EL PASO, Texas (AP) - Fort Bliss wants to give a lasting, fitting tribute to the buffalo soldiers, the African-American soldiers who were instrumental in protecting settlers as they moved West after the Civil War.
But to do so, the installation will remove the name of one of America’s most famous generals from a major street that runs through part of the post.
Fort Bliss officials held a ceremony Thursday to change the name of Robert E. Lee Road, which provides access to the southern part of the post, to Buffalo Soldier Road. Last fall, the name of the gate on that same road was changed to Buffalo Soldier Gate and officials announced plans to change the name of the street as well.
It’s a move that has stirred debate among people who love and study history.
Lee served as the top general for the Confederacy during the Civil War and has a reputation for being one of the finest soldiers the nation has ever produced.
But Lee has no historical connection to Fort Bliss, post officials said. Also, elements of four buffalo soldier regiments either called Fort Bliss home or served in the vicinity in the latter half of the 19th century, post officials added.
Robert E. Lee Road already contains a statue memorializing the buffalo soldiers.
“It’s historically accurate and appropriate to honor them by renaming the street,” said Lt. Col. Lee Peters, spokesman for Fort Bliss and the 1st Armored Division.
It’s also fitting to honor the buffalo soldiers’ “sacrifice, legacy and accomplishments” and to do so during February, which is Black History Month, Peters added.
Buffalo soldiers were instrumental in securing the border with Mexico and protecting settlers from “outlaws and marauders,” Peters said.
The tie to Fort Bliss extends into the 20th century. African-American anti-aircraft units trained at Fort Bliss during World War II and these units traced their history back to the buffalo soldiers, Peters said.
Still, the move has stirred some debate over removing Lee’s name from the road.
Bernie Sargent, chairman of the El Paso County Historical Commission, said the move caught him by surprise.
In the past, Sargent worked with various groups to construct a buffalo soldier monument at historic Concordia Cemetery in Central El Paso and he fully acknowledges their impact on the history of the Southwest and the El Paso area.
“They were unsung heroes in the history of the Southwest,” Sargent told the El Paso Times (https://bit.ly/1haD487 ).
But Sargent has mixed emotions about eliminating the reference to Lee.
“Although he was not stationed at Fort Bliss, his influence and impact as a military commander goes without saying,” Sargent said. “He definitely has a place in history.”
Sargent also noted that Lt. Col. William Wallace Smith Bliss, whom Fort Bliss was named after, was never stationed here, either. His remains were moved here long after his death to make room for a highway in New Orleans, where he was originally buried, Sargent said.
Waite Rawls is chief executive officer of the Museum of the Confederacy and co-CEO of the American Civil War Museum, combined facilities that are based in Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Rawls, who was stationed at Fort Bliss in 1971 when he attended Officers Basic School, said he also has “split emotions.”
“The buffalo soldiers were a great outfit and are deserving of recognition,” Rawls said.
But he questions the rationale of removing Lee’s name from the road.
“There are a lot of place names named after people who were never there,” Rawls said. “Here at my museum in Richmond, we have a statue of Abraham Lincoln, and he was never where that statue was.”
Removing the name of a person who was thought to be very important “should be done sparingly and with good reason,” Rawls said.
Rawls said he wouldn’t call it a trend, but the names of Confederate generals have been removed from other places around the nation, too.
“It’s disturbing because you are removing an important part of the American experience, our history,” he said.
In August 2000, Fort Bliss changed the name of Forrest Road to Cassidy Road to pay tribute to the late Lt. Gen. Richard T. Cassidy, a former Fort Bliss commanding general who served from 1968-71. Forrest Road had been named after controversial Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is probably best known today for his brutal tactics during the Civil War and for being an early leader in the Ku Klux Klan.
Equating Lee to Forrest is not fair, but not because of the controversy surrounding Forrest, Rawls said.
“It’s about their relative importance in history,” Rawls said. “It’s like comparing John F. Kennedy to Millard Fillmore.”
Maceo C. Dailey, director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of Texas-El Paso, has a different take. Dailey called the renaming of the road a “welcome decision.”
“The story of the buffalo soldiers in the West is so phenomenal,” Dailey said. “To my knowledge, I don’t know if Robert E. Lee ever visited this region. It makes much more sense to name it after part of the history, folklore and forging of this community.”
Dailey praised Fort Bliss’ leadership for honoring the buffalo soldiers.
“We look at both the history of the buffalo soldiers as well as the African-American soldiers who are contributing today to our nation,” Dailey said. “They are as loyal today as they were in the days of the buffalo soldiers. It seems the right message to send in our region and to the young men on base.”
Bob Snead is an El Paso artist who served in the Army for 30 years. The buffalo soldier statue that’s already at Fort Bliss was modeled after his painting, “The Errand of Cpl. Ross.”
Snead said this part of Fort Bliss was the area where African-American troops were quartered before the Army was integrated.
“I think it’s about time,” Snead said of the name change.
Information from: El Paso Times, https://www.elpasotimes.com
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