It is difficult to imagine what prompted Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell to ignore the institution of slavery and the process of Emancipation in a proclamation announcing Confederate History Month. The “people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence,” observed the proclamation, which encouraged Virginians “to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.” The proclamation mentioned “historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy” and welcomed “the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War.”

An avalanche of negative reaction in newspapers, on television and on the Internet prompted McDonnell to apologize for what he termed a “major omission” and to offer a revised version of the proclamation. “The institution of slavery,” read the new language, “led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders….” The changes inspired mixed responses: Representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans denounced them, charging that the governor had sold out to the forces of political correctness; some former critics expressed appreciation for McDonnell’s aboutface; still others said the changes had come too late. Among the last group, a Washington Post columnist avowed that for him Confederate soldiers “have been, and forever will be, domestic terrorists.”

The whole controversy had a distinctly familiar quality. Comparable debates had arisen in the 1990s when then-governor George F. Allen proclaimed Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery and again in 2001 when his successor, James S. Gilmore, included a denunciation of the peculiar institution as part of “A Proclamation in Remembrance of the Sacrifices and Honor of All Virginians Who Served in the Civil War.” Gilmore’s proclamation mentioned not only Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson but also William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a Norfolk resident and Medal of Honor recipient, and William R. Terrill, a native of Covington who served as a Union general. Virginia’s Sons of Confederate Veterans, through a spokes man, attacked Gilmore’s mention of Union soldiers from Virginia: “This is an army which invaded Virginia and killed thousands of its citizens and burned farms, and killed livestock and raped women….He’s knuckled right under [to] what the NAACP wanted.” L. Douglas Wilder, elected as the state’s first African-American governor in the early 1990s, deemed Gilmore’s inclusion of black people and white unionists a noteworthy step forward in a state that had long celebrated Lee-Jackson Day.

By any reasonable standard, McDonnell’s first proclamation represented a major step backward from Gilmore’s approach in 2001. (Gilmore’s two successors—Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine—did not call for observance of Confederate History Month.) In explaining the original version, McDonnell said he had been focused on Civil War history rather than on slavery, which raises an obvious question: How can anyone discuss the Civil War era in Virginia without alluding to slavery? It is especially odd in light of the fact that the governor mentioned “the people of Virginia” and “our Commonwealth’s shared history,” suggesting, though not stating outright, that his proclamation applied to all Virginians during the period 1861-1865.

A few words about Virginia’s population and “shared history” will shed light on how badly McDonnell went wrong. In 1860, Virginia ranked first among the 15 slave states in population, with 1,105,453 white residents, 490,865 enslaved African Americans, and 58,042 free black people. Among these “people of Virginia”—to use the governor’s phrase—376,688 became residents of the new state of West Virginia in 1863 (23 percent of the 1860population and a much higher percentage of the white portion because western Virginia was home to relatively few slaves). This part of Virginia’s wartime story powerfully underscores the extent of unionist—or anti-Confederate—sentiment in the state. The vast majority of the 500,000 black residents similarly should not be considered Confederates.

Governor McDonnell’s “shared history” thus included thousands of Virginians who fought in storied campaigns under Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, A.P. Hill and other Virginia-born officers— but also featured huge numbers of people who opposed both secession and the Confederacy. Of 126 West Point graduates in the Army who were native Virginians or appointed to the academy from the state, 44 (35 percent) remained loyal to the United States in 1860. So too did non–West Pointer Winfield Scott, by far the nation’s best soldier and the architect of a broad strategic plan that eventually brought the United States victory against the breakaway slaveholding republic. Southampton County’s George Henry Thomas became the fourth greatest Union military hero, ranking behind Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan. More than 30,000 white men from the western regions of Virginia fought for the Union cause, as did black Virginians who served in U.S. Colored Troops units. Many thousands of black refugees, known as “contrabands” during the war, assisted U.S. military forces as noncombatants. White Unionists also supplied information and otherwise helped invading Federal forces.

Virginia’s wartime experience offers a number of compelling story lines. The most written about relates to the Army of Northern Virginia’s operations. Virginia witnessed battles and smaller actions that claimed more than 350,000 Union and Confederate casualties, nearly one-third of the war’s total. More men fell within 20 miles of Fredericksburg than in all the battles combined in any other state. The level of sacrifice by Confederate Virginians in and out of uniform, as McDonnell’s proclamation noted, was immense. Other stories are equally compelling, most obviously the transition from slavery to freedom for 30 percent of the state’s population. Virginia’s governors might well continue to issue proclamations that remind modern residents of the conflict’s seismic impact. They can use Governor McDonnell’s initial effort as a model of how not to do so.


Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here