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Esper, Army secretary open to renaming 10 posts named for Confederate generals

There are 10 U.S. Army posts named after men who were Confederate generals during the Civil War. Top row, from left: Braxton Bragg, George Edward Pickett, Henry Benning, A.P. Hill and Leonidas Polk. Bottom row, from left: John Brown Gordon, John Bell Hood, Robert E. Lee, Edmund Rucker and Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard.

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 9, 2020

A 2015 Stars and Stripes interactive project about the Confederate generals after whom 10 U.S. military bases are named.

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy are open to starting a conversation about changing the names of 10 of the service’s posts named for prominent Confederate generals from the Civil War, Army officials said Monday.

McCarthy wants to have a “bipartisan discussion” about the controversial issue, the official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not provide further details, including what sparked McCarthy’s willingness to discuss the topic.

Esper also supports such a discussion about changing the installation names, officials said. Esper was McCarthy’s predecessor as Army secretary.

It marks a substantial change in the Army’s position on the naming of the 10 Army posts: Camp Beauregard and Fort Polk in Louisiana; Fort Benning and Fort Gordon in Georgia; Fort Bragg in North Carolina; Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Lee and Fort Pickett in Virginia; Fort Rucker in Alabama, and Fort Hood in Texas. The installations were named primarily during the south’s Jim Crow era in the 1910s and 1940s.

As recently as February, Army officials said the service had no intentions of addressing the topic of the naming of its installations. A service spokesperson said some posts were named for Confederate generals in “the spirit of reconciliation” and not in “support for any particular cause or ideology.”

"The Army has a tradition of naming installations and streets after historical figures of military significance, including former Union and Confederate general officers,” an Army spokesperson said in a statement at that time.

The apparent change in thinking, first reported Monday by Politico, comes as demonstrators across the United States have held protests to systemic racism and police brutality. Uprisings in all 50 states and in Washington, D.C., were sparked by the May 25 death of a handcuffed black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer, who has since been fired and charged with second-degree murder.

A second Army official on Monday pointed to those events and a June 3 memorandum issued by McCarthy, Gen. James McConville, the service chief of staff, and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, its top enlisted soldier, as driving the willingness to discuss installation names. In the memo, the leaders acknowledge racism exists in the Army and pledged to listen to soldiers about those issues.

“Over the past week, the country has suffered an explosion of frustration over the racial divisions that still plague us as Americans. And because your Army is a reflection of American society, those divisions live in the Army as well,” they wrote. “We feel the frustration and anger.”

The change in stance towards the Army’s long-held installation names also comes as the Marine Corps implements a ban on the Confederate battle flag on its bases.

“This symbol has shown it has the power to inflame feelings of division,” Gen. David Berger, the Marine commandant, wrote in an April letter to Marines. “I cannot have that division inside our Corps.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., sent a letter Monday to McCarthy asking him to follow the Marine Corps’ lead in banning Confederate memorabilia on Army installations. She sent similar letters to the leaders of the military’s other services.

Duckworth, a former Army pilot and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked the Army’s top civilian to prohibit the display of the Confederate battle flag and “eliminate any honors that could reasonably be interpreted as commemorating or celebrating any enemy force, foreign or domestic, that engaged in armed conflict against the U.S. armed forces and sought to destroy the United States of America,” a reference to the names of the 10 posts. 

“Honoring the ‘lost cause’ of those who waged war against the United States of America, or defending the right of an individual state to allow its residents to own, sell and kill fellow Americans as property, has no place in our nation, especially the U.S. armed forces which waged a deadly war to eliminate the barbaric practice of slavery,” she wrote. 

The Army does not need lawmaker input to change post names. 

According to a 2006 Army regulation, the service can change the names of its installations without input from Congress or other federal authorities. Army Regulation 1-33 names the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs as the official responsible for the naming of Army installations.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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