Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a brutal struggle that pitted American against American and sometimes brother against brother. And while major military conflict ceased with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, the underlying conflict has continued to simmer from Reconstruction and Jim Crow through the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
Astonishingly, it continues still.
The most recent skirmish has broken out in Virginia, where Gov. Robert McDonnell issued a proclamation decreeing April as Confederate History Month. According to the proclamation, it is important for the people of Virginia “to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War,” which the decree refers to as “a four-year war between the states for independence.”
As many have pointed out, the proclamation makes no mention whatsoever of slavery, no mention of its central role in causing the war, no mention of the fact that the Civil War ended with the liberation of millions of African Americans from generations of bondage. McDonnell’s preferred version of history is, plain and simple, white man’s history.
According to the governor, he did not include mention slavery because “there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”
Governor, slavery and its abolition were significant for Virginia.
Last year, the Georgia Legislature also passed a resolution proclaiming April as Confederate Heritage and History Month “to honor, observe, and celebrate the Confederate States of America, its history, those who served in its armed forces and government, and all those millions of its citizens of various races and ethnic groups and religions who contributed in sundry and myriad ways to the cause which they held so dear.”
That resolution, like McDonnell’s, made no mention of slavery. But in an interesting twist, black and Democratic legislators did extract a price for allowing its passage. They insisted it be amended so that Section 1 of that resolution made the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in Savannah an official state historical civil rights museum; the establishement of Confederate History Month was relegated to Section 2.
(When the Sons of Confederate Veterans proudly announced passage of the ‘09 proclamation on its website, it linked not to the version that actually became law, but to an earlier, unpassed version that made no mention of the civil rights museum. Apparently they thought that language tainted the purity of the original.)
Gov. Sonny Perdue has also issued gubernatorial proclamations commemorating April as Confederate History Month. In his 2010 version, for example, Perdue proclaimed it “important that Georgians reflect upon our state’s past and honor and respect the devotion of her Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens.” In a nod to diversity, the decree specifically honored the contributions of two Confederate leaders of Cherokee background.
Perdue’s 2009 proclamation took a similar tack, focusing on the contributions of Southern Jews to the Confederacy. But neither version mentioned even the existence of black Georgians, let alone their historic liberation at the war’s end.
It is reasonable to argue that this is much ado about very little, that we should let the past remain the past. That was certainly the approach taken by the Georgia Legislature in recent years when it balked at requests that it apologize for Georgia’s role in maintaining slavery. I can understand and to some degree even support the Legislature’s sentiment. An apology issued 150 years after the fact costs nothing and means nothing. It is cheap theatrics.
However, it is harder to argue that the events of 150 years ago don’t matter much regarding slavery, then turn around and proclaim that they matter so much that a whole month should be set aside to commemorate the Confederacy. If one is important, they both are. In addition, if it doesn’t really mean much that slavery is left out of the narrative, why does that same odd truncation of history keep occurring year after year, in state after state? It’s not by accident, but by willful choice.
That conscious amputation of history is clearly reflected in the original language of Senate Bill 27, the 2009 resolution that proclaimed April as Confederate History and Heritage Month. As that bill recounted history, “the Confederate States of America was created in 1861 as a result of decades of growing cultural, economic, social, and political differences between the southern states and other sections of the United States, particularly New England, and which, as a result of the election of 1860, precipitated the secession of 13 southern states from the union.”
Again there is that word missing, that word whose absence glares as if it were lit in neon. The central and fundamental role of slavery in provoking the war, and the war’s legacy of liberating millions from abject servitude, simply vanishes.
Interestingly, the original Senate resolution also goes on to cite three particular Georgians for their contributions to the Confederacy: Robert Toombs, Benjamin Harvey Hill, and Alexander H. Stephens, who served as vice president of the Confederacy.
Unlike those who now try to whitewash their cause, those three men had no doubt whatsoever about what provoked the Civil War and what formed the central organizing principle of the Confederate States of America: It was slavery.
“The new (Confederate) constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization,” Stephens said in a famous speech in Savannah in 1861. “This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
Thomas Jefferson and most of the other Founding Fathers felt “that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically….,” Stephens said. “”Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Toombs, in a speech to the Georgia Legislature shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln, accused Lincoln and the Republicans of having declared “war against slavery until there shall not be a slave in America, and until the African is elevated to a social and political equality with the white man.” For that reason, he urged his fellow Georgians to secede, telling them “it is your right to do so – your duty to do so.”
In a speech in Macon on June 30, 1860, Hill also acknowledged and even celebrated the centrality of slavery in the dispute between North and South.
“If the Union and the peace of slavery cannot exist together then the Union must go, for slavery can never go,” he told the crowd. “The necessities of man and the laws of Heaven will never let it go and it must have peace. And it has been tantalized and meddled with as long as our self respect can permit.”
It is not necessary to condemn such men as evil, because they dealt with the world as they were born into it and knew it. Few of us can honestly claim that we would do better if placed into identical circumstances. However, it is absolutely necessary to honor their own explanations for why they did what they did, and to acknowledge that the cause for which they fought was evil. Had they succeeded, the United States of America would not exist, and the forced servitude of millions of black Americans would have continued for generations.
To pretend otherwise is to distort history for political purposes that are themselves suspect.