Request denied

A weird old story, an issue that literally got more controversial during the day as I was writing about it, and a hero you've likely never heard of. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Let’s start today with a more amusing story than yesterday — but with a twist. I hesitated because it’s older even than the saga of Julia Sand. But, we can connect it to the present.

It’s about a young Army officer in the 19th century who was assigned, and not happy about it, to fill two jobs at the same time.

On the one hand, he was given command of a company of soldiers. But, he also had to fill the role of “post quartermaster and commissary” — basically, the supply officer.

He reacted … well, absurdly. Here’s an example that became part of his lore:

  1. As company commander, he once needed a certain piece of equipment. So, he wrote a request and submitted it to himself as the quartermaster.

  2. As quartermaster, he wrote back to himself as company commander: Request denied.

  3. Acting as company commander once more, he appealed his own decision as quartermaster.

  4. Then, putting on the quartermaster hat again, he crafted a written denial of his own appeal.

Finally, he packaged the whole mess and put it on the desk of the field grade officer he worked for.

I took this story from The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, of all places.

Back in 1885, Grant included it to illustrate this officer’s reputation as a strict rule-follower: “remarkably intelligent and well-informed,” but also, “vigilant to detect the slightest neglect, even of the most trivial order.”

Still, it’s kind of funny, right? And, I’m really not sure what was going on.

Maybe he really was a clueless martinet. Maybe he was snarky and insubordinate, following the letter of the law to make a point.

Some modern historians have wondered if he might have been on the autism spectrum.

Anyway, the punchline for our purposes is what the young officer’s boss said to him afterward:

"My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarrelled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself!"

That’s it, right there: “Mr. Bragg.” As in, Braxton Bragg, the Confederate general for whom Fort Bragg, North Carolina is named.

This is a story from before all that nastiness happened, of course—before Bragg, an 1837 West Point graduate who was recognized for bravery in the Mexican-American War, quit the army and bought a sugar plantation in Louisiana with more than 100 slaves.

He ran the plantation for a few years, made money, and joined the Confederate army when the Civil War broke out. He rose through the ranks, ultimately serving as one of the South’s top generals.

However, even setting aside the morality of the Confederate cause, he just wasn’t a very good general. His troops disliked him, and they lost most of the battles they fought while serving under him.

Then, the South lost the war, and Bragg spent the rest of his life drifting from job to job, trying to support his family, before dropping dead on a street in Texas in 1876, at age 59.

You know why I’m sharing this story, of course. In the last week or two, the fact that 10 of the most important U.S. Army bases are named in honor of Confederate leaders has gone from being something that soldiers gripe about without anyone listening, to a real political issue.

Fort Bragg is the world’s biggest military base: 50,000 troops, and the home of the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne, and the army’s Special Operations Command. It’s named after Bragg for the same reason that all the other bases wound up with rebel names.

In short, they’re all in the South, and they were all built in the early 1900s, at the height of segregation and Jim Crow. The U.S. Army needed local officials’ support. So as an olive branch, they let the locals choose the names.

Some of the others: Fort Benning is named for Henry Lewis Benning, and intensely pro-slavery Confederate general who feared that abolition would lead to “black legislatures and black juries.” Fort Gordon is named after a Confederate general who was later thought to be head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. It goes on.

I’d filed the Bragg anecdote away a week or so ago, as the movement to change these bases’ names started gaining steam. Then, I started writing this yesterday — only to check late in the evening and see that this issue had gotten even more timely — and more political.

The Republican-led Senate Armed Services committee voted late Wednesday to require the military to rename the bases within three years. That sets a collision course with President Trump, who has been adamant that he won’t sign anything that requires renaming.

But, I’m glad to share Bragg’s “request denied” story. I think it’s weirdly humanizing, and it’s important to recognize that all of these history book figures, while they exist only as symbols to us now, were human beings.

Still, with everything going in in America now, it’s shocking to think we ask soldiers — especially black Americans — to serve on bases named after people who literally fought against the United States for the cause of slavery.

My gut tells me the bases will be renamed. Maybe it won’t happen right now, but if I’m still writing this newsletter in a few years, I’m confident I’ll be able to link back and point out that I was right.

And in that spirit, I’d like to mention a proposal that others have made. Fort Bragg should be renamed “Fort Henry Johnson.”

Most Americans know even less about Johnson than they do about Bragg. But unlike the former company commander-slash-quartermaster, Johnson was a true American hero, fighting in France during World War I with the all-black 369th Infantry, known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

It’s a gruesome story, but armed only with a Bolo knife, Johnson once held off a dozen German troops who attacked him and another American. He was badly wounded but saved his fellow soldier. France gave him an award for bravery shortly afterward—but it wasn’t until 2015, long after his death, that the United States awarded him the Medal of Honor.

I know, of course, that the base names have suddenly become part of the culture wars. Meanwhile, some people say they’re “just symbolic,” or that it would be “erasing history” to change them.

But to my mind, it’s not so much about erasing, as it’s about who we choose to pay tribute to. Life will go on. The places will be what they were, and the people who serve there will do so just as honorably.

They’ll just be doing it at bases with better names.

7 other things worht your time

  • The FBI says hackers are targeting mobile banking apps. So “only download banking apps from official app stores” and use two-factor authentication. (The Hill)

  • Twitter is testing a feature to encourage people to read articles before they retweet them. (The Verge)

  • People attending the Trump rally in Tulsa will have to sign a (virtual) waiver promising not to sue if they get coronavirus. (CBS Dallas)

  • San Francisco police will no longer respond to “neighbor disputes, reports on homeless people, school discipline interventions and other non-criminal activities,” according to a city announcement. (Washington Times)

  • The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff “stayed up late at night … reading online criticism” before deciding to apologize for having appeared at a political photo op. (NBC News)

  • Less sex, fewer fights, and forget about casting extras for crowd scenes: how TV production executives are changing scripts post-coronavirus, since actors don’t want to film those up-close shots anymore. (Hollywood Reporter)

  • Bald men may be at a risk of higher complications from Covid-19 than women or men who are not bald, according to new research. (The Telegraph)

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