Here we go again.
After eight years the once-dormant “Confederate Heritage Month” declaration has returned to rear its ugly head again in my beloved former Commonwealth of Virginia. I haven’t lived in Virginia for many years but I have gone to make a career of the study of the Civil War era, with a special emphasis on the Upper South from Virgina, Delaware and Maryland in the East to Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri in the West. And while I believe the study of the Civil War era is absolutely essential to the understanding of our nation’s soul, there are clearly some mines to avoid in the process.
One of those is a modern day governor issuing a proclamation defending a supposedly shared Confederate heritage with literally no reference to the singularly divisive social issue that propelled the political elites of the South toward secession in the first place – slavery.
In fact, the quote with which I titled this piece comes from one of the so-called “Secession Commissioners” whose job was to convince the Upper South holdouts to joined the original seven states in the Confederacy (SC, AL, LA, MS, FL, TX and GA seceded by February 1, 1861; VA, AR, NC and TN would not secede until after Fort Sumter; and KY, MO, MD and DE would never secede, despite some internal pressure to do so).
It was obvious to those who WANTED secession that defense of the “peculiar institution” lay at its heart. Yes, some white Southerners in Virginia’s Piedmont, Middle Tennessee and elsewhere only came around to support for secession as a general statement of solidarity with the rest of the South…including the “right” of a state to secede. But everybody at the time recognized that this was no abstract constitutional question. This was real – Southern society, economy and order – “civilization” – could not exist without African slavery.
So what of Governor McDonnell’s declaration? Let me respond to how wrong it is piece by piece:
“Confederate History Month
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”
First of all, I think he changed “heritage” to “history” in the title, which is a step up. At least he does not imply that we should continue to celebrate the lasting values of the Confederate cause – which George Allen’s original declaration did.
My biggest beef with the first paragraph, however, is the phrase “war between the states for independence.” Did it occur to Gov. McDonnell that many of those people who opposed the Confederate “independence” movement came from WITHIN the Southern states? Look west, young man, and you’ll see West Virginia, a state formed in opposition to Virginia’s secessionist identity. It’s true that not all people living in the eventual West Virginia opposed secession. But plenty did – enough to give the lie to the notion that entire states themselves opposed each other. East Tennessee is another example proving that the Civil War was a “War WITHIN the states as much as a war BETWEEN the states.”
And then there is the “people of Virginia” who joined the Confederacy. No, it was the white men of Virginia who voted to join the Confederacy, which would have been unremarkable then, but certainly noteworthy enough today to complicate the word “people.”
“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”
The most problematic point here is the omission of what else they fought for. Yes, many did fight for their “homes, community and Commonwealth.” But they also fought to defend one of the most important species of property held in the Commonwealth – chattel slavery. And, very importantly, this goes for the vast majority of Virginians who owned no slaves, but who gained enormous social and economic benefits from slavery’s security – slave hiring, planter generosity vis-a-vis poor white neighbors, opportunities to serve on slave patrols or as overseers, fear of a massive Nat Turner or Harper’s Ferry slave insurrection, fear of lost status – all helped tie non-slaveholders to the slave system.
For an in-depth study of the specific role slavery played in Virginia – even outside the Tidewater plantation belt – see the Valley of the Shadow project.
“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”
This is offensive. Confederate history is not “shared history” any more than Nazi history is “shared history” in Germany. For some it was a story of honor and bravery. But for hundreds of thousands of Virginians it was a story of the armed and treasonous defense of brutal racial slavery. To sweep this under the mat as “shared history” is simply disgusting.
“WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and”
No complaints there. The White House of the Confederacy is an excellent museum.
“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”
This piece of mythology is equally outrageous. The Richmond women’s bread riots show that internal dissent was as fatal to the Confederate cause as “insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union.” And then there were the slaves who ran to Union lines at Fortress Monroe in Virginia’s Tidewater to be declared “contraband” of war – the first step toward the slaves’ self-emancipation.
But returning to homes in peace? Are you kidding? Virginia was unique among ex-Confederate states in that it did not experience Radical Reconstruction (mostly because of internal divisions within the Republican coalition; a later Readjuster movement would resemble the bi-racial politics of Reconstruction). Yet, the Ku Klux Klan and other racial terrorist groups appeared in Virginia enough to give the lie to the notion that Virginians returned home in peace.
“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;”
Again, we should study this era closely. And we should visit Virginia’s Civil War sites – especially with the Sesquicentennial coming up.
But this declaration does nothing to encourage the study or understanding of it. If anything, it is an example of the misremembering of it to serve a contemporary political purpose.
Hopefully this outrageous act will wake people up to the enduring power of mythology and its stranglehold on our political leaders. Only by responding to “bad history” with “correct history” will this complex and often shameful story be given its due.