For half a century, a U.S. Military Academy dormitory has borne the name of Robert E. Lee, the West Point graduate who led the academy as superintendent for three years and later waged war against former comrades as a Confederate commander during the Civil War.
That could change under a federal proposal fueled by a civil-rights awakening.
The House and Senate each passed versions of a major military bill with bipartisan support last week that include provisions requiring the renaming of bases and other military properties that memorialize Confederate generals. At West Point, that would apply not only to Lee Barracks but also to a campus road and stone entrance gate named after Lee.
It also would require a new name for a semicircular street off Lee Road called Beauregard Place, which honors former cadet and superintendent P.G.T. Beauregard. Beauregard had served a mere five days as superintendent in 1861 before the South seceded and the Louisiana native was yanked from his new post.
Just three months later, Beauregard led the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina that started the Civil War.
In addition to the renaming provision, the House version of the bill includes amendments by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-Cold Spring, that would require the Defense Department to set goals for increasing diversity among cadets and faculty at West Point and other service academies and to seek greater curriculum diversity at those schools.
Maloney, whose district includes West Point, had condemned the preservation of Confederate general names at West Point in a letter to the defense and army secretaries last month, saying the practice honored men who “who engaged in armed rebellion against the United States in support of racism and slavery.” Removing them would help ensure a “welcoming and inclusive” environment for Black cadets, he argued.
“It is past time we make these changes that will move our country in the direction towards healing and reconciliation,” Maloney said in the letter, co-signed by 21 other House Democrats.
Both Maloney and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand previously had declared their support for renaming Lee Barracks – one of 10 cadet residences at West Point – during an earlier controversy over Confederate landmarks in 2017. They made those statements in the wake of a rally that white supremacists and neo-Nazis staged in Charlottesville, Va., to oppose the removal a Robert E. Lee monument.
President Trump opposes renaming bases such as Fort Bragg that are named for Confederate generals, and has threatened to veto the National Defense Authorization Act if Congress includes that provision in the final version that committee members are expected to negotiate later this year.
“Over the years, these locations have taken on significance to the American story and those who have helped write it that far transcends their namesakes,” the White House stated last week. “The Administration respects the legacy of the millions of American servicemen and women who have served with honor at these military bases.”
The House bill would force the administration to rename bases and structures with Confederate general names within a year, while the Senate version would form a commission to carry out that work within three years.
Retired General David Petraeus, the Orange County native and 1974 West Point graduate who led U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, talked about his discomfort with Lee’s name and image at his alma mater in an Atlantic article last month, recalling a portrait of Lee that has hung in the mess hall since around 1930.
Petraeus argued clearly for renaming bases named for Confederate generals but was more nuanced about Lee’s legacy at West Point. He warned against trying to “erase his role in this history,” but argued that “remembering Lee’s strengths and weaknesses, his military and personal successes and failures, is different from venerating him.”
Two 2012 West Point graduates argued in another article last month that both Lee Barracks and Lee Gate should be renamed and that Lee’s giant portrait in the library should be moved to the academy’s museum or visitors center “with appropriate historical context and background.”
The authors – Jimmy Byrn and Gabe Royal, writing for the the Modern War Institute at West Point – argued the library portrait warranted removal because it shows Lee in a gray Confederate uniform and a slave leading Lee’s horse in the background. The mess hall portrait, on the other hand, should remain because it shows Lee in a blue uniform and hangs beside those of West Point’s other past superintendents, they said.
Byrn and Royal rejected the idea that removing Confederate symbols is “tantamount to erasing history.”
“Robert E. Lee was not just a racist and a slave owner,” they wrote. “He chose to betray his country in the defense of his right to subjugate the black race, which now comprises a significant portion of the Army and officer corps.”