By Jeff South
Now that Virginia’s governor has announced plans to remove the 12-ton statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, it’s time for government officials to train their sights on an even more imposing symbol honoring the Confederate commander: the U.S. Army base that bears his name about 30 miles south of the state capital.
Fort Lee, in Prince George County, is one of four military installations in Virginia named after Confederate generals. There are at least 12 such installations nationwide; Virginia has more than any other state.
In recent years, Virginia has reconsidered its veneration of the “Lost Cause.” Schools have been renamed — Richmond, for example, rechristened J.E.B. Stuart Elementary as Barack Obama Elementary. Roads have been renamed — in Northern Virginia, for instance, Jefferson Davis Highway is now Richmond Highway.
And last week, steps were taken to take down some of the more than 100 monuments of Confederate figures that dot the commonwealth. In ordering Lee’s statue removed as soon as possible, Gov. Ralph Northam said it had come to symbolize white supremacy and black oppression and “to honor the cause of division.”
The same can be said of the military bases, all in the South, bearing the names of generals who fought for the slave-holding South during the Civil War. It’s time to rename those facilities — to stop honoring figures who turned against the United States of America and defended a system that, as Northam stated, “was based on the buying and selling of enslaved people.” The Army says it’s “open” to the idea, Politico reported Monday.
Most of the bases were created and named at the start of World War I and World War II when the Army was seeking to recruit young white men in the South, where Lost Cause ideology held that the Confederacy’s rebellion was an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life and that the “War of Northern Aggression” was over states’ rights, not slavery.
Fort Lee was established in 1917 as a mobilization camp about two weeks after the U.S. declared war with Germany in World War I. It was named for the Virginian who resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in 1861 to lead the Confederate States Army. While Lee’s supporters view him as a tragic hero, the historical record casts him as a cruel slave master who continued to oppose voting and other civil rights for African Americans after the Civil War.
Fort A.P. Hill, in Caroline County, was created in 1941 in the run-up to World War II. It was named after Ambrose Powell Hill Jr., a Confederate general who was dogged throughout his career by a wicked case of gonorrhea he had contracted during a furlough at the U.S. Military Academy. Hill was shot and killed by a Union soldier in 1865 during the Third Battle of Petersburg, a week before Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
Fort Pickett, dedicated in 1942 in Nottoway County, was named for Confederate Gen. George E. Pickett, who led his troops to a bloodbath in an eponymous charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. After Lee’s surrender, Pickett escaped to Canada to avoid a war crimes prosecution for having summarily executed 22 Union soldiers. At the request of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the prosecution was dropped, and Pickett lived out his life in Norfolk.
Camp Pendleton, a training facility for the Virginia National Guard in Virginia Beach, was created in 1912 as a rifle range for the state militia. Beginning in 1922, the camp carried the name of whoever was serving as governor at the time. When the U.S. Army took control of the facility in 1942, it renamed the camp for William Nelson Pendleton, Lee’s chief of artillery. An Episcopal minister before the Civil War, Pendleton was considered a pompous and bumbling general — especially after he panicked during a battle in 1862 and abandoned his command.
There also are military bases named for Confederate generals in Alabama (Fort Rucker), Georgia (Fort Benning and Fort Gordon), Louisiana (Camp Beauregard and Fort Polk), North Carolina (Fort Bragg) and Texas (Fort Hood and Camp Maxey, a training facility for the Texas Army National Guard).
Several of the men for whom those facilities were named were incompetent military leaders. Braxton Bragg and John Hood are considered among the worst generals of the Civil War; Bragg was called “the most hated man of the Confederacy.” Nor did these men redeem themselves after the war. Historians widely agree that to undermine Reconstruction, John Brown Gordon headed the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.
It was no secret why the Confederacy took up arms against the United States of America. Addressing the Virginia Secession Convention of 1861, Henry Benning, who led Georgia to secede and later served as a brigadier general in Lee’s army, articulated the “main cause” for breaking away:
“What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession?” he said. “This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery.”
It is an affront to members of today’s diverse military that they must pass through gates bearing the names of Confederate figures who fought to keep people of African descent enslaved. By glorifying white supremacists and traitors, those namesakes offend Americans who believe in racial equality and true patriotism.
Opposition to Confederate symbols on military installations has been growing.
Last August, at Gov. Northam’s request, Fort Monroe removed signage designating “Jefferson Davis Memorial Park” on an arch at the historic site in Hampton. The signage honoring Davis, who was president of the Confederacy and was held at Fort Monroe after the Civil War, was moved to a museum.
On Friday, the U.S. Marine Corps banned public displays of the Confederate battle flag, from wall hangings to bumper stickers, at all Marine installations.
“There is no place in our Corps for racists — whether their intolerance and prejudice be direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional,” Gen. David H. Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, stated. He added, “Current events are a stark reminder that it is not enough for us to remove symbols that cause division — rather, we also must strive to eliminate division itself.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, the editorial board of The New York Times declared, “It is time to rename bases for American heroes — not racist traitors.”
“Bases named for men who sought to destroy the Union in the name of racial injustice are an insult to the ideals servicemen and women are sworn to uphold — and an embarrassing artifact of the time when the military itself embraced anti-American values,” the editorial said.
In 2017, U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., proposed legislation requiring the U.S. Defense Department to rename any military property “that is currently named after any individual who took up arms against the United States during the American Civil War.” The bill never even received a hearing.
In 2019, U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, also a Democrat from New York, introduced broader legislation: to prohibit federal funding for “Confederate symbols,” such as monuments, schools, roads and other property that display the Confederate flag, bear the name of a Confederate figure or otherwise honor the Confederacy.
Fourteen members of Congress, all of them Democrats, are co-sponsoring the bill. They include one from Virginia — U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia Beach.
Under Espaillat’s proposal, which is awaiting subcommittee hearings, the Defense Department would have to rename the 10 federally controlled Army bases named after Confederate leaders, including forts A.P. Hill, Lee and Pickett in Virginia. (Camp Pendleton is a state military reservation and falls under the state government’s purview.)
As Northam said in directing the Department of General Services to remove Lee’s statue from its 40-foot pedestal, “symbols matter.” Having military bases named for Confederate figures sends a disturbing message by normalizing white supremacy. Renaming those facilities is long overdue.
Jeff South recently retired after 23 years as a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Before that, he was a newspaper editor and reporter for 20 years in Virginia, Texas and Arizona. He can be reached at [email protected].