Perhaps no state at the time of the Civil War was more deeply and violently divided than Tennessee. In the cotton lands of the western part, voters — including the ferocious Memphis trader of enslaved people Nathan Bedford Forrest, a future founder of the Ku Klux Klan — chose to leave the Union. In the mountainous eastern part of the state, however, loyalists did all they could to make trouble for the rebels. The war of North and South was, for eastern Tennessee, a war of neighbor against neighbor.
President Abraham Lincoln dreamed of reclaiming the region, but the geography proved too difficult in the early years of the war. “My distress is that our friends in East Tennessee are being hanged and driven to despair,” he worried. The Confederate officer so free with the rope was a broad-chested colonel named Edmund W. Rucker.
Rucker was not just a traitor to the United States; he was sufficiently avid and fierce to be entrusted with the role of crushing dissent among those who did not want to break up the nation. It was the “meanest and damnest” job imaginable, Rucker admitted — but he did it anyway, at the cost of uncounted lives.
Incredibly, the name of this disloyal tyrant lives on, thanks to the same U.S. Army that he fought against. Fort Rucker in southeastern Alabama is home to the Army’s aviation operations, and it is hardly the only military installation named in honor of former enemies of the United States.
More than a century and a half after the war’s end, it is well past time to rename these facilities for more suitable and inspiring men and women. A commission established by Congress, led by my high school pal, retired Adm. Michelle Howard, has completed the daunting task of recommending new names. The more I think about the choices, the more impressed I am.
Fort Rucker, for example, would be rechristened Fort Novosel in honor of helicopter pilot Michael J. Novosel Sr., who rescued more than 5,500 wounded men from battlefields in Vietnam. A World War II veteran who gave up a commission in the Air Force to rejoin the Army as a warrant officer, Novosel was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics under fire.
Fort Hood in Texas, named for a reckless Confederate general, would be renamed Fort Cavazos in honor of a brave soldier who chose to fight for — not against — his country. Richard E. Cavazos was highly decorated for valor on battlefields in Korea and Vietnam before becoming the first Hispanic American to earn the rank of four-star general.
Some of the proposed new handles commemorate famous figures. Fort Gordon in Georgia, named for another Confederate veteran and rumored KKK leader, would be renamed Fort Eisenhower in honor of the supreme allied expeditionary forces commander of World War II who later became a popular two-term president. Fort Benning, also in Georgia, would become Fort Moore, commemorating a husband and wife, Hal and Julia Moore.
The Moores represent both valor in battle and the sacrifices of military families. Moore’s leadership at the Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam, where his 450 soldiers were at times outnumbered roughly 12 to 1, is well known thanks to the 2002 Hollywood movie “We Were Soldiers.” On the home front, Julia Moore insisted that news of combat deaths be delivered not by chilly telegrams but by uniformed soldiers specially trained for the task.
But other installations would honor forgotten heroes who represent important aspects of military service. Fort Lee in Virginia, named for Confederate general Robert E. Lee, would become Fort Gregg-Adams after two trailblazing logistics experts — for an army is only as good as its logistics. Fort Bragg in North Carolina would be christened Fort Liberty as a reminder of the values that ennoble military service.
Still other names signify a love of country that was too-long unrequited. Fort Polk in Louisiana would be called Fort Johnson in honor of William Henry Johnson of the “Harlem Hellfighters.” His unit of African American soldiers was forced to fight under French command in World War I due to discrimination in the U.S. Army. Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia would become Fort Walker after the only woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Civil War surgeon Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. Fort Pickett in Virginia would become Fort Barfoot after the “one-man army” Van T. Barfoot, a Choctaw tribesman and Medal of Honor recipient in the Italian campaign of World War II.
The commission is also responsible for recommending new names for streets, buildings and other military assets named for veterans of the Confederate rebellion. The choices are subject to congressional approval.
It is a measure of the long history of faithful service to the United States that the commission had hundreds of excellent options. In range and meaning, these proposals are inspired. The old names represented division. The new ones should unify.