When Frank Armiger, the national leader of an advocacy group for the historic military unit known as the 29th Infantry Division, first learned that a national commission was considering retiring the blue-and-gray logo that has long symbolized the fighting force, he was dismayed and concerned.
After all, he said, the Naming Commission, as it’s known, was mainly tasked with rooting out and replacing the names of U.S. military bases named after Confederate generals. He’s always viewed the division’s yin-yang style insignia as a unifying symbol, not a divisive one, and 29ers have worn it in multiple wars, many to their deaths.
Armiger, the national executive director of the 29th Division Association, is feeling a lot better now. The eight-member commission announced Monday that it’s recommending the Army retain the logo just as it has appeared since 1917, the year the division was founded.
“I was ecstatic to hear the news,” he said Tuesday. “The symbol represents so perfectly what the 29th Division stands for that this was almost an existential problem for us. We’re really breathing a sigh of relief.”
The commission gave notice that it would recommend that the Army’s official description of 29th Infantry Division heraldry be changed to remove language that can be viewed as suggesting that the symbol implies Confederate service, according to a news release.
The decision by the commission, a board created by Congress and the Department of Defense as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021, all but brings to an end a debate that grew passionate at times over the last six months.
On one side were military officials who included the patch on a list of the hundreds of Department of Defense assets whose putative links to the Confederacy the commission is considering. On the other, perhaps more vocal side, supporters of the 29th Division from around the world, including veterans, family members, friends and lawmakers from various places on the political spectrum, urged the panel to consider that the symbol’s creator designed it to reflect the unique formation of the division.
The panel’s task, according to its charge, is to remove, rename or modify “names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia” within the military that “commemorate” the Confederacy. It sought to settle whether the gray half of the yin-yang style logo, which is juxtaposed with a blue field, could be considered a “commemoration” of the Confederate side of the Civil War.
It was 52 years after the end of the Civil War that U.S. military created the 29th by merging units that had originated in the South with others that traced their origins to Northern regions of the country.
That, present-day supporters argued, meant that the insignia wasn’t like forts Bragg, Hood, Lee and Pickett, which were named for Confederate officers. The 29th logo was an emblem of unity, they maintained, not the kind of racial division and white supremacy they agree the Southern side stood for.
“I definitely understand the angst in and around the meaning of different logos, patches, and names,” retired Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, the former adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard and its first African American leader, said in May. “But the 29th logo is different; it has always been about the power of bringing together the North and the South. It’s a symbol of unity, one of the highest American values. To me, it’s exactly the kind of insignia we should be lifting up right now.”
Singh made similar points in a slick, five-minute promotional video the 29th Association produced and sent to commissioners and members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. So did Steve Melnikoff, a 102-year-old veteran from Cockeysville who wore the patch throughout the Normandy campaign in 1944; members of the division stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Association members circulated a petition that garnered thousands of signatures, raised funds for their campaign through a website and sent hundreds of letters. Politicians from both sides of the aisle — including former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia and his successor, Republican Glenn Youngkin — weighed in, as did supporters from as far away as France and Holland.
Retired Navy Admiral Michelle J. Howard, chair of the commission, wrote in a letter to the armed services committees last month that the efforts played a role in the panel’s decision.
“The Community of the 29th Infantry Division indicates that they view the symbol as a unifying symbol for America and is imbued with the sacrifices and service of past 29th ID members,” she wrote.
Regarding the official explanation of the insignia’s meaning, she wrote that “the description language should be modified to reflect the rich history of the 29th, with focus on the unification of American citizens through service in the 29th.”
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Joe Balkoski, a historian who has written several books on the 29th, said that while military commissions are not always responsive to pleas from individuals, he remained hopeful for months that the pushback from supporters would have an effect.
“When you study the 29th Division as long as I have, you realize the commission’s argument about it honoring the Confederacy did not hold water,” he said.
The panel’s recommendation was not without critics. Richard Brookshire is co-founder of the Black Veterans Project, a group that aims to address systemic racial inequalities across the military.
“A symbol of unity with those who fought to keep slavery intact, who would go on to codify Jim Crow and ferment discrimination in every facet of American life, is not a symbol worth preserving at the expense of the dignity of Black service members,” he wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “The Naming Commission has fallen short of its responsibility to root out all vestiges of the Confederacy.”
The commission recommended in May that nine military bases be renamed, in each case suggesting names to replace those of Confederate officers.
Howard indicated the commission is still casting a careful eye on any symbols that “unmistakably honor the Confederacy, or honor individuals who voluntarily served with the Confederacy through image or motto,” including any language describing heraldry and any battle streamers that contain references to the Confederate cause.
Once the commission submits its recommendations in October, it will be up to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin whether to approve or reject them.