On the grounds of the Texas State Capitol in Austin stands a massive monument commemorating the side that lost the Civil War. The monument is all the proof one would ever need that Americans – south, north, black, white – have never completely come to closure about the gruesome episode that re-defined our nation.
Rather than the war that cemented forever the idea of one union, the American Civil War is still regularly referred to by some as the War Between the States or even the War of Northern Aggression. The war is regularly celebrated by some, usually in the south, as a four-year act of chivalry or as a principled act of state’s rights. As a matter of horrible fact, the Civil War was a 600,000 casualty blood bath launched and sustained by unconstitutional acts of treason. You can look it up. And, yes, the Civil War was certainly about slavery.
Based on the dust up recently in Virginia, where Gov. Bob McDonnell proclaimed Confederate History Month without making any reference to slavery, not all of us can admit – even in 2010 – that the war was at its very core caused by and prosecuted as a result of the single worst stain on the American story – slavery.
McDonnell retreated from his historically shaky proclamation faster than – pardon the reference – Stonewall Jackson’s “foot” cavalry moved at Chancellorsville in 1863, which is to say very fast. The “controversy” spawned a good deal of commentary, including Gail Collins’ observation it might be a good idea to always begin a Civil War history lesson with an acknowledgement that the “whole leaving-the-union thing was a bad idea.”
Not surprisingly, given the political nature of everything these days, a good deal of the chatter was about what rising star McDonnell had done to his future political prospects by failing to identify the central fact about the war. McDonnell’s defense was that the original proclamation he signed, the one without a slavery mention, was all about encouraging tourism.
Frank Rich sees an even more sinister motive behind the Virginia governor’s slavery oversight – an appeal to the very white, very state’s rights demanding Tea Party crowd. It is an interesting notion, but I’m not sure I buy it. After all, one can rarely go wrong by accepting the most obvious explanation for a political gaffe – incompetence backed by ignorance.
Too many Americans – even some governors – suffer from a potentially terminal case of historical amnesia. We don’t know our history, or perhaps in McConnell’s case he just conveniently forgot our history. If the GOP governor, even one officed in Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy, has ever read the Second Inaugural speech of another Republican he would have had the cause of that awful war explicitly identified. The cause, even Confederate leaders knew at the time, was slavery.
What Abraham Lincoln proclaimed was not a celebration of some romantic lost cause as apparently most Civil War revisionists desire, but emancipation. Even as the war continued to rage in March of 1865, he acknowledged the debt that both sides were paying for allowing the “peculiar and powerful interest” of slavery to come near to destroying the nation.
Lincoln prayed for a speedy end to the “mighty scourge of war,” but acknowledged that God might will the war to continue “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as it was three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” Amen.
Lincoln knew what the war was about and it wasn’t about state’s rights or protecting southern homes and communities from those nasty Yankees, as Gov. McDonnell suggested. The war was about ending slavery and preserving the Constitution.
There is a good proclamation worthy of real history in those ideas; worthy even of a history challenged governor in the cradle of the Confederacy.