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Confederate History Month -- Virginia's new governor accused of racial insensitivity, political cynicism

April 7, 2010 | 10:01 am

Manassas National Park Civil War Cemetery in Virginia by Alex Wong:Getty Images
Reviving an observance that many thought had been buried eight years ago, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has declared April "Confederate History Month" in Virginia. Maybe it's not like firing on Ft. Sumter, but it's close.

One of two Republicans elected to statehouses last year in races widely seen as a referendum on Barack Obama's presidency, McDonnell said he is restoring the commemoration because it is important to study history. In fact, Virginia and other states are preparing commemorations in 2011 to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

But in McDonnell's proclamation announcing the commemoration, he never mentions slavery -- or the 500,000 slaves who constituted one-fourth of Virginia's population and cheered the Union soldiers to victory. Instead, the governor declares that Virginians fought....

..."for their homes and communities and Commonwealth" and that "all Virginians" must appreciate the state's "shared" history and the Confederacy's sacrifices.

Critics are having none of it. The Washington Post accused the governor of "airbrushing history."  American Prospect's Adam Serwer's argued, "If you're going to 'honor' what Confederate soldiers fought for, you should at least have the honesty to acknowledge what exactly that was -- the 'freedom' to own black people as property."

Historians aren't much impressed either. Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar James McPherson called it "obnoxious, but it's extremely typical. The people that emphasize Confederate heritage and the legacy, and the importance of understanding Confederate history, want to deny that Confederate history was ultimately bound up with slavery. But that was the principal reason for secession -- that an anti-slavery party was elected to the White House. . . . And without secession, there wouldn't have been a war."

McDonnell ran to the middle in his 2009 race, presenting himself as a relative moderate who could work across the aisle. And in his inaugural address he spoke movingly of the journey of former Gov. Doug Wilder, the grandson of slaves, and about the evils of slavery.

Now, many see Virginia's Confederate History Month as evidence that McDonnell is playing politics with history -- appealing to downstate voters who never stopped waving their Confederate flags. "It's the funny thing about conservative Republicans who downplay their ideology to get elected," said Washington Monthly's Steve Benen. "They invariably stop pretending just as soon as they're in positions of authority."

Asked why he did not mention slavery in the proclamation, the governor said: "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."

Honoring history does not require whitewashing it.

Next year marks the 150-year anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and many states, including Virginia, are readying both education and tourism efforts -- presumably with plenty of mentions of slavery. As conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru put it, McDonnell's "failure to mention slavery was a moral and historical mistake." Ponnuru predicted that voters will punish Republicans at the polls unless the governor opts to "acknowledge his error and strive to repair the damage."

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Civil War battlefield at Manassas, Va.; Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images

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