Pentagon open to talks about renaming bases honoring Confederate figures

Forts Benning and Gordon among 10 named for Confederate officers
Two patients who sought medical care at a Fort Benning hospital have tested positive for COVID-19, the highly contagious coronavirus, military officials confirmed this weekend.

Two patients who sought medical care at a Fort Benning hospital have tested positive for COVID-19, the highly contagious coronavirus, military officials confirmed this weekend.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy are “open” to discussing renaming 10 military installations that honor Confederate figures, including Forts Benning and Gordon in Georgia, the U.S. Army said Tuesday.

The Army did not say what prompted their position, which was first reported by Politico. But the move follows days of protests that have rocked the nation since the violent deaths of unarmed black men in Minneapolis and Southeast Georgia, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as, Breonna Taylor, a black woman in Louisville, Kentucky killed in her home by officers executing a no-knock warrant.

The Army’s statement also came just days after the U.S Marine Corps announced a ban on public displays of Confederate battle flags at Marine installations, an order that also applies to mugs, posters and bumper stickers.

In addition to Forts Benning and Gordon, eight other bases are named after Confederate officers: Fort Bragg in North Carolina; Forts Pickett, A.P. Hill and Lee in Virginia; Fort Polk and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana; Fort Hood in Texas; and Fort Rucker in Alabama.

“The Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Army are open to a bi-partisan discussion on the topic,” an Army spokesman said in an email about the base names. “Each Army installation is named for a soldier who has a significant place in our military history. Accordingly, the historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.”

Located in Augusta, Fort Gordon is named after John Gordon, who commanded half of Robert E. Lee's army for a time. Wounded five times at the Battle of Antietam, Gordon went on to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate before serving as the state's governor. He also owned slaves, fought Reconstruction and was generally recognized as the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.

RELATED | Who was John Brown Gordon, for whom Fort Gordon in Augusta was named?

Fort Benning, which sits just outside of Columbus, was named after Henry Benning at the request of the Columbus Rotary Club, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Nicknamed "Old Rock" for his steadfastness in battle, the Confederate general became an associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. He was an ardent secessionist before the war, warning that if slavery were abolished there would be "black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything."

Benning and Gordon employ thousands of people and produce billions of dollars in economic impact for the surrounding regions. Spokespeople for the bases said they support “our Army senior leaders’ decision to be part of this national conversation.”

RELATED | Who was Henry Benning, for whom Fort Benning in Columbus was named?

The responsibility for naming bases has shifted over time between various military officials and agencies, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History. The responsibility now belongs to the U.S. Army's assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs.

The head of the Georgia NAACP hailed the Army’s move Tuesday.

“We welcome the opportunity to right the course of history and put an end to the glorification of Confederate leaders who sought to maintain the institution of white supremacy and chattel slavery,” said the Rev. James Woodall, the Georgia NAACP’s state president. “As an eight-year veteran of the United States Army, I stand in the legacy of so many who fought for this country and I embrace that legacy of continuing to fight for the freedom and liberty of all people.”

Controversy surrounding the base names has smoldered for years. It resurfaced in 2015 after the racially-motivated killings of nine people at an historic black church in Charleston. In a column published in Time magazine after the mass murder, George Eaton — a retired Army officer — wrote in favor of renaming Fort Benning and others after "native sons from those states who supported the Constitution of the United States while also performing admirably in battle."

“Many of the Confederates honored in naming rights,” Eaton wrote, “chose to rescind their heavy oath of loyalty to the Constitution of the United States and turned their guns on the Union soldiers, Army, and nation they had sworn to defend.”