Military and Defense

Is The Army Caught Up In A Push To Rewrite History?

  • The Army may be caught in a wave of efforts to atone for past systemic racism in the United States, exemplified in the plans to scrub Confederate references from Army sites, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • However, a recent move to correct service records and grant clemency to more than 100 black soldiers charged in a 1917 riot was justified and likely not driven by an effort to rewrite history.
  • “Is this based on evidence that was presented to the Board of Corrections that showed discrimination, or is this a further attempt to rewrite history and ignore something that was a historical fact that historically happened? I think those are great questions to ask,” military attorney Davis Younts told the DCNF.

The U.S. Army may not have set out to rewrite its history of race relations, but recent changes to memorials, base names and service records suggest it has been swept up in a broader agenda to right perceived historical wrongs, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth approved overturning convictions of 110 black soldiers on charges related to a 1917 mutiny and changing their service records to show that they received honorable discharges from the Army in a ceremony on Nov. 13, according to a press release. Experts wondered whether it was the Biden administration’s commitment to social justice compelling the Army to take a major step following a yearlong drive to scrub racially offensive references from Army sites.

“Is the Army trying to rewrite history? I don’t believe it set out to do that specifically. However, it is actively participating in the progressive effort to rewrite our vision of the past at the national level,” Chase Spears, a former Army public affairs officer, told the DCNF.

“The court-martials of these soldiers were rife with significant errors,” William Woodruff, legal counsel at the Center for Military Readiness and a former law professor and Army JAG chief, told the DCNF. “I would characterize this as an attempt to set right a grievous past error and not an effort to re-write history. While the over emphasis on [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion/DEI] may have been a catalyst to look at these cases more closely, I don’t think it is an example of DEI run amok.”

Historians convinced the Army that racial prejudice interfered in the judicial proceedings, leading to a number of irregularities, The Wall Street Journal reported. Soldiers assigned to the all-black 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment — later to become known as the Buffalo Soldiers — suffered under severe Jim Crow segregation and hostility when they ventured into Houston, the Texas State Historical Association wrote, citing previous scholarship and news reports.

“After a thorough review, the Board has found that these Soldiers were wrongly treated because of their race and were not given fair trials,” Wormuth said in the press release.

Historians John Haymond and former South Texas College of Law professor Dru Brenner-Beck co-wrote the petition precipitating the Army’s decision to review and amend records for the 110 Black soldiers implicated in the 1917 riot, according to the WSJ.

“It’s not political,” Haymond told the DCNF in an interview.

“There will be some people who say this is wokeism, or you’re attempting to excuse people who committed murder, there’s never any excuse for mutiny, American soldiers should never take up arms against their own population. I understand all that because I’ve felt all of that,” he added.

While prior “activist” approaches to the case arguing from institutional racism have not been successful, Haymond said he was able to prove “the Army violated its own legal processes.”

Army Board for Correction of Military Records in recent years reviewed the convictions and recommended vacating them, according to the Army.

Several months after the U.S. declared war on Germany during World War I, the soldiers were assigned to Houston along with seven white officers to guard the construction site for the Army’s Camp Logan training site, the WSJ reported, citing contemporary news reports.

In August, two policemen arrested a black soldier for interfering in the arrest of a black woman. Cpl. Charles Baltimore, a black military policeman in the 3rd Battalion, inquired about the incident, and one of the policeman bludgeoned him on the head after a verbal exchange.

Police fired at him three times as he fled; they caught and detained him for a short time, the TSHS wrote. But a rumor had already spread that the white policeman had killed Baltimore.

Battalion Commander Maj. Kneeland S. Snow ordered first sergeants to gather weapons and ammunition, anticipating conflict, according to the TSHS. Then an unnamed soldier shouted that a mob of white people was approaching the camp. The black soldiers, in a panic, grabbed rifles and began firing in the direction of the supposed mob. A non-commissioned officer, Sgt. Vida Henry, led more than 100 of the soldiers in the direction of downtown Houston.

By the end of the night, they had killed 15 white people, including civilians, and wounded 12 more. Two soldiers died from friendly fire incidents and two others died; Henry committed suicide, although Haymond said an unearthed coroners report disputes that finding.

The generally accepted narrative of the incident was that the black soldiers marched toward Houston thirsting for revenge, Haymond told the DCNF. But his research, drawing from police and Army records of the time, shows that that most soldiers believed they were following legal orders from the senior noncommissioned officer after commanders fled the camp. Once it became clear the formation was not defending against an angry mob, most turned back.

The Army made defendants prove they had never left the camp, reversing the burden of guilt on to the soldiers, Haymond explained.

Between Nov. 1, 1917, and March 26, 1918, the Army held three separate courts-martial proceedings and found 110 soldiers guilty of participating in the riot, the TSHS wrote. Courts sentenced 19 of the soldiers to death by hanging and 63 to life in prison.

“Somewhere in that group are men who rightly should have been court-martialed as individuals. But the government never built a case against them, never even identified who they were,” Haymond told the DCNF. “The ability to distinguish who is truly guilty from amongst the innocent is one of the greatest failings.”

Military attorney Davis Younts, without having seen all of Haymond and Brenner-Beck’s research, agreed that circumstantial evidence suggests racial bias drove how the cases of the soldiers were handled. However, the timing of the Army’s decision to revisit the issue more than 100 years after the soldiers were convicted — a case that Younts said had been largely uncontroversial and studied mainly for the role it played in supporting arguments against near-immediate executions — raises a question of the true motives behind the Army initiative.

“The Secretary of the service has extraordinary authority to do things like overturn convictions and grant clemency… . This process has been in place for a long time. So it’s not as if it couldn’t have been done before,” Younts told the DCNF.

“Is this based on evidence that was presented to the Board of Corrections that showed discrimination, or is this is this a further attempt to rewrite history and ignore something that that historically that was a historical fact that historically happened? I think those are great questions to ask,” he said.

The Army in recent months has hardened its stance on race and gender in response to Congressional pressure, arguing minorities have been unfairly marginalized from military service.

The changes come on the heels of a broader reckoning in American society with slavery and the discrimination that persisted after slavery was abolished. Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman, Congress embarked on a campaign to purge Confederate references from military sites.

Floyd’s murder prompted nationwide riots and a wave of efforts to renegotiate the present to account for past racial discrimination or harm.

“No question this is happening as a consequence of the George Floyd murder and the fallout from those events,” retired Lt. Col. Thomas Spoehr, the former director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, told the DCNF.

In October, the Army completed a year-long process of renaming nine U.S. bases previously designated after Confederate leaders. Congress had established a commission to identify any references honoring the Confederacy and recommend ways to remove them, overriding a veto by former President Donald Trump to do so.

The Army “was fully onboard and supported the effort,” Spoehr told the DCNF.

“I never understood why we had bases named after mediocre Confederate generals like Bragg or Polk,” he said. But other examples, like taking down historical panels at West Point, the proposal to scrap the reconciliation monument at Arlington National Cemetery and removing paver stones from the Ranger Memorial at Fort Moore (formerly Fort Benning), “went too far,” he said.

“That is erasing history,” Spoehr said.

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Micaela Burrow

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Micaela Burrow
Tags: U.S. Army

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