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Two Virginias, two Civil Wars?
The state in the forefront of war remembrance still argues over what happened

The state of Virginia has been back in the news, again at war with itself and again over issues relating to the Civil War. On the one hand, the state’s diverse Sesquicentennial Commission masterfully organized its annual conference—a frank, eye-opening symposium at Norfolk State University titled “Race, Slavery and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History.”

On the other, a new textbook for the state’s fourth graders ignited a firestorm because it included a passage asserting that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy—a doubtful claim often advanced as evidence that slavery was not the cause of the war. That these two events could have occurred at nearly the same time in the same place suggests yet again that the fight over historical memory is far from over, especially in the bellwether state where more Civil War battles occurred than in any other—and apparently still do (Governor Bob McDonnell, remember, failed to mention slavery at all when he issued his official Civil War proclamation).

The Norfolk symposium, attended by nearly 900 people—and by way of disclosure, let me note that I delivered a 10-minute presentation on the image of Lincoln as an emancipator—handled tough stuff indeed: the little-known underground railroad that existed along the waterways of coastal cities like Nor­folk, the savage cruelties of slavery and the ever-relevant inspiration of brave voices like Frederick Douglass. Historian James O. Horton ably moderated the program, and the presenters included Yale University’s David Blight, author of the classic Race and Reunion, and Jean Fagin Yellin, who gave a harrowing ac­count of Harriet Jacobs, a slave who exiled herself in a tiny crawl space hideaway for years rather than submit to sexual violence from her owner. No one who attended the event will soon forget these and other riveting presentations, or the discussion they stimulated. Forth­coming conferences at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia promise to be equally important, and each will be preserved as books.

But the book that dominated the news, thanks to reporting by Kevin Sieff of the Washington Post was Our Virginia: Past and Present by one Joy Masoff, which featured the absurd claim: “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Con­federate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” The author admitted that she researched the subject of black Con­federates on so-called Confederate heritage Web sites. Experts hired to vet her text raised no objections.

Historian Carol Sheriff, who blew the whistle on the incendiary sentence, branded it “an unfounded claim,” adding that it concerned her “not just as a professional historian but as a parent.” Civil War scholar James McPherson pointed out that “These Confederate heritage groups have been making this claim for years as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery.” Even University of Virginia historian Ervin Jordan, who contends that some African Americans did fight in Confederate ranks, admitted that Masoff exaggerated the numbers, adding, “the claim about Jackson is totally false.” Virginia school officials said they would ask their teachers not to teach the controversial sentence—probably the surest way to get kids to read and believe it.

How could these two Virginias—these two versions of reality—continue to co-exist, often unnoticed, in the parallel universes of Civil War memory? So much in our society has changed since the whitewashed 100th anniversary of the rebellion that we all but take it for granted that history will henceforth be politically, as well as factually, correct.

One explanation may be that the greatest information resource human ingenuity has ever created now also ranks as the most potentially dangerous: the World Wide Web. Writers who substitute URLs for more in-depth research, offering baseless claims as “history” because they found them online, are but the tip of the deadliest iceberg since the one that sank Titanic. Scary as it is when professionals forego genuine research, think of all the students and aficionados who may now believe that a blog or a Wikipedia entry are just as dependable as, say, a Pulitzer Prize–winning text by McPherson. Until writers and readers alike do as good a job as Wall Street did to burst the tech bubble—until we make clear that all Web sites are not created equal—we will face crisis after crisis during the sesquicentennial, and not just in Virginia.

No doubt we will soon be hearing “authoritatively” about 5-year-old recruits dying in battle, battalions of female soldiers cross-dressing in order to enlist, and rampant “don’t ask-don’t tell” within the Irish Brigade. Finding facts is more time-consuming, and more challenging, than Googling. But while the Web can lead us to history, it can’t substitute for it—and heaven help us if it begins to define it.

History, as they argued in Norfolk, is complicated. It requires not only passion, but the ability to separate archives from mythology, fact from advocacy.

No one—certainly not this writer—has all of the answers all of the time. Governor McDonnell, it should be noted, was brave enough to appear at the Norfolk slavery symposium and reverse himself, apologizing for the clumsy proclamation that got his state’s Civil War commemoration off to such a bad start. Of course, he said, slavery was the cause of the Civil War. And yet my friend Henry Louis Gates Jr.—the country’s most prominent scholar of African-American history—happens to believe to some degree in what Joy Masoff so casually transferred from Web site to textbook: that some substantial numbers of African Americans indeed fought, and not just when their white owners forced them to accompany them on campaign.

Worth discussing and debating? Absolutely. But as adults, in settings like the Norfolk symposium. Not in elementary school classrooms, where innocents are in genuine danger of being “educated” by the chaff contaminating the Web, and, if we’re not careful, poisoning forever our ability to separate fact from fiction.

Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.