War Stories

Trump’s Support for Confederate Base Names Has Nothing to Do With Respecting the Military

More and more commanders say it’s time to stop celebrating racism and treason.

Sign reading Fort Bragg.
One of the entrance signs to facilities in Fort Bragg on May 13, 2004, in Fayetteville, North Carolina.* Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

President Donald Trump just dug himself in more deeply on the wrong side of history in the fast-changing consensus on the role and shame of racism in America. In a tweet Wednesday afternoon, Trump strongly opposed renaming the 10 U.S. Army bases that are named after Confederate officers. As he put it:

These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom. 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 displayed no understanding of just who the namesakes of these bases were—nor that these bases were given their names after World War I and, in some cases, after World War II.

He tweeted his objection in the wake of news that his acting secretary of the army, Ryan McCarthy, expressed a willingness to have a “bipartisan conversation” about renaming the bases. McCarthy’s statement came after retired Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote an article for the Atlantic late last week, headlined, “Take the Confederate Names Off Our Army Bases.”

Since then, three retired Army colonels, who had notable careers in their time on active duty, Mike Jason, John Nagl, and Paul Yingling, made a similar argument in DefenseOne.

In short, 155 years after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Army seems on the verge of accepting the full terms of the Union victory.

Meanwhile, Trump is, as usual, clueless about the history of the country he supposedly leads. And rather than take the lead on a movement to redress the symbolism of white supremacy, a step that shouldn’t be so difficult, he once again prefers to bask in what he sees as the buzzwords of his base—STRENGTH! HEROES! MILITARY!—even as decorated veterans, who embody those values more authentically than he ever will, are coming to terms with the sinful roots of certain aspects of their tradition.

All 10 of the Army bases are in former Confederate states in the South. Fort Benning, Georgia, home of several armored and infantry brigades, is named after Gen. Henry Benning, whose support for slavery was so avid that he proposed seceding from the Union and forming a Southern slavocracy more than a decade before the Civil War began. Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne Division, is named after Gen. Braxton Bragg, who wasn’t even a good officer; he got into so many quarrels with superiors and subordinates that he once missed an opportunity to exploit a weakness in Union Gen. Ulysses Grant’s formation. Fort Gordon, Georgia, home of the Army Cyber Corps, is named after Gen. John Brown Gordon, a slave owner who rose quickly through the Confederate ranks and, after the war, joined the Ku Klux Klan. The list goes on.

In his Atlantic article, Petraeus wrote that, in his many years as an active-duty officer, often stationed at these bases,

I never thought much about these men—about the nature of their service during the Civil War … the reasons they were honored, or the timing of the various forts’ dedications. Nor did I think about the message those names sent to the many African Americans serving on these installations—messages that should have been noted by all of us.

Nor, when he was a cadet at West Point, did he question the veneration shown toward Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who was a great commander but also—like all the other Confederate officers—guilty of treason. “We were not encouraged to think deeply about the cause for which” Lee had fought, Petraeus writes, “at least not in our military history classes.”

Petraeus told me, in an email on Wednesday, that it was only after he retired from the Army, in 2011, that he “started thinking about how strange it was that the leaders of the fight against the Union were more widely honored—with their names on federal forts, roads, barracks, gates, housing areas, etc.—than were those who fought for the country. And, of course, those fighting to secede were doing so to preserve the rights of their states to enslave others, with those ‘others’ now roughly 20 percent of the soldiers serving on those bases.”

These thoughts deepened as he read several biographies of Gen. Ulysses Grant, the Union Army commander and later two-term president, who was honored hardly at all either at West Point or Army bases. Petraeus says he has “been mulling for some time” that the Army should publicly address this dishonor. “The events of recent weeks,” he said, “were the catalyst to write the essay.”

John Nagl graduated from West Point in 1988—14 years after Petraeus—but the treatment of Confederate heroes remained the same. He didn’t see the light until 2017, when protests began over Confederate monuments in several Southern cities. Also in that year, Rep. Yvette Clarke introduced a bill in Congress to strip Army bases of Confederate names—to the firm opposition of the Army and with little support from her colleagues in the House.

The controversy spurred Nagl, who is now the head of a boys’ school in Pennsylvania, to read up on the history of the monuments. “It was then,” he wrote me in an email on Wednesday, “that I learned that they had been erected long after the Civil War, as part of Jim Crow racial terror reinforcement, and learned as well that the Army had named posts and forts after Confederate generals in the same era. It’s been simmering inside me since, and the current moment seemed like an opportunity to help the service I love so well right a longstanding wrong.”

Mike Jason graduated from West Point later still, in 1995, as a military history major, and by then the academy was changing. The history department “was already using words for treason when it came to Confederate graduates,” he wrote me in an email. “The reverence was definitely in severe decline.” His lightning-bolt moment—when the names of the bases became more than merely “uncomfortable or silly”—came when Jason was an Army captain, moving back from a tour in Europe to D.C. “I just imagined being in the shoes of one of my black NCOs [noncommissioned officers], driving by a confederate monument on Jefferson Davis Highway to a Ft. Lee or Ft. Pickett—it stopped me dead in my tracks.”

Jason, who is now a defense consultant, “got hot on the issue” just this past February, soon after retiring from the Army, when he posted a tweet recalling the time, back in 2008, when his brigade commander ordered the removal of all Confederate regalia. The Army Times called him for an interview; he went on the record to discuss the issue and afterward started “sounding the bell on social media” constantly. “Many officers have reached out to me for mentorship and to talk it over.” Other officers, NCOs, and enlisted men and women have kept up the discussion.

In short, the issue has been festering quietly, behind the scenes, for some time. And now, with the vast protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the suddenly swift passage of new laws and regulations on police behavior, and the realization by even the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that the Republicans have to do something about the scourge of racism and the brutality of many police departments—it’s no surprise that the discussion of the 10 Confederate-named bases has risen to the fore as well, even if their president has his head in the sand.

Opinion on this, as on the many other issues raised by the Floyd killing, is shifting quickly. As recently as February, soon after the Marine Corps announced it was banning the display of Confederate flags, an Army spokesman said his service had no plans to rename military bases. “The Army has a tradition of naming installations and streets after historical figures of military significance, including Union and Confederate general officers,” he told Task & Purpose magazine.

This answer would now be unacceptable to anyone besides Trump. The valor of an officer can no longer be separated from the criminal depravity of his cause, and many of the still-honored Confederate officers lacked so much as valor. Nor, more broadly, can history be minimized as the inanimate stuff of street signs, statues, or military bases. History is a living thing. Those signs, statues, and bases mark the honoring and therefore the legitimizing of the causes that their namesakes fought for—causes that should never have been honored in the United States of America. It is long past time to attach them to names and causes that are worthy.

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Correction, June 10, 2020: Due to a photo provider error, this post originally misspelled Fayetteville.