Trump’s talent for fallibility is infallible. Whenever there has been an issue during his presidency that no one could get wrong, not even a first-grader who is repeating first grade for the fourth time, Trump gets it wrong. In an interview last Sunday with Fox News’s token journalist Chris Wallace, the president complained about the progress that’s been made in the removal of Confederate symbols around the country. It’s a perfect arc for his political journey: he has gone from birther to The Birth of a Nation. He is concerned that if we remove the statues and the Confederate flag we might forget that the Civil War happened.
He said, “We can’t forget that the North and the South fought. We have to remember that. Otherwise we’ll end up fighting again.”
He is perhaps even more agitated by the idea of renaming 10 United States military bases that are named in honor of 10 men who went to war against the United States. Even though military leaders support the renaming, Trump does not. “Fort Bragg is a big deal,” he said. “We won two world wars. Nobody even knows General Bragg. We won two world wars. Go to that community where Fort Bragg is, in a great state, I love that state, go to the community. Say, ‘How do you like the idea of renaming Fort Bragg?’ And then what are we going to name it? You’re going to name it after the Reverend Al Sharpton? What are you going to name it, Chris? Tell me what you’re going to name it. So there’s a whole thing here. We won two world wars, two world wars, beautiful world wars, that were vicious and horrible, and we won ’em out of Fort Bragg, we won ’em out of … all of these forts … and now they want to throw those names away …. I’m against that.”
He is right that no one knows General Bragg, though that seems an odd reason to keep a fort named after him. But to know more about General Bragg is to unlove him. To know more about all these men is the best argument for taking their names off the bases. So, here is a list of the bases, and a few highlights from the careers of the men whom they honor. Because the president was so vexed by what he perceives as the impossibility of finding new names for the bases, I have come up with some suggestions, chosen from a mix of American heroes and the ideals for which they fought.
FORT A. P. HILL, Virginia
Named for: General Ambrose Powell Hill Jr.
While a student at West Point, Hill contracted gonorrhea and missed so many classes he had to repeat his third year. He finally conquered his battle with venereal disease during the Civil War when his body got in the way of a Union bullet. He died a week before the South fell.
New name: FORT FREEDOM
CAMP BEAUREGARD, Louisiana
Named for: General P. G. T. Beauregard
Historian T. Harry Williams said that Beauregard was a serious man who could go months at a time without smiling. (His heritage was French, so that explains that.) Beauregard was so outraged by the Emancipation Proclamation that he called for captured Union soldiers to be garroted to death. He frequently disagreed with his superiors, and finally Jefferson Davis relieved him of his command. To his credit, after the war, unlike so many southerners, Beauregard accepted the reality of what happened and eventually advocated Black civil rights and Black suffrage.
New name: CAMP EMANCIPATION
FORT BENNING, Georgia
Named for: General Henry Benning
A vile character, Benning never bothered with the disguising perfume of terms like “states’ rights” and openly called for a Southern slavocracy. In an impassioned speech for secession, he argued that a Northern victory would lead to the horror of Black juries, legislators, and governors. He said he preferred pestilence and famine to having Frederick Douglass as his president.
New name: FORT DOUGLASS
FORT BRAGG, North Carolina
Named for: GENERAL Braxton Bragg
Widely thought to be one of the worst generals of the Civil War, Bragg was defeated in most of his battles and is credited with losing the West for the Confederacy. He united those below and above him in their fervid dislike of him. Eventually he gave up his command. A person of thoroughgoing incompetence, his name should have been Can’t Bragg.
New name: FORT JUSTICE
FORT GORDON, Georgia
Named for: General John Brown Gordon
Frequently wounded throughout the war out of either bravery or idiocy, Gordon is believed to have been the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. I say “believed” because the Klan was then a secret organization and Gordon denied being a member. He did, however, admit to being a member of a secret peace-police organization. Anytime “secret” and “police” are in the same sentence, you know there’s going to be trouble.
New name: FORT TRUMAN, for President Truman, whose Executive Order No. 9981 led to the integration of the military.
FORT HOOD, Texas
Named for: General John Bell Hood
Insanely courageous or courageously insane? Hood was described as “all lion, none of the fox.” At Gettysburg, he was wounded and forever lost the use of his left arm. At the Battle of Chickamauga, he was wounded and his right leg was amputated. After decisive defeats at the Battles of Franklin and Nashville, he was relieved of command. Of the military leaders under discussion, he is the third so far who was relieved of command. To paraphrase our president, when looking for people to name a military base after, I prefer people who haven’t been relieved of command.
New name: FORT BENAVIDEZ, for Roy P. Benavidez. Benavidez was a Texas-born Green Beret who received the Medal of Honor from President Reagan for his heroism in the Vietnam War. While rescuing American troops who had been ambushed by the North Vietnamese, Benavidez was shot in the face, head, and right leg but persevered to drag his wounded troops to a helicopter. The pilot was killed as he took off, and the helicopter crashed and burst into flames. Benavidez then got the troops off the burning helicopter and, according to his New York Times obituary, “over the next six hours, he organized return fire, called in air strikes, administered morphine and recovered classified documents, although he got shot in the stomach and thigh and hit in the back by grenade fragments. He was bayoneted by a North Vietnamese soldier, whom he killed with a knife. Finally, he shot two enemy soldiers as he dragged the survivors aboard another evacuation helicopter.”
FORT PICKETT, Virginia
Named for: General George Pickett
Pickett graduated 59th in his class at West Point, which would be something to write home about had there been more than 59 cadets. He led Pickett’s Charge, which resulted in the loss of half of his troops and is now a synonym for “disaster.” After the war, Pickett sold insurance, not as great a crime as treason but, depending on how long he stays with you at the kitchen table explaining the difference between term and whole-life policies, just as unforgivable.
New name: FORT VALOR
FORT POLK, Louisiana
Named for: General Leonidas Polk
Polk was an Episcopalian bishop whose interpretation of the Bible permitted him to own hundreds of slaves and then join the army as a soldier whose objective was to kill, not love, his enemy. Apparently his reading of the Good Book stopped short of the New Testament. Early in the war, Polk was wounded when a cannon, nicknamed after his wife, exploded and blew his clothes off. He was later killed by an artillery shell that split him in two. The historian Steven E. Woodworth believed his death was at best a Pyrrhic achievement: given his unfailing incompetence, Polk was more helpful to the Union alive.
New name: FORT LINCOLN, for a man who spoke to our better angels.
FORT RUCKER, Alabama
Named for: ColONEL Edmund Rucker
Badly wounded in the Battle of Nashville—his left arm had to be amputated—Rucker was captured and imprisoned by the Union. His release was negotiated by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
New name: FORT THOMAS, for Major General George H. Thomas. A fine soldier who, according to James M. McPherson, “saved the Union Army of the Cumberland at Chickamauga and destroyed the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Nashville.” Ironically, Thomas was from a large slave-owning family in Virginia. When Virginia seceded, Thomas chose country and honor over state and slavery. After the war, he remained in the military and led the fight against the terrorists of the K.K.K.
FORT LEE, Virginia
Named for: GENERAL Robert E. Lee
When Abraham Lincoln asked him to head up the Union Army, Lee declined. He then resigned and led the Confederate Army, where he used his considerable skills to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans who did not believe other human beings should be kept as slaves. There is not enough time in eternity for him to clean all the blood off his hands.
New name: FORT TUBMAN, for Harriet Tubman.
Honoring people who went to war against our country is a corruption of history, a brazen attempt to suggest that the losers won. Making these changes is not erasing history. It is restoring it.
Douglas McGrath is a filmmaker and playwright. He lives in New York City