[June 28, 2020] I’ve been to the U.S. Army Fort Benning, Georgia, many times, receiving training, giving lectures and speeches, and attending a variety of schools. Like many Infantry officers before me, I gave no thought to who the fort was named after or why. But who was Henry Benning?1 Henry Benning, the fort’s namesake, was a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War.
What was Benning’s thinking, his politics, his military service record, and was he any good at what he did? Henry Benning was from Georgia. He was well educated (graduating first in his class at the University of Georgia), worked as a lawyer, and served on the Georgia Supreme Court. During the Civil War, he was first a Colonel in the 17th Georgia Infantry and later commanded a Georgia brigade as a Brigadier General. Benning was also a delegate to Georgia and Virginia’s secession conventions. He was smart, articulate, and successful in civilian life, the CSA military, and politics.
“It is true, then, that unless there had been a separation from the North, slavery would be abolished in Georgia? I address myself to the proofs of that case.”
Henry Benning was also a dedicated secessionist. Several U.S. states had leaders who were clear that they wanted to split from the Union and for a number of reasons. Eventually, this led to the U.S. Civil War. Scholars disagree over the causes but maintain that the primary cause was the Southern states’ desire to preserve the institution of slavery. Some historians disagree and point to other factors, such as the principle of States’ Rights. Here is what Benning had to say on February 18, 1861:
“What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession? This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North-was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery.”
Benning gave his reasoning for the urging of succession from the Union, appealing to ethnic prejudices and pro-slavery sentiments to present his case. He also said that were the slave states to remain in the Union; their slaves would ultimately end up being freed by the anti-slavery Republican Party.2
I confess to being confused as to why the U.S. Secretary of Defense or any senior military leader are allowing themselves to be bullied into thinking about changing the name of Fort Benning or any other military base because of the namesake from the Civil War era. So what that Fort Benning is named after Henry Benning. No one seriously believes that the base has any meaningful connection with Henry Benning. Thinking along these lines to change the name is astonishingly stupid.
- An interesting side note about the Benning family. In her Civil War novel Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell wrote about a fictitious family called the O’Haras, which is based on Henry’s wife Mary and their post-war Benning family struggles.
- “I say that the North hates slavery, and, in using that expression, I speak wittingly. In saying that the Black Republican party of the North hates slavery, I speak intentionally.”