Thursday, April 8, 2010

Southern Discomfort

When I'm reenacting with the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, and somebody asks me -- or rather, my historic persona -- what I do, I tell them I'm the brother of a newspaper publisher in Williamsburg who joined the Confederate cause to defend my property and my family and send letters back about what the war is really like. Notice I don't mention anything about owning slaves.

I'm trying to bust a stereotype, the false image people have of Confederate soldiers (and unfortunately, Confederate reenactors) as racist, slavery-loving rednecks who wouldn't know civil rights from last rites. Ask a Confederate private what he was fighting for, and he'll likely give you a dozen other answers before mentioning slavery. Think about it rationally: if hostile soldiers started overrunning your town, what would be the one thing you wanted to protect above all others? Family, of course.

Popular history pins the cause of the Civil War solely on slavery, ignoring other issues such as states' rights afforded by the Constitution, the balance of power in Congress, speculation and distrust, and the clash of the North's Puritan-inspired work ethic with the more leisurely culture of the South. The inadequate explanation has gone unchecked and unchallenged for so long that any attempt to view this sad chapter in our nation's history from a different yet accurate perspective is attacked like General Hooker's troops at Chancellorsville.

Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell thought he was paying tribute to the sacrifice of Confederate veterans and recognizing Virginia's history by dubbing April as Confederate History Month. He issued this proclamation:
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, 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 our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.
Guess what Governor McDonnell left out?

Critics immediately pounced, and he quickly added this paragraph:
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;
Before I go any further, let me get something on the record: Slavery is wrong. I don't approve of it, and I never will. It's not a Christian value, and shame on those Christians who support it. Also, I will not deny the debate over slavery played a major role in the cause of the Civil War. But the truth gets complicated, and the reality is that the mindsets of soldiers and politicians don't always match up.

Governor McDonnell thought he could pay tribute to Virginia's Civil War heritage without mentioning slavery. Almost instantly, he found out he made a big mistake. If he truly wants "all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth's shared history" and "recognize how our history has led to our present," they have to reflect on all of it, slavery and soldiers, forced servitude and brave sacrifice, the call for states' rights and the rights denied to slaves. That's a fair balance: neither rubbing noses in the dirt, nor glorifying "an evil and inhumane practice."

I know a lot of you probably think we shouldn't do anything to honor Confederate veterans. You may think of them as traitors, as racists, as slave-owning scum, unworthy of even a dandelion on their graves... or even a headstone. I know somebody who would disagree with you. He said, "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as GOD gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." Those are the words of Abraham Lincoln, considered by many to be this nation's greatest president. He could forgive the South. Why can't we?

Americans didn't create slavery. It's mentioned in the Bible. It was around before the Bible. Early Americans adopted it as their ancestors had. But we grew wiser and learned from our mistakes. That's what studying and understanding history is supposed to do. Holding decades of grudges, refusing to outgrow our prejudices, and resisting JESUS' call to treat others as we would want to be treated won't help anybody heal. Nearly 150 years after the Civil War began, we're still struggling to find Mr. Lincoln's lasting peace.

See living history done right! Head to the Battle Of Payson this Saturday, April 10!

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