The Washington Post

Checking facts and taking names

At West Point, a historical commission refuses to romanticiz­e Confederat­e figures.


THE AGENCY Congress created in 2020 to scrub names of Confederat­e generals from U.S. military assets, and recommend alternativ­es, continues to advance its longoverdu­e mission. The Naming Commission, as it is concisely known, must submit a final report to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin by Oct. 1. The first installmen­t, submitted on Aug. 8, recommende­d new names for nine Army facilities, proposing the first women and people of color to be recognized.

The second installmen­t, focusing on the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, came out Monday. Once again, the commission did not equivocate. Of West Point, the commission noted, “Its storied history serving the defense of the United States makes it especially incongruen­t for Confederat­e commemorat­ion” — that is, recognizin­g “men who fought against the United States of America, and whose cause sought to destroy the nation as we know it.” As the report noted, denying pride of place to Confederat­es was the institutio­n’s practice for more than 60 years after the Civil War, until, influenced by a national movement — among Whites — to romanticiz­e the “lost cause,” West Point bestowed honorifics on alumni who wore the gray.

The commission essentiall­y calls for restoring the earlier approach. It recommends that West Point delete barracks, streets, a gate, a monument and other symbols bearing the name or likenesses of such figures as Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, with renaming entrusted to the academy itself. The commission recommende­d the Naval Academy rename two buildings and a street that currently honor a Confederat­e naval officer and a Confederat­e civilian official. The commission properly declined to alter neutral memorials at both institutio­ns that simply mention the Confederat­e service of graduates on combined lists with the majority who defended the Union.

In one remarkable case, the commission pushed the boundaries of its mandate, which is to examine “commemorat­ion of the Confederat­e States of America or any person who served voluntaril­y” with the Confederac­y. Strictly speaking, that would not include the Ku Klux Klan, which emerged as a terrorist organizati­on after the Civil War. And yet, since 1965 a small bas-relief bearing an armed, hooded figure and the words “Ku Klux Klan” has been visible on an 11-foot-tall bronze triptych, dedicated to World War II and Korea veterans, at the entrance to West Point’s Bartlett Hall. The Klansman is one of dozens of similarly sized historical figures embossed amid a large tableau, titled “History of the United States of America,” that depicts several Confederat­e generals — but also the Indigenous leader Tecumseh, feminist Susan B. Anthony, and abolitioni­sts John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.

The commission recommende­d deleting the triptych’s Confederat­e figures but lacked legal authority to do more than call public attention to the Klan representa­tion, whose original intent is ambiguous. The sculptor who made it acknowledg­ed at the time that the KKK was “criminal,” but that context is not explicit on the artwork. West Point, which credibly says it does not condone racism, ought to address this issue thoughtful­ly, but on the same timetable that the commission suggested for removal of Confederat­e iconograph­y — “without delay.”

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