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As a soldier between 1997 and 2003 and an airman between 2003 and 2007, much of my time in the military was spent at what we might today call “rebel forts.” They were 10 U.S. Army posts (only the Air Force and Navy call them bases), which were named after Confederate generals.
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As a young recruit from Texas, I attended infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia, named after Gen. Henry Benning, who commanded the 17th Georgia Infantry under Robert E. Lee. Benning saw action at the Second Battle of Manassas, the Battle of Antietam and Gettysburg as a brigade commander.
I later deployed to the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Fort Polk is named for Gen. Leonidas Polk who enjoyed little success on the battlefield due to his inexperience and was killed in action during the Atlanta campaign.
I was once tasked with a special duty assignment that involved driving my squad leader, against his will, to Fort Gordon in Georgia so that he could have a racist tattoo removed from his arm. Ordered by our company commander to undergo the task, the C.O. said that his tattoo was counter to everything the U.S. Army stood for and was not conducive to morale, good order and discipline.
Ironically, our destination of Fort Gordon was named after John Brown Gordon. He joined the Confederate Army as a captain in the 6th Alabama Infantry Regiment, despite having no military experience.
In all, Virginia has three out of the 10 Army posts named after Confederates. Louisiana and Georgia each have two. Alabama, North Carolina and Texas each have one.
In fact, during my decade on active duty, I visited all 10 Army posts named after Confederate generals. But at the time, I never once considered the origin of their names.
Why 10 US Army Posts Were Named After Confederate Officers
All 10 of the “rebel forts” were established between World Wars I and II, a period in which the U.S. Army attempted to recruit as many men as possible, including young white men in the South. (Despite this tactic, the Army still had to resort to the draft in both wars.)
The Army thought that naming a large military post after Confederate generals might appeal to large swathes of young, able-bodied fighters.
Also, the federal government required huge chunks of land for its military reservations. Naming these plots of land after Confederate generals helped to attain buy-in from southern politicians and policymakers by appealing to the “Lost Cause” ideology, which romanticized the “Old Antebellum South” (Antebellum is Latin for ‘before the war’) and the Confederate war effort.
In response to a Time Magazine article critical of the 10 rebel forts, the Army Times in 2015 responded that they named the bases “in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”
According to Encyclopedia Virginia, “The Lost Cause Ideology is certainly an important example of public memory, one in which nostalgia for the Confederate past is accompanied by a collective forgetting of the horrors of slavery. Providing a sense of relief to white Southerners who feared being dishonored by defeat, the Lost Cause was largely accepted in the years following the war by white Americans who found it to be a useful tool in reconciling North and South.”
Since then, the ideology has lost much of its academic support. However, its theme still echoes today in Confederate monuments, symbols and pop culture.
I would even argue that, from the perch of sociology, the Lost Cause Ideology was essential for healing the nation. It allowed millions of Southerners to feel better about losing the war while simultaneously empowering the North to be magnanimous in victory.
Unfortunately, racial equality was sacrificed upon the altar of reunification. As a result, millions of black and brown Americans would suffer institutionalized racism long after the Civil War ended, thanks in large part to minimizing slavery’s impacts.
Ongoing Racial Injustice Shines a New Light on Confederate Symbols
The debate about what to do with Confederate monuments and symbols has simmered for decades. With the recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as repeated instances of abusive policing caught on camera, the pot has now boiled over.
In 2015, the Confederate flag was removed from statehouse grounds in South Carolina after nine people were killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a 21-year-old white supremacist.
Since then, at least 110 Confederate monuments and symbols have been removed by states, counties and municipalities nationwide.
However, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 1,728 symbols honoring “Confederate leaders, soldiers or the Confederate States of America in general” remain standing, including the 10 U.S. Army posts that remain named after Confederate icons.
In the wake of nationwide protests, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the 2021 Defense Authorization Bill, authored by Sen. Warren. The bill gives the Department of Defense three years to implement new names for installations bearing the names of Confederate soldiers.
Last week, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced that they “are open to a bi-partisan discussion on the topic [of renaming Confederate posts].”
Furthermore, the United States Marine Corps has banned images of the Confederate flag from its installations, an action that was quickly followed by the Navy. The military, long a leader in racial progress and desegregation, has recognized that a symbol that serves as oppressive to a large segment of both the military and the American public might not be the best symbol for good order and discipline.
Defending his decision to ban the Confederate flag, Marine commandant Gen. David Berger said, “I cannot have that division inside our Corps.” He added, “Marines from all backgrounds must trust each other in order to fight successfully together as a Corps, which is more valuable than any individuals who make up that team. The symbols that Marines should focus on are ones that unite them — the Corps’ eagle, globe and anchor; the American flag and the Marines’ exclusive MarPat camouflage uniforms.”
And finally, the Army has a regulation in place that sets the criteria for memorializing soldiers. “Memorializations will honor deceased heroes and other deceased distinguished individuals of all races in our society, and will present them as inspirations to their fellow Soldiers, employees, and other citizens.”
Based on the Army’s own definition, the rebel forts should be renamed.
How Might the US Army Posts Be Renamed?
The biggest formal push to rename an installation is to rename Fort Hood in Texas after Roy Benavidez. He was a Green Beret who received the Medal of Honor for action in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
Benavidez endured “six hours in hell,” he said. In a 1968 battle, he held his intestines in his hand, stabbed an enemy soldier to death, and loaded the wounded and dead onto two helicopters.
According to the Washington Post, “he later said he had so many injuries and was so bloodied he was mistaken for a dead man and stuffed in a body bag until he spat in a doctor’s face. He earned five Purple Hearts in combat.”
Fort Gordon might consider renaming itself after Milton Olive III, who jumped on a grenade to save his squad in 1965. Olive was the first African-American Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War, awarded posthumously.
Many veterans advocate renaming Fort Benning in Georgia after Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, a black soldier and Georgia native. In Iraq, Cashe entered a burning Bradley Infantry Fighting vehicle three times to rescue six soldiers while he himself was on fire. He died of his injuries several weeks later.
A push might even be made for renaming a Confederate post after Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL and decorated sniper for whom Clint Eastwood made the movie “American Sniper,” an eponymous film adaptation of Kyle’s autobiography of the same name. Kyle was well known for his work in helping veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What about History?
Opponents of tearing down Confederate statues and symbology often worry that we are revising, whitewashing or erasing our history.
However, a statue is not how we record history in our culture; we have universities, libraries and museums for that. A statue is erected for veneration.
At the level of the individual grunt soldier in the Civil War, there were no doubt tremendous acts of heroism performed by both sides in the intimacy of brother-on-brother combat.
But we now live in an era when, if we truly wish to confront racial inequality, we must, as a society, take a hard look at the symbols that divide us.
As for the 10 U.S. Army posts named after Confederate icons, retired U.S. Army general and former CIA director David Petraeus may have said it best. In his recent piece for The Atlantic, Petraeus said, “These are federal installations, home to soldiers who swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable to anyone paying attention. Now, belatedly, is the moment for us to pay such attention.”
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