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Members of military renaming commission to take part in Hamilton College panel discussion

Gen. Charles R. Hamilton; commanding general, Army Materiel Command; retired Lt. Gen. Arthur J. Gregg; and Maj. Gen. Mark T. Simerly, commanding general, CASCOM and Fort Lee, stand at the position of attention as the national anthem plays during the Fort Gregg-Adams Redesignation Ceremony April 27 at the Gregg-Adams Club.
T. Anthony Bell
U.S. Army
Gen. Charles R. Hamilton; commanding general, Army Materiel Command; retired Lt. Gen. Arthur J. Gregg; and Maj. Gen. Mark T. Simerly, commanding general, CASCOM and Fort Lee, stand at the position of attention as the national anthem plays during the Fort Gregg-Adams Redesignation Ceremony April 27 at the Gregg-Adams Club.

A panel conversation at Hamilton College Wednesday night will focus on the renaming of U.S. military installations that commemorated the Confederacy. The Congressional Naming Commission was formed in 2021 in the wake of the racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd.

Five members of the commission, including Retired Brigadier General Ty Seidule, are taking part in the conversation at 7:30 p.m. at the college in Clinton, New York. Seidule served in the Army for 36 years and taught history at West Point for two decades. Currently a visiting professor at Hamilton, Seidule served as vice chair of the Naming Commission. He spoke with WAMC's Jim Levulis this week about the body’s work.

Seidule: This is the area really of my expertise. So I spent 36 years in the Army and probably the last 15, I've been writing and researching about Confederate commemoration in the military. And so when this became an issue, I had published a book called Robert E. Lee and Me that looked at this issue, and I was probably one of the experts in the nation on this particular one. So to be able to be asked about it, to have the secretary of defense appoint me to this commission is one of the great honors of my life. And so that's the way I certainly came into it as ability to use my expertise as both an Army officer and as an academic to bring that to this issue.

Levulis: Did you happen to serve or spend time at any of the installations that were renamed?

Oh, I sure did. So I went to Airborne and Ranger School at Fort Benning, which is now Fort Moore. I was stationed twice at Fort Bragg, which is now Fort Liberty. And my son was stationed at Fort Hood, which is now Fort Cavazos. And I've been to the other ones a day in visiting. So yeah, plus, there were so many things at West Point, I was there for 20 years, and there were more than a dozen things named at West Point. In fact, I lived on Lee Road by Lee gate in Lee housing area next to Lee Child Development Center, named all named after Robert E. Lee. So yeah, and I've studied this pretty extensively. So yeah, I knew about it served there, and that really informed my own thinking as I went into the commission's work.

How so? In terms of you had personal experiences there. You mentioned you serving there, your son serving there, seemingly pivotal moments in your life and your son's life tied to these installations that, you know, were renamed?

Right. Well, I think it's helpful to think about who they were named for. So for instance, Fort Gordon, which is outside Augusta, Georgia, that was what the name used to be. John Brown Gordon was a Confederate officer who never served in the US Army. But he did kill US Army soldiers really successfully. And he gave a speech after the Civil War, to the Black citizens of Charleston and said, If you, the Black people are to demand equality, the 40 million of us white people will exterminate the 4 million of you Black people in a race war. So the people that we named these after, when I started doing the research on it just didn't represent the values of the United States Army, or the nation for that matter. So the idea that we could name them after different people, people that did serve for this country that we love, people that served heroically, honestly, in a variety of different fields, I think was an amazing thing. And so we on the commission really went after these nine base names, that was what we did. But we found 1,111 different things that commemorated Confederates in the US military, and now every single one of those has been modified, changed or renamed. So I think that's the amazing thing. And if I could just say one other thing about that, when were these bases named after Confederates. It wasn't right after the Civil War was in World War I and World War II. And during those times, the army was segregated Black soldiers in World War One that many of them including the Harlem Hellfighters, were given to the French they served in French uniforms. And one of the people that we named it after Henry Johnson actually was one of the Harlem Hellfighters, who fought in French uniform because the American commander John J. Pershing did not want those soldiers fighting with him. So this is an ability to recognize true heroes for what they really did. And not those who chose the Confederates chose treason to preserve slavery.

I'm glad you mentioned Sergeant Henry Johnson there, Medal of Honor recipient, posthumously, spent a good portion of his life living in Albany. You know, we're obviously speaking here in the Northeast. In addition to Sergeant Henry Johnson, Dr. Mary Walker, the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor, who's from Oswego, New York also had an installation partially named in her honor. With those two in mind, it might be a different individual or was there a particular individual or action that struck you in this naming process, this renaming process?

Yeah, well, we the first thing that was struck us is how many American heroes there were. Particularly soldiers, because you're all Army bases, Army posts. So the first one was we found thousands. We got 33,000 names from the American public that they gave us. Interestingly enough, American people have a sense of humor. One of those names was Fort Spears, as in Britney Spears. So there's some humor there, too. But the ones we finally got down to it less to 100 names, we went back to the local communities to get their input. I think one of the names that really struck me was Fort Moore. And the reason is, we named it not only after Hal Moore who is famous for leading the first big battle of Vietnam War made famous in Mel Gibson's movie, We Were Soldiers, but his wife. So we named it after the Army family, and his wife is the one that when they were casualties coming out of Vietnam, what had been, what they did was that a cab driver would deliver a telegram to the family saying, you know, your loved one is either wounded or dead. And she said, that is just horrific. And she made them come to cabbies come to her house, and she delivered the news. And this sort of forced the Army to do the casualty notification process that we do to this day. So that's one where this is an inspirational story that will affect all soldiers. You couldn't tell the story of John Brown Gordon to soldiers because it was too horrible. But everybody will know the story of Hal and Julia Moore. In fact, the motto now Fort Moore is be more. And I'll say Mary Walker, unbelievable. She was the first or second female graduate from Syracuse Medical School, received the l Medal of Honor because Ulysses S. Grant and Sherman demanded that she get it. Was captured as a prisoner of war. Was in a prisoner of war camp because she refused to leave the regiment of soldiers that she was caring for. These are true inspirational heroes and I think that's one of the reasons why we didn't get as much blowback about this because they do represent the America that we all want to aspire to.

I do want to want to touch on that portion. Some have said this naming commission and efforts like it, such as the removal of monuments might erase or rework history. How do you view that?

Yeah, it's a good question that came every place we went. Here's the thing. So history is one thing. So at West Point, they're going to study the Battle of Gettysburg every year. They're going to talk about Pickett's Charge. And every year, Robert E. Lee, he's gonna lose that battle, the Confederates are gonna lose. That’s history. Commemoration is who we honor. And that's not history. So if we have a big statue up to someone, or we have a post named after a Confederate, who chose treason to preserve slavery, who killed US Army soldiers, who is the enemy, who tried to create a slave republic, that's not history, that's commemoration. And our commemoration should be those names who inspire us, who make us want to be better people who are heroes to us today. And if they aren't, why, by golly, we can change those names. And that's just what we did. And the reason we changed them is because the American people through their elected representatives passed a law creating the Naming Commission and that naming commission. In fact, President Trump when he was president vetoed the law, and the Congress, overwhelmingly overrode that veto by a supermajority. So the reason that the Naming Commission was created is because the American people through its elected representatives demanded that we change it.

You served in the Army for 36 years, given that breadth of experience I suspect, you've had to engage in various types of diplomacy, negotiation, or even in the classroom as a professor. How did this overall process stack up with some of your previous experiences?

Well, my teammates on the commission were extraordinary Americans. We had three Republicans, one Democrat, and four retired general or admirals. And we got after it as a team to accomplish our mission. And we went through this in a very deliberate fashion to come up with the names we did and I couldn't be more proud of the effort that we have done to create something that the Army is proud of, that the nation is proud of. And those names that are there now are absolutely there. Now are there a few people that don't like what we did? Well, of course there are. Now we're America, you have the right to free speech. But what really amazed me is how little blowback there has been about these names. Because we went and talked to the community, we went and visited them, we got their input, and that was part of our remit from Congress is to ensure that we listen to local sensitivities. And that's exactly what we did. So the local communities played a part in that process, as did the American people. So I feel proud that we listened to the local communities, we listened to the Army, we listened to the nation in accomplishing this. And that's why I think we are so proud to come back to Hamilton College, four of us, to be on this panel to discuss how in a bipartisan way, we were able to change which should have rightly been a very contentious issue and sort of take the fangs out of it, and make it a process that I think most Americans are proud of.

Where you able to attend any of the renaming ceremonies that have taken place?

I was. Oh, thanks for asking. Some of it was like going to church at the one I remember most there was Fort Lee named after Robert E. Lee outside Petersburg, Virginia, which is a majority Black community. We named it after to logisticians, people that do logistics. This fort is where all logistics folks train. And in fact, that is the most diverse branch in the Army, probably the most diverse workplace in the country with 50% Black soldiers, and just unbelievable diversity there. And we named it after two people. It's now Fort Gregg-Adams. Charity Adams was the leader of the 6888th mail battalion. The only Black female battalion that deployed overseas and she was the highest-ranking Black woman in World War II. She ensured that the mail got to the soldiers. It didn't before that, and she really fixed that. That's a hero to those people that serve getting mail, that's a heroic act. And then the other one was Arthur Gregg, who was the highest-ranking Black officer when he retired in the early 80s. And desegregated that Fort Lee officer's club, and he was at the ceremony at the age of 95, and gave a talk. And it was the most inspiring thing I've ever been a part of, the entire community showed up, or they were so proud of these new names, which reflected the diversity reflected the mission of the US Army and the logistics branch. It was an amazing ceremony. And I went to four of them. And they were all like that just incredibly moving and inspirational for the soldiers of the community.

And in terms of looking now at the commission, has it completely wrapped up its work? Is there any remaining work to be done?

No. We have no work. We finalized our mission in October 2022. And we finished, proud to say, on time, under budget, we had 100% of our recommendations accepted by the Secretary of Defense. And as a 27 December 2023, every single one of them had been implemented. We gave $1.7 million back to the Treasury, because we finished without using our whole budget. So yeah, we're done. And in fact, the Army has done there's nothing left for it to do. It’s completed its mission as well. Now, that doesn't mean that like we're doing today that we can't help explain to the American people and the local communities what we're doing. We certainly all are continuing to do that. And that's what this is really the first time that that we've been able to be on the same stage together to talk about what the process was like as we went through it. But yeah, mission complete.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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