In purge of Confederates, Virginia plans to rename Camp Pendleton

By: - January 20, 2021 12:01 am

The entrance to Camp Pendleton . (Photo courtesy of Virginia National Guard)

Camp Pendleton, the state military reservation in Virginia Beach named for a Confederate general, likely will be renamed soon.

Next month, a panel of state officials plans to recommend a new name for the Virginia National Guard training facility, which was named for William Nelson Pendleton, a Virginian who served as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s chief of artillery.

Gov. Ralph Northam has “directed his administration to review and recommend a replacement name for Camp Pendleton,” Alena Yarmosky, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email last this week.

“A working group which includes representatives from the Secretariat of Veterans and Defense Affairs and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has been reviewing multiple names, and will submit their recommendation to the Governor by the end of February,” Yarmosky stated.

She noted that at a press briefing, Northam expressed support for renaming military bases that honor Confederate officials. Besides Camp Pendleton, which is under the state government, the federal government has three such bases in Virginia: Fort Lee in Prince George County, Fort Pickett in Nottoway County and Fort A.P. Hill in Caroline County.

 “Just like the statues, these names are divisive,” the governor said at the briefing. “We have people serving in our military, whether it be our guard or active-duty, that come from all walks of life, and we promote diversity.”

William Nelson Pendleton, a Virginian, served as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s chief of artillery. (Encyclopedia Virginia)

The federal bases must be renamed under the National Defense Authorization Act that Congress passed on New Year’s Day over President Donald Trump’s veto. On Jan. 8, acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller appointed a commission to start the three-year process of removing Confederate names from Defense Department properties.

At the briefing last June, Northam noted that Trump opposed removing Confederate names from military bases. But the governor said, “I think that most people and I can’t sit here and speak for everybody support removing the divisiveness from the names, whether they be posts, whether they be statues, whether they be the names of streets, whatever.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia co-sponsored the amendment in the Defense Department funding bill to rename military facilities that are named for Confederate figures. 

Nationwide, Kaine said in a Senate floor speech, “Ten bases and many other military facilities are named after Confederate leaders who declared war on the United States, took up arms against it and killed U.S. troops” in an attempt to preserve slavery and the subjugation of people of African descent.

Three of those U.S. Army bases are in Virginia more than in any other state. They are named after:

  • Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate States Army
  • Gen. George E. Pickett, who is perhaps most well-known for leading a disastrous charge at the Battle of Gettysburg
  • Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill Jr., who was killed by Union forces in Petersburg a week before Lee surrendered at Appomattox in 1865

“We cannot continue to honor those who fought against the United States to deprive African Americans of their equality if we as a country hope to overcome the racial injustices that continue to surround us today,” Kaine stated after the Senate passed the bill.

According to the Encyclopedia Virginia, Gen. Pendleton was born in Richmond in 1809. In 1830, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he had forged friendships with Lee and Jefferson Davis. Four years later, Pendleton had a “religious awakening” and left the U.S. Army to become an ordained Episcopal priest.

When Virginia and other slaveholding states seceded from the United States in 1861, Pendleton joined the Confederate army as captain of the Lexington-based Rockbridge Artillery, whose four cannons he named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. 

On the battlefield and among his troops, Pendleton had a reputation as a pompous and somewhat cowardly leader who had panicked and fled during the Battle of Antietam in 1862, nearly losing 33 cannons to a minor Union attack and leaving his troops to fend for themselves.

However, Pendleton enjoyed the support of Lee and Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and Lee kept Pendleton as his army’s chief of artillery. 

“After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, Pendleton returned to his parish in Lexington, where he helped persuade Lee to accept the presidency of Washington College (later Washington and Lee University),” Encyclopedia Virginia noted.

Pendleton died in 1883 and is buried in the Lexington Cemetery.

The Virginia Beach military facility now called Camp Pendleton was created in 1912 as a rifle range for the state militia. During its early decades, 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 Gen. Pendleton. (The U.S. Marine Corps also has a base named Camp Pendleton. That installation, in Southern California, was named for Joseph Henry Pendleton, who served in the Marines from 1884 to 1924, rising to the rank of major general and receiving the Navy Cross and other honors.)

Virginia’s Camp Pendleton occupies about 325 acres south of Virginia Beach’s resort strip. It provides training not just for the Virginia National Guard but also for Guard units from other states, active-duty and reserve personnel from all branches of the military, state and local law enforcement officers and other first responders.

Camp Pendleton also hosts the Virginia Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy, which gives at-risk teenagers “a structured, quasi-military style environment designed to promote academics, attention to detail, time management and leadership, while promoting self-esteem, confidence and pride.”

A. A. “Cotton” Puryear, chief of public affairs for the Virginia Army National Guard, said he did not have any information about possible replacement names for Camp Pendleton.

But the names of some military leaders from Virginia were floated during discussions over whose statue the commonwealth should put in the U.S. Capitol to replace Lee’s. Those military figures include Gen. George C. Marshall, who served as U.S. defense secretary and secretary of state and spearheaded the plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, and Lewis “Chesty” Puller, the only Marine to win the Navy Cross five times for heroism and gallantry in action.

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Jeff South
Jeff South

Jeff South 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]