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The last army base named for a Confederate general is now called Fort Eisenhower

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The last of nine U.S. Army bases originally named for Confederate generals has been renamed. Fort Gordon in Georgia is now Fort Eisenhower. And with that, an entire category of memorials venerating the Confederacy is gone. WUNC's Jay Price has more.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The bases were named for men who fought against the very army that uses them and for the right to own slaves. The new names are different.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).

PRICE: At the first of the nine name changes back in March, Native American dancers and musicians were part of the ceremony as Fort Pickett and Virginia became Fort Barfoot for World War II Medal of Honor recipient Van Barfoot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This will be the first Army post in the continental United States bearing the name of a Native American soldier.

PRICE: A month later, nearby Fort Lee was renamed for Lieutenant General Arthur J. Gregg and Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Today marks the first redesignation in the name of Black soldiers.

(APPLAUSE)

PRICE: And so it went. Other bases were renamed for the first woman to win the Medal of Honor, a Hispanic Army hero and now Eisenhower, the general who planned and led the D-Day invasion and later became president, people who did big things for their nation rather than against it. Historians say the renamings are part of a national return to an accurate understanding of the Confederacy. Connor Williams was lead historian for the federal commission that led the renaming process.

CONNOR WILLIAMS: United States soldiers had gone through this horrible conflict, and they were going to allow the Confederates back into the nation. But they were very clear that the United States Army had defeated treason and that it was not the North and the South. It was the U.S. Army versus this domestic insurrection. And so by changing these bases, we're just getting back to the reality as it was in 1870 and 1890.

PRICE: A time before the organized effort, he says, to portray the Confederate cause as noble and the soldiers in gray as equivalent to those in blue. 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. They paid for hundreds of memorials to bolster their case. Meanwhile, 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.

RIVKA MAIZLISH: 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 as military bases shows the success of the propaganda campaign of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other groups.

PRICE: That's Rivka Maizlish, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. History professor Susan Crane at the University of Arizona cautions against conflating the past with history, which is how people decide to portray the past.

SUSAN CRANE: Learning history is always the practice of making choices, choices of what we pay attention to.

PRICE: Memorials, she says, are crafted to preserve and highlight a specific memory or meaning.

CRANE: What we think is more significant or less significant, what we think is more important or not. So it becomes a big ethical, moral question. What are we choosing to pay attention to, and how does that reflect our values?

PRICE: Williams says how the nation views the Confederacy and slavery has obviously shifted in recent decades, something he could gauge during the renaming process as he visited base communities.

WILLIAMS: 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 OK with it.

PRICE: And so now, rather than slave owners, Klan leaders and Confederate Army generals, the nation is using the bases to commemorate Americans like Eisenhower, Barfoot, Gregg and Adams. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTAY SAVAGE SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price
Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.