Baltimore Sun

Military panel on Confederat­e symbols says 29th Infantry can keep its patch

- By Jonathan M. Pitts

When Frank Armiger, the national leader of an advocacy group for the historic military unit known as the 29th Infantry Division, first learned that a national commission was considerin­g retiring the blue-and-gray logo that has long symbolized the fighting force, he was dismayed and concerned.

After all, he said, the Naming Commission, as it’s known, was mainly tasked with rooting out and replacing the names of U.S. military bases named after Confederat­e generals. He’s always viewed the division’s yin-yang style insignia as a unifying symbol, not a divisive one, and 29ers have worn it in multiple wars, many to their deaths.

Armiger, the national executive director of the 29th Division Associatio­n, is feeling a lot better now. The eight-member commission announced Monday that it’s recommendi­ng the Army retain the logo just as it has appeared since 1917, the year the division was founded.

“I was ecstatic to hear the news,” he said Tuesday. “The symbol represents so perfectly what the 29th Division stands for that this was almost an existentia­l problem for us. We’re really breathing a sigh of relief.”

The commission gave notice that it would recommend that the Army’s official descriptio­n of 29th Infantry Division heraldry be changed to remove language that can be viewed as suggesting

that the symbol implies Confederat­e service, according to a news release.

The decision by the commission, a board created by Congress and the Department of Defense as part of the National Defense Authorizat­ion Act of 2021, all but brings to an end a debate that grew passionate at times over the last six months.

On one side were military officials who included the patch on a list of the hundreds of Department of Defense assets whose putative links to the Confederac­y the commission is considerin­g. On the other, perhaps more vocal side, supporters of the 29th Division from around the world, including veterans, family members, friends and lawmakers from various places on the political spectrum, urged the panel to consider that the symbol’s creator designed it to reflect the unique formation of the division.

The panel’s task, according to its charge, is to remove, rename or modify ”names, symbols, displays, monuments and parapherna­lia” within the military that “commemorat­e” the Confederac­y. It sought to settle whether the gray half of the yin-yang style logo, which is juxtaposed with a blue field, could be considered a “commemorat­ion” of the Confederat­e side of the Civil War.

It was 52 years after the end of the Civil War that U.S. military created the 29th by merging units that had originated in the South with others that traced their origins to Northern regions of the country.

That, present-day supporters argued, meant that the insignia wasn’t like forts Bragg, Hood, Lee and Pickett, which were named for Confederat­e officers. The 29th logo was an emblem of unity, they maintained, not the kind of racial division and white supremacy they agree the Southern side stood for.

“I definitely understand the angst in and around the meaning of different logos, patches, and names,” retired Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, the former adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard and its first African American leader, said in May. “But the 29th logo is different; it has always been about the power of bringing together the North and the South. It’s a symbol of unity, one of the highest American values. To me, it’s exactly the kind of insignia we should be lifting up right now.”

Singh made similar points in a slick, five-minute promotiona­l video the 29th Associatio­n produced and sent to commission­ers and members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. So did Steve Melnikoff, a 102-year-old veteran from Cockeysvil­le who wore the patch throughout the Normandy campaign in 1944; members of the division stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Associatio­n members circulated a petition that garnered thousands of signatures, raised funds for their campaign through a website and sent hundreds of letters. Politician­s from both sides of the aisle — including former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia and his successor, Republican Glenn Youngkin — weighed in, as did supporters from as far away as France and Holland.

Retired Navy Admiral Michelle J. Howard, chair of the commission, wrote in a letter to the armed services committees last month that the efforts played a role in the panel’s decision.

“The Community of the 29th Infantry Division indicates that they view the symbol as a unifying symbol for America and is imbued with the sacrifices and service of past 29th ID members,” she wrote.

Regarding the official explanatio­n of the insignia’s meaning, she wrote that “the descriptio­n language should be modified to reflect the rich history of the 29th, with focus on the unificatio­n of American citizens through service in the 29th.”

Joe Balkoski, a historian who has written several books on the 29th, said that while military commission­s are not always responsive to pleas from individual­s, he remained hopeful for months that the pushback from supporters would have an effect.

“When you study the 29th Division as long as I have, you realize the commission’s argument about it honoring the Confederac­y did not hold water,” he said.

The panel’s recommenda­tion was not without critics. Richard Brookshire is co-founder of the Black Veterans Project, a group that aims to address systemic racial inequaliti­es across the military.

“A symbol of unity with those who fought to keep slavery intact, who would go on to codify Jim Crow and ferment discrimina­tion in every facet of American life, is not a symbol worth preserving at the expense of the dignity of Black service members,” he wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “The Naming Commission has fallen short of its responsibi­lity to root out all vestiges of the Confederac­y.”

The commission recommende­d in May that nine military bases be renamed, in each case suggesting names to replace those of Confederat­e officers.

Howard indicated the commission is still casting a careful eye on any symbols that “unmistakab­ly honor the Confederac­y, or honor individual­s who voluntaril­y served with the Confederac­y through image or motto,” including any language describing heraldry and any battle streamers that contain references to the Confederat­e cause.

Once the commission submits its recommenda­tions in October, it will be up to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin whether to approve or reject them.

“The 29th logo is different; it has always been about the power of bringing together the North and the South. It’s a symbol of unity, one of the highest American values.”

—Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, the former adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard

 ?? LLOYD FOX/BALTIMORE SUN ?? A belt buckle owned by Steven Melnikoff, 102, who wore the patch of the 29th Infantry Division during the invasion of Normandy.
LLOYD FOX/BALTIMORE SUN A belt buckle owned by Steven Melnikoff, 102, who wore the patch of the 29th Infantry Division during the invasion of Normandy.
 ?? BALTIMORE SUN KARL MERTON FERRON/ ?? Various patches designed following the 29th Infantry Division’s original blue-and-gray insignia rest inside a display frame at the Fifth Regiment Armory’s Maryland Museum of Military History in Baltimore.
BALTIMORE SUN KARL MERTON FERRON/ Various patches designed following the 29th Infantry Division’s original blue-and-gray insignia rest inside a display frame at the Fifth Regiment Armory’s Maryland Museum of Military History in Baltimore.

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