With the last of nine base renamings, the Army helps cast aside the myth of the Confederacy
Historians said the renamings – like the removal of many Confederate statues in recent years – are part of a more accurate understanding of the Confederacy.
As the Army renamed the last of nine bases originally named for Confederate generals, an entire category of memorials venerating the Confederacy disappeared.
The bases had been named for men who fought against the very Army that uses them, and who fought for the right to own slaves. The new names could scarcely be more different.
At the first renaming in March, Native American dancers and musicians were part of the ceremony as Fort Pickett in Virginia became Fort Barfoot for World War II Medal of Honor winner Van Barfoot.
Barfoot was a Choctaw Indian, which made it the first Army post in the continental United States to bear the name of a Native American soldier.
A month later, nearby Fort Lee was renamed for Lt. Gen. Arthur J. Gregg and Lt. Col. Charity Adams, both unusually distinguished Black soldiers.
Other bases were renamed for people like Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War surgeon who was the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor, and Gen. Richard Cavazos, the first Latino four-star general and a hero of the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Now, in the final renaming, Fort Gordon in Georgia will be known as Fort Eisenhower for the general who planned and led the D-Day invasion and later became a highly-regarded president.
It's a diverse group. People who did big things for their nation rather than against it.
Historians said the renamings – like the removal of many Confederate statues in recent years – are part of a national return to a more accurate understanding of the Confederacy.
Connor Williams, now finishing work on his PhD at the Departments of History and African American Studies at Yale University, was the lead historian for the federal commission that led the renaming process.
“United States soldiers had gone through this horrible conflict, which had killed more Americans than all of our other wars combined, and they were going to allow the Confederates back into the nation,” he said. “But they were very clear that the United States Army had defeated treason."
"So by changing these bases, we're we're just getting back to the reality as it was in 1870, and 1890," he said.
Around the beginning of the 20th Century, groups – notably the United Daughters of the Confederacy – began promoting the “Lost Cause” myth that made heroes of Confederate leaders and blamed the war more on Northern aggression rather than the Confederacy defending slavery.
They paid for hundreds of memorials to bolster their case, including statues of Confederate leaders placed in front of public buildings like courthouses.
As the effort to mythologize the Confederacy began gaining traction, the Army - as it rushed to build bases in World War I - decided to name those in the north for Union officers and those in the south for Confederates - preferably with short names to reduce clerical work.
Even if the Army’s decision-making on the base names weren’t directly part of the campaign to glorify the Confederacy, that doesn’t mean they weren’t a product of it, said Rivka Maizlish, a senior research analyst at Southern Poverty Law Center who works on its “Whose Heritage Project,” which is dedicated to to tracking and removing Confederate memorials.
“I think the fact that you could even use the names of people who made war against the United States of America for the cause of slavery and white supremacy for military bases shows the success of the propaganda campaign of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other groups,” she said.
Maizlish noted that hundreds of Confederate memorials remain, many of them protected by recently-enacted laws in seven states.
“But it's certainly a step forward to rename those bases,” she said.
Historians draw a distinction between the past — what actually happened — and "history," which is how people decide to portray the past.
“What we think is more significant or less significant, what we think is more important or not, we always make those kinds of choices,” said University of Arizona history professor Susan Crane. “That's how historians work, that's how history gets taught… So it becomes a big, ethical, moral question, what are we choosing to pay attention to? And how does that reflect our values?"
Memorials, Crane said, are like history in that they are crafted to preserve and highlight a specific memory or meaning. And even those carved from granite aren’t the last word on the history of something.
“Everything decays and falls to dust eventually,” she said. “So just because it's written in stone or made of stone doesn't mean it's permanent or needs to be permanent. It just means that was some of the hopes and intentions of the people that created it."
Williams - the renaming commission historian - said the nation's views about the Confederacy has shifted in recent decades, which he could see as he visited Army base communities to explain the history behind the old names.
“I was really impressed by how many Americans — North, South, aged, young, white, Black — were embracing this as a chance to really change the narrative,” he said. “I would give a talk to 75 people, two of them would make very loud and vociferous protests, but 73 would nod their heads or be okay with it.”
The renamed bases are:
Fort Benning in Georgia was renamed Fort Moore in honor of Vietnam War hero Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and his wife Julia who was well-known for her work supporting military families.
Fort Bragg in North Carolina, was renamed Fort Liberty. The word "Liberty" has ties to several units on the base, and Army leaders said it underlines what U.S. soldiers have always fought for.
Fort Gordon in Georgia is now honors Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the Allied Forces to victory in World War II. He served as president from 1953 to 1961 and is credited with beginning diplomatic negotiations with the Soviet Union, signing civil rights legislation, and ordering federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
Fort Walker in Virginia was renamed for Dr. Mary Walker, a Civil War surgeon, abolitionist, and advocate of women’s rights. She was the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Fort Hood in Texas was renamed as Fort Cavazos. Gen. Richard Cavazos was the first Hispanic-American four-star general and twice earned the nation’s second highest military honor for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross - once in Korea and once in Vietnam.
Fort Lee in Virginia was renamed Fort Gregg-Adams in honor of Lt. Gen. Arthur Gregg and Lt. Col. Charity Adams. Gregg is credited with helping rebuild Europe after World War II with his acumen as a supply logistician in Germany. He eventually became logistics director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Adams was the first Black woman to become an officer in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, commander of the first unit of Black women to serve overseas, and the highest ranking Black woman in World War II.
Fort Pickett in Virginia was renamed as Fort Barfoot. Technical Sgt. Van T. Barfoot was awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II, served in the Army for 34 years, and fought in the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Fort Polk, Louisiana was renamed as Fort Johnson. Sgt. William Henry Johnson, a Black soldier, has been called the first great U.S. hero of World War I. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Fort Rucker, Alabama has been renamed for Chief Warrant Officer Michael J. Novosel, Sr. He fought as an officer in World War II, then returned to the battlefield in Vietnam as an enlisted soldier flying helicopters on thousands of combat medevac missions. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.