The racist history behind 10 US Army facilities named after Confederate leaders, explained

The US Army currently has 10 bases and facilities named after leaders of the Confederacy. Within the next few months, that number could possibly drop to zero.

On Monday, Army spokesperson Col. Sunset Belinsky told Politico that “The secretary of defense and secretary of the Army are open to a bipartisan discussion on the topic.”

That’s opened the door for the Army to reverse its long-held position on keeping the names honoring Confederate officers. The Army defended such a stance as recently as February, with a spokesperson telling Task & Purpose, “The Army has a tradition of naming installations and streets after historical figures of military significance, including former Union and Confederate general officers.”

But the nation’s oldest military service has come under renewed pressure in recent months to change that practice. In February, the Marines signaled Confederate-related items — including the Confederate battle flag — would no longer be permitted on its bases and officially followed through last week. In May, the New York Times editorial board wrote a scathing piece arguing the military celebrated white supremacy, in part because of the 10 installations’ names.

More recently, the protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd have prompted states like Virginia and Florida to announce plans to remove Confederate statues. Now, some of the Army’s most revered retired generals and former top civilian leaders have come out in support of the Pentagon’s seemingly more open stance.

“If the former Confederate state of Virginia can remove the statue of General Lee from Richmond, the capital city of that Confederacy, today’s Army ought to be able to respond to the realities of today as well,” John McHugh, who served as secretary of the Army from 2009 to 2015, told me.

The US Navy has taken a cue from all that’s going on, with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday announcing Tuesday that the service would prohibit the Confederate battle flag in any public or workspaces, including ships, aircraft, submarines, and bases.

If the Army were to follow through, experts say the next step would be for current Army chief Ryan McCarthy to issue a memo to change the names or seek support from the armed services committees in Congress to approve changes in a forthcoming, must-pass budget authorization. However, it’s unclear if either move is on the near horizon.

For many, such a move is long overdue.

“Bases that continue to bear the names of Confederate soldiers and officers — persons who wrongly fought to protect the institution of slavery and would have denied black Americans from serving in the military — are a reminder of that systemic oppression we continue to confront and damages the culture of inclusivity needed to accomplish the mission,” Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD), a retired Army colonel and vice-chair of the House Armed Services Committee, told me.

“Removing these names will be another step in an honest accounting of our history and an expression that we continue to strive to form a more perfect union,” Brown, who is African American, said.

Why the Army named bases after Confederates in the first place

The history of naming Army installations after Confederate officers is deeply intertwined with America’s long history of racism.

As the nation mobilized for both world wars, political leaders amended Jim Crow-era laws to allow more minority troops into the military’s ranks. Perhaps the most consequential amendments were made to the Selective Service Act of 1940, which required men between 21 and 45 years of age to register for the draft.

Two amendments to the law, one by Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY) and another by US Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-NY), allowed black Americans and other minorities to volunteer for war or be drafted. The final text of the statute read “there shall be no discrimination against any person on account of race or color” in selecting or training men in the military services.

The Pentagon’s official history of racial integration in the armed forces concluded that, with varying degrees of success, such changes “actually spread federally sponsored segregation into areas where it had never before existed with the force of law.”

Most of those areas were in the South. Mike Jason, a retired Army colonel who commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me the region had lots of cheap land, which is why the Army in the early 1900s built bases and other facilities there. As a way to appease racist white political leaders and locals who didn’t want a more integrated military nearby, the Army named bases after Confederate “heroes” who were popular among these leaders and locals.

That’s why all 10 facilities named after those men are in the South: three in Virginia, two in Louisiana, two in Georgia, and one each in Alabama, North Carolina, and Texas.

And the Confederate officers the Army chose to name the bases after weren’t just selected at random or because of their military prowess during the Civil War. Most were specifically chosen because of their local ties. For example, Gen. Robert E. Lee and Maj. Gen. George Pickett, both Virginians, have bases named after them in the state.

Take Fort Gordon in Georgia, first established as Camp Gordon in 1916, smack in the middle of World War I. It’s named after Lt. Gen. John Brown Gordon, one of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s most trusted officers. Gordon was elected to the US Senate in 1872, but he was also widely known as the head of Georgia’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (a charge he, as leaders of the organization often do, denied).

By the time of his death in 1904, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, he was for many “the living embodiment of the Confederacy.”

Many weren’t even particularly effective military leaders.

Pickett led the infamous Pickett’s Charge at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg straight into opposing guns, helping the Union win that fight and turning the tide of the Civil War. Had the Confederacy prevailed in the battle, it might’ve continued northward to overtake Union territory.

Despite that massive blunder and the fact that he fled to Canada to avoid execution as a traitor, Virginia’s Camp Pickett was dedicated in 1942, earning the larger “fort” designation in 1979.

General Braxton Bragg was, in the words of Iraq War veteran Fred Wellman, “a jackass and an asshole.” Bragg, whose father owned slaves and who would later own slaves himself, had such a notoriously bad temper that Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in his memoirs recalled a story of one of Bragg’s superiors admonishing him: “My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself!”

What’s more, he lost big in the 1863 Battle of Chattanooga, leading him to resign from the Confederate army. Yet, the largest military installation in the world by population — North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, founded in 1918 — bears his name.

“We are forcing our black soldiers to serve on a base named after leaders who served to keep them in chains”

The issue of what an Army base is named isn’t trivial: It has an actual effect on the thousands of black Americans and other minorities who put on the Army uniform every day to serve their country.

“We are forcing our black soldiers to serve on a base named after leaders who served to keep them in chains,” Wellman said.

Bishop Garrison was one such soldier. In the summer of 2000, the then-21-year-old spent a summer training at Fort Polk in Louisiana, named after Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk.

Polk, who was a slave owner and an Episcopal bishop in addition to being a Confederate officer, made one of the Confederacy’s biggest mistakes when he sent troops to overtake Columbus, Kentucky. His incursion led the state’s lawmakers to request help from the Union, thus ending Kentucky’s neutrality in the war.

Training at Fort Polk for a few weeks as a cadet didn’t sit well with Garrison. “The Confederacy, particularly as a black man from the South, was a shadow you couldn’t escape,” he told me. “We should have never named anything or erected effigies in the name of Confederates.”

“Symbols of oppression need to be removed, and the military would continue to set the great example as it has throughout history by renaming its bases,” he continued.

Which raises the question: Why has it taken so long for the Army to even consider changing these bases’ names?

It depends on whom you ask.

The Army has dragged its feet on this issue for years

Experts have offered three main explanations — some more convincing than others — for why those 10 facilities haven’t had their names changed: 1) the pervasiveness of the Lost Cause myth in Army culture, 2) bureaucratic inertia and competing problems, and 3) courting controversy.

Let’s start with the first point. Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, one of the service’s most celebrated leaders before an ignominious fall, wrote an op-ed in the Atlantic on Tuesday describing how Confederate culture has persisted in the Army.

“When I was a cadet at West Point in the early 1970s, enthusiasm for Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson was widespread,” Petraeus wrote. “We were not encouraged to think deeply about the cause for which they had fought, at least not in our military history classes. And throughout my Army career, I likewise encountered enthusiastic adherents of various Confederate commanders, and a special veneration for Lee.”

Wellman, who attended the famed Army academy in the 1980s, told me that continued after Petraeus’s day. During the 1980s, professors taught him and his peers — one of his classmates was current Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville — about the Lost Cause: the “collection of historical myths meant to whitewash the hard truths of slavery and the Civil War,” as historian William R. Black has defined it. The lessons treated those myths as more or less truth, rather than a competing narrative to dispel.

And while the West Point campus features a gate, barracks, and a statute all dedicated to Lee, the academy only got a statue of Union General (and later US president) Ulysses S. Grant — a West Point alum — last year.

“The Army, like every other large institution in America, has been shaped by the Lost Cause mythology,” Jason, the retired Army colonel, said.

As to the second point, McHugh, the former top Army civilian, told me the service just hasn’t really had time to deal with this issue. “During all my time in the Pentagon, we were in two very bloody theaters of war that consumed most all of the bandwidth,” he said. “While in retrospect there should have been, there simply wasn’t the national level of discourse we see today that often leads to those kinds of decisions.”

Others who served in the Army told me that’s an understandable position, as the service always has a lot going on trying to keep Pentagon bosses, lawmakers, and the American people happy and its troops alive. Add two wars on top of that, and any free time on the calendar quickly goes away.

But others contend that’s just an excuse. The secretary could simply write a memo and the bases’ names would change. Politically, it’d be better to have the defense secretary and key members of Congress on board, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the names could be changed with the stroke of a pen.

McHugh, however, told me this issue never came up during his time in charge of the service — though it was certainly discussed numerous times in public discourse during his tenure.

And it’s worth noting that after the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, debate about changing the 10 facilities’ names started up again, though the Pentagon did little about it.

Perhaps that inaction had to do with the final explanation, which is one the Army has repeatedly used: that changing the names would stir up immense controversy within the ranks. Take, for instance, the response to a request from Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) in 2017. She asked the Army to rename two streets at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn: General Lee Avenue and Stonewall Jackson Drive.

When the Army wrote back, Diana Randon, who was at the time the service’s top official on these issues, said the two men were “an inextricable part of our military history.” Such a move would be “controversial and divisive,” she continued, and “contrary to the Nation’s original intent in naming these streets, which was the spirit of reconciliation.”

Of course, as discussed above, that is a blatant misrepresentation of why these individuals’ names were chosen. They were deliberately chosen to appease racist people, particularly in the South — not to achieve some kind of national “reconciliation.”

“That guy, any day of the week, is better than Braxton Bragg”

Clearly, it makes no sense for the Army to keep these names. But that still brings up an important question: Which names to replace the Confederates with?

Most I spoke with said Army leadership should put down multiple names on a list — say, 100 — and then put together a commission of experts to pick the best 10. But there are many different ideas about which names should appear on such a list.

One from Sandy Apgar, the former head of Army installations, is to rename the facilities after their locations, like Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. “By naming places, not people, the military can better exemplify its values of honor, sacrifice, and community,” he wrote in the New York Times last month.

Another is to give the spotlight to distinguished service members from minority communities. Experts I spoke with mentioned Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Roy Benavidez, a Latino soldier who rescued eight members of his patrol after their helicopter crashed in Vietnam and came under intense enemy fire.

After getting stabbed with a bayonet, he continued to fight and pull troops onto another evacuation helicopter until he could no longer move or speak. As he was placed into a body bag, he spat on the doctor’s face to prove he was still alive. He died in 1998.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who commanded Fort Benning in Georgia, tweeted on Tuesday in support of renaming that base as Fort Omar Bradley.

Henry Benning, a brigadier general in the Confederate army, was a pro-slavery politician who became a top advocate for secession after Abraham Lincoln became president. Bradley, by contrast, was a World War II hero and the country’s last surviving five-star general, helping troops make it from the Normandy landing all the way into Germany to help win the war.

“Bad policy that such important Army posts be named after traitors,” Eaton tweeted. “Time for change.”

Another suggestion is Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, a black soldier who received a Silver Star after pulling six wounded soldiers out of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in 2005 in Iraq. He suffered burns on over 70 percent of his body doing so and died from those injuries.

Asked by the Stars and Stripes newspaper what compelled him to keep going back into the fire, he said “I had made peace with my God, but I didn’t know if my men had yet.”

“That guy, any day of the week, is better than Braxton Bragg,” said Jason, the retired Army colonel, which is why he finds the Army’s inaction on renaming the bases until now “inexcusable.”

“There is no reason to delay this decision another day,” he said.

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