Few bases are as important to a military service’s identity as Fort Benning, the “home of the infantry,” is to the United States Army. It is there, along the Georgia-Alabama border, where young men and—since 2017—women spend half a year in training to join the Army’s “main land combat force and backbone,” earning blue shoulder cords on their dress uniforms that mark them as infantry soldiers. Elsewhere on Fort Benning, elite trainees endure Ranger training, and Airborne School hopefuls still take their first terrified jumps from iconic World War II–era metal towers before ever boarding an airplane. Fort Benning also houses the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, where the Army notoriously trained a generation of Latin American military officers—some of whom became dictators—on torture and repression techniques in the name of anti-communism and the “war on drugs,” sparking protests that resulted in congressional intervention. What happens on Fort Benning, in other words, has long reverberated through the Army and around the world. It is believed to be one of the five largest military installations on earth. During the workday, it houses more than 100,000 soldiers and workers, enough to make it one of the 10 largest cities in Georgia.
Rooted in former plantation land in the South’s historical Black Belt, where millions of enslaved Black people suffered in sweltering cotton fields, Fort Benning is also named after Henry L. Benning, a local lawyer and slaveowner turned Confederate brigadier general who publicly embraced Georgia’s secession as “the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery” and bemoaned “the fate which Abolition will bring upon the white race.”
Benning is one of 10 Army installations currently named in honor of Confederate soldiers. Following the police killing of George Floyd and the flourishing nationwide protest movement against racism and police violence, the names of those military bases have come in for renewed scrutiny: The voices for change have included Black veterans and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, as well as a May 23 New York Times editorial. Amid the flurry of interest in overturning American monuments to Confederates, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy also abruptly announced this month that they were “open” to the idea of renaming the service’s secessionist-named installations. This sparked an anti-change Twitter outburst from President Trump, with his press secretary claiming in a June 10 press briefing that the movement to rename bases insulted America’s fallen soldiers. Members of Congress, including the GOP-led Senate Armed Services Committee, have other ideas, though, and Senate Republicans are not united on what should be done.
To be clear, the Confederate names don’t stop at the gate, either; when the military police wave me onto bases in the American South, road names honoring Confederate war criminals like Nathaniel Bedford Forrest and John S. Mosby await me. When I first joined the North Carolina National Guard, I was shocked to discover that the Army traces and officially honors the Civil War service of units with Confederate lineages, allowing such units to carry Southern-gray battle “streamers” on their flags. (My views don’t necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the North Carolina Army National Guard, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.) I noticed these things. So did Black soldiers, including a close friend who asked me: “You’re a historian—who even picked these names?”
The movement to name Georgia’s massive infantry base for a neighborhood slaveholder was spurred by the local United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization with an obsessive focus on erecting monuments to Confederate and, occasionally, Ku Klux Klan heroes; the UDC still exists today as a federally recognized 501(c)3 tax-exempt charity, though it’s listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The historical record is unambiguous: Fort Benning was named for a white supremacist, by white supremacists, as part of a national campaign to enshrine a white supremacist narrative of the Civil War. And the Army has allowed the name to stand for more than a century.
Founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1894, the UDC held an outsize influence in perpetuating white supremacy in the United States after Reconstruction ended. The UDC “aspired to transform military defeat into a political and cultural victory, where states’ rights and white supremacy remained intact,” as University of North Carolina-Charlotte history professor Karen L. Cox puts it in Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, the foundational work of scholarship on the group. Scions of the wealthy white elite of the South, the UDC’s women were able to ruthlessly exploit their personal and political connections at every turn.
The UDC vehicle for vindicating and celebrating the Confederacy was the Lost Cause, a misleading narrative of the war and Reconstruction that cast the Southern Civil War cause as a noble one, more about principles and virtues rather than slavery. In this distorted version of history, the U.S. overwhelmed the rebellion instead of militarily defeating it, Confederate leaders—especially Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—were saints, and “Johnny Rebs” were the bravest and fiercest soldiers ever seen. The Lost Cause also held that Black people were incapable of exercising freedom and had been better off in the Old South—as evidence, adherents pointed to embattled, Black-led Republican governments in the Reconstruction South, framing them as chaotic and evil. The entire Lost Cause campaign, from its account of the war’s causes to its characterization of Black politicians, “absolutely is about white supremacy,” said Caroline Janney, director of the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia and author of Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.
The UDC channeled that energy into two main focus areas: education and commemoration. “That included monument building, textbook writing, policing of curriculum and what books were in the library, as well as policing what plays were put on and producing books, as well, that celebrated both the Confederacy and the Klan together,” said Adam Domby, a historian at the College of Charleston and author of The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory. “The UDC marked anything and everything that didn’t move,” UNC-Charlotte’s Cox explained to me in an email: It was a way of ensuring that politicians around the country regularly paid homage to the Lost Cause. And during World War I, there were lots of new things that needed naming.
Throughout the summer of 1918, the white elite of Columbus, Georgia, were hopeful but nervous. A handwritten Chamber of Commerce journal in the Columbus State University Archives reveals how city residents had begun lobbying the federal government to locate a military training camp there as early as March 1917—before the U.S. had even entered the war. On August 18, 1918, the front page of the Columbus Ledger declared victory: The Army was to build a new infantry school outside the Southwest Georgia city.
The following morning’s Ledger front-page headline was “Ladies Endorse Camp Benning.” The ladies were members of the Lizzie Rutherford Chapter of the UDC, and they had “unanimously voted to request the [War Department] to name the army camp which is to be located here in honor of the memory of the lamented General Henry L. Benning,” according to the Chamber of Commerce summary. The same day, the chapter’s secretary and its vice president sent a telegram to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker to “earnestly and respectfully request that the Army camp to be located in [Columbus] be named in honor of our much beloved Gen. Henry L. Benning.”
Benning was not widely celebrated for his military prowess: Unlike eight of the nine other Confederates with Army bases named after them, Benning never even served in the U.S. military—rebellion in the Civil War constituted the entirety of his military career. What Benning was, however, was a key figure in the secessionist movement, described by one historian as an “important fireeater.” As early as 1849, he had argued that Southern secession from the U.S. would be the only way to protect slavery. He had no shortage of personal motives to protect slavery, having been born into a plantation family and enslaved 89 Black people. Benning later led a walkout of pro-slavery Southern delegates from the 1860 Democratic convention after the Northern delegations refused to explicitly support slavery in the party platform, a walkout virtually guaranteeing Abraham Lincoln’s election victory. Then, in a pro-secession speech that November, Benning painted the newly elected Lincoln as a boogeyman to stoke fears of open race war, claiming Black people were “savages” who would “exterminate the white race.”
Another contributing factor to Benning’s unanimous selection was that his daughter, Anna Caroline Benning, was the president of the local UDC chapter and perhaps the most powerful woman in Columbus. Her 1935 obituary mourned her as “one of the most picturesque and beloved women of the state” and “a true daughter of the old southern aristocracy.” Known as “Tiny” Benning, she also served as president of the local Ladies Memorial Association, a predecessor to the UDC, and founded the local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter, later ascending to national office in that organization.
Unsurprisingly, other white organizations in the community rallied behind the UDC’s Benning proposal. The local United Confederate Veterans endorsed it almost immediately. Then in September 1918, the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce both sent letters to the War Department in Benning’s support. The editors of the Columbus Ledger followed suit with a September 30 editorial titled “Name It Benning.” When the first soldiers arrived at the new post on October 6, it had already been informally christened Benning by the locals. The post’s commandant, Col. Henry E. Eames, quickly caught onto the local name and started referring to it as Camp Benning. Two weeks later, the War Department made the name official, sending a telegram to the secretary of the local Chamber of Commerce confirming that Henry Benning would get his base.
A formal flag-raising and large parade through Columbus marked the event on December 12. At the head of the parade rode Anna Caroline Benning, who hoisted an American flag to the top of the 102-foot pole, a symbolic reconciliation of pro-Confederate white Southerners to the federal government—on the Southerners’ terms. The urgent needs of the military during WWI played a role in the Army’s decision. “The Army’s trying to find a way to get local populations onboard with putting a base in and using eminent domain, right, they’re taking large amounts of property, right? So letting them name it is one way to do that,” Domby, the Charleston historian, told me. But the military was also “trying to get local citizens ready to enlist themselves” with “appeals to whatever the local sense of patriotism [was].” And to the prominent white citizens of Columbus, Henry L. Benning was “a splendid example of patriotic citizenship.”
Base namings like Benning’s “were tied to white supremacy, and they were tied to essentially signaling to white Southerners … that they’d been accepted back in” by the federal government, Domby said—but more than that, the Confederate base names also demonstrated that the Army “was willing to allow African Americans to be treated as second-class citizens.”
That was the bargain that we live with today. “The fact that white Northerners [were] willing to name bases after Confederate generals suggests a lot about white Northerners’ willingness to accept this version of the past that many of their fathers would’ve adamantly disagreed with,” said the University of Virginia’s Janney.
On face, that Lost Cause reasoning is much less popular today. Public support for removing Confederate monuments has sharply risen—a Quinnipiac University poll released June 17 shows that 53 percent of Americans now support removal, an increase of 19 percent since previous polling in 2017. The poll shows Americans evenly split on the issue of Confederate base names, but those numbers may shift further in support of renaming in the future. One reason is the large increase in awareness of the issue—until the recent protests, many Americans simply did not understand the scale of the Army’s Confederate commemorations, if they were even aware of their existence. Other branches of the military have responded swiftly to this month’s calls for racial justice: The Air Force is launching an investigation into how racial injustice affects the health of Black service members. The Marine Corps just banned Confederate imagery across the entire force, and the Navy promptly followed suit.
The Army, however, has been much more ambiguous. As late as February, the service was not interested in changing any base names. Even the June 10 Army statement signaling Esper’s and McCarthy’s openness to name changes also stressed, against all the available evidence, that the installations’ “historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.” And nowhere did McCarthy say what multiple military experts are now saying: that he could change the name of any Army installation today, by himself, with the stroke of a pen, and yet he hasn’t. That has a lot to do with the fact that McCarthy’s boss, the mercurial commander in chief, has vowed on social media that “my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
Which means that, until Trump leaves office or changes his mind, the U.S. Army’s implicit homage to its former Confederate enemies will persist—and with it, a host of American contradictions. “Given the number of African Americans who serve in our military and train at these bases, it is, I think, problematic for us to not have bases named after people who are admirable and people who didn’t fight to keep them enslaved,” said Domby.
Janney was even more direct. “Everyone,” she told me, “is implicit in this white supremacy.”