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The Army should never have named installations after former Confederate military officers who fought against the United States, a historian who has long studied the issue says.
And now is the time to correct the error, says Duke University’s Michael Newcity.
“These men were, by definition, traitors who had conducted war against the United States,” said Newcity, deputy director for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies at Duke University.
After moving to North Carolina in 1992, Newcity said in a phone interview with The News & Observer, he began researching why one of the Army’s largest bases, Fort Bragg outside Fayetteville, was named for Gen. Braxton Bragg, one of the top-ranking officers of the Confederate Army.
Fort Bragg is one of 10 Army bases named for Confederates. They’re all in Southern states.
Half, including Bragg, were established during World War I and half during the 1940s.
“It just always mystified me why the Army, of all people, would have ever have thought it a good idea to name bases after these guys.”
Fort Bragg was established in September 1918, according to its website, as a place where the Army could do year-round artillery training.
Braxton Bragg’s history
Many of the millions of soldiers and civilians who have trained and worked on the base since then may have not known that it was named after Gen. Braxton Bragg, whom the American Battlefield Trust describes as “one of the most controversial figures of the Confederate army.”
The Trust says Bragg was born on March 22, 1817, in Warrenton, the son of a carpenter whose father was determined to send him to the U.S. Military Academy.
According to the biography, Bragg received an appointment to the academy at age 16 through the political connections of his older brother and graduated fifth in the class of 1837. He served in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War before resigning from the military and moving to Louisiana to buy and run a sugar plantation, which relied on the labor of at least 125 slaves.
Bragg rejoined the military to serve in the Civil War, during which the Battlefield Trust says he “won partial victories — at places like Perryville, Stones River, and Chickamauga — but never delivered the finishing blow,” in part because his subordinate officers often hated him and refused to obey his battle orders.
Civil War historian Earl Hess wrote a biography of Bragg published by UNC Press in 2016 titled, “Braxton Bragg: The Most-Hated Man of the Confederacy” and said in a lecture at the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute conference in 2017 that while Bragg was a combative personality, he was unjustly painted by the press of his day as a failure in his personal life and military career.
Bragg was captured in 1865 and paroled in the same year. He held a series of civilian jobs after the war and died suddenly in Galveston, Texas, in 1876 at the age of 59.
The Congressional Research Service took up the question of whether it was appropriate to keep Bragg’s and other former Confederate generals’ names on modern-day Army installations in 2017, 10 days after a woman was killed in Charlottesville, Va., during a protest over a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The CRS’s four-page report reiterated a quote from Brig. Gen. Malcolm Frost, who was chief of Army Public Affairs in 2015 when he said the naming of installations is a memorialization of a distinguished individual.
“Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history,” Frost said, according to the report. “Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.”
A preference for a shorter name
Newcity said the naming of the installations was much simpler than that.
“I think where the Army got itself into real problems was when they needed to create dozens of new camps during World War I,” he said, and it needed an easy method of naming them.
At the time, Gen. William J. Snow was the Army’s chief of field artillery, and it was his job to approve the names of the new facilities being set up to train the soldiers pouring into service. Newcity says that in his memoirs, Snow wrote that he told his subordinates the installations should be named for officers who had a connection to the place where they were located, and whose names had no more than five letters.
“Camp Zachary Taylor had been created, and Gen. Snow found it annoying to have to deal with a name that long when he was writing out communications,” Newcity said.
The establishment of the training bases coincided with the Jim Crow segregation era and the period during which the majority of Confederate monuments were commissioned and installed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Military installations located in Southern states, where most of the recruits would be from the South, were named after former Confederate officers. Installations in the North bore the names of former Union officers. Newcity said some National Guard camps set up in Southern states where Northern recruits would be sent to train also were named for former Union notables.
As recently as February, Pentagon officials dismissed the possibility of renaming bases bearing the names of Confederate leaders. But after sustained protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has drawn new attention to racial inequities, Politico reported that Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy was open to the possibility earlier this week. Citing a Pentagon source, Politico said Defense Secretary Mark Esper also supported the discussion.
A Fort Bragg spokesman referred calls on the matter to a military spokeswoman in Washington, who did not respond to a request for information about the discussion.
Pres. Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday he would approve no such thing.
“It has been suggested that we should rename as many as 10 of our Legendary Military Bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, etc. These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” the president tweeted.
“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.
“Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!” Trump said.
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis also objected to the idea on Thursday. The Republican-led Senate Armed Service Committee approved an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that would require the renaming of those bases within three years, according to reports. Tillis, a Republican, voted against the amendment in a committee voice vote.
The Army accepted Black volunteers during the 1860s but didn’t have its first Black four-star general until 1975.
The military says more than 900,000 Black people served in World War II, but that the armed services didn’t deactivate the last segregated unit until 1954. In 2016, the U.S. Army had more than 1 million members, including active duty, reserve and National Guard. Of more than 471,000 active-duty members, 21% were Black, according to Army data.
‘Not the bases that are fabled’
Fort Bragg is now home to more than 52,000 active-duty soldiers, more than 12,000 reserve and temporary-duty personnel, nearly 9,000 civilian employees and 63,000 military family members, according to the Army.
“I don’t know,” Newcity said. “I guess maybe I invest too much significance to it. But how can you ask African Americans to fight on behalf of an armed forces that is so insensitive as to have bases named after, and honoring, men who fought to preserve slavery?
“They can say it’s about the individual and not the ideology, and they can talk about reconciliation. But there is certainly nothing in the record to suggest a spirit of reconciliation motivating the names of these bases, other than perhaps with Southern whites within the U.S. Army.
“There is no aspect of that that involves reconciliation with African Americans.”
Newcity said the president’s suggestion that renaming the bases — some have suggested using the names of Medal of Honor recipients — would be disrespectful or somehow diminish their fabled history is wrong-headed.
“It’s not the bases that are fabled,” Newcity said. “It’s what the guys on those bases have done that’s fabled.
“That’s what we remember.”
Staff writer Brian Murphy contributed to this report.