I opened this morning's Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/06/AR2010040604416.html) to find that the governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, has determined that the state's tourism demands requires a renewal of "Confederate History Month," which has lain dormant for the past eight years.
Ok, I get it. The state needs money and the Civil War is a big draw -- from hotels to gas stations to trinkets bought at the battlefield park gift shops. It should be a big draw for the state. Every American should spend at least a day in their lives standing on the slopes of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and think about how a handful of loggers and lobstermen from Maine, led by a college professor, saved the Republic on a hot summer's day in 1863. Or in the remains of the trenches at Petersburg, Virginia, imagining the brutality of war, as fifteen and fifty year old men lived, fought and died in muddy holes in the ground.
However, to proclaim a special month for the bloody secession movement that killed 650,000 Americans, that kept African-Americans in bondage, and whose 'beloved memory' prevented any meaningful civil rights changes from taking place for another 100 years, is wrongheaded and just plain historically incorrect. I've defended, on this blog, what has seemed to be pro-Confederate speeches and writings from political leaders and others. In those cases, I defended their right to say what they believe, and to hopefully help others to understand why those men died and to aid in ensuring that such good soldiers should never die in such a bad cause again.
Let's start with what the problems are with Virginia's "Confederate History Month."
First, it ignores the 490,865 African-Americans who were slaves in 1860 Virginia, and whose Confederate heritage was the lash, servitude, and a century of virtual slavery after 1865. Add to this the 58,042 freed slaves who resided in Virginia as well. Were they happy with their lot? Did they take to the streets and cheer when the slave-owning aristocrats, putting the mantle of states' rights and the Revolution over their illegal act, forced the state out of the Union? I do not believe so.
Secondly, it ignores the historical fact that a large portion of Virginia itself was so opposed to slavery and to rebellion that it broke away and formed its own loyal state --West Virginia. Did such overwhelming love for Jefferson Davis fill the hearts of every white man in the Old Dominion? Not in the least; 376,688 white Virginians seceded instead of giving into the demands of the slaveholders for poor white hillbillies to honorably die to protect their 'property.'
Lastly, it ignores the historical fact that thousands of white Virginians fought for the UNION. From Union General George H. Thomas, the "Rock of Chickamauga" and a great hero of the conflict, to loyalists who filled the ranks of West Virginian and Virginian Federal volunteer regiments to those who joined the volunteer regiments of other states; these men have all been systematically ignored and historically forgotten by the Lost Cause mythmakers that have occupied the Virginia state house since the end of Reconstruction. Belittled as traitors or scalawags, they stayed loyal to their nation. While most were not abolitionists, they were Union men and did not believe in fighting "the rich man's war" launched by the slaveocrats in 1861.
If Governor McDonnell wants to promote the Civil War in Virginia, I say more power to him. Let him call it "Civil War Heritage Month" and encourage the study of not just Stonewall Jackson or Robert E. Lee, but George Thomas, the tens of thousands of white and black Union volunteers from Virginia, and let it address the plight of the slaves, the problems of the free black population, and the atrocity of post-Reconstruction civil rights violations in Virginia.
History is not a pretty thing Governor. But perhaps we will learn more by confronting the ghosts of our past than making them gods.
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