Governor Bob McDonnell has revived a practice that some of his predecessors had discontinued: he has declared April to be Confederate History Month in Virginia. As you might expect, the move has sparked an explosion of negative reactions.
Civil rights leaders were quick to decry the proclamation as "offensive". L. Douglas Wilder, a former governor of Virginia and the first black governor in U.S. history, said it was “very troubling to me and to many others, because it only presents one side of the story.” Kenneth C. Alexander, Chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, went so far as to suggest that Governor McDonnell may favor slavery, saying he seemed "nostalgic" for that which "Virginia has worked hard to move beyond".
The governor defended his proclamation, reminding people that not every aspect of the Civil War was about slavery. His goal was to highlight those other issues that had been eclipsed by the main issue. With the 150th anniversary of the conflict next year, the move was also designed to promote tourism in Virginia. Wilder took exception, saying the governor's original proclamation made no mention of slavery at all, and that he hoped the governor would "see fit to revise what he has written". Governor McDonnell did, and now his proclamation includes a reminder of the evils of slavery, saying we "should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history."
I agree it was a mistake to not include this language from the beginning; but to say that we have nothing from those four years of history to celebrate is an almost equal mistake. Who truly understands the motivations of those who fought in what is called in the South "the War Between the States"? Did everyone in the South own slaves? Was every soldier in the Confederate Army fighting simply to keep their slaves? Did they all hate the North and Abraham Lincoln and liberty and justice for all?
Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States of America, the only president in Confederate history. Before the secession, he was a member of the United States Army, fighting in the Mexican-American War. He was a Cabinet Secretary for President Franklin Pierce, and represented Mississippi in the United States Senate. Did he want to secede from the Union? No. He gave several speeches urging the preservation of the United States; but he also believed that States had the fundamental right to secede, so when Mississippi declared its intent to do so, he resigned from the U.S. Senate and returned to his home.
General Robert E. Lee is probably the most famous Confederate in history, but even he didn't want to see his country divided against itself. His popularity in the North led President Lincoln to offer him command of the entire Union Army. However, his home was in Virginia, his father having been Governor at one point. After the war, he aided in Reconstruction efforts, ensuring ex-Confederates wouldn't lose their right to vote.
To be sure, for many in the South, the war was over slavery; but that conflict cloaked a host of other issues, including one that is still very important to Southerners, the issue of States' rights. Southerners don't usually refer to it as the "Civil War". A civil war is a war fought by two factions within the same country, but Southerners don't consider the Confederacy to have been part of the same country. For many, "the War Between the States" was at least as much about the sovereignty of the individual states versus the power of the federal government as it was about slavery.
None of this is really the point, though. Governor McDonnell's proclamation originally called for an understanding of "the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers, and citizens during the period of the Civil War". What were those sacrifices, exactly? When the leaders of the Southern States seceded, their citizens must have been torn, as Lee and Lincoln were torn, by their love for their brothers and sisters across the Mason-Dixon line. The North saw this not as secession, but as rebellion and moved to stem the tide. Once shots were fired on the Union Army at Fort Sumter, the course was set and America was at war.
Did people want to fight? I'm sure many of them did; but certainly, most would rather have lived in peace. The soldiers of the Confederate Army left their homes and families to risk their lives in battle against a numerically and technologically superior foe; a foe composed, in some small measure, of their former friends and families. In just one year, soldiers from Virginia, the Carolinas, and other locations across the South were fighting against soldiers they had once called their countrymen. Can you imagine how it would feel to turn your guns on men and boys who had once been your fellow Americans? Can you imagine how it would feel to have their guns turned on you?
Whether you call it the Civil War, the War Between the States, or some other name, it must be said that this was one of the worst periods in our country's history. The cause was certainly not just; but the soldiers on both sides no doubt fought with courage, and even honor. Not everyone in the South owned slaves, just as not everyone in the North was praiseworthy. For what it took from those men and boys and their families, I think it deserves a special recognition.
I think of the fight in South Carolina a few years back over whether to fly the Confederate Battle Flag over the statehouse and the debate it stirred on what it meant to be "Southern". To some, it means racism, but to most, it means hospitality, sipping sweet tea on a porch in the late afternoon, common courtesy and chivalry, honoring family history, religious adherence, and beautiful women with charming accents. I'd encourage everyone to read Tony Horwitz's "Confederates in the Attic", a sometimes quirky but always insightful review of what a Southern heritage truly means; and I'd encourage everyone to find it in their hearts to look back on this dark moment in our past with a forgiving eye for those who did the best they could on both sides.
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