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When we first read about Mainers who would like to see a military base renamed after Joshua Chamberlain as part of the ongoing effort to change the names of a group of bases named after Confederate commanders, we were ready to charge down that hill with our fellow Mainers.
After all, who doesn’t like Chamberlain — son of Brewer, hero of Little Round Top, Maine governor, subject of movies and songs. Heck, we even publish an editorial featuring 10 of his inspirational quotes. That’s how much we like him.
That admiration hasn’t changed, even with a leading Chamberlain scholar pushing back against the idea of Chamberlain replacing one of the Confederates at one of these bases in question.
We’re not ready to take Chamberlain down off his pedestal. But we do think this scholar, Tom Desjardin, makes a decent point: It’s a good thing that these bases are being renamed, but why does a man from Maine need to be the one replacing them?
“While I am glad to see that the names of Forts Benning, Hood, Lee, Pickett and the like are likely to be changed next year, I hope the Naming Commission does its homework and thoughtfully examines names of heroes from all American wars,” Desjardins told the BDN. “I just don’t think naming the Virginia National Guard HQ after a Maine veteran is the best course of action.”
The bases named after Confederate leaders are in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Louisiana and Alabama.
Renaming these bases is a necessary and overdue step. But it doesn’t have to turn into a war of naming aggression. Recognizing people who have fought for the U.S. rather than against the country is a good switch, but there doesn’t need to be a Union hero in the place of every Confederate leader.
A significant part of the push to remove Confederate names from U.S. bases has been the perspective of Black veterans, who have explained how serving at a base named after a general who fought on the side of slavery can feel like a “slap in the face.” In righting this wrong, we continue to think the commission created to recommend new names for these military installations should emphasize honoring servicemembers of color.
“Rather than celebrate men who led, and lost, the effort to secede from the United States, why not celebrate those who fought for our country,” we wrote last June. “Why not rename these bases after some of the Black soldiers who bled for the Union during the Civil War, even before their country treated them as people, or those who fought in Vietnam even as the fight for civil rights continued here at home?”
We trust that the naming commission will do more thorough research than we have, but even our quick search of Medal of Honor recipients last year yielded several examples of Black soldiers whose service and sacrifice make them worthy of consideration in the base renaming process.
Take William Maud Bryant for example, who was born in Georgia and was killed in Vietnam. Here is part of his Medal of Honor citation:
“Sergeant 1st Class Bryant’s selfless concern for his comrades, at the cost of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.”
Our point here is that there are plenty of Georgians, Virginians, Texans, etc. — particularly servicemembers of color — who the naming commission can turn to before selecting our hero from Maine. This might be an unpopular take, given that more than 80 percent of BDN readers answered a recent poll saying that Chamberlain should have a military installation named after him.
As Desjardin emphasized to us in a Friday email, “Chamberlain was a remarkable soldier who accomplished some very important things in his military career.” We’re reminded, however, of one of Chamberlain’s 10 quotes.
“The nation must make her heart ready to receive her lessons; that she be able to do her work,” Chamberlain once said.
In this case, we’d suggest that the country has increasingly been learning a lesson about the painful legacy of Confederate base names, and there may be heroes other than Chamberlain who make more sense to recognize as part of the work to address this pain.