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

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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Comments () | Archives (32)

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Its not surprising that the Governor of Virginia is resurrecting Confederate Month. I'm surprised that he doesn't wear KKK garb to his office. These racist GOP southerners cannot get over the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land. Why would Virginia celebrate a war in which the Yankee army rolled right over them on their way to Georgia? It's akin to the Germans celebrating the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler Month to honor their soldiers in WWII. Why do it? Racism is alive and well in Virginia.

The Confederacy was NOT about oppression and slavery. It was about states rights to allow oppression and slavery.

As a U.S. Governor, you would expect more intelligence from this mental midget. At least he decided to wear his white sheet and hood instead of hiding it in the closet.As some West Coast Republicans have recently shown, what else does Gov.McDonnell have in his closet?LOL. Anyway,McDonnell you can show your high dollar supporters that if you could turn back the hands of time you would,dispite your lies to the contrary. You and your kind of problem, I mean people have only 3 more years to promote your continued distaste and disrespect for "OUR" President.How "Successful" would any of your "Great White Saviors" have been during this period,and not for just the rich only.


Read some American history please! Republicans led the way to freeing slaves, and helping blacks obtain equal rights in America. Democrats were the most racist party. They were against the passage of civil rights, they had many KKK members. George Wallace was one of the most outspoken demograt governors, totally against intergration and interacial marriage. Etc. There are racist democrats as well as racist blacks. Today, democrats tell me I need a hand out from them to make it. This doesn't help me, it holds me back. Republicans give me faith to believe I can be responsible for myself.

Ignorant fools such as this writer should read "Complicity" a book by CT newspapers reporters whose diligent research knocked their socks off.

YES "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."


As a Confederate Southern American whose ancestors paid their dues from the time this country was founded I am sick and tired and fed up with being treated as a second class citizen by you yankee trained elites. And the South is not your colony.

If lincoln's unholy war had not freed the slaves in such a manner and the marxist had not had their reconstruction the large % of the black people of America would not be reduced to a life of crime, hate, poverty and entitledment that your taxes pay for today.

If the South had been left alone they would have freed the rest of the slaves in the Southern manner of responsible pride which is proven by the many that had already been freed in the South. CHECK THE 1860 CENSUS.

You been played for the fool!

"The Confederacy was NOT about oppression and slavery. It was about states rights to allow oppression and slavery." rose...

Thank you, rose. I didn't understand the difference until you put it so eloquently. Thank you, thank you, thank you...

"Republicans led the way to freeing slaves, and helping blacks obtain equal rights in America. Democrats were the most racist party. They were against the passage of civil rights, they had many KKK members"

To one "black" american:

The key word here is WERE. Yes, most Republicans of the Civil War era opposed slavery. Much the same way Democrats of the late 1700's were for strict construction of the constitution and smaller government... sound familiar? Political parties are constantly evolving, often taking contrarian viewpoints and/or adding members of marginalized groups ( minorities, gays, rural bible thumpers in the bush era ) to their ranks particularly when they find themselves the underdog and/or out of favor... which is why Democrats began courting Black Americans in the early to mid 1900s and to this day, remain our overwhelming party of choice. Btw, this is not unique to politics... remember the CW, UPN and FOX networks all targeted urban ( translation: black ) tv audiences during their first few years on the air because this was such an untapped and neglected market, but I digress...

The point is that Gov. McDonnell likely feels an obligation to the constituents that put him into office. It's unfortunate but not surprising that he's chosen to gloss over the ugly truths of his states involvement in the Civil War. It's a real missed opportunity to the next generation of Americans. But denial is nothing new to today's Republican party; apparently racism ended the day President Obama took office...

I still base much of my Republican identify on being the party of Lincoln. Freedom over government handouts. The Union forever our troubles erode. Down with this traitor and up with the stars.

I'm curious to know if Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinell, a true son of the Confederacy, can assure all returning Confederate veterans to the state that they will receive the best health care possible for their service to the state.

Anyone care to clarify the coverage of iPad in terms of races to get one?

"The Confederacy was NOT about oppression and slavery. It was about states rights to allow oppression and slavery."

Good GOD...get a grip. The VERY idea of Slavery is oppression! The entire economic foundation of the SOUTH and indeed the US was built and based on human bondage.

The Confederacy simply didn't want to let go. The Confederacy never had the right to "allow" SLavery under the US constitution nor any other state. They wiggled around that by fake eugenics supporting the bizarre ignorant idea that Africans weren't humans like Whites. (too stupid or convenient to face that fact that all people are the same)

So, spare us your fake semantics. There is a limit and always has been to States rights as they pertain to the Federal Union and the protection of all citizens.(ever wonder why the South came up with the idea that Slaves weren't citizens? Unlike WHITE indentured servants?)

Ignorant racists who continue to defend the traitors of the Union...i.e the Confederacy, will continue to try to spin their hidden desire of pretend superiority based on their sad pathetic personal insecurities.

As a local of Richmond Virginia, I walk can walk down the streets and see statues of the important Confederate Generals such as Lee and Jackson and President Davis. Though my family has no ties to the American civil war I find it interesting the pride that this city has, since Virginia had quite a few major battles fought on its land, as well Richmond being the capital.

However the Civil War was not fought over slavery.

I repeat, the Civil War was not fought over slavery.

It was states rights that was the key issue. However, it was implied that slavery was the backing argument that was to support the war. However, because of that, many northern civilians began killing and beating black men and women because their soldiers were being killed.

Also it not a republican or democrat things. When you look at black and women suffrage, more democrats were opposed to it, whereas republicans were pro with very few against votes.

This article is another uneducated, not well researched, opinionated paper that is targeting a culture that values something that others may not understand. Might as well target different religions and say they are bigots because of the crusades or suicide bombers.

Lincoln must be weeping in heaven at the sight of his Republican party today

@ josephinesouthern, my dear lady, your knowledge of history is duly noted, Im sure most black americans are really sorry they are no longer the slaves of such a compassionate southern belle as yourself.

Anyone for a General Sherman appreciation month? I'm sure Atlanta would be all-in for that. Maybe a re-enactment of the seige of Richmond is in order? Wanting to relive a bloody butt kicking is an amazing concept...

why does the south continually need to be reminded that they lost the war of southern treachery?

Even if one could put the arguments of race and slavery aside (and they indeed should not)....there is still a problem with Confederacy History Month as the Confederacy is symbolic of disloyalty to the United States i.e. sedition. Those who joined and supported the Confederacy were traitors to our nation, and traitors should not be lionized.

The primary cause, as anyone who has truly studied the history of the War Between the States, of secession was the North's trampling of State's Rights. Slavery did not become a huge part of the War until more towards the end when Lincoln brought it to the forefront. Even Lincoln said he did not care if the slaves were freed, as long as the Union remained intact in the end.
I am very proud of my Southern history and of those from my family who fought for the South to protect STATES RIGHTS! Not everyone owned slaves - in fact, most did not. But let's be clear - we have a right to honor those who fought and died for what they believed in to protect their homes and families. Kudos to Gov. McDonnell for standing up and celebrating our heritage.

When I was teaching American History in high school some 40 years ago, I had the best time teaching students about the "Southern justification" for the Civil War, which more often than not did not even mention slavery.

We would read the primary documents of the time coming out of the South, and their own justifications for secession and the war were almost always economic ones. Never connecting that argument to slavery, it was simply that the Party of Lincoln was going to ruin the South economically by their policies.

Makes me laugh now, because some 150 years later the Virginia governor clearly hasn't moved beyond that self-delusional thinking.

The fantasies of right-wing revisionist politicians like Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell is a testament to a failed educational system, and to a media-controlled populace ignorant and apathetic about history.

150 years after the Union was preserved, we've evolved into United States of Amnesia.

Maybe we should make the month of May Nazi history month, because Germany lost WW2 in May 1945. The Nazis, too, fought for homes and communities, made sacrifices and had a shared history. Of course, like Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, nothing will be said about something like the Holocaust.

@One black American- I'm not sure which is more farcical: the last sentence of your post, or the fact that you're posing as a black person in order to lend your post credibility.

@josephinesouthern- If you're going to be sound like a mouth-breathing Antebellum throwback, at least use grammar and spell check.

I continue to be amazed at the large amount of ignorance out there among people who think they know history and try to condense it to a simplistic answer. What I say here will never convince the historically blind of the many valid reasons the South seceded in order to become a new nation.
How the "North" of 1861 and some of its leaders are currently given the aura of being the moral compass of the nation is frightening. The North had plenty of its own dirty laundry in the abuse of immigrants in sweat shops, as well as condoning slavery within its own borders. Lincoln recognized this when he presented his Proclamation, for it called for the freeing of slaves in those states currently "in rebellion" but not for those states which had not seceded, parties he did not wish to offend. It was purely a political ploy to focus an unpopular war (in the North it was extremely unpopular, in case you didn't know) on the simple message of the abolition of slavery. That, the agitators could understand and in their limited way, accept. Like today, these same agitators cannot understand the issue of States' Rights. This phrase conveys nothing to them. Ask them what it means, and they will stare at you blankly like a cow with no glimmer of intelligence. They only understand dumbed-down history, and have learned their history from movies of that period which emphasized the mistreatment of slaves to make them more salacious. If they have read any history at all, they have read liberal revisionist history.
It is to be hoped that more reasonable minds will continue to rise to wash away the stain the agitators continue to wash the South with.

Next year will Obama demand that Black History Month proclamations contain references to the fact that AFRICANS SOLD THEIR OWN PEOPLE INTO SLAVERY? I think I know the answer to that question.

As far as any other comparisons go, everyone knows that there is a great deal more to celebrate within the 4 year history of the Confederacy than there is in the entire 4 MILLION year history of the Black race.

Pretending that Northerners, as a whole, took the moral high ground is revisionist history as well. They just made their money a different way. Northern port cities were built on profits gained by transporting Africans. (The Browns, who founded Brown University, are a prominent example.) And since it was illegal to bring slaves into the United States after 1808, they relied on purchases by European colonists in the Carribean and South America for their income. Ships were outfitted for the slave trade on the docks in Manhattan at least up until the Civil War broke out.

There's a chart on this website that shows which country was purchasing the slaves and, if applicable, the colony to which they were being delivered: The United States places sixth out of seven.

The assumption that political differences between the North and South developed only due to slavery, or even mostly due to slavery, is also incorrect. Those distinctions go back to the colonial era when slavery was legal, and in practice, in all thirteen colonies. (For instance, if you appreciate the Bill of Rights, you have to thank a Southerner; the Federalists in the north were less concerned with individual civil liberties.) If there's one thing that comes out of McDonnell's blunder it's that we all spend more time learning our history so we can replace righteousness with facts.

"More New Yorkers owned slaves than whites in the antebellum South," says Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Emory University, who edited a book on the [slavery exhibit at the New-York Historical Society]. "We need to acknowledge that our history is much more complicated than a benighted racist South and a free North."

A national study conducted by Mediacurves explored opinions of 600 Americans regarding Virginia’s reinstatement of Confederate History Month. Results found that Among political parties, the majority of Republicans (62%) indicated that confederate history should be honored, while the same proportion of Democrats (62%) reported that confederate history should not be honored. In addition, nearly half of the respondents (48%) reported that celebrating Confederate History Month promotes racist ideals.

Racism is alive and well everywhere, not just Virginia.

The Civil War was about STATES RIGHTS, Let us also remember that New York, a union state had the second largest slave population! The CSA had every right to do what it did. The issue of slavery was just union propoganda since they had slaves too. What about the Union terroist called the Red Legs? We do not hear about them do we? I guess that the actions of the CSA were wrong, then so were the actions of the Founding fathers who also wanted to break away from an oppressive tyranical government! Any state may seccede, it is not against the law!

Johanna is right....history should not be whitwashed like happened when Bill
Clinton excused the late sen. Byrd from having presided over the state's
KKK....''he sided with the klan only because he wanted to win an election.''
euphemized our first ''black'' president....and the lame-stream media ignored
the whole thing.Lets watch if Clinton is questioned about this whitewashing
when he again campaigns for the virtuous dems this fall.

There is nothing racist about the confederate. The confederate had 65,000 free black slaves on there side in the confederate war. Many of the other free slaves became slave owners as well. when slavery was banned, most slaves contued slavery and was payed by crops and land. The north wanted to ship them away. The confederate flag never waved over slave ships as the USA flag did.


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A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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