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Governor Bob McDonnell and the Civil War

Governor Bob McDonnell, during his first few months in office, has done just about everything right. He has been hard working, thoughtful, and has done his best to govern, as he promised, from the middle. It’s refreshing. However, last week, the governor managed to put a stain on his otherwise rather impressive start. He didn’t do it through any confrontational stand on education, transportation or health care. Rather, what caused all the fuss was “history.” Bob McDonnell failed to appreciate what he was signing when he issued his proclamation making April Confederate History Month.

On the surface that sounds innocuous enough. I am a history buff and I have read more civil war histories and biographies than I could easily list. I enjoy the topic just that much, and my admiration for the figures of that era extend to both sides. I am a terrific fan of Abraham Lincoln, but at the same time admire the quiet calm and gentle leadership of Robert E. Lee and the sheer military genius of Stonewall Jackson. In my family, I have ancestors who fought on both sides. My great-great-grandfather was in the Ohio Volunteers and was wounded. On my mom’s side another ancestor was a captain in the infantry. My mom remembers her grandfather telling her about being given the job, as a little boy, of burying the family’s meager valuables every time there was a rumor that the “Yankee” army was nearby.
However, while I passionately enjoy the history, I have no illusions about the cause of the war. And this is where Governor McDonnell, in his statement, and for a day or two, in his rather anemic efforts to defend his action, fell short. The governor decided in his proclamation to not even mention slavery, claiming instead that the war had other causes. My response to that can be summed up in a question posed by a professor of mine at George Mason University. He was confronted by a student arguing that slavery wasn’t really the cause of the war. The professor heard him out, and then asked simply, “OK, let’s pretend there had been no slavery in the south. Let’s say the slaves had been freed years before. Now tell me, would there have been a war?” The answer was an obvious no.
Unfortunately, the governor, like the misguided souls who persuaded him to sign that proclamation, forgot that slavery, while perhaps not the exclusive source of tension between the North and South, was nonetheless the root cause of the war. Not everyone viewed themselves as fighting for or against slavery, but it was the fundamental issue that divided the country. In fact, that division had been brewing since the days of the Continental Congress. And so, through a rather remarkable misinterpretation of history that factored out slavery in the recognition of Confederate History Month, Governor McDonnell managed, in one pen stroke, to bring to the surface many of the anxieties and fears that many hoped were starting to subside. He was agreeing with revisionist history, and for many African Americans, including many who supported him, it was a slap in the face.
McDonnell, to his credit, after putting up a little resistance, decided he had gone too far, and apologized. The issue will pass, of course, but for many their image of the governor has been tainted. For some, the proclamation was a sign that perhaps the McDonnell isn’t as moderate or racially sensitive as he claimed to be during the election.
What McDonnell failed to realize was that for Virginia history doesn’t exist separately from the present and for those who don’t recognize that, particularly those in public life, it can also be a trap. One Governor McDonnell walked right into. In talking about Civil War history it pays to tread carefully. The Confederacy has been gone for 145 years. Many Northern states barely recognize their involvement in the Civil War, but in Virginia, the war, slavery, emancipation, and the long Jim Crow period that followed, are one long continuum that runs well into modern times. How we interpret that past, and what baggage it still carries today, are more powerful than most people realize.
There are those who would like to pretend slavery wasn’t an issue. Well, the fact is it was. Slavery was one of the vilest acts ever perpetrated by one race on another and any nation that fights for such a cause has a lot to answer for. That’s the reality. And while I enjoy the history of the war, appreciate its leaders and heroes, I am not about to discount the evil that was behind it either. McDonnell will be governor during most of the Civil War Sesquicentennial and he will have other chances to comment on the civil war and its meaning. I only hope that in the future he will be more thoughtful and sensitive in the way he characterizes this still poignant part of our heritage.
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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