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If the Military Renames Southern Bases, Whose Names Should Replace The Confederate Generals?

Soldiers gather for a 2019 awards ceremony at Fort Bragg, N.C. The base is one of 10 that Pentagon leaders say they are open to renaming.
Joshua Cowden
U.S. Army
Soldiers gather for a 2019 awards ceremony at Fort Bragg, N.C. The base is one of 10 that Pentagon leaders say they are open to renaming.

With the call for changing the names of 10 Southern military bases gaining momentum, the question is starting to arise in Washington  and outside of it  what names might replace those of the Confederate generals they now bear?

When Larry O. Wright, Sr. was stationed at Fort Bragg, in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, the name of the base wasn't a big topic even among Black soldiers like him.

"We didn't talk about it a lot," he said. "But you know, we heard here and there that it was a Confederate general, and it was confusing because we said, 'Wow, how do they get to name bases after generals that did not win the war?'"

Not just who didn't win, but who were fighting for slavery in a war against the very U.S. Army that has made the base its largest and one of its most important.

But times have changed, and in a big way. And Wright, now a minister and Fayetteville City Council member, says Bragg and the other bases across the south need to reflect that. He supports a growing drive to rename 10 bases from Virginia to Texas that bear the names of Confederate generals.

He said they don't all need to be renamed for Black military heroes or prominent Black leaders, but some should, if they're going to bear the names of Americans.

"There needs to be a diversity of names that is chosen that will reflect the country, reflect our communities in which we live, probably one of the most diverse countries in the world," Wright said. "And that would do us proud."

He said it's also time to consider women's names for bases, and the names of civilian leaders who distinguished themselves in ways that reflect the ideals of the nation. They don't have to be named for high officers either, he said. There are plenty of enlisted troops who distinguished themselves by winning the Medal of Honor.

"You don't have to be a millionaire, you don't have to have a college degree, you don't have to be a big politician to make a difference," Wright said.

Puzzling history of Bragg

An image of a sign for Fort Bragg
Credit Fish Cop / Public Domain
Public Domain

Joseph Glatthaar, a professor who teaches military history UNC-Chapel Hill, says even beyond the central issue — the compelling need to remove the names of white men who fought to defend slavery from the bases — Braxton Bragg was a poor namesake.

There is dissent among historians about whether Bragg deserved the reputation he has in some quarters as one of worst generals on either side of the Civil War. Glatthaar said Bragg was tactically competent but a terrible leader — cantankerous and widely hated by the officers and men who served with him.

"He had strange experiences, like the time he held different positions within his unit, and he had requisition for something, and then, wearing the other hat as Quartermaster, he rejected it," Glatthaar said. "Then he demanded reconsideration. And then he rejected the reconsideration. And finally the commander had to intervene. And he said, 'Mr. Bragg, you've quarreled with everyone in this unit. Now you're quarreling with yourself. Stop it.' So it shows you how difficult it was to get along with."

And even if Bragg had some skill as a soldier, Glatthaar said he would hardly make a top 10 list.

"I wouldn't rank him… Unless you had to include, say, 500 or 300 or something," Glatthaar said. "But if you asked me to give you the 10 best officers in the Confederate Army he wouldn't be in there. Or 20."

Bragg, a Warrenton, N.C. native, owned a plantation with 105 slaves. He served in the U.S. Army during the Second Seminole War and Mexican-American War before becoming a Confederate officer in the Civil War.

The 1918 decision to name the North Carolina Army installation for him has puzzled historians.

Part of the explanation may be that the general charged with approving names for new bases in the buildup for World War I sought short ones to reduce the burden of paperwork. Other bases in the same era also received one syllable names like Dix, Lee and Ord.

Not easy picking new names

Glatthaar says good alternative names for the 10 bases might include the likes of Colin Powell, the retired four-star general who became the first African-American Secretary of State. Or say, George C. Marshall, a key figure in winning World War II.

But picking new names may not be simple.

"It may be that not every name could please every person," said Anthony Shore, the founder of Operative Words, an agency that helps develop names for companies and products. "But we certainly know that some paths are more likely to lead to a broader acceptance and other paths are likely to diminish that broad acceptance."

Shore said the nation is in the middle of a sea change in which tolerance for racially insensitive names appears to be ending. He cited Quaker Oats' recent decision to change its Aunt Jemima brand.

For the bases, he said good options could include people who never served in the military, but whose lives embodied shared American values. Or it may be more productive to move away from people's names entirely and instead think about ideals or attributes.

"There are symbols of America that would likely be less divisive and less likely to have unsavory associations with their history," he said. "We have the USS Constitution, for example... Could something like that also be applied to military bases?"

Shore said another option was words tied to geography.

"Our country is home to countless places of inspiring and majestic natural beauty," he said. "Surely that could be a productive resource for names that every American could be proud of."

A good practice when naming things, he said, is to listen to all the key stakeholders and walk them through the implications of potential names.

"When you're presenting names, what you're really doing is you're presenting potential futures," he said. "And so my job when I present names is to help everyone in the room see what that future might be if they go with any one of those names."

And for Southern military bases, the nation may be about to move into a new future.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.
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