Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865

Most of us think of the significance of this day in 1865 as revolving around the soldiers who met for the final time at Appomattox Court House.  The images and stories of Lee and Grant in the McLean House and the famous salute between Gordon and Chamberlain, which may or may not have occurred according to William Marvel, color our imagination.  Here is another story from that day.

Fannie Berry was at Pamplin City, Virginia, as stray Rebel fugitives from the Army of Northern Virginia tried to fend off their pursuers.  “The Yankees and Rebels were fighting, and they were waving the bloody flag, and a Confederate soldier was up on a post, and they were shooting terribly.  Guns were firing everywhere.” when “all of a sudden” she heard the strains of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and looked up to see Union soldiers approaching.  “How far is it to the Rebels?” a soldier asked her.  But she was too afraid to reply, because, “if the Rebels knew that I told the soldier,” they would have killed her.  She told him she didn’t know, but when he asked again, Berry darted behind her master’s house and furtively pointed in the Rebels’ direction.

A regiment of black troops marched up, and according to Berry, as soon as the Rebels caught sight of them, they raised a white flag “as a token that Lee had surrendered.  Glory! Glory!” Berry exclaimed.  “Yes, child, the Negroes were free, and when they knew that they were free they –Oh! Baby!–began to sing: ‘Mary don’t you cook no more,/You are free, you are free./Rooster don’t you crow no more,/You are free, you are free…’ Such rejoicing and shouting you never heard in your life.”  For Samuel Spottford Clement, it seemed that at last God had heard the prayers that slaves had “sent up for three hundred years.” [From The Slaves' War by Andrew Ward, (p. 247)]

It is indeed an important day in American history.

[Image: Don Troiani's "The Last Salute" HAP]

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Jon Stewart Introduces Union Victory Appreciation Month

Jon Stewart has a way of cutting to the chase with these little skits. Implicit in Governor McDonnell’s proclamation is the assumption that we can talk about the war without talking about slavery is absurd. It’s not about politics, it’s simply bad history.  Anyone familiar with recent Civil War scholarship knows that soldiers on both sides discussed issues related to slavery and race throughout the war. The presence of the armies themselves altered the very landscape of Virginia’s large slave population. From early in the war slaves made their way to Union camps and forced military commanders to make decisions that eventually forced politicians in Washington to take an interest in how slaves might help to bring about Union victory. Confederate forces also utilized slave labor both within the armies and on the home front. The presence of slaves directly influenced every aspect of how the war was fought as well as its outcome. The governor’s argument makes very little sense once you actually open up and read a decent book about the Civil War.

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Whose Tourist Dollars Does Governor McDonnell Hope to Attract?

Governor McDonnell would have us believe that his primary goal in re-instituting Confederate History Month was to promote tourism in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  On the face of it there is nothing wrong with promoting such an agenda.  Unfortunately, even a cursory glance at the content of his proclamation raises unsettling questions of whose tourist dollars the governor is interested in attracting and where he hopes those dollars will be spent:

Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today[.]

We can see clearly both who is being singled out and where those tourist dollars will end up.  To the extent that we will see a boost in tourism over the next few years here in Virginia it is clear that our Civil War battlefields will benefit the most.  It should come as no surprise that the major battlefields, many of them under the care of the National Park Service, will attract the vast majority of tourists and rightfully so.  The proclamation also points to sites such as the Virginia Military Institute where the stories of brave soldiers can be found as well as the homes of prominent Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  Museums that focus predominantly on military matters will also stand to benefit from such a proclamation.

Who will visit these sites?  One can answer with the utmost of confidence that it will be an overwhelmingly white audience.  Anyone familiar with heritage tourism understands that it is already incredibly difficult to attract African Americans to Civil War related sites, especially along the narrow lines outlined in the proclamation.  Virginia’s love affair with the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War has alienated much of the black population who remain largely suspicious of a collective memory that has ignored their story for far too long.  The governor’s proclamation reinforces this suspicion.

A more inclusive proclamation would have gone far to build bridges between communities by showcasing our historic sites, museums, and other resources to the widest possible audience.  If we are to believe the governor’s claim that his goal was to attract tourist dollars than why not issue a proclamation that is more inclusive and which will stand to financially benefit sites beyond battlefields and the homes of famous Confederate leaders?  It should come as no surprise that many of these sites are currently experiencing difficult financial times.  Where do such sites as the Black History Museum in Richmond, the Bedford Historic Meeting House, the Booker T. Washington Home, the Black Soldiers Memorial in Norfolk, and Richmond Slave Trail fit into Governor McDonnell’s goal of attracting tourist dollars?  How about a proclamation that also injects some much needed energy into plans for a National Slavery Museum?

I don’t mean to suggest that whites should stick to traditional Civil War sites as outlined in the governor’s SCV/Lost Cause inspired proclamation and that blacks should visit slavery museums and other sites that frame their history.  A more inclusive proclamation has the possibility, however slim, of allowing Americans to explore a much richer past.  I want to see black Americans visit battlefields as well as white Americans exploring significant sites associated with slavery not as part of the others story, but as part of our collective history.

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Why We Need Cenantua More Than Ever

The fallout over Governor McDonnell’s apology will no doubt continue throughout the day today.  I will probably not follow much of it as I can anticipate the fault lines that will frame the vast majority of responses.  Yesterday I offered a brief commentary as to what I think this turn of events signifies.  It comes down to a significant segment of the population voicing their view that a Lost Cause narrative that held sway in Virginia throughout much of the twentieth century is no longer acceptable.  That raises the question of how a governor should go about publicly recognizing an event that is crucial to our understanding of ourselves as individuals as well as our place within a collective narrative as Virginians and Americans.

The public discussion that has ensued will likely remain bitter and is unlikely to move us forward as a community.   After all, for many this debate is about politics and about whose stories are worth remembering and cherishing.  We desperately need to move out of our comfort zones to embrace a narrative and collective memory that is much more inclusive and that deals head on with the tough issues through serious scholarship.

Whenever these disputes arise I inevitably make my way over to Robert Moore’s Cenantua’s Blog.  Robert is a native Virginian who regularly shares his fascination with his own family’s rich history, which bridges many of the interpretive divides in the South.  It’s a story that includes Confederates, Unionists and every shade in between.  Robert embraces all of it on an emotional and scholarly level and has worked hard to reconcile and come to terms with what are often contradictory and conflicting narratives.  Given the often contested strands of Civil War memory at work since the end of the Civil War Moore’s approach is refreshing.  Unfortunately, his perspective on the Civil War as a white southerner is sometimes seen by others as a threat and is often marginalized.  We do so at our own peril.

Consider Richard Williams’s most recent post on the governor’s proclamation.  Williams is also a white Virginian who lives in the Shenandoah Valley and proudly defends his Confederate heritage.  That defense often involves dismissing the views of others who he believes are illegitimate for any number of reasons.  In his defense of the governor Williams provides links to both this site and a post authored by Brooks Simpson at Civil Warriors as examples of the relentless assault on tradition by the liberal elite.  What is striking, however, is that Williams fails to provide a link to Robert Moore’s post even though there was a link on my post and Williams is a regular reader of Moore’s blog.  He was no doubt aware of it.  It’s easy for Williams to easily dismiss us as illegitimate; after all, Simpson and I are not native to the South.  But what about Moore?  He has as much of a claim on Virginia’s past as anyone and yet he is ignored entirely.  The failure to provide a link speaks volumes.

Folks like Williams can cast the debate as an epic struggle or as a battle between two opposing views of the past only by ignoring fellow white Virginians like Moore.  After summarizing his own family’s history, Moore offers the following observation about the governor’s proclamation:

That’s just one of the reasons why it’s obvious that Confederate History Month is too narrow in scope in regard to what is important for Virginians to recognize. It too easily serves as a dismissing “remembrance” activity, continuing to tuck away the complex truths about Virginia in the war. It’s convenient that while hurraying “our Confederate heritage”, we can so easily forget those Virginians who found it not so great; the disillusioned and disaffected, the Unionists and “leave-aloners”. What about those Virginians who walked on eggshells during this time, whites and blacks alike? Try living in a society in which you live under fear of harm or outright death if you wished to vote against secession. I don’t know how many accounts I have seen where Virginians were not able to voice their opinions and their devotion to the old Union without fear of violence, yet were just as passionate about what even they called “the sacred soil of Virginia.” How many “Virginia’s Confederates” were actually unwilling conscripts or were disaffected or disillusioned Confederates who were sometimes physically forced from their homes to either join or return to the ranks (and whose descendants continue to blindly praise these same people as “Confederate heroes”)? Whether free black, slave, white farm laborer, or whatever, Virginia’s Civil War heritage is defined by all of these people. Confederate History Month doesn’t perpetuate our understanding of this, but muddies the waters. That’s why Confederate History Month SHOULD be changed to Virginia Civil War Heritage Month, in order to identify the many different angles (including those who embraced the Confederacy) that define the reality that was Virginia at the time of the war. This IS the “Commonwealth’s shared history” and it IS important for all Virginians to recognize this.

This is the best explanation that I’ve read as to why we desperately need to move away from overly-simplified and nostalgic narratives of our Civil War past. We ought to be driven by a sincere interest in history and a commitment to understanding the complete story of how white and black Virginians struggled to make sense of four long years of destructive war.  Moore’s commentary also offers a warning to the black community that it ought not so easily dismiss those who wish to remember and commemorate their Confederate ancestors.  Acknowledging one’s Confederate ancestry does not imply racism.

Our insistence on continuing to carve up the calendar along lines that have a tendency to divide rather than unite Virginians will get us nowhere.  I am hoping that next year Governor McDonnell will set aside April as a time to remember Virginia’s Civil War past in its totality.  Robert Moore offers us an emotional and intellectual road map to get us there.

[Photograph taken from Cenantua's Blog]
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Understanding Governor McDonnell’s Apology

By now many of you have read Governor McDonnell’s apology for failing to recognize slavery in his proclamation designating April as Confederate History Month.  It directly addresses the concerns expressed by many that by failing to address the crucial issue of slavery the proclamation distorts the very history that it claims to celebrate and promote for further study.  The governor’s announcement included the following amendment to the original proclamation:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history…

I think it’s safe to say that this is not what the Sons of Confederate Veterans had in mind when they asked the governor to reinstate the proclamation.  Let’s face it the last few years have not been kind to the SCV; consider the recent controversy surrounding their attempt to place a statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber next to the Lincoln-Tad statue at Tredegar in Richmond.  I was surprised that the governor decided to wade into these waters after two previous administrations decided to discontinue the practice.  McDonnell could have set aside April as a month to remember the Civil War in a way that was much more inclusive rather than resorting to the old Lost Cause saw.

While the governor’s change of heart will be applauded by some let’s not delude ourselves in thinking that McDonnell happened to pick up a book by Ira Berlin or David Blight and had one of those moments of insight.  These statements and subsequent decisions must be understood as political.  We should remember that the Civil War memory outlined in the original proclamation would have gone unchallenged only a few decades ago and it would have gone unchallenged because it reflected the view of the ruling class.  The governor implies as much in his apology:

When I signed the Proclamation designating February as Black History Month, and as I look out my window at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, I am reminded that, even 150 years later, Virginia’s past is inextricably part of our present.

Perhaps what the governor failed to appreciate is that the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial is the result of a fundamental shift away from a not-too-distant past when white Virginians controlled local and state government. It reflects the sacrifices that white and black Virginians made to bring about a more inclusive society.  That political monopoly that existed throughout much of the twentieth century extended to control over how the state would remember its history in public spaces and through public proclamations.  It’s not that the story of black Virginia only recently appeared.  It was always there.  Is anyone really surprised that black Virginians would be upset at the issuance of a proclamation whose very content essentially reflected a time when only white Virginians were in control? Had black Virginians been able to voice their concerns and frustrations from within city and state government in the past they would have done so.  The governor’s proclamation clearly did not satisfy the “shared history” that many have come to embrace in recent years.  I am not surprised and I applaud their commitment to stand up against a Lost Cause narrative that is infused with racism and distortion.  The governor is absolutely on target when he noted that “Virginia’s past is inextricably part of our present.”

Finally, the governor would have us believe that the proclamation was meant solely to promote tourism and education:

The Confederate History Month proclamation issued was solely intended to promote the study of our history, encourage tourism in our state in advance of the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and recognize Virginia’s unique role in the story of America. The Virginia General Assembly unanimously approved the establishment of a Sesquicentennial American Civil War Commission to prepare for and commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the War, in order to promote history and create recognition programs and activities.

While I don’t believe the governor intended to cause any undue anger and frustration within the black community it is difficult to believe that given the content of the proclamation his sole motivation was education and tourism.  It’s also hard to believe that just this kind of fallout was not raised by one of his political advisers when the document was framed.  My suggestion is to allow the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission to act as the voice of the state government.  Anyone remotely familiar with this organization will know that they have done an outstanding job of promoting both education and tourism throughout the state.  Again, there was absolutely no reason for this proclamation.

I think that what happened today is significant.  It demonstrates once and for all that a substantial voting block of Virginia’s population will no longer tolerate the sanctioning of a Lost Cause narrative by state officials.  That’s a good thing for those of us who hope to see a sesquicentennial commemoration that asks its citizens to face the tough questions of the past in hopes of building a shared history of the conflict that may help us to push forward as a community.  I remain hopeful.

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