Capitol Alert

Fort Bragg stands firm in debate over Confederate connection

Fort Bragg was originally a 19th-century Army outpost named for officer Braxton Bragg, who later defected to the Confederacy after the Civil War broke out in 1861.
Fort Bragg was originally a 19th-century Army outpost named for officer Braxton Bragg, who later defected to the Confederacy after the Civil War broke out in 1861. Sacramento Bee file

A California senator’s efforts to wipe the names of Confederate heroes from public spaces will now exclude cities, a reprieve for the tiny town of Fort Bragg in Mendocino County.

But that has not stopped Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, from recommending a name change for the coastal community of about 7,300 residents, which has been unexpectedly thrust into the national debate over the public memorialization of the Confederacy.

Last week, as the South Carolina Legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds for the first time in five decades, Glazer sent a letter to Fort Bragg’s mayor, urging officials to rename the city.

Fort Bragg was originally a 19th-century Army outpost named for officer Braxton Bragg, who later defected to the Confederacy after the Civil War broke out in 1861. He became a high-ranking general and adviser to Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, as well as the owner of more than 100 slaves.

“For too long, we’ve accepted their names in our midst and almost forgotten what the leaders of the Confederacy stood for,” the letter states. “It is essential that we stand up and put a stop to commemorating men who actively fought to retain the foul and murderous institution of slavery.”

So far, Glazer’s request has been met by Fort Bragg residents with a collective shrug of disinterest in the concerns of an interloper.

“He’s not here. It’s really none of his business what we call ourselves,” Mayor Dave Turner said. “Fort Bragg was on the map before the Confederacy … and will still be Fort Bragg long after Steven Glazer leaves the California Legislature.”

Senate Bill 539 would prohibit the use of names associated with Confederate leaders and senior military officers at California schools, government buildings, parks, roads, and other state or local property.

The letter follows Glazer’s Senate Bill 539, which would prohibit the use of names associated with Confederate leaders and senior military officers at California schools, government buildings, parks, roads, and other state or local property. Recently introduced, it has its first hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Glazer said SB 539 was meant as a “clean-up bill” to “sweep away the last vestiges of honor to the Confederacy” in California, including elementary schools in Long Beach and San Diego named after Gen. Robert E. Lee. Similar efforts have sprung up nationwide in the aftermath of the racially motivated shooting last month at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., which left nine worshipers dead.

But questions soon emerged about whether it would apply to Fort Bragg, a city Glazer said he was unaware of when he drafted the measure.

To ease its passage through the Legislature, Glazer will amend the bill to explicitly exclude cities and any institutions that share their title. He said he appreciates how difficult it is to change the name, yet he still hopes to convince local officials that renaming Fort Bragg would be a good decision for the town’s legacy, especially as more people learn of its origins.

“If it was my city, if I was living there now, I know how I would feel,” he said.

It seems that those in Fort Bragg feel otherwise.

It has nothing to do with anything. It’s pretty stupid.

Gene Mertle, a lifelong Fort Bragg resident

A discussion on the city’s Facebook page over the weekend generated 115 comments, ranging from the proud (“Never change!! It should always be Ft Bragg!!”) to the not-so-polite (“The City Needs To Tell Them To CRAM IT”). The City Council planned to discuss Monday night whether to formally respond to Glazer’s letter or simply ignore it.

“What I can gather from anyone who is expressing any position about it is that there is not going to be any discussion of changing the name,” Councilman Doug Hammerstrom said.

Hammerstrom said he wrote back to Glazer expressing appreciation for his “motive to deal with the history that our country has not dealt with.” But people are also attached to Fort Bragg as a place, he added, and derive a sense of identity from it. Lurking in the background is the potential cost associated with rebranding the city.

“Those values are in tension,” Hammerstrom said.

Any serious debate among residents has yet to bubble up. Joshua Coate, 37, the manager of a local pub, said those he has spoken with believe Glazer’s request is a waste of time.

“I don’t think anyone in this town has ever looked at our town in connection to the Civil War,” he said. “The gentleman drafting the bill is probably the first one.”

Coate said he might start listening if a large local contingent raised the argument that the name was offensive. Even then, though, he’s wary of erasing history. “Where do you draw the line?”

Gene Mertle, 69, a general contractor and lifelong Fort Bragg resident, was more blunt: “It has nothing to do with anything. It’s pretty stupid.”

In the days since Glazer sent his letter, no other public officials have backed his request, and local businesses are steering clear of the discussion. The Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce had no comment.

Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose district encompasses Mendocino County, said it is “a decision that should be left up to the residents of Fort Bragg and the community as a whole.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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