On the eve of the Sesquicentennial, controversy rages anew about slavery as a cause of the war.

On April 6, 2010, Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell’s proclamation reinstated Confederate History Month after a hiatus of eight years, triggering a  firestorm in the media. Civil War Times asked a number of scholars to weigh in on the issue. Several member’s of the Sons of Confederate Veterans were also asked for comment, but we had not heard back from them as of press time.

Governor Robert F. McDonnell’s Proclamation

WHEREAS, April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and

WHEREAS, Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and

WHEREAS, it is important for all 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, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.“; and

WHEREAS, this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

McDonnell’s move drew harsh criticism from a variety of sources, and he released the following addendum to the proclamation:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery 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, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history can benefit all.

William Marvel

I’m a Virginia native who lives in New England, which may account for my equivocal reaction. While I am instinctively antagonistic to the more pandering extremes of politically correct speech, I can appreciate that creating a specifically “Confederate” commemoration would be offensive to the descendants of slaves, and perhaps to the descendants of Virginia’s many Unionists. The lapse in sensitivity was surprising for a political document, yet I can believe the proclamation was issued without intending offense, especially in light of so prompt and vigorous a correction. Frankly, I was more troubled by other parts of the proclamation that suggested credence in Lost Cause mythology, which may help explain the unfortunate title.

—Author of Lee’s Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox

Susannah Ural

I find the entire debate frustrating. Governor McDonnell’s proclamation concerning Confederate History Month was a simplistic effort to trigger an emotional response. It did, but not quite the one he hoped for, and he had to follow it up with a too-little-too-late recognition of slavery’s centrality to the war.

But many of the responses to McDonnell’s proclamation were equally frustrating. The moment we have an incident like this, the argument devolves into sound bites and name-calling, completely forgetting just how far we’ve come in showing the centrality of slavery to the war and the injustices that defined 19thcentury America, North and South.

I see my Southern white students’ understandable frustration at nonSoutherners’ assumptions that white Southerners were/are racist and rednecks, or that their ancestors were “terrorists” or “Nazis.” But then my students can succumb to their frustration and lapse into the trite “who are they to tell me…” defense.

The silver lining to McDonnell’s proclamation is that it has led to some fantastic classroom discussions where my students are moving past the sound bites and embracing the complexity of it all. They’re recognizing that some pretty ugly ideas on race and society can be linked to noble ideals of family and honor, and that history is never—and should never—be a simplistic process of categorizing “good guys” and “bad guys.”

—Author of the forthcoming Hood’s Texans: A History of the Texas Brigade and Southern Society in the American Civil War; professor, The University of Southern Mississippi

S. Waite Rawls III

Readers of Civil War Times know that you cannot separate the Confederacy and slavery into two buckets. They were inextricably intertwined. Enormous progress has been made by the various state Sesquicentennial commissions and a local effort called “The Future of Richmond’s Past.” All have taken a far more inclusive view of the commemoration than was taken 50 years ago, and they have elevated the discussion above the rhetoric that surrounded the governor’s proclamation.

—President and CEO, Museum of the Confederacy

Lesley Gordon

Governor McDonnell echoes the Lost Cause’s original tenets: celebrating the sacrifice of all Confederate soldiers and civilians, affirming the unity of Confederate Virginians during the war and blaming Southern defeat purely on Union numbers and resources. Much of the controversy has focused on the governor’s glaring omission of slavery as the cause of the war, and his initial failure to recognize slaves as active participants in Virginia’s Confederate experience. But of course the dismissal of slavery’s importance is central to Lost Cause dogma. The governor’s proclamation also excludes the state’s bitter divisions and disaffections, best exemplified by the creation of West Virginia in 1863. McDonnell urges today’s Virginians to study its Confederate history; unfortunately this proclamation does more to mislead and misinform, and promulgate myths that have no basis in historical reality.

—Author of George E. Pickett in Life and Legend; professor, University of Akron

Kevin Levin

The response to Governor McDonnell’s proclamation reflects the extent to which white and black Americans no longer identify with a Civil War remembrance that fails to acknowledge the centrality of slavery and emancipation to the war in Virginia. His subsequent apology ought to be understood in light of a dramatic shift in public perception that has taken place over the past few decades. Changes to the racial profile of local and state governments in the wake of the Civil Rights movement has allowed black Americans to take part in public debate.

A tour of Virginia reveals a historical landscape dominated by monuments that celebrate the common soldier as well as the Confederacy’s political and military leaders. In addition to remembering the past, these sites reflect the values and racial profile of the ruling party throughout much of the 20th century. The original proclamation would have us continue to remember Virginia’s Civil War through this narrow lens. On the eve of the Sesquicentennial, Virginians demand a proclamation that commemorates a more accurate and richer past. In doing so we ensure that 2011 will not be a repeat of 1961.

—Creator of the blog Civil War Memory (cwmemory.org)

Catherine Clinton

Governor McDonnell’s original proclamation failed to include the term “slavery.” McDonnell’s need to soften his stance—in the wake of a media firestorm—resulted in a backpeddle that mentioned slavery four times, plus the governor threw in “black,” “African American” and “Civil Rights” for good measure.

Twenty-first-century historians are in a struggle to make sure the phrase fair and balanced does not require any ironic air quotes for audiences flocking to Virginia for the Civil War’s 150th. On the ramp to the Sesquicentennial we confront issues that derailed the war’s 100th anniversary in the early 1960s, powerfully captured in Robert Cook’s book Troubled Commemoration.

On the advisory board for Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society, we have had a bit of back and forth about language, focus and emphasis. We tell many stories, not just one. So many died to preserve the blessings of liberty, and we must honor their sacrifices by recognizing the full dimensions of what was achieved alongside the rubble and tombstones.

—Member, Advisory Board for Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Exhibition at Virginia Historical Society; Queens University Belfast

Harold Holzer

Even granting Governor McDonnell the benefit of the doubt over his ham-handed proclamation calling for a celebration of “the war between the states for independence”—after all, Virginia really does need tourism dollars, as he explained—has he not heard that African Americans take vacations, too? A family trip focused on the “sacrifices” of “Confederate leaders, soldiers, and citizens” has all the appeal to his state’s diverse population of a front-row seat at a slave whipping.

So much for the tourism excuse. How about a reality check? Haven’t scholar David Blight and Congress man Jesse Jackson Jr. taken this “Lost Cause Never” view off the table? Any attempt to evoke Civil War memory without acknowledging slavery, emancipation and black enlistment is an intolerable travesty.

But let me add something that may irk some of my friends. There must also be room to probe why so many poor white Southerners proved willing to fight for a system that discouraged opportunity for whites as well as blacks. We do need to acknowledge Confederate nationalism—but as a means to understand the past, not to propel Tea Party resistance to 21st-century federalism.

As co-chair of the national Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, which worked for years to encourage local commemorations, I think perhaps we need a federal Civil War commission to provide such an overview now. Other wise I foresee a troubled commemoration indeed.

—Lincoln scholar; co-chair, Lincoln Bicentennial Commission

Harry Smeltzer I think the governor’s proclamation was nothing more than a dusting off of previously issued proclamations, made at least in part in fulfillment of promises given prior to his election. I find most of the reactions to the original proclamation and later apology repugnant. We see reactions ranging from claims that Confederates were nothing more than terrorists, that slavery had little or nothing to do with the Confederate cause, that the Tea Party movement is primarily a gathering of neo-Confederate racists, and that the same movement reflects frustrations similar to those felt by the slaveholding South. All are gross distortions of the truth. Unfortunately little attention has been given to the valid historical issues raised, notably the diversity of the state of Virginia before and during the war.

—Creator of the blog Bull Runnings (bullrunnings.wordpress.com)

Michael Fellman

Governor Bob McDonnell left black people out of the shared history he embraced, only later, under attack, adding that slavery was evil. Despite the hard work of 50 years of historians, dramatic changes in the American social and political landscape and considerable improvements in race relations, the Lost Cause remains alive for those who hark back to a mythic Golden Age of Tea Parties and Confederate Martial Glory. This is a colossal misuse of the legacy of the Civil War.

—Author of Struggling With Robert E. Lee; professor of History Emeritus, Simon Fraser University.

 

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