It is hard to imagine that an institution that produces naval leaders sworn to defend the Constitution would continue to name two buildings after men who attempted to destroy the very same document. Yet at the U.S. Naval Academy there are two buildings and one road named for senior officers of the Confederate Navy.
The Superintendent’s residence, which hosts thousands of visitors each year, and the street it rests alongside are named after the first Naval Academy superintendent, Commander Franklin Buchanan. Several years after his term as superintendent, Buchanan resigned his commission to fight for the South and became the first full admiral of the Confederate States. From the front porch of Buchanan House you can see the building that houses the Naval Academy Weapons and Systems Engineering department, named in honor of Matthew Maury. Maury, a leader in the science of oceanography in his day, also resigned his commission and led coastal, harbor, and river defenses for the Confederate Navy. Both buildings were built and named in the early 1900s, decades after the Civil War.
The point was recently made on Proceedings that these buildings were named to recognize actions and contributions made of individuals before the Civil War, as opposed to several Army bases named for the honorees’ Confederate service during the war. Others have further argued that Buchanan’s and Maury’s contributions to the Naval Academy and science carry more weight than a lapse in judgment during the heated passions of 1861.
I would suggest that this is a weak and expedient argument to not rename these two buildings. The renaming decision rests on the question: “To what degree do good deeds eclipse subsequent failures?” In this case, it is clear: They do not. The cause for which these men chose to commit treason was neither moral nor in keeping with the ideals imbued in the midshipmen or officers that today walk the halls of those two buildings. That said, both officers served a cause they and many others in their time believed was inherently moral, even though it would be hard to find anyone today who would agree. Perhaps the best course of action is to remove the individual from the equation all together. In renaming the buildings, the real focus should be condemning the unjust cause rather than castigating the person who served it.
Plebes memorize the origin of every major building on the Yard. And every time a midshipman—including many who are the great great grandchildren of slaves—walks past one of these buildings, he or she could not be faulted for questioning the commitment of our great institutions to the Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights under the law. The reasons for changing the names of these buildings far outweigh—in both number and consequence—those for keeping them intact. We must ask ourselves: Will we honor treason, division, and inequality or will we honor inclusivity, teamwork, and commitment to a set of findamental values?
The practical question is how to rename the buildings. The incredible thing about our service is the abundance of people who have served with honor, exemplifying our core values, including many who were members of a minority. Names such as Admiral Michelle Howard (USNA ’82), who—when she became the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. military as Vice Chief of Naval Operations—set the standard for so many others to follow. Or Medal of Honor recipient First Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez (USNA ’48) who put country and countrymen before self when he cradled a grenade to save his fellow Marines during the Inchon Landing.
The Naval Academy family clearly demonstrated its intolerance of racism with the Alumni Association’s swift dismissal of a member whose grotesquely racist comments were captured on social media. The Superintendent and Commandant have performed an excellent service through their messaging to the Brigade during this time, refusing to let silence be their answer. No doubt there is already discussion about what to do with the Confederate names on the Yard, and the outcome will be the result of careful deliberations.
There will be those who call any move to rename a building or tear down a statue an Orwellian censorship of history. To suggest this is to miss the point entirely. The idea of renaming these buildings is not to forget these men, or even diminish the effects they had on the Naval Academy and the naval service. Franklin Buchanan will always be first superintendent of the Naval Academy. This historical fact should continue to be presented in the Naval Academy Museum, right next to the fact that he resigned his commission and fought for the Confederate States. Matthew Maury’s contributions to oceanography should be remembered in a similar fashion. Their stories should not be forgotten or censored, but we must not attach honor to their service of an unjust cause.
A name change now is an incredibly easy way to send a powerful message. Senior Navy and Marine Corps leaders sent a strong message when both services chose to ban the Confederate battle flag from installations and ships. It is now the Naval Academy’s turn.