Renaming U.S. Army bases named after Confederate commanders is not a burning issue for me. I can’t say I’ve ever thought about it until yesterday primarily because I didn’t realize there are ten installations named after them.
I have some thoughts about it, but I’ll make it clear that it is not a “hill I’ll die on” kind of issue. Rename them, leave them; it’s not going to make much of a difference to me. I do know it means a great deal to black Americans, including those who have served in combat for a country that has not always treated them as equal. Before I discuss why we should have this discussion and keep an open mind about it, I want offer three caveats.
First, I don’t advocate, nor will I ever support, renaming things or tearing down something because someone, somewhere might be offended what that thing represents.
That’s not tenable. If that’s the case, let’s tear everything down and rename everything because every person who ever has something named after them and every subject of every memorial or monument or statue probably offended somebody somewhere.
I don’t support the attempt to erase historical figures and their contributions because they don’t line up with how we see the world today. We certainly must recognize that every person in history is flawed. However, we distort those flaws when we rip them from their historical context pretending they belong in ours. That’s not to excuse their errors and sin, but we must recognize they come from a different time with different values and perspective.
Second, I don’t support people vandalizing and tearing statues and memorials down, even Confederate statues and memorials. There is a right way and a wrong way to accomplish change. Destruction of public and personal property is the wrong way. Petitioning your elected official to remove a statue or memorial is the right way. As far as statues and memorials on private property, what someone has on their private property is really none of our business.
Third, renaming something, like a military installation, is not rewriting history. You don’t name a building or military base because you want to preserve history. You do it because you are honoring the person you are naming it after and their contribution to society.
In the case of military bases, their contribution to military history.
The U.S. Army confirmed that Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Defense Secretary Mark Esper are “open to a bipartisan discussion on the topic” of renaming Army bases named after Confederate commanders and noted, “each Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a significant place in our military history.”
“Accordingly, the historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies,” the Army’s statement added.
They are right, bases named after an individual are named after someone who holds a significant place in U.S. military history, though for some that was primarily as an enemy of the United States.
I served in the Army National Guard. I completed basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. That base is named after Major General Leonard Wood, who served in the U.S. Army from 1886 to 1921. He was chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 1910 to 1914. He commanded the Sixth Corps, 10th Infantry Division, and 86th Infantry Division. He fought in the Spanish-American War, leading the Rough Riders along with Theodore Roosevelt.
His military resume is extensive.
I completed my combat medic training at Fort Sam Houston part of Joint Base San Antonio in Texas. Sam Houston served in the U.S. Army from 1813 to 1818, fighting in the War of 1812. He later commanded the Army of the Republic of Texas from 1835 to 1836, fighting Mexico for independence.
Houston was then the first and third President of the Republic of Texas. When Texas joined the United States, he became a U.S. Senator and later served as the state’s Governor until 1861 when the state voted to secede from the United States. He attempted to declare Texas an independent republic again, but the legislature wanted to join the Confederacy. When he refused to pledge loyalty to the Confederacy, they removed him.
So, with that background, I want to make several points:
First, I suspect most Americans have no idea that many Army bases are named after Confederates.
Most Americans would likely recognize General Robert E. Lee, the namesake of Fort Lee in Virginia, but are less familiar with General Braxton Bragg of whom Fort Bragg in North Carolina is named. Bragg fought with the United States Army in the Second Seminole War and Mexican-American War, but then fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Oddly, an Army base is named after him even though he lost most of the battles when he led Confederate troops.
Americans are probably less familiar with Brigadier General Henry Lewis Benning. He never served in the United States Army. His only military service was in the Confederate Army. So it’s remarkable that a U.S. Army base is named after him – Fort Benning in Georgia. He fought with distinction in the Battle of Chickamauga. He was wounded during the Battle of the Wilderness, which kept him sidelined for the most part until the end of the war.
I’m sure most Americans are not familiar with Lieutenant General John Bell Hood of whom Fort Hood in Texas is named. He started his military career in the U.S. Army, serving from 1853 to 1861, fighting in the American Indian Wars, attaining the rank of First Lieutenant.
He resigned his commission in the United States Army after the battle at Fort Sumter and decided to serve with the state of Texas as his native state of Kentucky remained neutral. He fought with distinction at the Battles of Gaines’s Mill, Antietam, and Chickamauga. He was wounded during the Battle of Gettysburg and later failed in his Atlanta and Tennessee campaigns.
Second, while one can understand why southern states and communities would honor Confederates (though many statues and memorials were built during the fight for Civil Rights during the 1950s and 1960s), it’s strange that the United States Army would.
These men fought against the United States Army, and those who did serve in the United States Army before joining the Confederacy had minor roles. Why would the U.S. Army honor men who openly rebelled against the country they fought for and those betrayed the men many once fought alongside in battle?
After Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, this was partly due to the desire to finally reconcile with southern states and restore them into the union. They could not maintain martial law in the south. That said, some Army installations that carry a Confederate name were not named until well into the 20th century.
It’s mindboggling to argue that we need to continue to do that.
Third, many soldiers distinguished themselves in the United States Army, and they do not have a base named after them. Considering naming a military base is about honoring a soldier and their contribution to military history – why is there no Fort Grant? Ulysses S. Grant is certainly more deserving than Benning, Bragg, or Hood. Lee surrendered to Grant, but Lee has a base named after him, and Grant does not?
Why not name a base for General John G. Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Force to victory during World War I and mentored several officers who later served as Generals during World War II? Pershing was arguably the highest-ranking officer in American military history attaining the rank of General of the Armies (a rank given only twice in history which is the equivalent of a six-star general. George Washington was given the rank posthumously in 1976).
President Dwight D. Eisenhower is certainly deserving because of his leadership as Supreme Allied Commander of Europe during World War II and his service as General of the Army (a five-star general) as are Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur.
One could indeed find a soldier worthy of this distinction among those awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Instead, we honor ten Confederates? It doesn’t make sense.
Fourth, Confederate commanders deserve their place in history, but that can be found in history books, museums, Civil War battlefields, or historical sites. They don’t deserve to have a U.S. Army installation bear their name. That is a potential honor they relinquished when they betrayed the country whose Constitution they took an oath to protect and defend.
Frankly, I think the argument in favor of renaming these installations is more compelling than any argument I’ve heard for leaving them the same. Granted, it is probably a pointless argument considering President Donald Trump shut it down, even though the U.S. Army and Department of Defense were willing to have the conversation. So much for listening to his commanders.
Even if President Trump is unwilling, we should continue the conversation. Why not rename Army installations named after Confederate commanders?