Rid federal lands of Confederate legacy, congressman says

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
Entrance sign at Fort Bragg. (Photo: Chris Keane/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Situated in the woods of North Carolina, the Army base of Fort Bragg is home to some of the most storied units in the American military, including the 82nd Airborne Division and elite special operations units such as Delta Force. With some 40,000 residents living on 19 square miles, it is the largest military installation in the world.

Fort Bragg also happens to be named for a pro-slavery Confederate officer, Braxton Bragg. A slave owner who fought for the South in the Civil War, Bragg rose to the position of general and commanded the Army of Tennessee. An infamously poor tactician, he has been called “the most hated man of the Confederacy.”

Despite that, his name graces one of the most prominent military installations in the United States. Nor is Bragg alone. Nine other military bases are named after Confederate figures, including Fort Hood in Texas. And those are part of a greater network of some 1,500 symbols commemorating the Confederacy across the country.

States and municipalities have tried to get rid of Confederate monuments, even as others have maintained that they are a necessary reminder of history. Now, a congressman from New York wants to make sure that the federal government is not paying money to maintain Confederate monuments on public lands.

There are, to be sure, no Confederate highways passing through the district of Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat who represents a heavily immigrant section of Manhattan. Yet he has recently introduced legislation called the No Federal Funding for Confederate Symbols Act. Were it to become law, it would “prohibit the use of Federal funds for Confederate symbols, and for other purposes.” The bill does not say what those “other purposes” are.

Introduced in August, the bill specifically targets “the creation, maintenance, or display” of Confederate flags and other symbols of the Confederacy on “Federal public land, including any highway, park, subway, Federal building, military installation, street, or other Federal property.” Museums would be exempt.

The legislation has 13 co-sponsors, including influential progressives like Ro Khanna of California and David Cicilline of Rhode Island, as well as Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee. Yet the bill has not moved since its introduction two months ago, in part because Congress has had periods of recess, not to mention the president’s impeachment inquiry to contend with.

There is also the recognition that even if the legislation passes the House, it will be little more than a statement of moral principle, as it stands virtually no chance in the Senate.

For all that, Espaillat’s proposal is relatively modest, focusing only on federal lands. It would do nothing about the monument to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., that became the site of violent far-right protests two years ago, because it sits on city land. So do most other controversial Confederate memorials, giving Espaillat’s law a limited reach.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

But 10 military bases, including Fort Bragg and Fort Hood, would have to change their names. The other eight installations named after Confederate generals are Fort Rucker in Alabama; Fort Benning and Fort Gordon in Georgia; Camp Beauregard and Fort Polk in Louisiana; and Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Lee and Fort Pickett in Virginia.

A name change would also be necessary for Pickett Peak Campground, a site honoring Confederate Gen. George Pickett in the Mokelumne Wilderness of Northern California, which is maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. Though nowhere near the slave-owning states of the South, the area was home to Confederate sympathizers and also contains a peak named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Also consigned to oblivion would be a plaque installed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where John Brown led a doomed slave uprising in 1859.

In a conversation with Yahoo News, Espaillat said that maintaining Confederate memorials was tantamount to Germany commemorating the Nazis, a practice that is strictly forbidden there. Even if men like Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee were “military geniuses,” Espaillat said, they should not be honored.

“To venerate those symbols is wrong,” Espaillat said. “We should not venerate them.” He added that the “academic realm,” not the public square, was the place to debate the Confederacy.

A native of the Dominican Republic, Espaillat is the first formerly undocumented immigrant in Congress. He has been a longtime critic of Trump. “I will be a strong voice for those people that are in the front lines that could get hit by a tsunami,” he said shortly after the 2016 election.

Espaillat first introduced the Confederate bill in 2017, inspired by the far-right march in Charlottesville, which sparked violence resulting in three deaths. Back then, Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress. Today, Democrats control the House of Representatives, but the Senate remains Republican.

More to the point, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who hails from Kentucky, where there remain 48 sites commemorating the Confederacy, is likely to block any such measure. His opponents routinely use social media to share a photo taken many years ago with McConnell smiling before the backdrop of a giant Confederate flag.

Staffers for Espaillat acknowledge that with McConnell still in control of the Senate, H.R. 4179 does not have much chance of becoming law. But they believe that simply proposing the bill continues an important conversation. And that, in turn, could influence McConnell, who can be surprisingly sensitive to public pressure.

“This is something we will continue to fight for,” an Espaillat staffer said, even as he acknowledged the difficult path ahead. “Members of Congress support this.”

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