Another Case of Selective Memory: Virginia and Lincoln

The Virginia legislature tabled proposals to establish a state bicentennial commission to honor Lincoln’s 200th birthday.  Along with the national commission 10 states have established their own commissions to mark the event.  There are no surprises as to why Virginia is reluctant.  Just listen to the following:

A Richmond resident spoke against the commission, charging it represents
"historical myopia and amnesia at its worse" and "kowtowing to the leader of
Virginia’s enemies."

Robert Lamb, a lawyer and member of Sons of Confederate Veterans who said he
was speaking as an individual, said Lincoln as U.S. president during the Civil
War sent armies into Virginia who "laid waste to the land," among other
grievances.

I agree with Brian Dirck’s summary of the situation:

I think we all know what happened here; Virginia’s self-appointed keepers of the
Confederate flame flexed their political muscles, and triumphed in their ongoing
campaign to put a particular slant on the way Americans view the Civil War and
its legacy.

What is so disappointing is that their view of Virginia’s Civil War legacy is anything but historical.  The basic approach of those like Robert Lamb is to reduce the war to a simple distinction between us and them.  We are to believe that everyone in Virginia was pro-Confederate.  When Lamb speaks of "Virginia’s enemies" he is no doubt speaking for some white Virginians and fails to understand that tens of thousands of black Virginians held very different views during the war and after as they continued to celebrate Lincoln as a liberator.  Nelson Lankford’s excellent book, Richmond Burning details the celebrations that took place in the city’s streets as Lincoln entered in April 1865.  There are plenty of Virginians who have an interest in celebrating the memory and legacy of Lincoln. Unfortunately, those like Lamb can’t acknowledge this because in their view Virginia’s Civil War is the story of white Virginians.

If this is any indication of how Virginia’s legislature is going to handle problems of interpretation during the Civil War sesquicentennial than we are in serious trouble.

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11 comments… add one

  • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2007

    Given the content of your comment I’m not sure it’s worth responding so I will be brief. I have no problem with Mr. Lamb not wanting to honor Lincoln’s memory. The question is whether there is any historical basis justifying the state legislature’s formation of a commission. The history of Virginia is pretty clear. There were plenty of Virginia unionists during the war and it is safe to conclude that black Virginians were pleased with Lincoln’s visit to Richmond in April 1865.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “political correctness” but if you figure it out feel free to let me know.

  • Anonymous Feb 17, 2007

    And I was trying to be polite to someone who should study history before teaching it . Go figure

  • As a native Southerner (not from Virginia) I agree with Brian Dirck.
    As for the commenter above, Yes, Union forces under Lincoln’s command did lay waste to parts of Virgina. Why was that, pray tell?

    Still, Virginia’s reaction is not surprising. Vicksburg didn’t begin celebrating the 4th of July until the end of WWII.

  • Anonymous Feb 19, 2007

    As a matter of fact,Lincoln had no right whatsoever to invade Virginia. The constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia included a provision for dissolving ties with the federal union if her elected representatives deemed it necessary. Fact. It was only when Lincoln called for Virginia to provide 75,000 men to invade the South that the decision was made to secede-it was her right to do so.
    As for Mr. Dirck, I question why he thinks his “particular slant” should be swallowed by the rest of us. It shows a very narrow, one-sided view of what was an extremely complex situation. Saying something is historical fact does not make it so.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2007

    I don’t think Brian Dirck is forcing anyone to “swallow” anything. He is simply making the point — one that I agree with — that the all Virginians hate Lincoln argument is misplaced. As I point out in my post the argument is typically laced with an implicit assumption that Lincoln’s presence was part of an “invasion.” There were tens of thousands of black Virginians and a significant number of Southern Unionists who were pleased with the outcome of the war.

    Whether Virginia honors Lincoln’s bicentennial is a question that ought to be debated. My problem is with applying a narrow interpretation of Virginia’s Civil War experience as a means to prevent it.

  • Jim Feb 27, 2007

    I agree that a celebration of a controversial figure should be viewed with skepticism, particularly when it is more or less thrust upon those who have not forgotten what happened. I think those who say there were loyal unionists and slaves in VA should also recognize that there were many southern sympathizers above Mason-Dixon. In fact, there was basically moral parity regarding slavery between the North and South during the time. Should KY, KS, and MO celebrate Jeff Davis given that they were border states?

  • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2007

    Jim, — Thanks for the comment. I don’t claim any authority on what people ought to celebrate. My concerns in reference to Virginia and Lincoln is whether there is a legitimate historical reason to honor his presidency. The question on the table was whether Virginians have an interest in recognizing Lincoln and I think the answer is yes if we look beyond our traditional assumptions of whose history we are considering

  • Jim Feb 27, 2007

    OK, but you’re talking about a state that hosted 70% of the battles of the Civil War. So, it looks as if our “traditional assumptions” are based on real feelings of controversy and statistics. If President’s Day is for Washington, Lincoln, and others, then why do we need another day for Lincoln?

    Regions have their histories, heroes, and villains. Precedent shows that Lincoln was not a hero in the context of his time in VA. Should that change now? Are you proposing that it’s time to put aside historical differences and embrace a new trend for the greater future benefit? Or do you think this would be cool for educational purposes?

    Funny PS: I am a Virginian living in NJ, and it looks like you’re the reverse.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2007

    Jim, — This is not about establishing a “day” for Lincoln, but about whether the state should acknowledge the Lincoln Bicentennial. You say that “Lincoln was not a hero in the context of his time in Va” and I am suggesting that there is evidence that black Virginians did in fact see him as such. I highly recommend that you read Nelson Lankford’s book _Richmond Burning_ as it highlights this very point. I honestly don’t know what “cool” means in the context of education, but it would suggest possibilities as to how to understand Virginia’s Civil War and the war more generally speaking in the Upper South.

  • Jim Feb 28, 2007

    I appreciate your patience. Just for info, I found that today about 19% of the VA population is black and about 75% is white in the 2000 Census, and according to the 1860 Census, 34% was black with roughly 4% free and 30% enslaved, so you have a good point that a large portion of VA would have viewed Lincoln favorably. But numbers aren’t necessarily the only thing to look at when translating into policy on Lincoln.

    I also found the apology for slavery mentioned in the article to be a much more hard hitting, appropriate, and significant accomplishment than celebrating Lincoln.

    I don’t really know how the Lincoln Bicentennial is structured, but is it redundant to have a commission at both the federal and state levels? No matter what decision is made, we all know that history is written by the victor, and if you read the bicentennial commission’s language, then it is obvious that some of Lincoln’s legacy that is to be celebrated is seen by some as a reminder of bitter defeat and therein lies controversy. It appears that the American landscape is fraught with historical-based landmines requiring politics to walk a fine line. Thanks for your time.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2007

    Jim, — Please don’t thank me as I enjoy engaging thoughtful readers. It makes the numerous off-the-wall comments bareable. I assume that the state commisssions are responsible for organizing various activities while the national commission functions as oversite. This is similar to the way the Civil War Centennial and sesquicentennial commissions are organized with both national and state branches.

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