The second episode, focusing on the US Military Academy at West Point and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, was released on Monday. Once again, the commission did not hesitate. Of West Point, the commission noted, “His history in the service of the defense of the United States makes him particularly incongruous for Confederate commemoration” – that is, recognizing “the men who fought against the States United States of America and whose cause sought to destroy the nation as we know it.” As the report noted, denying the Confederate place of honor was the practice of the institution for more than 60 years. after the Civil War, until, influenced by a nationwide movement—among whites—to romanticize the “lost cause,” West Point awarded honors to alumni who wore gray.
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The commission essentially calls for restoring the previous approach. It recommends that West Point remove barracks, streets, a gate, monument and other symbols bearing the name or likeness of figures such as Robert E. Lee and PGT Beauregard, with the name change entrusted to the academy itself. The commission recommended that the Naval Academy rename two buildings and a street that currently honor a Confederate naval officer and a Confederate civilian official. The commission correctly refused to alter the neutral memorials of the two institutions which simply mention the Confederate service of graduates on lists combined with the majority who defended the Union.
In one notable case, the commission has pushed the boundaries of its mandate, which is to consider “the commemoration of the Confederate States of America or anyone who has voluntarily served” with the Confederacy. Strictly speaking, this would not include the Ku Klux Klan, which emerged as a terrorist organization after the Civil War. And yet, since 1965, a small bas-relief depicting an armed, hooded figure and the words “Ku Klux Klan” has been visible on an 11-foot-tall bronze triptych dedicated to veterans of World War II and the Korea, at the entrance to Bartlett Hall at West Point. The Klansman is one of dozens of similarly sized historical figures carved into the middle of a large painting, titled “History of the United States of America”, which depicts several Confederate generals – but also Indigenous leader Tecumseh, feminist Susan B. Anthony and abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.
The commission recommended removing the Confederate figures from the triptych, but lacked the legal authority to do more than draw public attention to the depiction of the Klan, whose original intent is ambiguous. The sculptor who made it acknowledged at the time that the KKK was “criminal”, but this context is not explicit on the work. West Point, which credibly says it doesn’t condone racism, should address this issue thoughtfully, but on the same timeline the commission suggested for the removal of Confederate iconography — “without delay.”