Why the Need to Change the Names of Some Military Bases?
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Featured image: A sign at one of the entrances to Fort Bragg. Courtesy Blashfield Sign Company. Public Domain
By Barry Shollenberger, Ed.D.
Associate Professor, Sports Management, American Military University
The recent movement to remove racially offensive vestiges of Confederate war heroes has expanded from town and city statues, monuments, and battle sites to the names of certain U.S. Army bases. Ten such posts are named for former Confederate generals. The objection to this honor is these men fought against the United States to maintain the institution of slavery and, by extension, white supremacy.
With a plethora of military heroes produced by the U.S. through almost 250 years and a dozen major wars, it would seem unusual that U.S. military officials would see fit to honor individuals who fought against the U.S. A closer look, however, sheds some interesting facts on the subject.
All 10 bases are located in southern states and most were renamed in the early 20th century. The rationale at the time was to help heal the sectional wounds inflicted on the country by the Civil War and the disastrous Reconstruction Era that followed. The intent was a further conciliation for all citizens in the U.S. not to provoke further division. After all, at the turn of the century the Civil War had been over for only about 40 years.
The 10 bases, their present names, and a thumbnail sketch about each General prior to and after the Civil War:
- Camp Beauregard, Louisiana – Named for General P.G.T. Beauregard
West Point graduate, fought in Mexican War, two brevets and two wounds
- Fort Benning, Georgia – Named for General Henry L. Benning
Lawyer before Civil War and afterward was elected a State Senator and served as State Supreme Court Justice
- Fort Bragg, North Carolina – Named for General Braxton Bragg
West Point graduate, fought on the frontier and Mexican War (3 brevets)
- Fort Gordon, Georgia – Named for General John Brown Gordon
Lawyer before Civil War and afterward served as U.S. Senator and Governor of Georgia
- Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia – Named for General Ambrose Powell Hill
West Point graduate, fought in the Seminole War, on the western frontier, and in the Mexican War
- Fort Hood, Texas – Named for General John Bell Hood
West Point graduate, wounded serving on the western frontier
- Fort Lee, Virginia – Named for General Robert E. Lee
West Point graduate (and later Superintendent at West Point), wounded and received three brevets in the Mexican War
- Fort Pickett, Virginia – Named for General George E. Pickett
West Point graduate, fought on the western frontier, earned one brevet in the Mexican War; famous for “Pickett’s Charge” during the last Civil War battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
- Fort Polk, Louisiana – Named for General Leonidas Polk
West Point Graduate and Episcopal Bishop
- Fort Rucker, Alabama – Named for General Edmund Rucker
Birmingham industrial leader after the war
There are also two smaller bases named for Confederate generals:
- Camp Maxey, Texas – Named for General Samuel B. Maxie
West Point graduate, fought on the western frontier, one brevet in the Mexican War
- Camp Pendleton, Virginia – Named for Brigadier General William N. Pendleton
West Point graduate, Confederate chief of artillery and Episcopal minister
The 10 honored Confederate generals also shared some similarities. Seven were graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in the U.S. Army before the Civil War. Six of them fought in the Mexican War (1846-48) and earned a total of 10 brevets, an honorary promotion formerly used in the U.S. Army for recognition of gallant conduct or meritorious service. Four of them were wounded in the Civil War. Anyone who has ever served in harm’s way can appreciate their patriotic dedication to the stars and stripes before they made the decision to side with the Confederacy a dozen years later.
The Peculiar Institution versus State Loyalty
Most historians agree that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Other espoused causes for the conflict revert directly or indirectly to that inhuman system of forced servitude. It is true that 75% of the men who fought for the Confederacy did not own any slaves. These men were fighting for something other than slavery, in many cases to save their home state. Among the noteworthy causes that affected the political, economic, and social dynamics were the sectional differences between the industrial states in the North and agricultural states in the South. Although not slaveholders, most of these soldiers were white supremacists.
Loyalty to one’s home state in the 21st century is quite different from that of 170 years ago. Our forbearers’ strong feelings for their home state led most of them to support the political decisions of their elected state representatives, including the Articles of Secession in 1860-61.
Today, with transportation facilitating mass movements from state to state, many Americans do not live in the state where they were born. Their loyalty is expressed more in terms of allegiance to a hometown sports team or the city where they grew up.
Did individual states have the legal or moral right to secede from the United States? South Carolina’s Nullification Act of 1832 was designed to allow the state to override any federal laws it did not agree with. “President Andrew Jackson rightly regarded law a challenge so serious [to the Constitution] that he asked Congress to enact legislation permitting him to use federal troops to enforce federal laws in the face of nullification. Fortunately, an armed confrontation was avoided.”
Our Predecessors Were Part of the Time in Which They Lived, Not a Part of Ours
So Is it fair to purge the names of those who failed to live up to modern standards of morality? Our predecessors were part of the time in which they lived, not a part of ours. We can only guess what they would say if they were somehow able to see the advances in American society that have ensued since their day, especially in terms of civil rights and equality.
The Defense Department first addressed the issue of the 10 Confederate generals in a 2015 directive that stated there would be no renaming of the facilities because the process occurred in a peaceful mode with no intention to be divisive. Since then, the military has changed its stance somewhat by agreeing to rethink its earlier decision. Much of that rethinking has to do with the 20% of minorities in the military who may be offended at being assigned to one of these bases.
Should the names be changed? President Trump thinks not. The military, however, appears to be moving in the direction of name changes, but its review plans to examine all the variables involved before making a decision. Any hurried “knee-jerk” reaction would be less than fair to all parties involved.
About the Author
Dr. Barry Shollenberger is an Associate Professor in the Sports Management program at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in General Studies from Moravian College, an M.A. in Education from Western Kentucky University, and an Ed.D. in Health, Physical Education and Recreation from The University of Alabama. Dr. Shollenberger has taught American History courses for 20 years and specializes in 19th century America.
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