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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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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.

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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.”