All around the country, officials are discussing whether to remove memorials and rename public spaces dedicated to Confederate leaders. But not at the Pentagon.
Three of the largest military bases in the world – Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, and Fort Benning in Georgia – are named for Confederate generals. In all, 10 major U.S. Army bases and installations in the South pay tribute to military leaders of the secessionist states, including one named for the reputed Georgia chief of the Ku Klux Klan.
The U.S. Army on Wednesday did not answer repeated questions on whether that is expected to change. But two years ago, the military made it clear that there was “no discussion of adjusting the naming policy,” refusing to follow the path being paved by some state and local officials to rename public squares, schools, roads and even entire cities across the country.
It’s a great trait for our military to stay out of contentious debate. Unfortunately, in this case the casual indifference and foot dragging has put them on the wrong side of morality and being an inclusive voice for all their soldiers.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, Center for a New American Security
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"Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history,” public affairs chief Army Brig. Gen. Malcolm Frost said in 2015, following a mass shooting by a white supremacist in a Charleston church. “Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies."
On Wednesday, after reports that some of the white supremacists who organized the deadly Charlottesville rally were linked to the U.S. military, the Army chief of staff tweeted his condemnation.
“The Army doesn't tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It's against our Values and everything we've stood for since 1775,” Gen. Mark Milley tweeted.
That same weekend, two black paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division were killed in Iraq. They trained at and deployed from Fort Bragg, a military base that honors a Confederate general who owned more than 100 slaves.
For some, it’s a stark and obvious injustice.
“They are coming out saying ‘we won’t tolerate bigotry’ while operating from bases that honor traitors, who had slaves, who fought against the United States. How does that happen?” said retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, who served as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is now at the Center for a New American Security. “The senior leadership is more afraid of the ghost of the Columbus, Georgia city council than thinking about all the young black soldiers who pass through Fort Benning.”
Americans are much more likely to face off against civilian government officials to get a public space renamed than they are to go against the military, he said. The military is consistently the most respected institution in the country, according to Gallup. It’s also conservative by nature and loath to get caught up in any contentious debate, Dempsey said.
“People say, ‘I’ll defer to what those guys think.’ As long as the military just wants to ignore it, people are happy to ignore it,” he said. “But the problem is that when it’s senior Army leaders around a table, it’s mostly a bunch of white guys discussing race.”
It’s largely because of the military’s unique position that advocacy groups, from black veterans organizations to the NAACP, have not pushed strongly to rename the bases. Instead, they have focused on issues where public pressure has a bigger impact.
“We have fought for the rights of veterans for many years and have been ignored,” Katherine Washington-Williams, commander for the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Black Veterans, told McClatchy. “Some battles are not ours...the naming of Fort Bragg is not my concern, veterans rights is more important.”
That does not mean they are forgetting whom these military installations are named after.
Some battles are not ours...the naming of Fort Bragg is not my concern, veterans rights is more important.
Katherine Washington-Williams, commander for the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Black Veterans
Greg Marles, a 69-year old veteran who was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, for five years, says his skin crawled when he had to write down the name of the Confederate general as his work address. He still has scars from being beaten and bitten by police dogs when he and other civil rights activists were detained in Mississippi in 1966, he says.
“Out of all the things I have been involved in in the military, in southeast Asia, in Latin America, the biggest fear for my life was when I was in the South…the hatred of these people was beyond belief,” he said. “I will not, will not go back to that. We cannot go back.”
The base could be named after countless Texan military leaders who had “nothing to do with the Civil War,” he said.
But even Marles, a lifelong civil rights activist who used to wear wigs and sunglasses to register people to vote because he was on active duty, is focusing his energy on the removal of a statue in San Antonio along with his local NAACP chapter. It’s “more of a sure thing” than changing the name of Fort Hood, he says, even though that is “beyond insulting.”
Critics point out that with a rich history of American military leaders to chose from, it’s ridiculous to argue for major bases to keep the names of Confederate generals who weren’t even particularly skilled or liked in their own time.
The namesake of Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Gen. Braxton Bragg, was a disastrous military leader during the Civil War. Known as a bully and loathed by his fellow generals, his outdated tactics led to the slaughter of many of his troops. His most recent biography is titled “The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy.”
Even so, the largest military installation in the world, by population, proudly bears his name. More than a quarter of the 50,000 active duty personnel are African American. Except for a few scattered editorials and social media posts, there has been little movement to change it.
Three thousand miles away, a coastal city with the same name has engaged in a passionate debate about history and memory. After the Charleston shooting, the California Legislative Black Caucus called for Fort Bragg, Calif., to change its name. Lawmakers argued that the name sullied the state’s reputation and insulted black Californians by glorifying “such a disgraced and treasonous figure in our nation’s history.”
But that was unusual. In most of the country there’s been little such talk. Take Camp Beauregard in Louisiana, a National Guard base, which honors Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a Confederate general who led the attack on Fort Sumter that marked the beginning of the Civil War.
While a 102-year old statue of the general was removed from New Orleans in May, there has been no discussion about changing the camp’s name.
“To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in May about removing the monument. “It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future.”
Some installations openly celebrate the lore of Confederate battles. The U.S. Army Garrison at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia is named after Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill, “a Virginia native who distinguished himself as a Confederate commander during the Civil War,” its website states. “He was mortally wounded as he rode his stallion, Champ, to the front. He had not yet reached his 40th birthday.”
Fort Gordon, another U.S. Army base in Georgia, is named after John Brown Gordon; not only was he a Confederate general, but he was reported to be the leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. By the time he died in 1904, he had “become for many Georgians, and southerners in general, the living embodiment of the Confederacy,” according to a Georgia Historical Society publication.