McDonnell Stirs Up Confederate Hornet’s Nest

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    Let me start with my Confederate heritage. Five of my great-great-grandfathers fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Two of them never returned to their wives and young children and lie in unmarked graves on battlefields. Another was a prisoner of war for a time.

    Having said all that, I think the way Bob McDonnell chose to sneakily – and without mentioning slavery – proclaim April as “Confederate History Month” was both ridiculous and cowardly. Evidently, he was fulfilling a old campaign promise he made to the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In the process, he blew a hole in his “Mr. Moderate” image so big that Gen. Lee could have marched Pickett’s division through it.

    The Washington Post reports:

    We’ve known for quite some time we had a good opportunity {for the proclamation} should he ascend the governorship,” Brandon Dorsey of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said. He noted that McDonnell had indicated that back when he was interviewed by them during his 2005 attorney general’s race.

    In that same article, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta), responded to the growing Confederate proclamation controversy. “It would be totally inappropriate to do [a proclamation] that would just poke a stick to stir up old wounds…I think it’s appropriate as long as it’s not fiery.”

    I don’t know what Hanger thinks of as “fiery.” Perhaps it has to be as bad as the diatribe former Gov. George Allen unleashed in his Confederate proclamation, which called the Civil War “a four-year struggle for [Southern] independence and sovereign rights” and made no mention of slavery.  McDonnell followed Allen in one sense. He also had no mention of slavery and simply called the Civil War “a four year war between the states for independence.” (The entire text of McDonnell’s proclamation in on his website.)

    No, the Civil War was a war to preserve the institution of slavery in the South and to spread slavery to as many of the western territories as possible. The goals were to be achieved by seceding from the United States. The rationale used to justify the declaration of war by the Confederacy was states’ rights and secession.

    The Post also interviewed former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder:

    Former governor L. Douglas Wilder called it “mind-boggling to say the least” that McDonnell did not reference slavery or Virginia’s struggle with civil rights in his proclamation. Though a Democrat, Wilder has been supportive of McDonnell and boosted his election efforts when he declined to endorse the Republican’s opponent, R. Creigh Deeds.

    “Confederate history is full of many things that unfortunately are not put forth in a proclamation of this kind nor are they things that anyone wants to celebrate,” he said. “It’s one thing to sound a cause of rallying a base. But it’s quite another to distort history.”

    Mark Rozell, political science professor at George Mason University, told the Post that  McDonnell’s action was meant to appeal to his base, especislly those who support state’s rights. That I certainly agree with. That base has been fed of late by Ken Cuccinelli. Of course, it was Bob McDonnell who insisted last fall that he could work with both sides of the political spectrum.

    As is typical for Gov. Wimpy, Bob McDonnell very quietly released the proclamation last week by simply placing it on the state web site, so many people didn’t notice it right away. Hmmm. I guess he is the “good cop,” while Cuccinelli is the “bad cop.”

    Several of us on this blog have wondered why Virginia couldn’t commemorate a “Civil War Month.” That wouldn’t be offensive to anyone, while recognizing the central role the state played in that conflict. It wouldn’t demean the Confederates who fought against the Union. It would be fair to the black Virginians who finally received their freedom because of that war. Never again could they be treated as chattel to be bought and sold, their families subject to being torn apart, their bodies the property of their white masters.

    Instead, we have this proclamation that not only fails to mention slavery, but it praises the “the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers” who “returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace.” Yes, they did. Many of them were relatives of mine. However, their hardships and hard work are only part of the postwar story of that time. McDonnell leaves out the fate of other Virginians.

    Unfortunately, the new citizens in the South who happened to be black found out after Reconstruction ended in 1877 that the “communities” that were rebuilt “in peace” had no place for them except under the demeaning strictures of Black Codes and a system of segregation imposed by intimidation and violence.  

    I revere the courage of my many Confederate ancestors. I admire the strength and character it took for my two great-great-grandmothers to raise families alone in a war-ravaged land. However, I never want to honor them at the expense of not showing respect for the ancestors of other Southerners, those whose hardships lasted another century and disappeared only in my lifetime because of a non-violent civil rights movement.  

    It wouldn’t have hurt McDonnell to acknowledge the complexity of Virginia’s history, both the good and the bad it contains – not unless the supporters he is appealing to are really is so racist that they somehow get insulted by historical truth. I don’t actually think that a lot of them are. I believe that many sincerely believe in a different political philosophy than the one I have. Unfortunately, they all will be misunderstood by this action taken by the man they support. The more they try to find some justification for McDonnell, the more they paint themselves into an extremist corner.

    • Elaine in Roanoke

      Bob McDonnell has justified not including slavery in his proclamation because he wanted to focus on the aspects of the war that, he said, are most important to Virginians.

      I happen to have the 1860 census figures for Nelson County VA because so many of my ancestors lived there. In 1860 the county’s population included 6,649 whites and 6,238 slaves. I’ll bet that the end of slavery was important to those 6,238 – far more important than the Confederates whose efforts would have kept them in bondage.