Why 'Fort Liberty'? Leaders explain why they pushed for Fort Bragg's proposed new name
When a federal commission recommended new names for nine Army bases bearing those of Confederate generals, one immediately stood out.
Fort Bragg would become “Fort Liberty," while the other eight bases would all be renamed for people — heroes and noted military leaders.
Liberty hadn’t even appeared on a short list of 87 potential names the commission released in March, after filtering more than 3,600 it had gathered during a year of site visits, community meetings and online submissions.
Among the questions that raised: How had Liberty moved to the top of the list? And why was a broad, lofty concept chosen rather than the name of one of the many heroes who have served at Fort Bragg?
Retired Major General Rodney Anderson was on a community panel that the base command team formed to help engage the public as it gathered potential names. He said he first heard Liberty suggested by another retired general, Dan McNeill — the four-star former commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.
Anderson said Fort Liberty made a lot of sense to him, and he was surprised when the federal commission left it off its list of semi-finalists. When the commission circled back to community leaders for a final video-conference consultation, Anderson said commission members were hesitant to recommend Liberty.
“They were pretty pushy about ‘why not a person?’” Anderson said. “And I think we were all collectively very clear that not only was it a good principle, but it was what we mutually agreed would be best for the installation."
Several other names had surfaced earlier in the process for Fort Bragg, which is the Army’s largest base by population and home to some of its most storied units. But Anderson said by the end, the vast majority of community members, even those who had initially fought the renaming, backed Liberty.
And there are good reasons, Anderson and McNeill say.
In an interview last year, McNeill — a revered Army figure who lives in Fayetteville led and the 82nd Airborne Division and the 18th Airborne Corps — said “Liberty” or “Independence” would be good choices.
He noted the word Liberty is specifically associated with two of the base’s — and the nation’s — most famous units.
“In the first stanza of the 82nd Airborne Division’s All American Soldier song, there's a line that says ‘we are the soldiers of liberty,’” McNeill said.
"Then, in the Special Forces forces motto, 'De oppresso liber' is a Latin form of liberty — freedom for the oppressed or liberty for the oppressed," McNeill said. "Either of those two, liberty or independence, would tie in not only to what Fort Bragg stands for and has stood for, but would tie into the history of the great state which is home for Fort Bragg."
That history he refers to includes the Liberty Point Resolves, in which patriots gathered in 1775 on a site near the base and signed documents that were essentially a prelude to the Declaration of Independence.
Anderson, the retired major general, said Liberty also makes sense because the base is home to units that are often the first sent overseas when Americans or others need liberating.
“And so when you ask someone in the future, I predict that they will say proudly that I served at Fort Liberty," Anderson said. "And what did you do there? I provided stability and liberty for U.S. citizens and citizens around the world."
The word also gets at the history of the Army, he said.
“When I think of liberty, I think of the U.S. Army providing liberty from Great Britain,” he said. “I think of it liberating enslaved African Americans in the 1860s."
“And when I think of liberty, I think of the many wars that we've been a part of that can all be traced to liberating people from tyranny or providing them an opportunity for a better life.”
As for re-naming the base after a person, McNeill said so many heroes and key military leaders have served at Fort Bragg over the years that there was no obvious choice.
"I don’t believe you can pick a person’s name, living or dead, that would square with everybody,” he said.
Experts urge caution about naming things after people, in part because unsavory facts about them might turn up later.
Laurel Sutton co-founded the California-based naming and branding company Catchword and is president of the American Names Society, a scholarly group devoted to the study of names.
“If you're naming it after a person, then that person turns out not to be good, that's a big deal,” she said. “But generic renamings of things are fine, they're middle of the road, nobody can really object too much to it. It's not a thing that people are going to be celebrating in the street about, but it's fine.”
The nation had never attempted anything quite like the base renamings, so there was no template for the process.
Sutton said on the whole it sounds like the federal naming commission this did a pretty good job with its recommendations for the nine bases.
“They took community input, they looked at alternatives; presumably they've done some kind of vetting on the names that they're putting up there to make sure that these people aren't problematic in some way,” Sutton said. “And you know, sometimes, you can't find a good solution that everybody can agree on, like in the case of Fort Bragg.”
The current names of the nine bases clearly show it’s possible to not put enough thought into a base’s name.
During World War I, while the nation was building new military bases in a hurry, the War Department told the Army to name bases in the South for Confederate commanders, giving preference to short names to “avoid clerical labor.”
Which is how one of the Army’s most important bases came to be named for Braxton Bragg, an obscure — and by many accounts, incompetent — officer who led forces it once fought.
“It's really expensive to rename things because there are a million places that the name needs to be changed, so doing it is not something you can do lightly," Sutton said. "So it's important to get it right."
The naming commission must give its final report to the armed services committees in Congress by October. Then the Secretary of Defense has until 2024 to implement a renaming plan.
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.