When will all of us finally admit what caused the war?
In the absence of national leadership, myths and untruths run rampant

Reunion of G.A.R. and U.C.V. at Gettysburg in 1913. Library of Congress.
Reunion of G.A.R. and U.C.V. at Gettysburg in 1913. Library of Congress.
Whose war is it anyway? If you go by the title of this magazine, the Civil War belongs to all Americans. To North and South, black and white, are apportioned shares of its heartache, consequences and glory, not to mention the responsibility to truthfully appraise the men and issues that divided and nearly destroyed this country.

Approaching the Civil War sesquicentennial, it is easy to believe that some Americans have concluded otherwise. Congress has either refused or neglected to form a national sesquicentennial commission to organize and fund this once-in-a-generation anniversary opportunity. Whatever their flaws, such groups are capable of galvanizing nationally palatable and historically accurate commemorations. At their best, they marshal attention to usefully probe the past to illuminate the future.

What they don’t require is cookie-cutter consensus or ahistorical political consensus. Their role is to stimulate debate, encourage creativity and, most of all, involve people of every background and heritage who were either affected by our history or can learn from it. The U.S. Lincoln Bicen­tennial Commission inspired not only exhibitions, symposia and curriculum development, but also town halls that encouraged open discussion of what Lincoln called the nation’s “unfinished work”: the promise, consecrated in blood not once but twice, that we provide equal opportunity for all Americans.

In the void of a national focus, localities are taking the lead, with surreal results. Texas recently attempted to relegate Thomas Jefferson to the dustbin of history because of his irritating affection for the separation of church and state. And a few years ago, “educators” in Georgia tampered with reproductions of the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware because they feared students would confuse the general’s dangling watch fob with his genitals!

More recent examples of revisionism come from Virginia and Mississippi, two Southern states where commemorations suggest “state independence” succeeded, or should have, and that slavery had little or nothing to do with secession or rebellion.

Only a few years ago, Virginia Governor George Allen offered the unreconstructed idea that the Civil War was but a “struggle for independence, sovereign rights and local government control.” Slavery never entered the discussion. Virginia voters later rejected Allen’s bid to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate.

The state’s current chief executive, Bob McDonnell, declared April Confederate History Month in Virginia, emphasizing “the sacrifices of Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens” and arguing that the South failed in its quest for independence only because it was “overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union army.” Nowhere mentioned, much less regretted, was the enslavement of 490,000 Virginia blacks.

After a national uproar, McDonnell is­sued a statement admitting that his original proclamation “contained a major omission,” and acknowledged that slavery was “an evil, vicious, and inhumane practice.” Then he came up with a strange rationalization by reminding people that Virginia had been the first Southern state to elect an African-American governor, L. Douglas Wilder.

I shared a platform with Governor Wilder a few years ago, when the city of Richmond unveiled a statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad to commemorate their April 1865 visit to that city. From the yells, taunts and angry signs that greeted us, one would have thought the war had ended several days earlier, not a century before. What is it about the Civil War that ignites such emotions?

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour leapt to the defense of McDonnell by accusing critics of “trying to make a big deal of something [that] doesn’t amount to diddly.” Barbour is a longtime and emphatic supporter of Confederate His-tory Month. Mississippi, the state with the nation’s largest percentage of African-American residents, still marks Confed-erate Memorial Day as an official holiday (though Martin Luther King Jr. gets a holiday, too—albeit in tandem with the birthday of Robert E. Lee).

It is not too late to replace snake oil with honesty—to replace state hubris with a national overview by creating a commission to lead us. According to the historian James Robertson—who was there—President Kennedy gave a re-energized Civil War centennial commission only a few months to organize the unforgettable commemorations of the war’s 100th anniversary in the 1960s. Does someone in Washington have the will to phone Robertson and ask how to do it again? Here is one Virginian (no doubt of many) with plenty of ideas and experience to share.

If this rare opportunity comes and goes without clearer national direction, then the responsibility to separate myth from truth will ultimately fall to us—readers as well as writers—and the publications that inspire both.

Supposedly we’ve come a long way since Jefferson Davis aroused dormant sectional pride by insisting: “Is it a Lost Cause now? Never!” Never is a time that has come.

Ulysses S. Grant was no abolitionist when the Civil War began, but by the time it ended he remembered Lincoln’s warning that a house divided could not exist half slave and half free, and observed, “I have come to the conclusion that the saying is quite true.” The war’s most successful general said: “The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery.”

Yet how many still have not learned? Surely we can celebrate military genius, bravery under fire and awe-inspiring sacrifice without obscuring the real cause that brought about the war; or the heroes, black as well as white, North as well as South, who fought, bled and died to make us one nation, indivisible.

Award-winning author Harold Holzer served as co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

Article originally published in the September 2010 issue of America’s Civil War