A few days ago, Virginia’s recently elected Governor Bob McDonnell decided to renew something that was begun in Virginia under George Allen in the 1990s: a month to honor the Confederacy. To make matters worse, he made no mention of slavery in the proclamation that ushered in April as Confederate History Month. But what had me seeing red was his subsequent defense of leaving slavery out of the initial proclamation: “there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.“
There are few things that get under my skin worse than bullshit revisionist Civil War history. I am no expert on the Civil War, but I know enough to know that it was fought for one primary reason: because the South wanted to expand slavery into the West, and the North wanted it to die a natural death, and knew that it would not do so if it expanded. The South wanted the citizens of the new states to determine if they were to be slave states, and the Federal government wanted to say that they did not have that choice. Therefore it was on some level a state’s rights issue: but by far the most important right the South wanted the states to have was the right to buy and sell human slaves. The “state’s rights” cause was a means to an end, not the issue itself. To say that slavery wasn’t one of the “most significant issues” to Confederates in Virginia is simply not true. It was THE issue, and anyone saying otherwise is either lying, ignorant, or racist. Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War. Period. There is nothing I have ever read or heard (and keep in mind, I grew up in Virginia, so I’ve heard plenty of the “State’s rights” and “self-government” theories) that has led me to even have one shred of doubt as to this fact.
I admire many things about Robert E. Lee, and I have no problem with honoring the Civil War dead. I myself lost Confederate ancestors in the War. I appreciate the fact that the memory of the war is kept alive. It is important for any country to remember what once tore it apart. But to try to rewrite history, to deny that slavery was not only one of the issues, but the overriding issue that caused the South to form a Confederacy and for the Civil War to occur, is akin to denying the Holocaust or claiming that 9/11 was an inside job. You can line up the facts however you want to to make your point, but at the end of the day, you are on the wrong side of the facts.
When the governor of a state says that slavery was not “a significant issue” in the Civil War, it is beyond wrong. It is dangerous. It encourages his constituents to accept something that is false as the truth, and encourages them to belittle the evils of the institution of slavery, and to not claim the responsibility of their ancestors. Slavery was accepted by almost all of the civilized world as being an evil practice in 1860, and therefore while we those of us in the South can still love and appreciate our ancestors, we must also acknowledge the mistake they made in fighting for an unjust cause.
Though the whole episode is a disgrace and has certainly caused me embarrassment as a native of Virginia, McDonnell’s apology and addition to the proclamation are impressive enough to make me forgive him, though I certainly won’t forget why it came to this.
“The proclamation issued by this Office designating April as Confederate History Month contained a major omission. The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed. The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation.”
Slavery led to the Civil War. The Confederacy fought for it, not only so that they could own slaves, but so that people in other states and in future generations could suppress the freedom of an entire race of people as well. The Confederacy should certainly be duly noted, but neither celebrated nor applauded. As Frederick Douglass said in 1878, “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget.”
I grew up in the South. My ancestors have lived in Virginia since the 1600s. I am extremely proud of my Southern heritage and of my Virginian heritage. I am not proud of my Confederate heritage. I think it is important for forward thinking people in the South to acknowledge and people in the North to understand: though they have been often claimed by fringe groups as being one and the same, Southern heritage and Confederate heritage are two remarkably different things. One is the result of hundreds of years of wonderful culture, delicious food, pride in much of our shared history, and generation after generation of people who are taught manners, kindness, and respect for their fellow man. The other lasted four and was born of an unjust cause. There are some in the South who are proud of both. I am not one of those people, and I think it is reprehensible and embarrassing that Virginia’s governor is.