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W.G. Dunlop

US base drops Confederate name, honors decorated Native American soldier

A military base in Virginia was renamed Fort Barfoot on March 24, 2023 to honor a Native American soldier decorated for heroism during World War II. ©AFP

Washington (AFP) - The United States on Friday renamed a military base to honor a decorated Native American soldier instead of a general who fought for the pro-slavery breakaway Confederacy.

Previously called Fort Pickett, the 41,000-acre Virginia National Guard installation is the first of nine bases to drop the name of a figure who served the Confederate States of America, which was made up of southern states that seceded and were defeated in the 1861-1865 US Civil War.

The base was renamed after Colonel Van T Barfoot, a World War II Medal of Honor recipient, its commander, Colonel James Shaver, said in a ceremony there.

"This will be the first army post in the continental United States to bear the name of a Native American soldier," Shaver said, referring to Barfoot's Choctaw heritage.

Members of Barfoot's family attended the ceremony and helped unveil a sign bearing the base's new name: Fort Barfoot.

"Having his service to this nation memorialized by this redesignation is a tribute to a man who epitomized what is great about our American soldiers," his daughter Margaret Nicholls said.

Barfoot, who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and reached the rank of colonel, died in 2012 at age 92.

He received the Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest military award for valor -- for actions including taking out two German machine gun nests, capturing 17 enemy soldiers, disabling a tank and aiding wounded troops in Italy in 1944.

'Step in the right direction'

The base was previously named for Confederate major general George Pickett, who led three brigades in an assault on Union troops during the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg that became known as "Pickett's Charge."

Pickett -- who graduated last in his class from West Point and served in the Mexican-American war before resigning his commission to join the Confederacy -- lost over half his command in the attack, which was ordered by general Robert E Lee.

The Confederacy lost the battle and the war, but Pickett survived both and later worked as a farmer and insurance salesman. 

The president of the Virginia NAACP civil rights organization welcomed the renaming of the base.

"Public property should not be named after Confederate folks, so I think it's a good step in the right direction to change it," Robert Barnette told AFP.

Calls to change the names of bases that honor Confederate figures gained momentum during nationwide protests against racism and police brutality that were sparked by the 2020 murder of George Floyd, an African American man who died at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

In the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021, Congress required the establishment of a commission to plan for the removal of Confederate-linked "names, symbols, displays, monuments, or paraphernalia" from Defense Department property, and gave the secretary three years to carry out its recommendations.

Then-president Donald Trump opposed the renaming effort, tweeting in 2020 that his administration "will not even consider" changing the names of the bases, which "have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom."

He vetoed the defense bill, but Congress overrode it in a blow to Trump, who by then had lost his bid for presidential re-election to Joe Biden.

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