When an army base was established in North Carolina in 1918 it was named after a local confederate general to induce southerners to give land and men for their country’s first world war efforts.

A century on, Fort Bragg — a name that was intended to unify — has become a symbol of division.

A global protest movement against the unequal treatment of black people sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has reignited demands to tear down or rename monuments, buildings and — in Fort Bragg’s case — army bases named in honour of those who fought with the confederacy to defend slavery.

“Whether you know the history of who these confederate officers were or not, there is collective understanding now . . . that they represent an effort to defend the institution of slavery,” said Anthony Brown, the Democratic congressman leading efforts to rename 10 US bases named after confederate leaders. “That’s enough to say you’ve got to remove the name.”

In the wake of the protests that followed Floyd’s killing, Congress passed legislation with bipartisan support to change the names of bases in states from Alabama to Virginia.

But, citing the threat from so-called “cancel culture”, Donald Trump has said he would veto the entire $741bn national defence authorisation act over the inclusion of provisions stipulating the base name changes.

“We can’t cancel our whole history, we can’t forget that the north and the south fought, you have to remember that. Otherwise we’ll end up fighting again,” the president said in a Fox News Sunday interview last month, claiming the US fought two “beautiful” world wars from Fort Bragg.

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Mr Trump has set himself in opposition not only to Congress and civil rights activists but also the US military itself. Former commanders have broken ranks with the commander-in-chief over the controversy to speak out against racism in society.

David Petraeus, a retired four-star army general, publicly argued that it was an “easy” and “obvious” decision to rename bases named after treasonous officers who took up arms against the US army, citing the country’s efforts to wrestle with the legacies of systemic racism.

However, until this summer, the US army had refused to countenance changing base names, saying it would be divisive and arguing they were named for individuals rather than causes or ideologies.

US Army bases named after Confederate officers  map

US Army secretary Ryan McCarthy has the authority to change the names but has deferred to lawmakers. Citing the president’s stance, a senior Democratic aide said: “Congress has to take the lead — that is the only way this issue will be resolved.”

Congressional aides said the House of Representatives and the Senate were making progress and were keen to reconcile their dual versions of the bill. While the House provision gave a year to rename the bases, the Senate version allocated three years, which one aide said was “far too long”.

They also say the fact that many in the military support renaming the bases gives “cover” to Republicans to take positions that are counter to Mr Trump’s and some of their constituencies. Support on Capitol Hill is potentially broad enough to override a presidential veto, a rare move that would require assent from two-thirds of each chamber, they added.

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Yet November’s presidential election could delay the finalisation of the act, meaning Mr Trump could potentially be voted out by the time he might be asked to sign it into law during his transition.

Serving army officials and former military commanders who have portrayed confederate generals as traitors have suggested the bases could be renamed after army personnel who promoted unity and inspired excellence.

Braxton Bragg, by contrast, was a slave-owning plantation owner known for his bad temper and incompetence who led his men to defeats in the 1861-65 civil war. Another US base, Fort Benning, is named after another southern general who advocated a split from the north to secure a slave republic.

Fort Benning is named after a southern general who advocated a split from the north to secure a slave republic © Reuters
Fort Bragg is named after a plantation owner known for his bad temper and incompetence © Jonathan Drake/Reuters

In southern US states, however, some continue to honour the confederate cause and its flag, arguing that this comes from tradition and a wish to connect with their ancestors, not racist sentiment.

Ted Kunstling, president of a group of civil war enthusiasts in Raleigh, North Carolina, said Mr Trump was using the controversy to “exploit” people who were left behind, adding that his organisation had not taken a position on the issue.

But the 76-year-old Vietnam war veteran and registered Democrat also said many locals would be saddened if the names were changed, adding that few saw a link to racism or white supremacy.

“I think people who fought for the south fought for many reasons,” he said, citing compatriotism and community defence against incursions from the north, alongside the “central” issue of slavery.

But Julian Hayter, an expert in African-American history at the University of Richmond in Virginia, criticised “mythology masquerading as history” which he said presented the south’s civil war involvement as benignly as possible.

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“If America had done something meaningful about its racial history, all of this stuff would be a punchline,” he said of the base renaming controversy. “But the continuation of white supremacy in the 21st century is starting to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Why are we still dealing with these demons?”

Via Financial Times