'Confederate History Month' — stage-managing history for political gain



Today is the anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, ending (we thought) the Civil War — which makes it a good day to look at the controversy over Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's declaration of April as "Confederate History Month." The announcement seems to have taken most of the country by complete surprise, which shows how little the rest of the nation really knows about how things work “down hyeah.” To native-born Southerners, McDonnell’s declaration is pretty much business as usual, even his, er, forgetfulness regarding a little thing called slavery.

If you’ve been in the South long enough, you know that there are some white folks who are a wee bit overly concerned with the war. Folks who will argue with you, till you’re both blue in the face, that slavery was not a cause of the war; it was states’ rights, dammit, that brought on the War of Northern Aggression. I don’t have the space or time here to get into all the long, convoluted arguments over the Civil War, the reasons for it, how it was conducted, and what happened afterward. But I do want to talk about history itself.

As a history enthusiast, it pains me that the whole subject of the Civil War is, well, so painful, and so politicized. There doesn’t seem to be any way to acknowledge those who took part in the Civil War and everything included in it (soldiers on both sides, war resisters on both sides, Union sympathizers in the South, and Confederate sympathizers in the North, slaves, the Underground Railroad, abolitionists, women’s roles on both sides, northern industrialists’ interests, and so forth) without stirring up rancor and confusion.

There’s no problem per se, as I see it, with Virginia wanting to raise some tourist money by calling attention to the fact that much of the war was fought in that state, and urging visitors to see the battle sites. The problem, though, is that acknowledging and honoring history isn’t the only thing that’s going on. Civil War commemorations are too often wrapped up in politics, and such is the case with McDonnell’s deliberate omission of slavery from his declaration (other Republican governors have included it in their Confederate History Month statements).

Such is also the case at Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy, where the store stocks far-right books and information on race and politics, as was pointed out in Chris Kromm’s excellent examination of the current brouhaha on the Institute for Southern Studies’ Web site. And such is the case, frankly, at nearly all Southern towns’ Confederate memorials, where rarely is heard a disparaging word on the subject of slavery.

The romanticization of the Confederacy started immediately after the war ended — the “Lost Cause” rhetoric, the ridiculous “chivalrous knight” view of antebellum southern planters, and all the other justifications for the hotheads of the planter class bringing Armageddon down upon the region — and that romanticization continues today. Honoring history is one thing, and I’m in favor of it;  in fact, there should be a lot more of it. But twisting history for the sake of making bitter political points is disgraceful.


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