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Opinion: Why Lake Lanier and Buford Dam shouldn't be renamed
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Lake Lanier as seen from the air in July 2017.

Editor's note: On March 10, 2023, just hours after confirming it was moving ahead with naming recommendations, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it was "pausing" renaming plans. Whether or when that process will resume is unknown.

Clyde Morris
Clyde Morris

By Clyde Morris, Vice-President, Lake Lanier Association

In an attempt to reduce the possibility of political divisiveness caused by associating Defense Department assets with the Confederacy, Congress in 2021 directed the establishment of a commission relating to modifying or removing names of Department of Defense assets that commemorate the Confederate States of America or any person who served voluntarily with the Confederacy. That commission identified Lake Sidney Lanier and Buford Dam specifically, and all DoD organizations have been directed to fully implement those recommendations by Jan. 1, 2024.

The problem is, Lake Lanier was not named to commemorate anyone’s Confederate service - and the dam was not actually named after anyone at all. A brief history may help illuminate the issue.

Lake Lanier was named for Sidney Lanier, a nineteenth century poet, in honor of his poem, The Song of the Chattahoochee, which extolled the virtues of the geographic area where the lake was later built. But Mr. Lanier was far more than just a little-known poet. He was also a lawyer, a distinguished academician who taught at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, and an accomplished musician who played with the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. To say he accomplished far more in his life than his service in the Confederate Army would be an understatement.

Buford Dam was logically named after the nearest town in order to identify its location. That town was named for the president of the nearby railroad, which had contributed greatly to the town’s commercial activity. It is merely coincidental that the railroad president happened to have served in the Confederacy years before in another state. Algernon Sidney Buford, for whom the city was named, was also a distinguished graduate of the University of Virginia who served in the Virginia House of Delegates before and after enlisting in the Confederate Army. After the war, he served for 22 years as President of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, whose acquisitions created his connection to the City of Buford through railroad lines that today are part of the Norfolk Southern Railway system. 

Tell Congress What You Think

 These name changes are now in process. The Corps will be soliciting input only on choosing the new name – not whether to change it. So if you want to oppose the changes, you should make your opinion known as soon as possible. The Lake Lanier Association will be conducting an online survey, the results of which will be communicated to Congress and the Corps of Engineers. You can also call and/or write your U.S. Senators and Representative directly and submit your comments to the Buford Project office of the Corps of Engineers. If you comment to Rep. Andrew Clyde, he asks that you contact his Gainesville office.

Most importantly, neither man’s military service decades earlier had any influence on the choice of names for the lake and dam, and those names in no way commemorate the Confederacy or the men’s service to it. So, changing the names of our lake and dam will not serve the purpose behind Congress’s directive. Whatever exceedingly remote connection may exist between the lake’s and dam’s names and two men’s distant and unrelated military service is not nearly enough to justify the enormous expense and inconvenience that will ensue in renaming all the schools, streets, buildings, businesses, organizations, highway signs, maps, and countless other things that have since adopted the name Lanier. 

Nonetheless, if the government insists on changing the lake’s name, we suggest that the generic name Lanier be retained in lieu of Sidney Lanier. In that way we can maintain continuity by keeping the name that is usually used to refer to the lake and avoid overturning the applecart of places and organizations that happen to share that name.

The simple truth is that neither Lake Sidney Lanier nor Buford Dam was named to commemorate the Confederacy or anyone’s service to it. Sidney Lanier’s and Algernon Buford’s military service did not define their lives or their contributions to society. While it’s laudable to minimize political divisiveness, this initiative goes too far in trying to avoid the remote possibility of inadvertent offense. Neither Sidney Lanier’s poem nor naming a dam after the closest town should be a source of offense for anyone, and the federal government should back off from its directive to change the names of our lake and dam.