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Gov. Lee, Let Me Introduce You To Clifton Cates, A TN Hero We Should Be Honoring

Governor Lee has just announced that he intends to move forward with a day honoring Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  This will trigger yet another round of division in our state.  I am upset about the Governor’s decision.  However, I don’t expect him or the people that rationalize Forrest’s deeply troubling history as a slave owner and Klan founder to particularly care for my concerns.  Instead, I would like to make a proposal.  Instead of Forrest, let’s focus on a forgotten hero from our state’s history that we can all admire. Let us hold up a figure that everyone should agree is worthy of praise.  We should be honoring Marine Commandant Clifton Cates.

I expect that virtually nobody reading this has heard of Commandant Cates, so I will give you a brief rundown.  Clifton Cates was born in Tiptonville, TN.  He attended University of Tennessee School of Law and had recently graduated when World War I commenced.  He abandoned his budding legal carrier and enlisted in the Marine Corps.  In France, his battalion saw some of the worst combat of the war at the Battle of Belleau Woods.  For my money, there are few Tennesseans who could be said to show the bravery and grit of Cates at Belleau Woods.  Injured and hugely outnumbered, Cates messaged his commander:

I am in an old abandoned French trench bordering on the road leading out of your P.C. and 350 yards from an old mill. I have only two men out of my company. We need support, but it is almost suicide to try and get it here as we are swept by machine-gun fire and a constant barrage is on us. I have no one on my left and only a few on my right. I WILL HOLD.


And he held.  For his bravery, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross with oak leaf cluster, the Purple Heart, the Silver Star and the French government honored him with the Legion of Honor.  After WWI, he was persuaded to stay on with the Marine Corps and served as an adviser to Woodrow Wilson.

As impressive as his personal heroism was in WWI, he was an equally impressive commander in WWII.  He was given command of the 1st Marines at Guadalcanal.  It was his command that oversaw the marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.  Basically, if there was gut wrenching fighting to be done in the Pacific, the US sent the Marines and the Marines sent Clifton Cates to command.   

Following WWII, he became Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Though it would be inconceivable now, post-WWII, there was a push wind down and potentially eliminate the Marine Corps.  In part due to the advocacy of Commandant Cates, Congressional efforts to gut the Corps failed and the Marine Corps was preserved.

Further, in contrast to other generals our state chooses to honor, Commandant Cates does not have the divisive racial history.  In July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which set out to abolish discrimination "on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin" in the United States Armed Forces.  This EO was far from universally accepted and there was a significant backlash.  For example, the Secretary of the Army was forced to resign for refusing to carry it out.  However, Commandant Cates set in motion the desegregation of the Marine Corps (though complete desegregation would be carried out over the years to follow).

Commandant Cates died on June 4, 1970 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

I am a lifelong Tennessean and I am proud of the role that our state has played in our nation’s history, even if I have strong feelings about the sins of our (my family’s included) past.  Unfortunately, the parts of our history that give me pride rarely get told.  Instead, we keep alive the same divisive focus on military figures from 160 years ago, as if our state had been responsible for no heroic act after the 1860s.   I am proud that we are the volunteer state.  I am proud that we have a citizenry that has stepped up time and again to show amazing bravery.  There are heroes like Commandant Cates, whose legacy can inspire pride for all Tennesseans.  I would urge Governor Lee to reconsider who this state honors.  Hold up those heroes from our history that can unite us all. 

Robert Donati

Attorney and Lifelong Tennessean

Treasurer and Co-Founder of Future901

Robert Donati