On a cold morning in 1918, a 102-foot flagpole made of Georgia pine was erected at Camp Benning on the outskirts of town. Anna Caroline Benning, the daughter of the Confederate general for whom the post was named, raised the Stars and Stripes, and it was said that the banner unfurled in a lively wave.
That afternoon, a parade celebrating the arrival of the Infantry School of Arms meandered through downtown Columbus and historian Nancy Telfair shared a story about her grandmother that showed not everyone was happy to see the Army come to town.
"A great parade was held on Broad Street and among the spectators were my grandmother and aunt, the former a completely unreconstructed rebel. Opposite the old Transfer Station they stood and spotted Miss Tina (or Caroline) Benning in the lead car behind a big United States flag. My grandmother, a timid, old-fashioned lady who wore widow's weeds and a long black veil, could not control her emotions. She stepped off the curb, shook her fist at her long time friend and cried out: 'Tina Benning, I'm ashamed of you -- riding down Broad Street behind that old rag.'"
That shows the passions that were still alive in the hearts of local people when the installation was named for Gen. Henry Benning, a resident of Columbus who was with Gen. Robert E. Lee when he surrendered his sword at Appomattox in 1865.
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Secretary of War Newton Baker's decision to honor Benning in 1922 is under fire today in the aftermath of the recent church shooting in South Carolina. Symbols of that era, particularly the Confederate flag, are being questioned. So is the fact that 10 U.S. Army installations are named for Confederate generals -- including Fort Benning.
Blame it on Winnifred Moore Minter.
The idea of honoring Benning originated with the Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, but Minter carried the flag. Benning returned to Columbus to practice law after the war and died here in 1875.
Minter, a member of the UDC, enlisted the support of the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club of Columbus. Baker went along with the local proposal.
Benning was more than a soldier. He chaired the Georgia Delegation at the 1860 Democratic National Convention and walked out when the party refused to put a plank supporting slavery into its platform. He was an avid secessionist and believed a pro-slavery republic could survive.
Despite the ongoing debate, the newspaper Stars and Stripes conducted a poll that shows 88 percent of Americans believe those 10 installations should not be renamed. This week the Pentagon said the posts were named for individuals -- not their causes -- and no changes will be made at this time.
Whatever happens, let's pray people still stand behind that old rag.
-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org