Confederate base names stir tensions over Americas dark past

Author : cepcil
Publish Date : 2020-12-24

Confederate base names stir tensions over Americas dark past

This week, if there had been no pandemic, I would have been on leave, heading for Gettysburg in Pennsylvania - the site of the famous battle in the American Civil War of 1861-65.

For some reason this conflict captured my interest as a child. I've always wanted to attend the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute's annual summer school. Sadly, that has been cancelled this year because of Covid-19.

On frequent trips to the States, I used to buy a historical magazine about the war whose masthead slogan proclaimed: "For those who still hear the sound of the guns."

This reference to the echoes of the conflict through the ages is, I think, why the war still fascinates me today.

As the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates, for many Americans there is still unfinished business from the Civil War years.

The benefits of black emancipation were partial and never fully realised. Oppression, disproportionate poverty and racism continue to this day, more than 150 years after the conflict ended.

Protesters sit at an intersection during demonstrations following the recent death of George Floyd in Los Angeles, CaliforniaIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES

image captionProtests under the the Black Lives Matter banner have erupted across the US

Other Americans who still hold to the myths about "the old South" take a very different view. And then there are the hardcore right-wing and racist militias, who freely use the symbols of the Confederacy to symbolise their own cause.

Indeed, the Civil War is rarely out of the news, be it for controversy over statues commemorating Confederate leaders or famous generals or, most recently, for the long-standing naming of a small number of US military bases after rebel commanders.

In the wake of George Floyd's killing and the wave of protests that have followed, the questioning of the visibility of the Confederacy's public heritage has reached a new intensity.

Some long-contested statues are finally being removed and the Pentagon has appeared ready to take a fresh look at the dozen or so establishments named after Confederate generals.

Senior officials, a spokesman said on Monday, were "open to a bipartisan discussion on the topic of removing Confederate names from the bases".

Think about it for a moment.

A man holding a Confederate flag across the street from the Jefferson Davis monument in New Orleans, LouisianaIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES

image captionThe Confederate flag is a symbol of racism to some and pride to others

Yes, it was a long time ago, but these were officers who rose up against their own government. It is hard to imagine many countries where such figures would be commemorated by the very military that they fought against.

As retired Gen David Petraeus put it in a recent article in The Atlantic: "The irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable to anyone paying attention…"

But US President Donald Trump is having none of it, insisting that the names will not be changed.

He argues that you cannot change history and that these bases are an integral element of the US military's past.

Once again, he appears to be aligning himself with southern defenders of a very specific Confederate past, as he did at a rally at Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 - when he failed to condemn explicitly the violence of white supremacists whose activities contributed to the death of a demonstrator.

It is an election year, after all.

Most - if not all - of these bases are in the former states of the Confederacy, like Texas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

As a footnote, Camp Beauregard in Louisiana commemorates the rebel Gen Pierre GT Beauregard. He was the Confederate commander in Charleston who opened fire on Union troops in Fort Sumpter in 1861 - the very shot that opened the Civil War.

Many of these sites date back to camps set up during World War One that were reactivated again for World War Two, eventually becoming permanent establishments. In total, 10 US Army installations were named after senior Confederate commanders.

Presentational grey line

Four large US military bases named for Confederate generals:

Fort Bragg in North Carolina

Established in 1918, the base was named for Gen Braxton Bragg, a slave-plantation owner from North Carolina who defected from the US Army to fight for the Confederacy.

His military record was mixed, including accolades for his US Army service in the Mexican-American War, but many defeats for the Confederacy in the Civil War, which historians attribute to his poor tactics.

The headquarters of the Special Forces, Fort Bragg is among the largest US military bases in terms of population.

The HQ of the elite Special Forces at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North CarolinaIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES

image captionThe HQ of the US Special Forces is based at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina

Fort Benning in Georgia

Fort Benning, which hosts several training schools for infantry and other US Army units, bears the name of Henry Benning, a Confederate general and Supreme Court judge in his native Georgia.

Gen Benning was a staunch advocate of Confederate secession, arguing that it was the only way to preserve slavery in the southern states.

Fort Lee in Virginia

The name of Robert E Lee, the commander of the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia, was given to the base, then called Camp Lee, during World War One.

In southern states, Lee is still revered today as one of the Civil War's greatest generals for his underdog victories against larger armies. Training units, logistical support and two museums are based at Fort Lee.

Fort Hood in Texas

Covering 214,968 acres (335 sq miles), Fort Hood is the US Army's principal base for training and deploying heavy forces - the 1st Cavalry Division among them.

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