Debate resurfaces over renaming military posts honoring Confederates

John Gordon fought bravely in the Civil War as one of Robert E. Lee’s most trusted generals, commanding half of 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.

Gordon is now at the center of a contentious debate over renaming 10 U.S. army bases honoring Confederate figures. Among them are two in Georgia: Fort Gordon and Fort Benning.

The long-running controversy resurfaced after the racially-motivated killings at an historic black church in Charleston last month. The deaths of nine churchgoers have prompted calls for flags and other symbols of the Confederacy to be removed from sight.

The latest dispute over the base names underscores how — while the South is facing the brunt of scrutiny for its Confederate symbols — the federal government is now being drawn into the fray. Amid a political firestorm this week, the Republican-controlled Congress put off a vote on allowing Confederate flags in national cemeteries.

In a column published in Time magazine after last month’s 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.” Eight other installations honor the names of Confederate figures: Beauregard, Bragg, A.P. Hill, Hood, Lee, Pickett, Polk and Rucker.

“Many of the Confederates honored in naming rights 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,” Eaton wrote.

Over the years, The NAACP has been highly critical of the base names, especially for black servicemen putting their lives on the line.

The U.S. Army indicated it isn’t budging, saying the base names reflect “reconciliation” efforts.

“Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history,” Lt. Col. Ben Garrett, an Army spokesman, said in an email. “Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies. It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”

Records from the U.S. Army Center of Military History say the responsibility for naming bases shifted over time from the War Department in 1832 to division commanders in 1878 to the Secretary of War by World War I.

“Unsolicited suggestions for names were also submitted from sources outside the military establishment, and political pressure and public opinion often influenced the naming decision,” the records say. “As a result, it was common for camps and forts to be named after local features or veterans with a regional connection. In the Southern states, they were frequently named after celebrated Confederate soldiers.”

In 1939, the War Department had a policy of naming military installations in honor of “deceased distinguished officers regardless of the arm or service in which they have served.” In 1946, the naming responsibility shifted to a military board. That job later moved to the U.S. Army headquarters then to the Army chief of staff. Now the assistant Army secretary of manpower and reserve affairs is in charge of it.

Fort Benning — a massive military installation that 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.”

“We will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth, and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination,” he once said, according to the Civil War Trust.

Even so, not everyone believes that means his name should be removed from the base.

Darryl Wilson, a black retired soldier from Jonesboro who was once based at Fort Benning, supports removing Confederate flags. But he doesn’t agree with renaming Fort Benning. He talked about how many blacks like him received valuable military training there before becoming successful businessmen, doctors and lawyers.

“Changing the name isn’t going to do anything,” said Wilson, a veteran of both wars in Iraq. “Just leave tradition alone.”

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson drew a distinction. She said the Confederate flag “stood for secession and was resurrected to support segregation.” Naming the bases after Confederate generals, she said, was done in support of reconciliation.

“The Civil War happened, the secessionists lost, the segregationists lost, and it’s time we all recognize those truths and move forward together,” she said in an email. “To me, frankly, the reminder of General Benning is a cautionary tale of a military talent whose views were nullified and who ended up on the wrong side of history.”

Fellow Confederate general John Gordon was a first-rate soldier who was idolized in Georgia after the Civil War, said his biographer, Ralph Eckert. When the fighting ended, Gordon fought to get federal troops out of the South amid Reconstruction so home rule could be restored. But he also traveled the nation, delivering lectures in favor of national reconciliation. Eckert added that Gordon paid the college tuition for the children and grandchildren of his former slaves.

Eckert, a retired college history professor, criticized efforts to rename the military bases that honor Confederate figures like Gordon. He said looking at Gordon and other historic figures through the prism of today’s mores “does a disservice to the people that we at one time admired — but it does a disservice to us.”

“You have to judge people in the context of their times,” said Eckert, who wrote “John Brown Gordon: Soldier Southerner American. “And in the context of the mid- to late-1800’s, Gordon was very reflective of the Southern mentality.”

Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP, said the debate over renaming the military bases is healthy for the nation.

“This is a part of the dialogue that needs to take place, and that is a dialogue of reconciliation,” said Johnson, an attorney based in Statesboro. “It is not one that is unique to the United States. It is one that every nation and people have had to go through when they were trying to reconcile their past with their present in order to have more effective future.”