Removing the names of confederate commanders from U.S. military bases is a symbolic but necessary step that our leaders need to take, now. Black veterans have explained how it feels like a “slap in the face” to serve on bases named after generals who fought on the side of slavery. Retired military leaders have joined the push to rename these facilities. Active Department of Defense leaders have indicated an openness to the conversation.
There is increasing bipartisan agreement and appetite to address this issue. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Maine Sen. Angus King, approved an amendment to the annual defense policy bill last week that would require the Pentagon to rename the bases within three years.
The most notable holdout amid this momentum? President Donald Trump, who is clinging to an incorrect notion that renaming the bases would somehow tamper with America’s military history. That concern is, at best, misplaced.
Renaming bases and removing statutes doesn’t erase history. This is less about who we remember as a country, and more about who we celebrate. We can learn about Robert E. Lee without continuing to have his name on an Army base or his likeness towering over a public space. We can keep teaching future generations about the tragedies, triumphs and complexities of a nation at war with itself without literally putting secessionists, who ultimately fought to preserve slavery and in many cases owned slaves themselves, up on a pedestal.
The 10 U.S. army bases in question are Fort Bragg in North Carolina; Fort Benning and Fort Gordon in Georgia; Fort Hood in Texas; Fort Lee, Fort Pickett and Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia; Fort Polk and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana; and Fort Rucker in Alabama.
Rather than celebrate men who led, and lost, the effort to secede from the United States, why not celebrate those who fought for our country? Why not rename these bases after some of the black soldiers who bled for the Union during the Civil War, even before their country treated them as people, or those who fought in Vietnam even as the fight for civil rights continued here at home?
It’s not hard to find potential candidates just by looking at the black members of the Army who have earned the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor, over the course of our history. Several of these soldiers have ties to the states with bases named after confederates — either by serving in those states or by being born there.
One example is Decatur Dorsey, a Union sergeant and flag bearer who was born into slavery in Maryland and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his action during the Civil War Battle of Petersburg in Virginia. According to his medal citation, Dorsey “planted his colors on the Confederate works in advance of his regiment, and when the regiment was driven back to the Union works he carried the colors there and bravely rallied the men.”
Another Union soldier, Christian Fleetwood, was awarded his Medal of Honor at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm in Virginia, when he “seized the colors, after two color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight.”
These soldiers, who carried the American flag into battle and fought to preserve the American Union, seem much more deserving of having a military base named after them than men who waged war against it.
Garfield Langhorn was a private and radio operator who threw himself on a grenade in Vietnam to protect injured fellow soldiers. A native of Virginia, he was 20 years old when he sacrificed his life for others.
William Maud Bryant, born in Cochran, Georgia, was also killed in action in Vietnam. Here is just part of his lengthy Medal of Honor citation:
“Bryant fearlessly charged an enemy automatic weapons position, overrunning it, and single-handedly destroying its three defenders. Inspired by his heroic example, his men renewed their attack on the entrenched enemy. While regrouping his small force for the final assault against the enemy, Sergeant 1st Class Bryant fell mortally wounded by an enemy rocket. Sergeant 1st Class Bryant’s selfless concern for his comrades, at the cost of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.”
The service of these black soldiers are proud moments in the military history of this country. Renaming the 10 bases to recognize their accomplishments and sacrifices wouldn’t erase other parts of that history, but instead shift the focus of what and who we honor and celebrate.