Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Monday that they were open to “bipartisan discussion” of the issue, which was first reported by Politico.
Defense officials declined to comment on plans for the installation names after Trump’s remarks.
The GOP-led Senate Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment for the Pentagon to strip the names from the installations within three years, CNN reported Thursday.
What is the controversy?
Ten Army installations in the United States were named after senior Confederate commanders who fought against U.S. troops during the Civil War to preserve the institution of slavery.
Calls to rename the bases escalated after a white supremacist and Confederate sympathizer killed nine worshipers in a South Carolina church in 2015, and two years later when a counterprotester was killed in Charlottesville during a white-nationalist rally.
Efforts to rename the bases intensified again following the death of George Floyd, amid another struggle over the nation’s identity and centuries of racism.
Who are the bases named after?
The bases, all in former Confederate states, were named with input from locals in the Jim Crow era. The Army courted their buy-in because it needed large swaths of land to build sprawling bases in the early 20th century up through World War II.
Three of the biggest bases in the United States are named after Confederate leaders, including some who were famously inept.
Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the headquarters of the Special Forces, bears the name of Gen. Braxton Bragg, a commander often assailed as one of the most bumbling commanders in the war. Bragg was relieved of command after losing the battle for Chattanooga in 1863, then served as a military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Fort Benning in Georgia, the home of Army infantry and airborne training, is named after Brig. Gen. Henry Benning, who led troops at Antietam and Gettysburg. In remarks in 1861 laying out slavery as the reason for secession, Benning warned that abolition would lead to “black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that?”
Fort Hood in Texas is named after John Bell Hood, who resigned his commission in the U.S. Army to fight against it. His “reckless” command hastened the fall of Atlanta, one historian wrote, and his losses at the Battle of Franklin were so disastrous that they have been called the “Pickett’s Charge of the West,” in reference to a bloody and failed assault named for Maj. Gen. George Pickett, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s top commanders at Gettysburg.
Unlike Bragg and Benning, Hood has no prewar roots in the state that has a post named after him. He commanded Texas troops but was born in Kentucky and buried in Louisiana.
The other bases named after Confederate commanders are:
- Forts Lee, Pickett and A.P. Hill in Virginia
- Forts Polk and Beauregard in Louisiana
- Fort Gordon in Georgia
- Fort Rucker in Alabama
Why have efforts stalled in the past?
The Army, steeped in its history and traditions, has fought efforts to rename the installations and even the names of roads on its posts, saying in 2017 that such moves would be “controversial and divisive.”
As recently as February, McCarthy said there were no plans to rename the posts. The power to name posts falls to the assistant secretary of the army for manpower and reserve affairs.
McCarthy believes he can unilaterally change the names but would need input from the White House, lawmakers and state and local officials, CNN reported.
Who could bases be named after if they were changed?
The biggest formal push to rename an installation is to reflag Fort Hood after Roy Benavidez, a Green Beret who received the Medal of Honor for action in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
Benavidez endured “six hours in hell,” he would later say of a 1968 battle in which he held his intestines in his hand, stabbed an enemy soldier to death and loaded the wounded and dead onto two helicopters.
He later said he had so many injuries and was so bloodied he was mistaken for a dead man and stuffed in a body bag until he spat in a doctor’s face. He earned five Purple Hearts in combat.
Benavidez died in 1998, and his name is on a stretch of highway, a Navy cargo ship, a short graphic novel, a commemorative G.I. Joe figure and, in a nod to his passion for education, several Texas schools. The League of United Latin American Citizens, an advocacy group, urged the Army last year to rename Fort Hood for him.
In recent days, veterans and others have lobbied for other historical figures, opening the door for women and minorities. One is Mary Edwards Walker, a surgeon and prisoner during the Civil War and the only woman who has received the Medal of Honor.
Calls on Twitter also intensified to rename Fort Benning after Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, a black soldier and Georgia native whose actions in Iraq quickly became legend.
In 2005, his vehicle was destroyed by an improvised explosive device and consumed in flames. Cashe entered the Bradley three times to rescue six soldiers while he himself was on fire. He died of his injuries weeks later.
Cashe received the Silver Star for his heroism, although many say he deserved the Medal of Honor. Renaming Fort Benning after him, advocates have said, would correct at least one injustice.