The sun was drooping close to the tree line as the day wound down in southern Pennsylvania eight years ago.
A retired U.S. Army officer, now a historian, led a group of business people from across the nation – I was one of them – onto the hallowed ground there in Gettysburg. The national cemetery was our final stop on an afternoon-long, on-the-scene lecture about the great Civil War battle and the leadership lessons it teaches.
We had walked the fields and high ground where Union and Confederate forces squared off 149 years earlier. There were places with names like Pickett’s Charge, Little Round Top and the Peach Orchard.
As the day drew to a close, we gathered where President Abraham Lincoln stood four months after the battle to dedicate the cemetery. A total of 3,512 Union soldiers rest there.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register. Opinions are his own.
Visit the Iowa Freedom of Information Council website at: http://ifoic.org/
The events from 1863 clearly touched the people I was with that day. Dusk was settling in and there was silence as our host began reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, like generations of school kids have done.
But surrounded by the dead and only a short distance from where 50,000 men were killed, wounded or captured, the retired military leader choked up as he repeated Lincoln’s famous words:
“… We here resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I have found myself reflecting on that moving day at Gettysburg – especially as the recent turmoil following the death of George Floyd reverberated from Washington, D.C., to Des Moines, to Davis County.
Demonstrators have pulled down statues. They have talked about wanting to remove others, including some on the Capitol grounds in Des Moines. Some want to blast the giant carvings of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and “Stonewall” Jackson off the towering face of Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta.
In Davis County, it’s obvious from the repeated actions of unknown vandals that some people do not like having a Confederate flag flying next to the U.S. flag above a monument that remembers the 1864 raid into the county by Confederate guerrillas.
Or maybe it’s that the vandals don’t like that the plaques on the memorial boulders name the Confederate soldier who led the raiders but do not name the three Davis County residents whom they murdered.
Nationally, the heightened racial sensitivity since George Floyd’s death has many people asking excellent questions – such as, why are we honoring people who took up arms against the United States and its citizens?
The questions of what should be done with these statutes and these symbols of the Confederacy and our nation’s past toleration of slavery and racial bigotry need a national conversation. Decisions should not be made hastily during a few weeks of protests.
But there is no reason why the largest Army bases in the U.S. should bear the names of Confederate generals, rather than U.S. military leaders.
The soldiers who trained at Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Hood, Texas, didn’t accomplish what they did during World War II or in later conflicts because the forts bear the names of Confederate generals Henry Benning, Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood.
Giving these installations new names would in no way disrespect what the “Greatest Generation” achieved on the battlefields of World War II. Changing the signs in front of these forts would in no way diminish the caliber of training that occurs inside.
I am sure Pentagon brass could put together a list of exceptional men and women who have been part of U.S. military forces and deserve having their names on one of the 10 U.S. military posts that now bear Confederate generals’ names.
They could seek input from the colonel I sat next to each day in 2012 during the week I spent at a national security seminar at the U.S. Army War College. The military school is 30 miles from Gettysburg in Carlisle Barracks, Pa.
My new friend was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. One of his classmates was Paul Finken of Earling, Iowa. Lt. Col. Finken, 40, was killed in 2006 by a roadside bomb in Iraq, where he spent a year training Iraqi soldiers. It was supposed to be his final patrol before returning to the U.S.
My new friend also had been a commander in the airborne brigade where another Iowan, Spec. Salvatore Giunta of Hiawatha, served. Giunta’s name should ring a bell. He received the Medal of Honor.
In 2007, while on patrol one night in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, his unit was ambushed by Taliban fighters. Although outnumbered and under intense fire, Giunta led his men in turning back the attack and rescuing their wounded comrades.
The humble Iowan quickly deflected the hero label. “In this job, I’m only mediocre. I’m average,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “If I’m a hero, every man that stands around me, every woman in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero.”
There are plenty of exceptional military men and women who could be honored by having their names affixed to these important military bases. Their lives and careers would inspire new generations of soldiers. And they were not traitors to the United States.
You won’t find any Confederate flags flying over the Gettysburg battlefield. Only U.S. flags fly there. So, do we need one flying over a memorial in Davis County that recalls the day when the war came to the Union soil of southern Iowa?
In a word, no.