top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Army base renamed for native American war hero, replacing Confederate

From left, Margaret Nicholls, daughter of the World War II hero and Medal of Honor recipient Van Barfoot, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and Tom Barfoot, Van Barfoot’s son, remove the cover from a new sign that will be installed at the main entrance of the military fort in Blackstone, Va., on Friday, March 24, 2023.

By Chris Cameron

It was a name synonymous with failure. More than 80 years ago, an Army base in Blackstone, Virginia, was named for George E. Pickett, the defeated Confederate general who led the disastrous “Pickett’s charge” at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Now the base is the first of nine named for a Confederate to be redesignated by the end of this year. On Friday, Fort Pickett became Fort Barfoot, in honor of Col. Van Barfoot, a World War II hero and a Medal of Honor recipient.

Col. James C. Shaver Jr., the base’s garrison commander, said that it was an honor to be the first base renamed and that Fort Barfoot was now the first Army base in the continental United States to bear the name of a Native American soldier.

The ceremony was the culmination of a yearslong effort to purge the symbols of the Confederacy from the military. The nine Army bases were originally named for Confederates during the Jim Crow era as part of a national movement to glorify the Confederacy and advance the Lost Cause myth that the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights” and not slavery.

Barfoot’s Native American heritage was displayed proudly for the base renaming ceremony, which featured performances of Native music and dance and included leaders from the Choctaw Nation and the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian tribe as guests.

The issue of the base names had set off a struggle between President Donald Trump and Congress. Amid a wave of demonstrations for racial justice in the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, Trump refused to allow the bases to be renamed, going so far as to veto the annual defense authorization bill that included the renaming provision. Congress ultimately forced the measure through, overriding the veto.

“There was an initial attitude when that amendment was put on the table that this could be really divisive,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said at the renaming ceremony for Fort Barfoot.

“History is history. It can’t be rewritten. It shouldn’t be rewritten. But there’s a difference between writing or rewriting history and choosing who to honor,” Kaine added.

A commission established by Congress then recommended new names for the bases, selecting a diverse array of American warriors, including women, Black and Hispanic soldiers and Barfoot, a Choctaw who served 34 years in the Army. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the changes to be carried out by the end of 2023. The Navy renamed two ships this month as part of the initiative.

Serving in the 45th Infantry Division during World War II, Barfoot, then a technical sergeant, took part in the Battle of Anzio in Italy. On May 23, 1944, he single-handedly silenced three machine-gun nests, disabled a German tank with a bazooka, blew up an artillery cannon with a demolition charge and took 17 enemy soldiers prisoner.

In addition to everything else that day, he rescued two seriously wounded U.S. soldiers, leading them about a mile to safety. His actions earned him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat. The Medal of Honor citation noted Barfoot’s “extraordinary heroism, demonstration of magnificent valor and aggressive determination in the face of point-blank fire.”

“I never lost my head,” Barfoot said of that day in a later interview. “I really didn’t sit down and think about what I had done.”

Later in life, Barfoot again drew national attention for successfully fighting his homeowners association to keep an American flag flying in his front yard. He died in 2012.

Fort Barfoot, a 41,000-acre facility just east of Blackstone, was established as Camp Pickett in 1942, one of dozens of temporary military facilities that sprouted across the country during World War II and one of eight major installations named for a Confederate in that period. Army policy at the time said bases that housed Southerners should be named for Confederate commanders.

The camp became a more permanent installation, Fort Pickett, in 1974, and was turned over to the Virginia National Guard in 1997.

33 views9 comments
bottom of page