Earlier this week, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, issued a proclamation declaring April "Confederate History Month." Not, mind you, "Civil War History Month." Next year is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War and it is undoubtedly a good thing to call attention to that war and to its outcome.
But, it is evidently unclear to McDonnell and others who wallow in "Southern Heritage" and "Confederate Pride," why that war was important. They prefer the "Gone with the Wind" version. Or, perhaps, they agree with these words taken from the website of the Sons of Confederate Veterans: "The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South's decision to fight the Second American Revolution (emphasis in original). The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built." I will grant that the "preservation of liberty and freedom" may have been the reason the Confederate soldiers thought they were fighting. But the lesson of the Civil War is that a freedom we enjoy that is simultaneously denied to a fellow citizen because he or she is a slave is no freedom at all. The war was important because it ended slavery. Gov. McDonnell has now apologized for failing to mention slavery in his proclamation. Apology accepted.
The other thing the Civil War accomplished was to forge the nation. Before the Civil War, people would say "The United States of America are…." In the plural. Only after the war did it become common to say, "The United States of America is…." This accomplishment was linguistic before it was actual, at least in the South. I am just finishing William Leuchtenberg’s masterful The White House Looks South which examines the ways that Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson all grappled with South politically. FDR loved his adopted home in Warm Springs and used the New Deal to address the rural poverty he witnessed in the South. Truman, whose forebears served in the Confederate Army, loved the Constitution more than his roots, and he integrated the military, established a President’s Committee on Civil Rights, and let the Dixiecrat South walk out of the Democratic National Convention in 1948 rather than compromise on the civil rights plank of the party’s platform. And, of course, Lyndon Johnson, pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and named the first African-American to the Supreme Court, Justice Thurgood Marshall. Johnson clearly understood, writes Leuchtenberg, that "Southern particularism on race…exacted too high a cost. Quite apart from the pain it inflicted on blacks, to which he was not insensitive, racism was an indulgence southern whites could not afford if they expected to thrive in a global economy."
Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, but Governor McDonnell and his ilk still seem not to understand that the Confederacy was not only a Lost Cause, it was the Wrong Cause. The language of "states rights" currently being invoked in the health care debate has an ugly history that gets glossed over when citizens are invited to celebrate the Confederacy. Such glossing over may serve McDonnell’s standing with the wingnuts that seem to be taking over the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally. But, it is emphatically not history. Apologizing for the failure to mention slavery is a start. Now, the Governor should admit that it was also wrong to fail to mention that insurrection and treason were at the heart of the Confederate cause, that they celebrated a twisted, misguided notion of freedom, and that their reading of the Constitution was simply wrong. Alas, it is easier to live in denial.
Week after next, I will be taking a friend’s children to Gettysburg. There is no more sacred soil in America. When I walk through those hallowed fields and climb up to Little Roundtop and see where Joshua Chamberlain and his men from the Twentieth Maine regiment stood their ground, I am mindful that the average Confederate soldier probably had very mixed motives for joining the cause, and we can sympathize with his bravery, but that the political leaders of the Confederate states should not be the object of any sympathy. Governor McDonnell is not a soldier, he is a politician. One hundred and fifty years after a war that drenched his Commonwealth in blood, he should know better than to celebrate the cause that lost and that deserved to lose. And, it is beyond frightening that this man is considered a rising star in the GOP.
Michael Sean Winters