Opinion

McDonnell Confederate history storm: slavery, treason, and true Southern courage

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s controversial proclamation of Confederate History Month should help us remember the South’s rebellion for what it really was.

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“I am no minister of hate,” wrote the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1871. But as he watched Northerners in the years after the Civil War turn to teary-eyed embraces of their former Confederate enemies at postwar reunions and veterans’ meetings, he was appalled. “May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between ... those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.”

Douglass can be forgiven a certain measure of resentment toward the Confederacy. After all, he was born a slave in Maryland, escaped as a runaway in 1838, turned to a public career as an abolitionist newspaper editor and lecturer, and sent two sons to fight in the Union Army.

But he had a point that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) might have been wise to ponder before Tuesday, when he proclaimed April as Virginia’s “Confederate History Month.”

Just what is it, exactly, that Governor McDonnell is proposing to honor?

McDonnell’s proclamation is actually a comparatively bland statement, asking Virginians to acknowledge those “who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today.” Absent were any endorsements of states’ rights and the “Lost Cause.” It was simply a declaration that Virginia’s decision to secede from the United States and attach itself to the Confederacy in 1861 “should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians.”

The problem lies with something else McDonnell airbrushed out of his initial proclamation: slavery.

The proclamation describes the Civil War as “a four year war between the states for independence.” That is true, but it’s like saying that the Titanic sank because it filled up with water.

The proclamation only raises the question of why Virginia and the other confederate states should have yearned for independence in the first place. Twist and turn as we may, the answer to that question always comes back to this: the enslavement of 3.9 million black people.

This is not to say that other factors didn’t come into play.

The Southern states had serious grievances with their Northern counterparts over economic policies. Foreign visitors and commentators noted that Southerners had developed a distinctly different regional culture. And there was a long history of disagreements about how much political autonomy individual states possessed within the federal Union created by the Constitution.

But if slavery was not the only issue that went into the making of the Confederacy, it was unquestionably the paramount one.

None of the others would ever have brought matters in 1861 to civil war had it not been for the razor-edge given them by slavery. And you do not have to dig very far into the letters, diaries, and speeches of Confederate soldiers and civilians to find out how important the defense of slavery and white racial supremacy was to them.

“Slavery is the only base on which a stable republican government ever was or ever will be built,” announced a Nashville newspaper on the eve of secession. Although only a third of white Southern households owned slaves at the outbreak of the Civil War, as many as 50 percent of Southern households had owned a slave at some time.

Even those who did not own slaves regarded slavery as the bulwark of white supremacy: “The strongest pro-slavery men in this States,” boasted a Louisville newspaper editor, “are those who do not own one dollar of slave property.” And slaveholders and the sons of slaveholding families were generously represented in the Confederate armies. In Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, rates of slaveholding ran as high as 47 percent.

Defending the slave system is scarcely something Virginians can look back on with pride. But even less admirable was the willingness of Virginians to commit treason as part of that defense.

Treason is not an easy word to use these days. In modern ears, it has the ring of jingoism and Joe McCarthy, and in our multicultural reverence for diversity, we find it’s become easier to label as “dissenters” people who ask God to damn America or who sell their country’s weapons blueprints to the highest bidder.

But what other word are we to use for American soldiers (like Robert E. Lee) who repudiated the oath he had sworn to defend the Constitution? Or for US senators (like Jefferson Davis) who raised their hand against the flag they were born under and brought on the deaths of 620,000 Americans?

And why is Virginia’s governor celebrating secession, when 31 of Virginia’s westernmost counties in 1861 balked at joining the Confederacy and formed, first, a pro-Union government-in-exile, and then a completely new state of West Virginia in 1863?

If treason has become too embarrassing a word, then so has loyalty, and we may as well forget the courage of the west Virginians, as well as those 300,000 other Southerners from Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and (yes!) Virginia who stayed faithful to the Union and fought in its ranks during the Civil War.

We are now within a year of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and unfortunately, McDonnell’s proclamation has been the most prominent reminder of that anniversary. Congress has failed to create a national commission like the one it authorized for the Civil War Centennial, and the states that have formed local Sesquicentennial Commissions have generally stacked them with political hacks and low-visibility museum managers.

The brouhaha over the proclamation forced McDonnell to issue a belated codicil to his proclamation Wednesday, apologizing for the omission of slavery. But this will probably only have the result of forcing celebrations of the Sesquicentennial further into the shadows, as it dawns on the politicos that any public mention of the Civil War is going to alienate some constituency.

The only thing worse, as Frederick Douglass might have warned us, than remembering the Civil War wrongly, is not to remember it at all.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and the author of “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.”

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