We’re in the middle of a national reckoning over racism and representation, and it has thrown new attention onto the fact that 10 of the U.S. Army’s bases, including some of the largest ones, are named for generals who fought against the Union in the Civil War -- men who by definition are traitors to the nation and who in some cases passionately defended racist ideas and segregation.
How did this happen, and why are some people fighting hard to keep these bases from being renamed? We’ll dive into the history behind the controversy with Dr. Richard Kohn, distinguished military historian and professor emeritus of History in Peace, War and Defense at UNC-Chapel Hill, and talk about who in the military’s storied history might be more deserving as an installation namesake.
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The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:
Hope Hodge Seck 0:00
Welcome back to Left of Boom. I'm your host Hope Hodge Seck, managing editor of Military.com. Today we're tackling a topic so fraught, it drove a wedge between President Donald Trump and his now-terminated Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper. It has to do with military bases: specifically, 10 Army posts named for Confederate generals who led the fight against Union troops in the Civil War. There's Fort Hood, Texas, named for Confederate General John Bell Hood, who described quote, "Negros" as an inferior race in a letter to Union General William T. Sherman. There's Fort Benning, Georgia, named for General Henry Louis Benning, a passionate secessionist and outspoken opponent the abolition of slavery. These men have been base namesakes for many decades, but national protests and a reckoning with continued racial inequities has put them in the spotlight today. Two camps have emerged: those who call for these bases to be renamed, saying these generals are traitors to the nation who have enjoyed a place of honor for too long, and those who say the names are part of military history and should be preserved. To complicate matters, the president has said he won't even consider a renaming move, even though Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy have said they were open to it. But we're in a time of big change. As I record this, Joe Biden is the projected winner of the still-disputed 2020 election, and some say he could order base name changes with a stroke of his pen as soon as he takes office. With that in mind, we'll be talking to Dr. Richard Kohn, a distinguished military historian and professor emeritus of History in Peace, War and Defense at UNC-Chapel Hill. We'll discuss the importance of base namesakes and the arguments for renaming them. Dr. Kohn, welcome to the show.
Richard Kohn 1:48
Thank you, it's a pleasure to be with you.
Hope Hodge Seck 1:50
To get right to the topic at hand: We have four legacy military services that fall under the Defense Department, and I have to make all those caveats, or else I get a lot of emails from people in the Coast Guard and the Space Force. But each of those four services takes a slightly different approach to naming bases. Can you provide a historical snapshot into why this is and the philosophies in so much that they exist governing the different base-naming practices?
Richard Kohn 2:19
I can do that, but it would be a thumbnail sketch because we're dealing with four services and we're dealing with, in one case 250 years of history, and it has changed and changed frequently. The basic driver I think of the change is the expansion of those military services over the two centuries-plus. They began small; they began in limited areas. Many of the installations were temporary, set up, used, abandoned. So it's really hard to give you a comprehensive generalization about it. In the Army, for example, they were named for people or for locations. For a long time ships, particularly after the steel and steam Navy came in in the late 19th century, there was a formula for naming the different classes of warships and support ships. The Marine Corps being the more more recent not in age, but it's in size, and in comprehensiveness of those four services, has tended to name its bases for their locations. The Air Force has named many of them both for locations and for people. Interestingly enough, the Air Forceoften named some of their fields or their bases or individuals who were killed in the line of duty, usually through crashes of some kind. I think, for example, Andrews Air Force Base, now Joint Base Andrews, outside of Washington in Maryland, was named for a very famous, very effective, very well liked general named Frank Andrews, who was killed in 1943 in a crash. There was some thought that he would have been the first Chief of Staff of the Air Force. My just brief look at how this went, I would make a few generalizations for you. First of all, the Navy is much more interested in naming ships than it is in naming bases. And so as a result the bases are named basically for where they are. The Air Force for much of its history, had a very small number of continental United States bases, and they were named for places or for people. The Army, of course, had the most bases and those really developed, the bases that we have today really developed in the early 20th century and particularly for the mobilizations for World War One, and then again, World War Two.
Hope Hodge Seck 5:04
All of this background is excellent and tees up kind of the big question at hand, which is, so how exactly did the Army end up with so many bases named after Confederate generals? It seems like a very deliberate decision. And I'm curious as to whether they were named in a very specific time period -- if there was intention there. I mean, as you said, the Army has more bases than the other services. So more namesakes are needed. But what should we understand about that naming decision, or those naming decisions?
Richard Kohn 5:37
Well, one more note of context, there began in the 1880s and '90s a concerted effort on the part of the government of the United States, and by and large, the American people, to try to bring the country together after an enormous bloodletting and politically contentious event called the American Civil War. And as a result, the Army I think and the government was making an effort when we expanded radically and tremendous speed in the Army for World War One. And we chose a lot of bases in the southern climes because of the climate because it trains people outside. They seized on local people or famous, in some cases, famous Confederate generals. I mean, Fort Lee is a very obvious one, because by that time, the South had reified Robert E. Lee, to the point of mythology, and as a way to unify the South -- I was making one personal comment, I once gave a talk at the North Carolina National Guard offices in Raleigh, and there was the the standard with the campaign banners in a corner. And there were campaign banners for Civil War battles using the Confederate names, which were different than the Union names for these battles. And I thought to myself, wait a second, we've got campaign banners that are really commemorating battles by Americans who are committing treason, what's going on here in Raleigh? And then I contextualized it historically. And it made sense, because the North Carolina National Guard's a very proud military organization, very committed and loyal to the United States, but it has a heritage. And we know that in the military heritage is a motivator for people to work hard, to sacrifice, to put their lives on the line. But I must tell the audience in all truth, a lot of the commemoration of the 1880s and afterwards was an effort to mythologize the Civil War, and to justify the Civil War and to justify segregation and discrimination. Once you go back and you look at the history, cold-eyed and objectively, you realize what this commemoration and these honorifics were, I think that explains a lot. And there's been some commentary that, why did they, anonymous they in the past, name something for some of these Confederate generals who were not such great generals? Well, it may have been local. Fort Benning, for example, was a Georgia politician. There have been others that were, you know, after the war that maintain the segregation. I don't know that any of those people named were involved in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan, but it's possible. We've had to rename some buildings in University of North Carolina, because they were prominent politicians after the Civil War. But they were involved with the Ku Klux Klan, which was a terrorist organization and racist to the core. So that context, too, needs to be mentioned.
Hope Hodge Seck 9:11
This national reckoning with our history with our past is ongoing, as you mentioned, renaming buildings departments, this is not new. As you said, it might be good to kind of give some historical space before trying to name anything. But to your knowledge is this moment in history the first time that this fact of 10 Army bases having been named for generals who are arguably traitors to the country has been seriously questioned or has this come up before, to your knowledge?
Richard Kohn 9:44
I'm sure it's come up before but I don't know the history of of the controversies over it. But listeners should know that almost every commemoration in this country has been the subject of discussion, often debate, often opposition. We spread these generals on horseback often all over Washington DC. And some of these people were quite contentious. Look at how the South still looks at William Tecumseh Sherman. By the way, a new biography has just been published this past year by a friend of mine, which gets rid of a lot of mythology about Sherman, the man and Sherman, the soldier. And in his campaigns, I once asked my class, why are you all so anti-General Sherman, I mean, it was South Carolina where he did most of his damage, not even Georgia. He was paying them back, South Carolina for starting the war. And suddenly from the back of the lecture call came a students voice: well, heburned down the church in my town. I mean, some of this is personal. So I don't think this is new. The one thing we know about history is that change is constant. And each generation has to ask, what is the meaning of our history? What is the meaning of statues and honorifics that commemorate it or mention it? One famous historian defined history as a dialogue with the past, about the future. And we are always asking new questions about the past in an effort to understand who we are, where we are at this moment in time, and why things are the way they are. And if you understand that we live in the present, and we think about the future, usually much more than we do about the past. We raise these questions about the past. There's a famous book, which I'm sure you've heard of, probably read, called 1984 by George Orwell.
Hope Hodge Seck 11:55
Richard Kohn 11:56
Well, there is a famous line in there about some as similar to what I just mentioned, where Big Brother says, Those who control the present, control the past, those who control the past, control the future.
Hope Hodge Seck 12:14
You mentioned this earlier in your really good background of naming criteria and how these bases came about. But what about installation streets and ships? I mean to speak specifically to Navy ships. The Navy has the carrier John C. Stennis, named for an outspoken segregationist from Mississippi. On Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, there's Holcomb Boulevard-- I used to drive down it almost every day, named for Commandant of the Marine Corps Thomas Holcomb, who fought to keep black Americans out of the Marine Corps. I think he once said, "If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 Whites or 250,000 Negros, I would rather have the Whites." Which is of course, just horrific. So these are not Confederate soldiers. They're not what we would call traitors to the Union. Is this a different issue if we get beyond sort of these 10 bases named for Confederate soldiers, or should it be treated similarly? How, if you were in charge, how would you address these questionable, arguably offensive namesakes that exist throughout the military?
Richard Kohn 13:26
Well, it's a very difficult question. I think the smartest way to answer that question is, I would convene knowledgeable people in each service at a central, you know, the highest level that it's practicable to study these efforts to rename people. You know, no one is perfectly good or perfectly bad. And no one -- it's very difficult to judge the relative importance of a contribution of one individual over another. And so as you go down the list of importance, that is from a mega base, like, like Fort Lee or Fort Bragg down to a street, a small street, a side street, or main avenue, an important base like Camp Lejeune, you have to take into account a lot of very difficult comparative questions. People in most cases, they wouldn't have things named for them -- As long as they weren't Confederates they served honorably, in the U.S. Armed Forces. Ideas change, prejudices change, they come and they go, but I would say this about having a group of people looking at this in each armed service: that group must be diverse, must include people of all races and religions, backgrounds with some attachment or some knowledge to the service. It ought to operate in a most transparent way, it ought to have hearings, it ought to hear from the local areas about to hear from the people serving today. This would be a large and difficult business, that if you don't do it, at least, to a major degree in the way I'm describing, you're just gonna stir up more anger and division. And we've got enough anger and division in this country.
Hope Hodge Seck 15:29
You've been public in your belief that as far as these 10 Army bases go, those names should be changed. So the President, Donald Trump, says that won't happen. Of course, there's an election coming up. And it's unclear what the future policy will be. But that's how things currently stand. There's a contingent that believes renaming would be erasure, and actually take something away from the troops that served at these bases. So let me ask you, if we took renaming off the table, even in the really thoughtful way that you just laid out, is there another compromise option? Could you see another way to perhaps place history in context? Apart from renaming, if that was not an option?
Richard Kohn 16:15
Well, almost every base particularly in the Army has a museum of some sort. Air Force bases often do. They have stationary displays of aircraft, you can put up signs, you can put up labels in a museum or label even outdoor labels that could stand the weather that explains this place used to be named X, and so on. So people got their -- a commission was established to come up with a more unifying name, or however you want to describe or explain what happened. I think we are far enough away from from the American Civil War, that it's time I think, to clean up one of the last legacies of that war. Donald Trump took that, in my judgment, and this is a judgment that I make about my president, he does not know very much history, he does not think about it, he does not read about it. And as a result, I always have interpreted that comment he made is a a purely political appeal to his base, to the Republican Party base, a part of which is in the South and a part of which is angry of and follows a long American tradition of dislike of or suspicion about the national government, the federal government. And so it was, it was pure politics, and his comment needs to be contextualized with him and with the current political situation. I was surprised to learn that some years ago when these reenactors of Civil War battles and so on that it was years ago, I don't know what the case is, today was always easier to get people to reenact these battles in Confederate uniform and much more difficult to get enough people to dress as Union soldiers to engage in these reenactments of battles. And I attribute that to just the basic oppositional nature of American youth and American men and American women who want to say, ah, the union, the government. I mean, we never go, they're never going to have universal acclaim. For any step we take of a public nature, it's in our nature not to do that. And I believe it's one of our strengths. And as long as we realize that everybody's got a right to their own opinion, and even to express it. We'll get along just fine in the United States. And I think the military will continue to enjoy its legitimacy and it's support and its acclaim, even if it renames a bunch of bases. I've never ever met. And I've known hundreds, probably thousands of military people in a pretty long career, who really thought they went to war representing fort something or base so and so it's usually a name that's attributed to a place. Oh, yeah, I was trained that Ellsworth Air Force Base, or, oh, yeah, I did my basic training at Great Lakes.
Hope Hodge Seck 19:25
What is your response to people who fear there is a slippery slope from renaming bases named for Confederate generals, to tearing down statues of revolutionary war generals and renaming Washington, D.C. because it's named for a slaveholder, George Washington?
Richard Kohn 19:45
I think we should not be so open-minded that our brains fall out. You can characterize people in a number of ways historically. But the people who founded the United States did a very wonderful thing, most of us in this country feel. Many of them were slaveholders, they wrote a Constitution that put slaveholders more in charge of political power than other people. But their holding of slaves, and even if they treated their slaves badly, which is disgusting, but occurred, that's not all they did. And that's not all they contributed either to the United States or to the world. Thomas Jefferson, whom I've always looked at as a very famous, a very bright, a very thoughtful man, but also a man who could be a hypocrite, as we know from his love life, and we know from his political life. This is not to say, should we rename all the counties in the United States that are named Jefferson, or the towns. He founded the country along with several dozen, actually thousands of people in his era, but several dozen people who were most influential, that's a considerable length of difference, it seems to me, from people who in the 1860s, decided that they should break up the Union, and should go to war with the United States in order to preserve a human bondage.
Hope Hodge Seck 21:25
Finally, there have been a lot of crowdsource proposals on replacement base names. And it has actually been fun, especially online to see the passion and dive into a little bit of the history, a lot of the proposals are names of troops of color, and women who have not properly gotten their due thus far in our history. Do you have any proposals? So I love the idea of a committee. But if it was a committee of one and that person was you -- proposals about where the Army should go for new names, if it were to rename bases? Or do you have principles that you had proposed be established for naming going forward?
Richard Kohn 22:07
Well, my first principle is not to agree to committees of one in anything that's controversial, or anything has to do with public policy. That being said, refresh me now. What is it you want me to say how to go about this that I have not answered that sufficiently?
Hope Hodge Seck 22:27
Proposals for namesakes that you think would be great sort of base representatives.
Unknown Speaker 22:32
Given the number of women in the armed forces today, I don't think there's any question that women should be considered. I know that a friend of mine who is a graduate of Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, belonged to one of the colleges at Yale, which is the way they divide up their dormitories into living spaces. He lived in Calhoun, which was named for John C. Calhoun, which was one of the great politicians of the old South and one of the fiercest defenders of slavery that the old South had, they renamed his college for the very famous computer scientist that the Navy had named Grace, and I'm blanking on her last name.
Hope Hodge Seck 23:18
Grace Hopper, she's an icon, and she's one of my favorite admirals.
Richard Kohn 23:22
She is absolutely. I walked through an airport once and I saw this woman who obviously was way over 60 in age, probably in her 70s, dressed up as a rear admiral, and I said, What in the world is this? Because it's a crime to impersonate an officer. And, and then I found out about Grace Hopper. And so there are, I imagine a number of historians for each of the services could come up with the people, women, with African Americans with Asian Americans, other groups who have served honorably, who was the most famous Navajo Code Talker, would it be wise to name something for that individual? They certainly contributed. And it wasn't just Navajos, by the way, there were other Indian tribes involved in that Marine Corps effort and put these people forwards. You know, this, someone wants to take Alexander Hamilton off the $10 bill and Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill, and [replace it with] a famous black woman of the 19th century, whose name I'm blanking on at the moment. And I think, what better to do than to do that?You're not erasing the past. You can't erase the past. All you can do is learn more about it, and you can forget it or you can learn more about it, but you can't erase it. It's gone. It's there. And so to me, something as awful as the Civil War was, even though it did the very fine result of abolishing slavery of African Americans in the society, I think it's time to close the book on this chapter of it. It certainly would be helpful, it seems to me in terms of adding to the unity, and the loyalty and the commitment of minorities in general and African Americans in particular, to abandon Confederate names for our military installations.
Hope Hodge Seck 25:34
Well, Dr. Kohn, thank you so much for your time. I feel that I got this fascinating lecture for much less than the cost of tuition. So I'm very grateful.
Richard Kohn 25:43
Well you're very kind. It's a pleasure to be with you and I, I wish you and all your listeners all success in their work and in their lives.
Hope Hodge Seck 25:59
Thank you once again for joining us here at Left of Boom. Do you think we should rename military bases? How about ships and streets? Let me know what you think by sending me an email. That address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Have any military topics you wish you understood better? Let me know that too. And maybe we'll tackle them in a future episode. Also, if you're just now finding the show, please go back to our archive. In recent episodes, we tackled the food science behind military MREs, and talk to the Pentagon official who inspired the character Charlie from Top Gun. We have new episodes every two weeks. But remember, in the meantime, you can find all the news and information you need about your military community every day at Military.com.