by Andrew S. Adams
On June 6, 2020 George Floyd’s memorial was held in Raeford, NC. Thousands gathered to mourn his death. Meanwhile, cities across the world have erupted in protests as millions demand justice, once again bringing the legacy of racism in America to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.
Only several miles away from where those mourners gathered in Raeford on Saturday stand the gates to Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army’s largest installation by population. Fort Bragg is named after Braxton Bragg, a West Point graduate who served as a career U.S. Army Officer in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American war before defecting to fight on the side of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. It seems strange that an army would name one of its bases after a traitor and an enemy combatant, but Fort Bragg isn’t alone in this. The Army currently has 10 installations across the country that are named after Confederate generals, including Fort Hood, Fort Benning, and Fort Polk.
But while this may be the norm for the Army, this is not the case for the U.S. military as a whole. In fact, the Army is the only service branch with an installation named after a Confederate. And now, the branch is falling even farther behind in the effort to eliminate divisive imagery from military property. On June 5, in the wake of unrest over George Floyd’s murder, the U.S. Marine Corps announced that it will be banning all displays of the Confederate battle flag from public and work spaces on their installations, to include items such as bumper stickers, clothing, mugs, and flags. The announcement explains that Confederate imagery has been co-opted by violet extremists, citing the violent events at Charlottesville in 2017, and stating that “this presents a threat to our core values, unit cohesion, security, and good order and discipline.”
In issuing this guidance, the Commandant of the Marine Corps is making the statement that the symbolism and the names we use as an organization matter. And they do. Because as far removed as we may feel from the Civil War, the same white supremacy that sparked that conflict is still alive and well in our ranks today.
Just this past February, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing to address the issue of white supremacy among military members. The hearing addressed a MilitaryTimes poll conducted in the fall of 2019 which found that 36.3% of service members reported “personally witnessing examples of white nationalism or racism from fellow service members,” to include swastika drawings, white supremacist affiliated tattoos, stickers supporting the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazi salutes. Among minority service members, this number was 53.5%.
These numbers make it apparent that the military has a problem with white supremacy, particularly manifesting in the symbols that service members choose to display. This is unacceptable, and leaders at every level must begin to work on eradicating these sentiments from our ranks. The decision this week by the Commandant of the Marine Corps is an excellent, if not long overdue, first step in shifting the culture of our organizations. However, the Army will be unable to follow suit until it has committed to renaming the 10 installations named after Confederate generals. We can’t, without making hypocrites of ourselves, tell Soldiers that they are banned from having a Confederate battle flag bumper sticker on a base named Fort Bragg.
Despite the urgent need to take action, as recently as February 2020 the Army has stated that it has no plans to rename any of its installations. An Army spokesperson stated that “It is important to note that the naming of installations and streets was done in a spirit of reconciliation, not to demonstrate support for any particular cause or ideology.” But this narrative of “reconciliation” doesn’t add up. Fort Bragg was not established until 1918, nearly two generations after the end of the Civil War. Five of the Confederate-named installations were not established until nearly 80 years after the end of the Civil War, when there would have been only a handful of veterans from the War still alive.
A study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that there have been two major spikes in the dedication of Confederate monuments and the use of Confederate names since the end of the Civil War. The first occurred from the early 1900s into the 1920s and coincided with the establishment of Jim Crow laws and a “revival” of the Ku Klux Klan. The second occurred from the mid-1950s into the late 1960s, which coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. Both of these periods occurred at a time in which white Americans were seeking to preserve the status quo of racial superiority. The creation of these monuments were not Reconstructionist efforts to reunite a divided nation, as Southerners may have been able to claim immediately following the War. Rather they were calculated efforts to intimidate black Americans and reinforce the Lost Cause ideology. This is the context in which of most of the Confederate-named Army bases were established.
And so, the Army’s most recent explanation for why these installations still bear the name of Confederate generals is wholly unsatisfying. Yet still, there remain three other primary arguments that arise whenever this conversation is had: the preservation of southern heritage, the need to avoid erasing history, and the question of how far we go in removing problematic figures from history.
The first, and perhaps most common argument you’ll hear against removing Confederate monuments and naming conventions is the need to preserve southern heritage. I agree that this is an important issue. As a diverse organization, it is critical that we represent all of our service members. But framing the issue in this way is overly simplistic, and creates the impression that there was a clean break between the North and the South. This was not the case, and ignores the stories of the over 100,000 southern Soldiers who kept their oaths and fought to defend the Union during the Civil War. If we truly want to honor southern heritage, we should rename installations after these individuals.
The second objection you’ll hear is the accusation that such an action equates to erasing history, and that erasing history will inevitably lead to repeating it. But naming landmarks and raising up statues isn’t just about remembering a piece of history. It’s about honoring that piece of history. And the individuals who broke their oaths to the United States in order to fight for their right to own human beings are not worth honoring. We do not need to continue to protect tributes to Confederate leaders in order to avoid forgetting the past.
The case of Benedict Arnold is an excellent example. Soon after he betrayed the United States, the Continental Congress ordered his name to be struck from the register of Army officers. In the old cadet chapel at West Point, a plaque still remains to honor his military accomplishments, but his name has been removed leaving only his dates of birth and death. At the Saratoga Monument in New York, there is an empty space where Arnold’s memorial should be, next to the statues of the other three generals who led during that battle. The city of Norwich, Connecticut even went as far as adding the words “was a traitor” after his name in the city’s birth records. The way America has chosen to remember Benedict Arnold ensures that his actions will never be forgotten, while still honoring some of his contributions to the revolution. However, it also ensures that we as a nation do not honor his betrayal of the United States.
The final thing you’ll hear during this debate is the question of where we draw the line. Will we get rid of every monument named after every founding father since nearly all of them owned slaves? The answer to this is simple. We draw the line at treason. Yes, nearly every individual in our nation’s history was problematic in some form or another. But for a military to continue to honor its traitors who fought against them for an opposing army is nothing short of ridiculous. It dishonors the soldiers who stayed loyal to their oaths and who fought to preserve the United States. If anyone should be vehemently opposed to the practice of honoring Confederate officers, it should be the organization that lost hundreds of thousands of its men in the fight to stop them.
Over and over again since I’ve been in the Army, I’ve been told that we as an organization have always been at the forefront of social change. Yet every morning, even as the reality of racism in America becomes more impossible to ignore, I still drive by the same sign that says “Welcome to Fort Bragg.”
We need to do better. We need to live up to our talk about creating an inclusive Army Team, and ensure an environment where white supremacy is not tolerated. But we cannot do that while our installations continue to bear the names of individuals who took up arms against the idea of our black brothers and sisters being free. And if the Army refuses to do so for the sake of its own honor and adherence to its institutional values, then it at least needs to act in order to preserve the public’s trust. The tide has changed in this conversation, and every day we see more and more of these monuments removed. It’s no longer a matter of if we as a nation get rid of these remnants of the Confederacy, but when. The longer we put it off, the more the American people’s confidence in the U.S. Army as a fighting force that represents their ideals will erode.
Correll, Diana Stancy. “Marine Corps bars public display of Confederate flag on installations.” The Marine Corps Times, June 6, 2020. https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2020/06/06/marine-corps-bars-public-display-of-confederate-flag-on-installations/.
Fort Bragg History. “U.S. Army Fort Bragg.” Accessed 6 June, 2020. https://home.army.mil/bragg/index.php/about/fort-bragg-history.
Futch, Michael. “Thousands mourn George Floyd at Raeford memorial service.” The Fayetteville Observer, June 6, 2020. https://www.fayobser.com/new/20200606/thousands-mourn-george-floyd-at-raeford-memorial-service.
Groark, Virginia. “Beloved Hero and Despised Traitor.” The New York Times, April 21, 2002. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/21/nyregion/beloved-hero-and-despised-traitor.html.
Rempfer, Kyle. “Army Won’t Follow Marine Corps Lead and Rename Confederate Bases.” The Army Times, February 28, 2020. https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2020/02/28/army-wont-follow-marine-corps-lead-and-rename-confederate-bases/.
Shane, Leo. “Is the military doing enough to look for signs of white nationalism in the ranks?” The Military Times, 11 February, 2020. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2020/02/11/is-the-military-doing-enough-to-look-for-signs-of-white-nationalism-in-the-ranks/.
Southern Poverty Law Center. “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy.” Accessed June 6, 2020. https://www.splcenter.org/20190201/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy.