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• Two Republican presidential candidates, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, recently said they would return the name Fort Bragg to the large U.S. Army base in North Carolina. It was formally changed to Fort Liberty earlier this month.
• Braxton Bragg was a Confederate general. The North Carolina facility was targeted for renaming after passage of a federal law in 2020 that barred U.S. military bases for being named for Confederate figures.
• Many historians say that Bragg not only waged war on the United States and enslaved more than 100 people, but that his military record was mixed at best and did not draw the respect of many soldiers he commanded.
In early June, a sprawling U.S. Army base in North Carolina shed the name it was given in 1918 — Fort Bragg — and was formally renamed Fort Liberty.
The name change was prompted by a federal law, passed in 2020 after protests over George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, to rename military bases that had been named after Confederate leaders seen as traitors and enslavers.
But the name change has drawn controversy, at least among Republican presidential candidates who see history in the name and political correctness in the decision.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence both criticized the name change during speeches in Greensboro, North Carolina, and pledged to undo it if elected president.
"It's an iconic name and iconic base, and we're not going to let political correctness run amok in North Carolina," DeSantis said.
Pence said, "We will end the political correctness in the hallways of the Pentagon, and North Carolina will once again be home to Fort Bragg."
The views of the GOP primary frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, have been clear for years. Trump vetoed a 2020 bill that included the base-naming provision, citing the bill’s "politically motivated attempts ... to wash away history." But his veto was overridden by Congress.
"Fort Bragg is a big deal," Trump said on "Fox News Sunday" in 2020. "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?"
Historians of the Civil War, however, see lots of reasons to strip the name after a century of use.
"Braxton Bragg was a famously poor general, known to be so by soldiers and officers in his own command," said Bruce Levine, an emeritus history professor at the University of Illinois and author of several books on the Civil War, including "Half Slave & Half Free: The Roots of Civil War."
"More importantly," Levine said, "Bragg enthusiastically, if poorly, helped lead an armed insurrection against the United States government that tried to break up the Union and preserve slavery."
Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, photographed during the Civil War era. (Library of Congress)
Fort Bragg was one of 10 bases named for Confederate figures that were affected by the law.
Some are among the biggest in the U.S., including Fort Bragg, Fort Benning in Georgia, and Fort Hood in Texas. Others included Camp Beauregard and Fort Polk in Louisiana, Fort Gordon in Georgia, Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Lee and Fort Pickett in Virginia, and Fort Rucker in Alabama.
Bragg (1817-1876) graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, served in the Second Seminole War and commanded Fort Marion in Florida, "displaying a penchant for strict discipline and the first hints of an argumentative personality," according to the American Battlefield Trust. In spite of this reputation, Bragg won promotions for bravery during the Mexican War, earning him "the undying gratitude of the commander of a Mississippi regiment, Jefferson Davis," according to the trust.
Davis became president of the Confederate States of America, and Davis’ ascension helped elevate Bragg’s prominence during the Civil War. After fighting in the Battle of Shiloh, Bragg was promoted to full general.
"Under Bragg the army scored partial victories — at places like Perryville, Stones River, and Chickamauga — but never delivered the finishing blow," according to the Battlefield Trust. After Bragg’s defeat at Chattanooga in November 1863, Davis accepted his protege’s resignation as army commander, though he remained active in the Confederate army in other positions.
Bragg’s name became attached to the North Carolina fort during the rapid military buildup during World War I. Fort Bragg emerged as a training ground for U.S. artillery forces, which was another connection to Bragg.
In this context, getting the political support of local politicians by choosing a name they liked "was paramount," said Lance Janda, a Cameron University historian. In the South, the military often took its cues from local and state politicians, historians said.
The timing of when these bases were named was not coincidental, historians said. It was after Union soldiers who would have opposed the names had died and before the advent of the civil rights movement, when segregation was still in effect in the South.
By World War I, officials had decided that reconciliation between the North and South "was more important than the rights of freed African Americans, which led, among other things, to the unhindered establishment of Jim Crow in the South," said David Silbey, a Cornell University historian and author of "War Of Frontier And Empire," to PolitiFact in 2020.
The military in particular was thoroughly segregated through World War II.
"White Southerners filled the officer corps and the enlisted ranks, and they brought their neo-Confederate culture with them," said Gregory J. W. Urwin, a Temple University historian and author of "Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War."
Where the Republican candidates see a justification to keep the name for tradition’s sake, the historians offered several reasons to leave Bragg’s name in the past, starting with his participation in the Confederate military.
Bragg’s wartime actions "resulted in the death of thousands of United States Army soldiers," said Joseph T. Glatthaar, a University of North Carolina historian and author of "Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee."
Janda, the Cameron University historian, agreed. "He led Confederate troops in battle against the United States. It qualifies him as a traitor of the first order."
Bragg’s military leadership record is mixed, the experts said, and he was disliked by many of those who served under him.
"At best, Bragg's impact was uneven, and in many ways he hastened Confederate defeat," said Earl J. Hess, a historian retired from Lincoln Memorial University and author of the 2016 biography, "Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy."
While Hess gives a more positive assessment of Bragg’s military career than some other historians do, he said Bragg had "genuine faults and limitations" as a general.
"Most historians consider him among the very worst Civil War generals, and his troops allegedly tried to assassinate him in 1847," Janda said. "On top of that, he flashed moments of competence, but for the most part proved utterly inept. Only his connection with Jefferson Davis saved him. Even if you wanted to name a military installation after a Confederate, he would not be on anyone’s list, based on his career."
Bragg, a sugar planter in Louisiana, is also believed to have enslaved over 100 people.
"On a personal level, Braxton Bragg thoroughly and strongly supported slavery, arguing that it was a vital element in the South's progress and way of life," Hess said.
When Massachusetts anti-slavery Sen. Charles Sumner was attacked in the U.S. Capitol by a Southern member of the House in 1856, Bragg "applauded the attack on Sumner and wrote to acquaintances that Sumner got what he deserved," Hess said.
Hess said his role as an academic historian left him with a more balanced view of Bragg the general and his impact on the Civil War.
But "Bragg's defense of slavery, by itself, is more than enough justification for changing the name of this important military installation," Hess said. "In fact, it is poetic justice."
Military.com, "DeSantis, Pence Campaign on Reversing Fort Liberty Designation," June 12, 2023
Associated Press, "Fort Bragg officially renamed Fort Liberty," June 2, 2023
WTVD-TV, "Trump defends keeping Fort Bragg name amid calls to rename bases named after Confederate leaders," July 19, 2020
Charles Lane, "Even by Trump-era GOP standards, this is a base pander" (Washington Post column), June 14, 2023
American Battlefield Trust, "Braxton Bragg," accessed June 16, 2023
PolitiFact, "Military bases named for Confederates: Renaming suggestions from military historians," June 16, 2020
Email interview with David Silbey, Cornell University historian and author of "War Of Frontier And Empire," June 15, 2020
Email interview with Joseph T. Glatthaar, University of North Carolina historian and author of "Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee," June 13, 2023
Email interview with Bruce Levine, emeritus history professor at the University of Illinois and author of several books on the Civil War, including "Half Slave & Half Free: The Roots of Civil War," June 13, 2023
Email interview with Lance Janda, Cameron University historian, June 13, 2023
Email interview with Earl J. Hess, emeritus historian at Lincoln Memorial University and author of the 2016 biography "Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy," June 14, 2023