In the South in the years before the Civil War, it would have been difficult to find a more zealous advocate for slavery than Henry Lewis Benning. He was a firebrand from Georgia and an early advocate of Southern secession. As his public stature rose, Benning became an increasingly ardent voice for the creation of a pro-slavery Southern republic. He helped draft Georgia’s ordinance of secession, which took the state out of the Union just before the Civil War.
Benning was such a powerful force for secession that Georgia sent him as the state’s representative to persuade Virginia to secede as well. In a speech in Virginia in early 1861, Benning revealed in unflinching terms his belief that secession was the only way to save slavery in the South. Georgia had seceded, he said, because of “a deep conviction on the part of Georgia that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery. … If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain slavery is to be abolished. By the time the North shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that? It is not a supposable case. … War will break out everywhere like hidden fire from the earth.”
Virginia seceded, and Benning went on to become a general in the Confederate Army.
Today, Benning would be a long-forgotten footnote to the history of Southern white supremacy — if not for the U.S. Army. That’s because the Army honors Benning above almost any other military officer in American history. Fort Benning, in Georgia, one of the most important military installations in the United States, is named for him.
Benning’s qualifications for having one of America’s most iconic Army bases named after him? He was a Confederate and he was from Georgia.
In an era of protests against Confederate monuments across the South, the U.S. Army has faced almost no resistance to its steadfast determination to keep those names in place.
Fort Benning is just one of 10 Army bases named for Confederates, a legacy of the Jim Crow era in the South, when many of today’s largest bases were built in rural Southern areas where the Army could accumulate large tracts of cheap land with the kind of terrain and climate needed for training.
Eager to expand rapidly during the periods around World War I and World War II, the Army placated white Southern community leaders by naming newly constructed bases after Confederates, usually generals with some local connection. The Army didn’t seem to care who the bases were named after as long as they won local cooperation to build them fast.
“In times of crisis, the Army was going to work with the local people who had power and influence, and they would go along with them on what to name the bases,” observed David Cecelski, a North Carolina historian who has written extensively about slavery and civil rights.
But today, 100 years after some of those bases were built, they retain their Confederate names. And in an era of protests against Confederate statues and monuments in cities and towns across the South, the U.S. Army has faced almost no resistance to its steadfast determination to keep those names in place.
There have been no significant protests targeting bases named for Confederates. Either protesters don’t realize who the bases are named for, or they are unwilling to confront such big, powerful targets.
Yet the base names were products of the same reassertion of Southern white supremacy that prompted the erection of many Confederate statues and monuments. Fort Benning, for example, was built in 1918, at the height of Jim Crow, when lynching and other white violence against black people throughout the South was widespread. “All of those Confederate statues were really symbols of white supremacy, and they were put up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not right after the Civil War,” noted Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at Brown University and author of a book about the relationship between Fort Bragg and Fayetteville, where the base is located. “They were symbols of resurgent white supremacy, and they were also warnings.”
Questions about the base names have occasionally been raised with the Army. But officials have always sought to dismiss such concerns by arguing that the bases are named to honor American soldiers, and that changing the names would upend tradition.
The issue briefly flared in the aftermath of the 2015 shooting of worshippers at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist. Protests followed in Charlottesville, Virginia, over whether that town’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee should be removed, prompting a backlash from white supremacists and neo-Nazis, who organized the “Unite the Right” rally there in August 2017. The rally turned deadly when a white supremacist deliberately plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. That tragedy brought national focus to the question of what should be done about public monuments, statues, and other representations honoring the pro-slavery Confederacy at a time of increasing diversity in the United States.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, the Army faced specific questions about the fact that two streets at Fort Hamilton, an old base in Brooklyn, were named for Confederates. Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat who represents large swaths of central and south Brooklyn, asked the Army to change the names of Stonewall Jackson Drive and General Lee Avenue at Fort Hamilton.
“These monuments are deeply offensive to the hundreds of thousands of Brooklyn residents and members of the armed forces stationed at Fort Hamilton whose ancestors Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson fought to hold in slavery,” Clarke said in a statement at the time.
The Army refused, and an Army official wrote that renaming the streets would be “controversial and divisive.”
Since the skirmish over the street names at Fort Hamilton died down, the Confederate names of Army bases have received little public attention despite a surge in white supremacist violence this year, including the mass shooting in El Paso in August.
Congressional Democrats, who now control the House of Representatives, may take action on the issue this year, but it is not clear how forcefully they will push, especially at a time when impeachment is overshadowing everything else in the House. A spokesperson for Clarke said that she plans to introduce legislation soon that would mandate the renaming of military bases named for Confederates, similar to a measure she proposed in 2017.
Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington state Democrat who is now chair of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees the Pentagon, appears to be quietly pushing for changes in the process by which bases are named. In 2017, after the “Unite the Right” rally, Smith joined Clarke and several other members of Congress in signing a letter to then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis calling for the renaming of bases named after Confederates. Now Smith and House Democrats are pushing for a provision in the legislation covering the Pentagon’s budget that would require new “military naming conventions,” congressional officials say, but it is unclear whether they would require the renaming of existing bases or would only apply to future installations. It’s also not clear whether the Pentagon will continue to resist any change.
Many bases are named for Confederates who were ardent white supremacists in the South before, during, and after the Civil War.
The Army’s current position that it is merely celebrating American soldiers and upholding tradition ignores the ugly truth: Many bases are named for Confederates who were ardent white supremacists in the South before, during, and after the Civil War.
Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, is a good example. Built in 1918, the base is named for Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general. Not only was Bragg considered to have been one of the most incompetent generals in the Civil War, he was also a major slaveowner.
Bragg was born in Warrenton, North Carolina, where his father used slaves in his contracting and construction business. Long before the Civil War, Bragg’s mother shot and killed a free black man who said something to her that she didn’t like. She was arrested but acquitted by a jury.
In 1856, just five years before the start of the Civil War, Bragg bought a sugar plantation in Louisiana where he owned 105 slaves. After acquiring the plantation, Bragg wrote to his wife that the slaves were “a fair lot, the children very fine and of a pretty age and just getting to the field.”
After the outbreak of the Civil War, an Irish journalist wrote that Bragg told him that “slaves were necessary for the actual cultivation of the soil in the South; Europeans and Yankees who settled there speedily became convinced of that; and if a Northern population were settled in Louisiana tomorrow, they would discover that they must till the land by the labor of the black race, and that the only mode of making the black race work was to hold them in a condition of involuntary servitude.”
Then there’s Fort Gordon, in Georgia, built in 1941 and named for John Brown Gordon, a Confederate general who is widely believed to have been the head of the secretive Ku Klux Klan in Georgia following the Civil War. After he was elected to the U.S. Senate, Gordon helped forge an infamous political deal in which white Southern politicians agreed to break a prolonged deadlock over the outcome of the 1876 presidential election by not blocking the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, from assuming office. In return, the Republicans agreed that they would remove federal troops from Southern states, effectively ending Reconstruction.
Fort Rucker, in Alabama, is named for Edmund Rucker, who served the Confederacy as an officer under Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest’s cavalry was responsible for the massacre of 300 Union soldiers, most of them black, at Fort Pillow in Tennessee in 1864, which today is considered one of the worst atrocities of the Civil War. After the war, Forrest became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and also went into business with Rucker in a railroad-building project, according to a recent biography of Rucker.
While the Army may not have cared much about the names of its bases when they were built, white Southern leaders certainly understood their political significance. Federal bases named for Confederates helped maintain the romantic illusion of “the Lost Cause” and the notion, popularized by the film “Birth of a Nation” and the novel “Gone with the Wind,” that the South had fought to preserve a pastoral way of life rather than to maintain the brutality of slavery.
That reading of Southern history was clearly a factor in the naming of Fort Benning. When it was built in Columbus in 1918, the local Rotary Club asked the Army to name it after Benning, who was buried there. To celebrate the base’s opening, a parade was held, featuring Benning’s 65-year-old daughter. As she rode through town, in a car flying the American flag, an older woman in the crowd – a woman whose own granddaughter called her an “unreconstructed rebel” – shouted, “I’m ashamed of you, riding down Broad Street behind that old rag!”