The recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, has sharpened the focus on the movement to remove or rename memorials to Confederate leaders.
The mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, has now called for the removal of Confederate statues in his city, following similar actions earlier this year in New Orleans. Calls to “take the statues down” have also been heard in Baltimore, Richmond, Dallas, San Antonio and elsewhere.
What is most surprising is that in this heated public debate relatively little attention has been devoted to the largest, most dynamic and famous memorials to Confederate generals: U.S. Army bases.
There are eight U.S. Army bases, all in Southern states, named after Confederate generals: Fort Bragg (North Carolina), Fort Benning (Georgia), Fort Gordon (Georgia), Fort Polk (Louisiana), Fort Hood (Texas), Fort A.P. Hill (Virginia), Fort Lee (Virginia), and Fort Rucker (Alabama). In addition, several National Guard facilities, such as Fort Pickett (Virginia) and Camp Beauregard (Louisiana), bear the names of Confederate generals.
It seems odd that the U.S. Army ever considered naming its bases after men who, by definition, conducted war against the United States. It seems even odder that a military force in which racial minorities comprise one-quarter to one-third of the force would be asked to serve on bases named after men who fought to maintain slavery.
Fort Bragg in North Carolina is a case in point. Fort Bragg is home to the U.S. Army’s airborne and special operations command and is the largest military base (by population) in the world. It was created during World War I — one of dozens of new camps created after U.S. entry into the war to facilitate a rapid expansion of the armed forces.
Many of these new bases, Fort Bragg included, were established in a hurry. The land near Fayetteville, North Carolina, was identified, acquired and designated as Camp Bragg all within a few months in the summer of 1918.
According to a War Department order, Camp Bragg was named for “Capt. Braxton Bragg, who, while commanding Battery C, Third Artillery, rendered signal service at the battle of Buena Vista, Mexico” in 1847 during the Mexican-American War. While it is undeniable that Bragg was a hero of the Mexican-American War, his greater fame was as one of a handful of full generals in the Confederate army, even though his field commands were generally unsuccessful and his relations with subordinates often tumultuous. A recent biography of Braxton Bragg is subtitled “The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy.”
Fort Bragg, along with Forts Benning, Gordon and Lee, were all established during World War I. When they were created it was the policy of the Army and the War Department to name camps in Southern states after Confederate commanders, though this policy was followed intermittently. The War Department established a Camp McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, in 1917, named after the commander of the U.S. Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. The other four forts mentioned earlier were established in the 1940s.
The Department of the Defense and the Army have been adamant that they will not consider renaming the existing bases named after Confederate generals. The Army recently refused to change street names at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, named after Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, because they honor Lee and Jackson “as individuals, not as any particular cause or ideology.”
This, plain and simple, is rubbish. During World War I, the policy to name new Southern army camps after Confederate commanders was intended to effect a reconciliation between the North and the South, where bruised feelings about the Lost Cause were potent and widespread. The names were chosen, at least in part, to encourage Southern buy-in to the nation’s new war. These names were chosen precisely because the men honored had been Confederate leaders.
Between the Mexican War and the Civil War, Braxton Bragg lived the life of a genteel planter on a sugar cane plantation in Louisiana where slaves put in back-breaking labor in unspeakable conditions to bring molasses to market and earn Bragg a profit. He met any Northern criticism of slavery with harsh criticism.
After President Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, he was a proponent of Southern secession.
Let’s not be in any doubt about what Braxton Bragg represents. He was a slaveholder who fought against the U.S. Army in order to preserve the South’s “peculiar institution.”
The time has come for Fort Bragg and the other bases named after Confederate generals to be renamed in honor of individuals who fought to defend the United States and the values that the U.S. Army is pledged to defend.
Michael Newcity is a professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.