A wave of Confederate monuments emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries across the American South and beyond. But they had little to do with benign heritage or remembrance. According to historian Karen L. Cox of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in a piece she wrote for the Washington Post, “They were part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution, and their installation came against a backdrop of Jim Crow violence and oppression of African Americans. The monuments were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy.”
Against this same backdrop, officials named 10 Army bases after Confederate figures during the first half of the 20th century. Now, as the country begins a much-needed and long-awaited discussion about seriously addressing issues of racial injustice and systemic racism, a growing chorus of voices has correctly called for these bases to be renamed. Notably, retired General David Petraeus penned a piece in The Atlantic stating, “We do not live in a country to which Braxton Bragg, Henry L. Benning, or Robert E. Lee can serve as an inspiration. Acknowledging this fact is imperative.”
The issue of renaming these bases appears to have caught President Donald Trump’s attention. On Wednesday, he tweeted his opposition: “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom. The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars. Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
Trump is trying to force a connection between Confederate figures who lost and the victories of units that have been stationed at the bases. He also overlooks the fact that changing base names neither renames the units residing at each base nor detracts from any winning traditions or history associated with those units or their members.
In any event, the Confederate legacy — inextricably linked with racism, slavery, and the decision to fight against the United States in an effort to preserve the enslavement of human beings — is one that the Army never should have been associated with, and the Army should now leave Confederate symbols and names for study and scrutiny in museums and other history resources.
To that end, the Army must rename bases that commemorate Confederate officers. On Monday, the Pentagon announced that “[t]he Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Army are open to a bi-partisan discussion on the topic.” It remains to be seen how Trump’s contradictory tweet will affect the situation. But we hope the statement from Pentagon leadership will prevail, and that it is not empty, face-saving talk meant to carry the department through the scrutiny accompanying this pivotal moment in modern history, but rather a serious step toward change. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, and countless other Black Americans who have been mourned as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement have launched public discourse on living the values we espouse. As society at large considers broad changes, the Army must also meet the moment.
In the spirit of advancing the discussion, the Pentagon should begin considering the types of inspiring figures whose names could grace — rather than dishonor — these bases instead. The bases should be named after accomplished figures who represent the diversity that makes the country and the Army strong. Doing so would not only commemorate significant contributions of the past but also send a strong signal to current and future service members about the values and ideals that the Army strives to promote. This short, preliminary list, in alphabetical order, presents a diverse group of service members worthy of consideration:
- Lieutenant Colonel Lee Archer was one of the first African-American pilots in the Army Air Corps and a founding member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Archer flew 169 missions during World War II, including bomber escort, reconnaissance, and ground attack.
- Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez was an Army Special Forces non-commissioned officer who received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Loc Ninh, South Vietnam. Upon arriving at the scene, despite being immediately injured by rifle fire, Benavidez dragged several wounded soldiers to safety and orchestrated a six-hour defensive operation, engaging enemy combatants even as he also received near-fatal wounds.
- General Richard Cavazos was the first Hispanic officer in the Army to attain four-star rank. He served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and he was twice awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
- General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. commanded the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. A graduate of West Point, he later became the first Black general in the U.S. Air Force. In recent years, West Point has named a new barracks facility after Davis, and the Air Force Academy has named its airfield in his honor.
- Sergeant William Carney, of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, was the first African-American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia. His family was granted freedom and moved to Massachusetts, where Carney secretly learned to read and write despite laws forbidding Black Americans to do so. The action for which Carney was awarded his distinction came prior to all other Black soldiers, though his medal was one of the last to be awarded.
- Corporal Joseph H. De Castro was the first Hispanic service member to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. A member of the Union Army during the Civil War, he served in the 19th Massachusetts Infantry and helped defend against Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg.
- Private Carl Gorman was a Native American Navajo Code Talker in World War II. Gorman was one of the first Navajos to volunteer for the Marine Corps program in 1942. Using the mostly unwritten and complex Navajo language, Gorman and his colleagues created a virtually unbreakable method of communication that became vital to the American war effort. He served in the Pacific theater and, following his honorable discharge from the military, became a successful artist, teacher, and President of the Code Talker Association. Although Gorman was a Marine, the Army embraced Code Talkers as well. It may be fitting to replace the name of Fort Gordon, the home of the Army Signal Corps, with a nod to the legacy of Code Talkers who sacrificed so much for our country by naming the base after Gorman or a Code Talker from the Army.
- President Ulysses S. Grant was the Commanding General of the Union Army as well as the 18th president of the United States. He led the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy. His historical standing as a president has increased recently, and West Point unveiled a new statue of him in 2019.
- Brigadier General Anna Mae Hays was the first woman to attain general officer rank in the U.S. armed forces. She was an Army nurse, and naming an Army base after her could also serve as a reminder of the important role that medical professionals have played in the coronavirus pandemic.
- Senator Daniel Inouye served in the Army during World War II and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in a combat situation in Italy that led to the amputation of his right arm. Inouye served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit composed of Japanese American volunteers, some of whom had been sent to internment camps in the United States. He became the first Japanese American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, where he was the first chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and later chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee.
- Captain Jennifer Moreno died in Afghanistan due to a blast from an improvised explosive device while she was serving as a nurse on a special operations mission in 2013. Commemorating Moreno would be a constant reminder of the crucial part that women have long played in combat, even before the Pentagon in 2015 formally permitted them to serve in combat roles.
- General Roscoe Robinson Jr. was the first Black officer in the Army to attain four-star rank. He served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and his last assignment was U.S. representative to the NATO Military Committee.
- Colonel Robert Gould Shaw commanded the 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War. This was a unit of Black soldiers, and Shaw was born to a family of Boston abolitionists. He advocated for the fair treatment of all soldiers and encouraged his unit to refuse pay until it was equal to that of white soldiers. There is a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. that bears his name, and the actions of Shaw and the 54th Infantry Regiment are immortalized in the 1989 film “Glory.”
- Major Hugh Thompson was a helicopter pilot who intervened in the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre, preventing American service members from killing more Vietnamese civilians. Honoring his memory—particularly by renaming Fort Rucker, the home of Army aviation—would send a clear message about the conduct in combat that the Army expects.
- Harriet Tubman served in a variety of roles within her lifetime. Most notably, Tubman, a former slave, risked her own life and freedom by making multiple trips between the north and her home state of Maryland, leading hundreds of slaves to safety. Later, Tubman would lead soldiers on vital missions behind enemy lines. She was also known to be a cunning spy and recruiter for the Union Army. Historians state that Tubman and other slaves were effective as spies, in part, because white Confederates undervalued their intelligence. Although Tubman was not formally a member of the Army, these contributions would certainly merit naming a base after her.
To be clear, this is not an exhaustive list; it’s meant mostly to generate discussion. The significant contributions of many others—including those from Jewish, Muslim, and LGBTQ+ communities—should also be given the utmost consideration. And other former Army officers also have offered renaming ideas. But the above are the types of inspiring figures that the Army should examine for the purposes of renaming bases that currently commemorate Confederate officers.
Unfortunately, society’s treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals and the military’s previous ban on serving openly made it more difficult to immediately and clearly identify such candidates for renaming bases. Leonard Matlovich, a southerner who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in Vietnam and became an LGBTQ+ icon when he challenged the ban on openly gay military service, comes to mind, but he was in the Air Force. Imagine the untold number of high-ranking, heroically-performing, or otherwise courageous service members who were LGBTQ+ but had to hide it.
It also bears noting that renaming these bases is not the only racism-related matter that the Army should address. It should also, among other efforts, follow the lead of the Marine Corps and the Navy by prohibiting displays of the Confederate flag; take strong action to rid the Army’s ranks of white supremacists; and seek ways to better recruit, retain, and promote minority service members.
Ironically, Robert E. Lee urged against statues celebrating the Confederacy: “I think it wiser . . . not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” Despite the many warranted criticisms of Lee, including that he chose to fight against the United States for the preservation of slavery, he was right on this particular issue.
And indeed, history has provided a multitude of inspiring, non-Confederate leaders whose legacies should be memorialized in our culture. The prestigious distinction of naming bases in their honor is an opportunity to do just that.
It also simultaneously gives us the opportunity to finally, after generations, begin the hard work of addressing the egregious errors of our history and leave Confederate traitors exactly where they belong: the past. This moment should not be squandered but instead be embraced as a time for comprehensive change. It is an opportunity to challenge the country’s history — one that is embroiled with systemic racism and fraught with white supremacy — and its lingering effects today. Our nation needs support and leadership as it continues down a long path of uncertainty. The Army and the Department of Defense could be the source of stability and leadership, and as they have been at times in the past, on the frontier of social change.