VA Changes Name of Only Medical Center Honoring Confederate Officer

Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia.
Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia. (Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

The Department of Veterans Affairs quietly changed the name of its medical center in Richmond, Virginia, last week, relegating Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire to history.

Executive Director J. Ronald Johnson notified department chairs that the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center is now the Richmond VA Medical Center.

The medical center was the only major VA facility named for a member of the Confederacy.

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The change came after a request by Rep. Donald McEachin, who represented the district that included the hospital. McEachin died last November after battling cancer for nine years.

In a letter to McEachin's office Dec. 27, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said he had the authority, by law, to change the name of the hospital to reflect its geographic location and decided to do so at the request of "veterans, employees and community members."

"After considerable discussion and review of the issue ... I have decided to rename the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center to the Richmond VA Medical Center," McDonough said in a Jan. 19 release. "VA will continue to serve all veterans with dignity and respect at this facility and every facility."

McGuire is known to Civil War historians as the physician who treated Stonewall Jackson after the first Battle of Manassas and amputated his arm in an attempt to save his life. But he also was instrumental in developing conventions for treating medical personnel as noncombatants -- protocols that were later integrated into the Geneva Conventions and the bedrock principle of the American Red Cross and other medical service organizations.

He was 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.

In the wake of the nationwide protests about racial discrimination following the death of George Floyd in May 2020, McGuire's legacy and the honoring of Confederate officers by applying their names to prominent institutions came under scrutiny. Virginia Commonwealth University, a school on which the Medical School of Virginia was established, in part, by McGuire, removed plaques, signs and a bust honoring him at its facilities.

Later that summer, 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 longtime VA employees. Several are named for former lawmakers, including a handful who have drawn criticism 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.

In his memo to staff, Johnson said that "changes are constant," but the facility will be "resolute in our efforts to provide safe, reliable, quality care and support to our Veterans, caregivers, and family members, as we always have."

"As Virginians and Americans, we have much to be proud of regarding our past, present, and future. We will continue to do our best to uphold the values of our democracy as each generation places its stamp upon its history," Johnson wrote.

The VA medical facility in Richmond is known for its spinal cord injury center, advancements in amputation and prosthetics, and treatment for traumatic brain injuries. It serves more than 77,000 veterans each year, with an operating budget of $950 million.

As the flagship facility in the Central VA Health Care System, it is part of a group of treatment facilities in Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Emporia and Henrico, Virginia.

The name change comes as the Department of Defense moves forward with stripping the honors to Confederate officers, soldiers and sailors from major installations and lesser-known buildings and monuments.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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