Why Are American Military Bases Still Named After Confederate Soldiers?
In failing to realize that individuals are the sum of their actions -- all of their actions -- the Army is perpetuating hate, subjugation, and inequality.
The 2019 West Point Graduating Class of 1,000 cadets was historic for several reasons. It included 34 black women, the most to graduate in a single class; 223 women, the second largest number since 1980; 88 Latinos, the largest number in the institution’s history; and the 1,000th -ever Jewish cadet. This is truly cause for celebration, but these achievements didn’t happen by accident or roll in on the inevitability of time. They were the result of a concerted effort initiated in 2013, when former Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno directed West Point to establish a diversity office. This group of future leaders is part of a growing pattern that gives the Army diversity of thought with which to address the challenges of a complex world.
The great irony is that many of these lieutenants will serve at bases named after Confederate leaders. As of this writing, there are 10 bases on American soil named in honor of men who betrayed their oath to protect the United States Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic — and killed hundreds of thousands to preserve slavery. Bases named after people who fought for racial supremacy are no longer in keeping with America’s stated values or the Army’s. We can no longer balance the notion of the “Noble Southern Cause” with America’s progressive, civil rights’ era ambitions to achieve equality of opportunity in a post-racial society. Army bases such as Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home to America’s famed 82nd Air Borne Division; Fort Gordon, Georgia; and Fort Hood, Texas, the largest military base in the world, are each named after former Confederate officers. General Braxton Bragg, the Confederate namesake of Fort Bragg, lost the overwhelming majority of the battles he led and is generally considered one of the worst generals of the Civil War and was removed from the field following a route by General Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Chattanooga. General John Brown Gordon was thought to be the titular head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia following the Civil War. General John Bell Hood, in addition to fighting for the losing side, doesn’t warrant a base named for him due to his lack of military merit. Hood suffered stinging defeats in the Atlanta Campaign against General Sherman and in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign.
The 10 Army bases that carry the names of former Confederate officers were established between 1917 and 1942. During this time, the Army commissioned a report titled “The Use of Negro Manpower in War” by Major General H.E. Ely. The report argued, “… the Negro is jolly, docile, tractable, and lively but with harsh or unkind treatment can become stubborn, sullen and unruly. In physical courage (he) falls well back of whites.” These bases were so named to, in effect, preserve a history of subjugation. They served to remind black and brown people that there was no room for them in mainstream America. Looking backward, we can clearly see the immorality of these national transgressions. Yet, we struggle as a society to apply that same, clear-eyed, and unequivocal assessment looking forward. As a black Army veteran and retired Lieutenant Colonel, I have studied the military’s influence on American social justice, and I am very proud of the progress the services have made. Many contemporary and former military leaders, such as retired General Stanley McChrystal, are reevaluating their positions on the legacy of the Confederacy, and concluding that tributes to Confederate officers in public spaces (apart from museums) are inappropriate.
When the armed services were forced to integrate by Executive Order on July 26, 1948, the Army was the last of the armed services to have its plan for compliance approved. Kenneth Claiborne Royall, then Secretary of the Army, was forced to resign over his refusal to comply. The Army’s integration plan was not approved until September 30, of 1951. President Truman was not satisfied that the Army’s “approved” plan met his intent because it imposed a 10% cap on black enlistment. Truman called the Army’s plan a “progress report” during an October 6, 1949 Press Conference. The Army did not fully desegregate until November 30, 1954, a full six years after the Executive Order was issued.
This history is significant because it is emblematic of the degree of opposition to full equality of opportunity that still exists today. In June 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine people who were worshiping in the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston. Roof, who was sentenced to death for mass murder and the commission of federal hate crimes, cited the Confederacy as his inspiration. This incident sparked many American communities to reexamine the appropriateness of Confederate symbols in public places. In May 2017, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu led the city of New Orleans through a growth process that resulted in the city’s removal of all Confederate statues and monuments. In February 2019, the Dallas City Council voted to remove all of its’ Confederate statues and monuments.
The Army did not follow suit. A month after the Mother Emanuel AME Mass Murder, the Army responded to growing public concern with the following press release, “There is no discussion under way [about renaming posts.] Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history… Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.” In failing to realize that individuals are the sum of their actions — all of their actions — the Army is perpetuating hate, subjugation, and inequality. The Army’s unwillingness to change is especially egregious given that 1 in 5 Army enlisted Soldiers are black and the Army has always had the largest number, and percentage of black service members. The Army is the only armed service to have bases named for Confederate officers. We are reminded by the sudden death of Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic, that in many ways America is still fighting the Civil War. The Army’s response was not only insensitive, but eerily reminiscent of the foot dragging they exhibited in the mid twentieth century.
America could be on the precipice of another milestone moment in the advancement of equal rights that could signify that while history must be remembered, we can do so in books and museums without espousing hate and celebrating traitors. In reading back through my research for this essay, I came upon the following from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will… We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
By allowing Army bases to glorify the Confederacy, we are failing to use our time and resources for the betterment of our country. By refusing change, we are allowing our society to stagnate.
Like many great achievements, this one will take some prodding; it will require a catalyst. It is not simply enough for us to point out the inequity or unjustness of society. We must engage in civil discourse, exercise our civic duty, and hold our leaders and institutions accountable to only the finest American traditions. One way of doing so would be demanding that the Army rename the 10 bases named after Confederates. There is no room for “good people on both sides.” There is a morally correct side and that is the side we must insist that we reflect to the world both actively and symbolically. Part of what makes America exceptional is the belief in open, honest discussion, and a sincere belief that the best ideas will win the day and promulgate our nation forward.
Troy Mosley is a twenty-year Army Veteran, and author of Unwritten Truce: the Armed Forces and American Social Justice.