By now many of you have had the opportunity to digest Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s proclamation designating April as Civil War History in Virginia Month. I wanted to take a few minutes to share a few thoughts. First, perhaps I am guilty of criticizing the governor prematurely, but my remarks reflected an eagerness to see him follow up on what I thought was a very thoughtful speech at Norfolk State. I don’t know much of anything about the team that advised the governor on the proclamation’s content, but it looks like Ervin Jordan played a role. Overall, I couldn’t be more pleased with this proclamation.
One of the things that stands out almost immediately is the tendency to push the reader to view Virginia’s Civil War past from a national perspective and within a context that includes our broader collective story:
WHEREAS, the largest wartime population of African-American slaves was in Virginia, yet through their own acts of courage and resilience, as well as the actions of the United States army and federal government, they bequeathed to themselves and posterity a legacy of freedom; and
WHEREAS, slavery was an inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War ended its evil stain on American democracy and set Virginia and America on a still-traveled road to bring to fruition the great promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to enjoy equally the blessings of liberty and prosperity;
We are Americans remembering the war in Virginia rather than Virginians engaged in an imaginative process of remembering a war against the federal government in 1861. Now I understand that not everyone will agree with such a move, but I am convinced that they are a vocal minority in Virginia and throughout the country. The governor’s words also invite us to situate the war in Virginia within that broader vision that we all share, which we inherit from our founding documents. And, yes, it seems to imply that Confederate defeat was a good thing.
On the battle front we are introduced to some new faces:
WHEREAS, the military leadership and tactics of Virginians like Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Union General George Henry Thomas are still studied, analyzed and discussed today; the heroism of brave individuals like William Harvey Carney, who was born a slave in Norfolk, gained his freedom through the Underground Railroad, and received the Medal of Honor for his valor as a Union soldier at the battle of Fort Wagner, inspires us through the ages; and the Commonwealth is the final resting place of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers; the many cemeteries in which they lie reminding us of the cost and pain of the War and telling the stories of those who fought; and
While the tactics of Jackson, Lee, and Thomas are worthy of close study, it is the bravery of a former slave turned United States soldier that is presented as an exemplar of courage and sacrifice. Not only are we being asked to remember Carney as both a Virginian and as an American., but we are forced to confront the tragic story of slavery and the ultimate triumph of emancipation.
Finally, Virginians are asked to think about the long-term consequences of war through the eyes of someone familiar and new. While Lee privately remained disillusioned by the outcome of the war and the end of slavery he did encourage his fellow Virginians to move on and embrace reconciliation. At the same time, however, the inclusion of Keckley reminds us of the struggles that African Americans would continue to face for the next 100 years.
WHEREAS, following the War, Virginia began the difficult process of returning to a nation that was, in many ways, born within her borders; that transition was aided by the actions of leaders like General Robert E. Lee who set the strong personal example of reconciliation and grace crucial in helping the people of Virginia return peacefully to the Union, instructing Virginians to “….abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans.”; and former Dinwiddie County slave Elizabeth Keckley who returned to Virginia as a guest of President Lincoln and expressed forgiveness and conciliation stating: “Dear old Virginia! A birthplace is always dear, no matter under what circumstances you were born”;
McDonnell’s proclamation fits perfectly alongside the work of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission, which itself was a creation of the state legislature. Given its origin it would seem only natural for the governor’s words to compliment the mission of this commission, which is something I have called for from the beginning.
As an educator I applaud the governor for asking that we be serious about our shared history by: “attending seminars and conferences, and by visiting battlefields, cemeteries, exhibitions, historical markers, libraries, museums and historical sites throughout the Commonwealth, and by taking part in a diversity of events and activities that highlight our shared history and heritage, as we strive to enact the vision laid out in the preamble to the United States Constitution of ‘a more perfect union.'”