In the wake of the Charleston, S.C., shootings and efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from statehouses and businesses, TIME reporter Mark Thompson raised the question as to why 10 different U.S. Army installations were named after Confederate officers. I have long questioned this practice and think it’s about time it changes.
In response to queries, the Army Public Affairs Office came out with a truly vacuous response: “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. It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”
Each line of this statement rightfully opens the door for a barrage of criticism…
“Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history.”
Can’t we have a higher standard? We don’t have a Fort Rommel, Fort Giap, or Fort Cornwallis—all soldiers who hold a place in our military history. We seem to have set a standard in excluding only some leaders who fought against us. At least those three were excellent leaders.
What bothers me about three of the forts named after Confederate officers—Forts Bragg, Hood, and Polk—is that these soldiers were only mediocre at best. Fort Bragg, N.C., is named for Braxton Bragg, a divisive leader who made poor tactical and strategic choices, wasted the blood of his soldiers in frontal assaults, and doomed any chance the Confederates had of holding the West. Fort Hood, Texas is named for John Hood, who while gallant in the early stages of the war, accelerated the loss of Atlanta due to reckless assaults on an overwhelmingly superior Union force and wasted the Army of Tennessee in the Nashville-Franklin Campaign. Fort Polk, La., is named after Leonidas Polk, who was a mediocre commander known more for being a subversive subordinate than a successful battlefield commander. Can’t we find better military role models to honor and serve as examples to our modern soldiers?
“Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.”
You simply cannot separate the combat defense of slavery from the individual. Henry Benning, namesake of Fort Benning, Ga., wrote the following about why Georgia supported secession in 1861: “It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery.” Surely there are better choices than a man who overtly stated that he soldiered for the Confederacy in order to perpetuate that peculiar institution.
Nor can you separate the fact that many of the Confederates honored in naming rights chose to rescind their heavy oath of loyalty to the Constitution of the United States and turned their guns on the Union soldiers, Army, and nation they had sworn to defend. There was another path. For example, Alfred Mordecai, a native of North Carolina, professional Army officer, and graduate of West Point resigned his commission and sat out the war.
“It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”
Many of the installations were named in the early 20th century as the U.S. was getting involved in World War I. The Army essentially acquiesced as states suggested names to honor their military leaders. Many Southern states suggested names from the Civil War. The Army needed manpower, and Southern states tended to have more volunteers than other states. There had also been a national move for reconciliation. As a retired officer of the U.S. Army, I don’t like that some of the posts were named after Confederates, but I understand why they were.
So what can be done to meet a historic desire for “reconciliation,” avoid whitewashing the history of the Confederacy, and also give soldiers better role models? I would suggest renaming Forts Bragg, Hood, Polk, and Benning after other native sons from those states who supported the Constitution of the United States while also performing admirably in battle.
For example, Zachary Taylor owned a home in Louisiana, was a distinguished soldier, and a president. Surely he would make a better namesake than Leonidas Polk. Georgia has many options, but my favorite would be to change Fort Benning to Fort Greene after General Nathanael Greene, a native Georgian and one of the heroes of the Revolution. There are also many choices in Texas, but I like Fort Benavidez after Roy Benavidez, Medal of Honor recipient and a Vietnam veteran. Finally, why not rename Fort Bragg as Fort William C. Lee? General Lee was a North Carolina native and the “Father of the U.S. Airborne” in World War II.
Any of these would be better choices if the Army wants to maintain its traditions while also inspiring current and future soldiers.