The post itself is named after George Brinton McClellan, the Union general and eventual New Jersey governor who remains a controversial figure among Civil War historians. To them, he is either the builder of a great wartime Army or a general too tentative to fight.
Today, his last name is as ubiquitous in this city as the city’s name itself. “McClellan” is a community, a former military installation, a vital Calhoun County road and the name of a number of local businesses.
McClellan is rooted in our lives, our language and our future.
But had influential Annistonians got their wish, the McClellan name wouldn’t have been used. They wanted a different name: Blackmon. Not only did they want it — they campaigned for it.
Fred L. Blackmon was a popular Anniston attorney who had represented this district in Montgomery and the U.S. House of Representatives for years. In some ways, he was Calhoun County’s Richard Shelby during the 1900s’ opening decades: He took care of his people and wielded his Washington influence in the county’s favor.
Common was the belief among Anniston’s leadership that the Army would not have put a World War I mobilization camp here had it not been for Blackmon’s urgings.
When he died in 1921, hours were spent on the House floor listening to impassioned speeches about Blackmon’s life. Rep. S. Hubert Dent Jr. of Eufala was typical with his praise. “Camp McClellan, near Anniston, Ala., is a fitting testimonial to his usefulness as a Representative in Congress,” Dent said.
Years earlier, in the summer of 1917, editors at The Anniston Evening Star joined the chorus of commendations for Blackmon and openly called for the camp to be named Camp Blackmon. When the Army sent a dispatch in July of that year announcing the McClellan name, The Evening Star didn’t hide its unhappiness. “The dispatches today … will cause disappointment in many sections and particularly in Anniston,” the editors wrote.
“Since the government decided to name all camps after military leaders, Anniston will offer no objection, but regret will be recorded that the camp was named after General George Brinton McClellan.”
Ah, yes. McClellan — a Union general, a Northerner, a New Jersey man. Some feelings die hard.
Annistonians of the day noticed that the Army had used the names Lee and Beauregard for mobilization camps in Virginia and Louisiana, yet Anniston’s camp was named after a Yankee general?
Why the indignity?
If the name had to be that of a military leader, The Evening Star mused over two preferred options: A good idea, Camp Pelham (after the “Gallant” Pelham of Jacksonville), or a bad one, Camp Forrest (after Nathan B. Forrest). “It would not have done any harm, and might have accomplished a great deal of good in the way of wiping out the few remaining traces of the line of division between the South and the North, if all the camps in the South had been named after Confederate heroes of the Civil War.”
Those names, The Evening Star wrote, “would have added glory and fame to any camp, either North or South.”
But, alas, it didn’t happen. The newspaper held out one last hope that the McClellan name would only be used for the mobilization camp and that Anniston’s permanent post would later carry Blackmon’s name. That didn’t happen, either.
McClellan it was. Then, now, forever.
But, oh, how close Anniston came to having a rewritten history.
Camp Blackmon. Fort Blackmon. The Blackmon Development Authority. Music at Blackmon. The Blackmon Park Medical Mall. (This can go on forever.) Blackmon Boulevard.
(Remember, too, that Anniston wasn’t originally Anniston, and Calhoun was the county’s second name. Talk about an alternate universe: Benton County, the city of Woodstock, Fort Blackmon.)
In truth, I’ve always found the McClellan name a bit odd — not because of his blue uniform, but because of his debatable legacy. Even though McClellan was extremely popular among his soldiers, President Lincoln removed him in 1862, saying he had tired of the general’s reluctance to aggressively press the fight against the Confederates.
In 1864, McClellan, a Democrat, ran against Lincoln for the presidency. Lincoln won — handily — but not before McClellan repeatedly called the president “the original gorilla.”
Nevertheless, McClellan’s defenders are a passionate lot. This week, the Washington Post ran a lengthy essay claiming to debunk the notion that McClellan, a superb planner, was a reluctant battlefield leader. “History has not been kind to McClellan,” author Gene Thorp admitted, but “… contrary to what most literature will tell you, McClellan was not a hesitant fool.”
It’s all part of Anniston’s lore, indelible to the core. A Southern town whose most striking component is named after a much-debated Northern general from a war the South lost.
Gotta love it.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/Ptutor_Star.