While the Pentagon faces a new congressional mandate to rename bases honoring Confederate generals within three years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has no plans to do likewise under President Donald Trump, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie says. And that includes the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia -- named for a Confederate doctor with a troubling racial history.
During an interview this fall, Wilkie said he has received no feedback from veterans on congressional efforts to change military installations named for Confederate officers, including Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Benning, Georgia; and Fort Lee, Virginia.
"It's universally no," Wilkie said.
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Neither has he heard from veterans on whether the VA should consider changing facilities named for segregationists or Confederate officers, including the Richmond VA, he said.
But when asked whether there are plans at the VA to rename department facilities, the secretary shook his head no.
"The president has been very clear on that," Wilkie added, referring to President Donald Trump's defense of installations named for Confederate officers, as well as the president’s support for Civil War statues and monuments that dot the country, particularly in the South.
Trump has threatened to veto the defense budget, which includes the renaming mandate.
The legacy of Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire has lately come under new scrutiny. This week, Virginia Commonwealth University -- a school on which the Medical School of Virginia was founded -- removed plaques, signs and a bust honoring McGuire at its facilities.
To Civil War history buffs, McGuire is best known as the physician who treated Stonewall Jackson after the first battle of Manassas, and later amputated the general’s arm in an attempt to save his life when he was wounded by friendly fire near Chancellorsville, Virginia.
McGuire served in the Confederacy nearly the entire war, attending at the battle of Gettysburg two months after Jackson’s death and providing medical treatment to numerous generals.
Throughout the conflict, he was instrumental in winning the release of physicians captured by both the Union and the Confederacy and negotiated an understanding that they not be held as prisoners of war.
His concept of designating medical personnel as noncombatants was later integrated into the Geneva Conventions and remains a foundational principle of the American Red Cross and other medical service organizations.
After the war, McGuire served as chief of surgery after the war at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. He founded a nursing school and was instrumental in establishing the Medical Society of Virginia.
But he remained staunchly opposed to voting rights for Black Americans his entire life and opposed the release from slavery of a race he considered inferior -- opinions he expressed in a book he wrote in his later years.
And in correspondence published in 1893, he expressed concern for the population growth of African Americans and advocated for castration of Black men convicted of raping White women.
With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in May, the city of Richmond removed a number of its Civil War monuments in response, and McGuire’s name was among those raised for change.
In August, McGuire descendants Alice McGuire Massie, Hunter Holmes McGuire III and William Reed McGuire published a column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch supporting removal of memorials to their ancestor, but added that they hope "history will judge McGuire, a surgeon, based on his complete life and contributions."
"Arguably the most significant legacy of McGuire was his groundbreaking work to humanize war and redefine how captured military doctors and nurses should be treated in wartime," they wrote.
But, they said, "the family understands that statues and buildings honoring Confederate leaders have caused pain to fellow Americans and we support the removal of the McGuire memorials."
Most VA facilities are named for their location, with a few dozen honoring veterans or long-time VA employees. Several are named for former lawmakers, including a handful who have drawn criticism this year for their ties to racial segregation.
Carl Vinson, James Haley, John McClellan and Overton Brooks -- whose names grace VA medical centers -- were signatories to the Southern Manifesto, a document drafted in response to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that found school segregation unconstitutional.
The Wall Street Journal reported July 13 that Navy officials have discussed renaming the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, although no announcement has been made.
Wilkie is an avid reader of American history who has, across his career, delivered speeches on historical moments across U.S. history, including the Confederacy and its leadership. He keeps numerous historical mementos in his office of military leaders and displays correspondence and tributes to his great aunt, Lucy Somerville Howarth, the first woman to serve as a judge on the Board of Veterans Appeals; and his great great grandmother, Nellie Nugent Somerville, the first woman to serve in the Mississippi legislature.
He has at least one direct ancestor who served in the Civil War for the Confederacy, William Nugent, and he has been embroiled in several controversies over his defense of historic leaders, markers and symbols, including several headstones bearing symbols of the Third Reich for World War II German soldiers buried in U.S. veterans cemeteries.
Wilkie declined to say whether veterans had approached him on Congress’ proposal to change military base names and did not offer his personal opinion.
"I wouldn't have anything to say about that," he said.
Wilkie served at the Pentagon as under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness from 2017 to 2018 and spent much of his childhood at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the White House's objections to renaming facilities and the lack of veteran feedback on such changes.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.
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