Virginia-Governor’s declaration of “Confederate History Month” clouded in classic neo-Confederate sentimentality

The recent proclamation by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is mired and clouded in classic overtones of all-things neo-Confederate. You can read the entire, and newly revised, proclamation on the Governor’s web site, or below.

Though no doubt well-intended, Governor McDonell’s recent proclamation of April being “Confederate History Month” serves to illustrate that neo-Confederate sentimentality is alive and well at the popular level of politics and civic-mindedness.

The recent revision notwithstanding, i.e., language was added about the institution of slavery, the fact that the original proclamation left it out only serves my point even more; a well-intended proclamation is clouded, mired, in a neo-Confederate sentimentality that continues to exert its unfashionable and intellectually vacuous head from time to tine.

This proclamation reveals a neo-Confederate sentimentality and mind-set in several ways.

First, the proclamation states that Virginia, as a member of the Confederate States of America, was engaged in “a four year war between the states for independence”.  Neo-Confederates prefer the nomenclature of the “war between the States”. Though he does use the phrase “Civil War” later, it is important to notice that when he (the Governor) firsts refers to the war, he calls it the “war between the States”. Why is that? Because Neo-Confederates want the Civil War to only be about States’ rights, not about slavery.

Second, the proclamation also  states that the war “concluded at Appomattox Courthouse”.  Concluded?  That sounds nicely tamed.  Appomattox wasn’t just a conclusion. It was that and much more.  What happened at Appomattox also involved the surrender of a defeated Army and a Confederate cause, a victorious Union Army, and the noble cause of the restored Union.  Where is the language of defeat in the mention of Appomattox by McDonnell?

Third, the newly revised proclamation mentions language of slavery, which was left out of the original proclamation. He states, “the institution of slavery led to this war.”  The revision is welcomed and appreciated, but it was only added because of the criticism and feedback the Governor got from people who said, “Hey, wait a minute. There was this little thing called slavery you left out Governor.”

Fourth, the proclamation states, “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.” This is classic Neo-Confederate spin.  “Confederates gave in and cried ‘Uncle’ when they finally realized they were out-manned and out-numbered.” Again, no mention of a military defeat on the battlefield.  The implied notion underlying that argument, “if the CSA would have had more men, and more resources, they would have won because their cause was more noble.”

Fifth, the Governor missed a real opportunity. He should have proclaimed April as “Civil War History Month” instead of  “Confederate History Month”. Why do I say this?  What about the Virginia Unionists, slaves and U.S. Colored Troops who were from Virginia and fought for the Union?  What about Virginian-born and Union General George H. Thomas? Is his/their history, sacrifice and valor not equally important to remember and study?  Another common misperception often perpetrated by Neo-Confederates is that everyone who lived in the South were pro-Confederate and supported the slave system.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ll give Governor McDonnell the benefit of the doubt that his overall intentions were good.  But the proclamation does more to continue to perpetuate a lost-cause ideology espoused by Neo-Confederates today, that prevents us from truly being able to ” study [of] this time period . . .  so we can . . .  reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history”.

Read more about this controversy in the news:
(These links were added after I wrote my op-ed piece above.  I did not read any other op-eds before I wrote mine.)

______________________________________________

Confederate History Month proclamation
(as published on the Virginia Governor’s web site, accessed 4/8/2010)

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

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

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

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

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

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;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in ourCOMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

10 comments

    1. So why are the civil rights groups so angry. Haven’t heard a word from them about the situation in Hatti where it is LEGAL to own slaves as children. Guess when the shoes on the other foot———

      1. This is big news, Fred. I wasn’t aware civil rights groups own slaves in this mythical land of Hatti! Are the slaves emancipated once the civil rights groups reach adulthood?

        Do tell us more!!

  1. I’ve a feeling Virginia is trying to position itself to get lots of Civil War Sesquicentennial tourism dollars over the next few years. I’m wondering if it would have been better to have made a proclamation of Civil War History month.

    1. Darrin,

      Spot on! I was thinking the same thing. The governor should have declared Civil War History Month and then honored both Unionist and Confederate Virginians. That way Union-loyal Virginians like Winfield Scott and George H. Thomas would receive as much honor as Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. Jackson, and Virginians of African decent who fought in the United States Colored Troops would be recognized just as much as those, like one ancestor of mine, who fought in the Stonewall Brigade or other Confederate units. After all, the Unionists fought just as bravely but did it for a just cause.

    2. It would have made much more sense. Yes, I think this proclamation has a lot to do with tourism and book sales about the Civil War here in Virginia.

  2. Wow…a Unionist view of Confederate history…I didn’t think we’d still be fighting this, given the breadth of resources at our disposal academically and historically, but it appears both sides want to fight the same fight still 150 years later.

    Winners write history…I get that. But what they don’t get to do is overlook objective facts. Little things like actual written records from Confederate generals and leaders condemning slavery, offering even to abolish it would that Lincoln and the Federal government recognize the new country, only to be denied. Facts like how the Federal government was primarily funded in those days by tariffs on Southern cotton, which meant lower prices to growers to Northern textile mills (like all wars, this one too was about money, and taxes — a fact that a CANADIAN historian with no dog in this hunt had to point out). And yes, facts like Lincoln’s numerous statements that he would even add a Constitutional amendment enshrining slavery forever in the 15 Southern states if they would only return to the Union.

    Lee freed his slaves, and wrote in letters we still have available to this day for people like you to READ that he would not raise so much as a finger to save the institution of slavery, let alone an army. Less than 1% of slave holder had more than 1 slave — so why were all these treasonous “rebels” so willing to die for an institution they weren’t participating in, and could never participate in??

    Much of the history of the South HAS been romanticized — no question. But likewise, this modern “invention” of the so-called “neo-Confederate” is disingenuous at best, a shield worn by the victors against their own culpability in that horrible war and the reasons behind it.

    Let’s agree — you don’t pretend to know why the South fought the “War of Northern Aggression”, and I won’t pretend to know why your side was so willing to die to keep Americans in a Union they clearly didn’t want, and why your side was so willing to sell blacks down any river possible in order to achieve that Union.

    1. Michael, though I disagree with you in several points, I do appreciate that you seem to be modestly read and you can actually articulate a thought fairly well. I could dig into every point you make and tit-for-tat critique and defend another point. But rather than do that let me ask you this. Why do you assume that “people like me” don’t read about the Civil War? Just because I differ from your interpretations doesn’t mean I don’t read.

      I read on average 1-2 Civil War books a month. I personally know and regularly engage, dialogue with and seek sharpening from three professional, published academic historians – household names. I read at least 50 Civil War books last year. I’ve read over 1,000 in the past 20 years. I have over 3,000 Civil War volumes in my library. I read the ORs, original letters, etc.

      What I find interesting is that people who defend the position of history you appear to espouse, what I would call a ‘neo-Confederate’ leaning, have a very short list of respectable author-historians you can point to as mentors. Name me three modern-day respectable author-historians that represent your respective side. I could name you 50 if I had to that are more on my side of the argument.

      All to say, I respectfully welcome and appreciate challenge from you or anyone on my views. I’m willing to be critiqued and challenged. I love it. However, please offer me the courtesy to know who you’re talking to when you do critique my views. I would estimate that apart from professional historians, and including most of those, I read more on the Civil War than 90% of people in the field who think they do. Thanks for weighing in on the discussion.

      1. Sir,

        I apologize if my post implied you weren’t well read, or learned on the subject. Clearly you are, and if you do read that many books on the war (and I have no reason to suppose you do not), you are far more read on the subject than any man I’ve known, with the possible exceptions of my history professors at The University of Virginia.

        You are VERY much more well read on the subject than I, of that I am certain!

        But this is a case where volume does not render truth. Allow me to explore an example. First, let’s assume objective Fact “A” (what Fact “A” is isn’t relative. Fact A just “is”.). Now let’s assume that only one person states “Fact “A”. He isn’t describing it, he isn’t romanticizing it, or imbuing it with evil or sinister motive. He merely states it. Then let’s assume an entire industry sprouts up, producing libraries of tomes and analyses around Fact “A”, in many cases disputing it’s objective nature, and going so far as to punish experts in the field of Fact “A” should they accept such. Does this make Fact “A” any less true? Of course not.

        In the years subsequent to the War, historians wrote volumes and libraries filled to overflowing of what the war was about, and why it was fought. These historians were primarily from institutions of higher learning that were more dominant in Northern states. 600,000 people had just been slaughtered, and no one was in any mood to countenance good “intentions” on the part of the Confederate founders. The North took to “moralizing” this bloodbath on their brothers by making it about slavery. The South took to romanticizing their lost cause and their leaders. In hindsight, this was predictable, and in both cases, quite wrong.

        But as noted Massachusetts abolitionist Lysander Spooner wrote in “No Treason” in 1870, “The pretense that the ‘abolition of slavery’ was either a motive or a justification for the war is a fraud of the same character with that of ‘maintaining the national honor'”.

        Look at our own Revolution. We teach our children it was about Liberty and republican democracy and that Britain was an evil tyrant. Yet the fact was 80% of the colonists were more than happy staying British, if only the King would stop taxing us to death, and give us some representation in Parliament that reflected our views (sound familiar?) It wasn’t about liberty — it was about taxes. But men don’t fight and die for taxes. They will fight for higher causes, though.

        During the Civil War, from the Unionists, it was the higher cause of “UNION”, to save the country. Later it was “freedom” for slaves when “union” wasn’t selling so well any more, and New Yorkers themselves threatened secession. “Liberty” was again trotted out.

        It wasn’t until the North had had it’s nose bloodied and lost countless battles, two full years into the war, that Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation, which of course emancipated no one.

        In Lincoln’s own words — “Things have gone from bad to worse, until I felt we had reached the end of our rope on the plan we were pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game. I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy.” (Paul M. Angle, ed. “The Lincoln Reader”, Rutgers, 1947).

        Hardly the words of a man leading some great cause to free some oppressed minority! It was a tactic to save the union, nothing more. And a none-too popular one at that.

        Even his own military was against freeing the slaves — “Fighting Joe Hooker”, Commanding General of the Union Army at the time Lincoln “proclaimed” emancipation, said: “A large element of the army had taken sides antagonistic to it, declaring that THEY WOULD NEVER HAVE EMBARKED IN WAR HAD THEY ANTICIPATED THIS ACTION BY THE GOVERNMENT” (ibid. Emphasis mine – sorry for the all caps, only way to do it).

        Lost in all this until recently were all these objective facts that, given the volume of reading you do, surely must have crossed your reading desk, and which didn’t play nice with the long-taught “meme” that this whole conflict was about slavery and that the South was a bunch of traitorous villains, intent on keeping a portion of their population under that boot.

        Charles Adams, writing in his best selling book on the history of taxation “For Good and Evil” (1993 Madison Books), a Canadian no-less, pointed to the obvious. Why, at the 11th hour, when the South had the Supreme Court, the Congress, and even Lincoln himself bending over backwards to protect slavery, to institutionalize it forever, and to forbid the Federal government from taking any action to abolish it, would they secede?

        Your history books probably never touched on this one.

        Simply put, sir, it was about taxes. And states’ rights, but not the states’ rights that later your so-called “neo-Confederates” put forth, purporting it to be a state’s right to have or abolish slavery under the 9th and 10th Amendments. No, it was the state’s right to be treated fairly when it came to tariffs, and by 1850, the tariff’s imposed on Southern planters by Congress to satisfy Northern manufacturing interests had again gotten oppressive (I say again, because the South threatened secession over JUST THIS ISSUE in 1832, before a compromise was reached). John C. Calhoun had warned of the impending crisis if this situation persisted. In fact, as early as 1850, on his deathbed, he listed it as the only concrete reason Southern states would secede.

        Read Jefferson Davis’ Inaugural Address where he highlights the import tax issue.

        Read Edmund Ruffin (the Virginian who fired the first shot on Ft. Sumter) and his exclamation on the wealth wrongfully redistributed from the South to the North. Oh, and what was Ft. Sumter? It was a CUSTOMS HOUSE where tariffs were collected!

        Read the notes from the British House of Commons in 1862, where commercial interests which dominated Parliament clearly show it was “The Tariff” that caused the war.

        In all your volumes of reading, have you ever explored even once the notion that this, and only this, is what set brother against brother?

        Sir, while you have many volumes at your disposal that can validate your viewpoint, I need only a single letter from General Lee, or a letter Jefferson Davis sent to Lincoln imploring him to end this slaughter two years before the war’s end and let the South be (slave-free at that!), or the proposal that Lincoln wrote (and which Congress adopted!) advocating constitutional enshrinement of slavery to keep the Union. It is clear this was never about slavery, and a thousand million books saying otherwise won’t make it so.

        Surely in all your reading you know some, or perhaps all, of the objective facts I’ve outlined here. What I don’t understand is why you choose to ignore them and reach back to the easy “the Civil War was about slavery” shibboleth and condemn Governor McDonnell for proclaiming this month as Confederate History month. How can you express a love for the intellectual “critique” and yet fall victim to so intellectually lazy a conclusion as the one you’ve clearly drawn?

        Given the mood of the country right now, the Tea Parties, the oppressive taxes, and the open and blatant redistribution of wealth in this country, I can think of nothing better than to conduct a real, and true, and thorough understanding of Confederate history, and how the very environment we currently live in is, in a very real respect, the kind of environment that gave rise to the rebellion.

        If we ever hope to avoid another mindless bloodbath, an honest appraisal of why my ancestors took up arms against yours is needed. In the end, no one was fighting for or against slavery, and both sides were willing to sellout blacks to achieve their ends. Morally, both sides were bankrupt.

        More to the point, though, is what the war was REALLY about. If you want to prevent another such war, then anyone interested in the history of this period needs to put aside the politically correct version of those events from both sides, and look to the economics — which is the source of every war ever fought in the history of mankind.

        If Governor McDonnell’s proclamation can have this kind of impact, and we can reveal what TRUE Confederate history is, than it’s impact will have consequences far more important and far reaching than today’s soundbite from some MSNBC-type with their panties in a twist thinking we’re all eager to see the return of “Tara” and “Marse Lee” and fields of cotton bein’ picked.

        Understand history, or be condemned to repeat it. — the stakes of not fully living out that tried and true expression are lethal. But I will concede this: Civil War History Month would have sufficed. There’s a lot to be learned from the mistakes of BOTH sides.

  3. The conversation between tellinghistory and michael is a very civil and enlightening one (so rare these days!) and I’d like to respectfully add my contribution. I do not doubt that Michael can produce a “letter from General Lee, or a letter Jefferson Davis sent to Lincoln” to suggest that the South’s main casus belli was not the desire to preserve of slavery, but instead its desire to exist as an independent nation and/or to live under a less onerous tax regime. I do doubt whether he “needs only one letter” to prove this case incontrovertibly. If that’s all it takes, then I would look to CSA vice-president Alexander Stephens’s speech of March 21, 1861 as the clincher. Of the new government he served, he stated: “its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery [and] subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

    If that’s not enough, I offer you these excerpts from South Carolina’s plea of December 1860 for its fellow “slaveholding States of the United States” to join them in seceding to form a “Confederacy of Slaveholding States”: “Experience has proved that slaveholding States cannot be safe in subjection to non-slaveholding States… The people of the North have not left us in doubt as to their designs and policy. United as a section in the late Presidential election, they have elected as the exponent of their policy, one who has openly declared that all the States of the United States must be made free States or slave States… And when it is considered that the Northern States will soon have the power to make [the Supreme] Court what they please, and that the Constitution never has been any barrier whatever to their exercise of power, what check can there be, in the unrestrained counsels of the North, to emancipation?”

    In this we see, aside from South Carolina’s identification of slavery as their main reason for parting from its fellow states (and the reason why its fellows also should) the answer to Charles Adams’s argument. It didn’t matter how many olive branches Lincoln might have extended to the fire-eaters who eventually moved the Lower South to secession. They just plain didn’t trust Lincoln on the slavery issue and nothing ever could have induced them to do so.

    Yes, taxation was also a long-standing grievance and part of the reason for secession in 1860-61. Both Stephens and the South Carolinians referred to the issue at length. Yet even this issue can be traced back to the determination of Southern decision-makers to hold onto plantation slavery. Had they chosen to invest in industry as the Northerners did, they would have been protected by the same tariff barriers as the Northerners were. Yet they did not, and no one else in the South would have had the capital to do so if the plantation elites did not. The South’s economic leaders had chosen to live or die in defense of King Cotton and they saw the tariff as a Northern ploy to make sure that they would die.

    This is not to say that every Confederate soldier fought for their new country because they believed whole-heartedly in slavery. Even among the officers (who tended to be planters or their sons), many believed that slavery was on its way out and the only questions were how long it ought to take and what ought to be the eventual fate of the slaves. Yet the fact remains that without the slavery issue, there would not have been a new country in whose name they might take up arms. I also do not claim that the North was morally faultless. Lincoln did indeed consider the preservation of the Union as his main goal and emancipation only as an expedient measure in pursuit of that goal. Many Northerners considered this move anathema, most notoriously the New York City draft rioters. So when history teachers make the Northerners into saints fighting against Southern sinners, they do violence to history. Lincoln and the Northerners freed the slaves only in spite of themselves – yet for all that, they did free the slaves.

    In short, I think the evidence tells us this: The preservation of slavery drove the South to secede from the Union while the preservation of the Union drove the North to destroy slavery.

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