It was the summer of 1917. America had declared war on Germany a few months earlier, and young men were streaming into the Army by the tens of thousands.
So the U.S. War Department rushed to create new camps and bases around the country for all the soldiers who would soon go to war. A July 2 memo to the Army Chief of Staff spelled out how to choose names for the new facilities. It was titled: “Names for cantonments, National Army, and camps, National Guard.”
The memo said the bases and camps would be named after Americans — preferably those with short names, to “avoid clerical labor.” The military would choose the names of “Federal commanders” for facilities in the North, the memo stated, and “Confederate commanders for camps of divisions from southern states.”
The first of these camps in the South were Camp Lee in Virginia, named after the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana, after another confederate general, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard.
Then came a steady stream of bases bearing the last names of rebel generals, eventually 10 in all, created over the course of World War I and World War II.
Among them: Fort Bragg, N.C. (Braxton Bragg), Fort Benning, Ga., (Henry Benning) and Fort Hood, Texas, (John Bell Hood).
Now, as the nation erupts in protests over police treatment of African Americans, these base names honoring Confederate leaders are coming under scrutiny — again.
Michael Newcity, a Duke University professor, has been researching the naming issue for several decades. He said his interest started with a simple question when he arrived in North Carolina from the Washington, D.C., area and visited Fort Bragg.
“Why would the U.S. Army name its largest base after one of the most senior generals in the Confederate Army?” he asked.
He said it seems some of this was driven by the Lost Cause, an interpretation of the Civil War that suggests there were gallant leaders on both sides – and an effort by Southern leaders and some historians to downplay the central question of slavery and play up “states’ rights” in the face of “Northern aggression.”
Retired Army General David Petraeus picked up on that theme, writing in The Atlantic this week, “Had Bragg, like most of the rebel honorees, not been elevated by the effort to memorialize the ‘Lost Cause’ … he would probably have been consigned to historical obscurity.”
Petraeus wrote that throughout his Army career he encountered enthusiasm for rebel commanders and “a special veneration for Lee.”
Now, he wrote, it’s time to retire all those names. “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.”
This is not the first time there’s been a call to change the names of Army bases. In 2015, after white supremacist Dylann Roof slaughtered black worshippers at a South Carolina church, the Pentagon was pressed to remove the names of Confederate generals from its facilities.
The Army wouldn’t budge.
“These historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies. It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division,” said Brigadier General Malcolm Frost, the Army’s spokesman at the time.
Three years ago, following a rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., a Democratic lawmaker from New York, Rep. Yvette Clarke, introduced a bill requiring the defense secretary to change the names of installations “named after individuals who took up arms against the US in the Civil War.”
The Army had no comment that year.
In 2017, the Congressional Research Service looked into the issue. “The Department of the Army has no formal administrative process for renaming military installations,” it said. “Proponents of renaming the bases contend that there are noteworthy national military leaders from other conflicts who demonstrated selfless service and sacrifice. Opponents of renaming these installations cite the bureaucracy of creating a new review process and the difficulty of satisfying the various viewpoints over which names (if any) would be selected as subjects of contention.”
Now, after the killing of George Floyd and international protests over racism and police brutality, there is a new national conversation about the prevalence of Confederate symbols.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has called for the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., and a crane recently lifted a Confederate soldier from its perch on Washington Street in Lee’s home town of Alexandria, Va., where it had stood since 1889.
Marine Commandant General David Berger last week prohibited the display of the Confederate battle flag at Marine installations — including on mugs, posters and bumper stickers.
The Navy is moving in the same direction. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, spokesman for the Chief of Naval Operations, said in a statement, “The Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, has directed his staff to begin crafting an order that would prohibit the Confederate battle flag from all public spaces and work areas aboard Navy installations, ships, aircraft and submarines. The order is meant to ensure unit cohesion, preserve good order and discipline, and uphold the Navy’s core values of honor, courage and commitment.”
And the Pentagon has agreed to look into the matter of the bases named after Confederate officers.
“The Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Army are open to bipartisan discussion of the topic,” according to a statement issued on Monday.
Whether any discussion will be bipartisan remains to be seen.
When Rep. Clarke introduced her bill three years ago, it drew only 29 Democratic co-sponsors. And it never made it out of a House Armed Services subcommittee.