Yes, President Trump, Confederate Base Names Celebrate Heritage — A Shameful OneRoundup
tags: military history, memorials, Confederacy, monuments
Chad Williams is the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector professor of history and African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, and author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era.
The naming of Army bases is rooted in tradition. Dating to the American Revolution, the military generally left the decision to local personnel. The names chosen tended to honor prominent officers or soldiers with connections to the particular home state. Throughout World War I and World War II, no clear policy or objective standards existed for how bases were named. As a result, the politics of region and race allowed for white Southern congressmen and other elected officials to wield their influence and take advantage of the construction of army bases to honor Confederate heroes and further the “Lost Cause.” Even after the military set guidelines for base naming in 1946, the criteria remained vague.
Four of the 10 facilities named after Confederate generals (Camp Beauregard, Fort Bragg, Fort Lee and Fort Benning) were established during World War I. Two other World War I-era bases, Camp Wheeler and Camp Gordon, no longer exist. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, it had a small army of just over 120,000 soldiers. The war effort thus required a tremendous expansion of the military and the building of facilities, most in the South, to accommodate the training of troops.
The war also coincided with the height of sectional reconciliation and Jim Crow. The war was seen by some as an opportunity to heal the wounds of the Civil War. But reunion between North and South occurred at the expense of racial justice for black people. At the onset of the war, white Americans had come together in a shared commitment to white supremacy, while the rights of African Americans were steadily stripped away.
Black soldiers at Southern bases were therefore seen as a “problem” to be controlled. As they trained at bases such as Camp Lee before going to France, black troops were constantly reminded of their separate and unequal status. The treatment of labor troops rejected for overseas duty was especially brutal. The Army actively sought out white noncommissioned officers with training in “handling” black workers. The War Department, as well as the NAACP, received dozens of letters from soldiers, like one from Virginia who detailed being “cursed, kicked and often beaten.”
The tradition of naming military facilities after Confederate generals and the mistreatment of black soldiers continued into World War II. Construction of the six bases currently bearing the names of former rebel leaders (Fort Polk, Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Pickett, Fort Hood, Fort Rucker and Fort Gordon) began in early 1941 and continued after the United States entered the war in December of that year. When it came to naming them, President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed bases in the South to carry the names of Confederates. It made for good politics at a time when he still needed the support of the “Solid South” in the Democratic Party.
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