Slavery vs. Confederate History Month: ripe for political point-scoring

After restoring Confederate History Month in Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell amended his proclamation to decry slavery. Both the left and the right have used the occasion to score political points, sometimes twisting the historical record to their own ends.

Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks at the state capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday. McDonnell has stirred partisan rancor after reinstating Confederate History Month in Virginia in a proclamation that did not contain any mention of slavery. He subsequently amended the proclamation to decry the institution.

To many Southerners, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's decision to reinstate Confederate History Month is simply a correction of the historical prism through which contemporary America sees the war that nearly broke the United States in two.

To many other Americans, however, Governor McDonnell's proclamation this week is a tip of the hat not just to the Old South, but also to the institution of slavery that defined life in the colonies as far back as 1607, until the Confederacy's demise with Gen. Robert Lee's surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

But both sides, rather than ferret out the multilayered truths and painful lessons of a bloody Civil War, are engaging in a tactic New York Times columnist Gail Collins called a "miracle of obfuscation," in which the battlefield is primarily the political arena.

"Today, [people] like to shop around through history selectively, to find a position in history that reflects their passions of today," says Lacy Ford, a University of South Carolina historian and author of the recently published "Deliver Us From Evil: The slavery question in the Old South." "But that's a very dangerous thing to do. History properly studied is the great enemy of political correctness and present-mindedness."

After facing widespread criticism, McDonnell late Wednesday amended the original proclamation to include a paragraph about slavery. It now notes "it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice.…"

"We cannot avoid our past," the governor said in a separate statement.

Today's aversion to all things Confederate, so evident among groups like the NAACP, stems less from the dynamics of secession and more from the way that Southern governors in the 1950s and '60s such as Alabama's George Wallace would, in effect, stick the Confederate battle flag in the eyes of the civil rights movement as white Southerners attempted to preserve segregation, says Dr. Ford.

Though McDonnell has revised the proclamation to decry slavery, many Americans, including some Southerners, remain angry that Confederate History Month will be brought back after Virginia's two previous governors – Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine – had abandoned it. They see in it an implied wink to a conservative interpretation of the Confederacy currently in vogue, experts say: that the Confederacy was a libertarian crusade for small government. It's a view few historians would support.

"Once again," writes Collins, "it's in [vogue] to talk secession."

"Actually," she adds, "a national discussion of Civil War history sounds fine – as long as we could start by agreeing that the whole leaving-the-union thing was a terrible idea. In the proclamations, it generally sounds as if everything went swimmingly until the part where the South lost and grudgingly rejoined the country."

Still, today's hyper-partisanship surrounding the Confederate History Month debate hints at the intensity of the age-old divide of the Mason-Dixon Line. "The Northern fanatics would no more let the South go than the Southern extremists would remain in the Union with them," is how historian Clifford Dowdey explained the war in the "The Land They Fought For."

For Ford, the University of South Carolina historian, the best possible result of the history month flap and next year's Civil War sesquicentennial is that it will amplify, not nullify, debates about the real lessons of the Confederacy. He points out that President Lincoln noted at his second inaugural that slavery "somehow" started the war, but that the institution was a national problem.

"You can say the word slavery and that explains the fundamental difference [between the North and South], but it doesn't explain every nuance of why the war came when it did, took the shape that it did, or how it was understood by people as it was," says Ford.

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