaming, telling Business Insider that “there is no good reason for a street to be named after an individual who led the Confederate Army in the fight to keep slavery and racial subjugation alive in America.”
Reverend Al Sharpton of the National Action Network has also called for the renaming of the street, and plans to hold a vigil outside of the garrison’s main gate at 101st Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway tomorrow (June 27, 2015) in remembrance of the Charleston shooting victims.
While most street namings are within the purview of the City Council to act upon, the naming of the streets on the base are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army, which indicated to Kristina Wong of The Hill that there are no discussions taking place to rename any facility or street named for rebel leaders.
A spokesman for Councilmember Vincent Gentile – who would typically have the most input on Council-named streets in his own district – told Hey Ridge by e-mail that Gentile believes that “we should be emulating the type of love and forgiveness being displayed by those directly affected by this horrific tragedy at this time.”