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]
8 comments… add one
  • Tom Thompson Apr 8, 2010 @ 17:52

    Very interesting thread these past few days. I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I knew the Gov had crapped in his mess-kit when he issued his proclamation. I saw his back-peddling, CYA moves, for what they really were…insufficient to extract him from the mire.

    Yet when I contrast what is going on in Virginia as compared to Ohio in trying to have some meaningful discussion during the sesquicentennial, I am impressed. I’d like to see our governor do or say something, even if it is wrong. Buckeyes are pretty oblivious to the important contributions made by citizens of Ohio to the Union cause. This anniversary offers a chance to inform the citizenry, but it can only happen if an effort is mounted.

    I doubt that there is a soul in Virginia who is “unaware” that there is a special commemoration underway.

  • Robert Moore Apr 8, 2010 @ 12:17

    Wow, Kevin! Thanks… again! A little late checking-in at your blog today, but imagine my surprise when I saw my Web handle in the title of your blog! I appreciate what you say about my blog and my content.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2010 @ 12:21

      Thanks to you for authoring what I think is one of the most interesting sites in the history blogosphere.

  • john maass Apr 8, 2010 @ 9:10

    Great opinion piece here, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/opinion/08collins.html, related to this post and the others yesterday on the “Proclamation.”

  • Leonard Lanier Apr 8, 2010 @ 6:54

    Agreeing with Robert Moore’s post in substance, I suggest taking the argument one step further. If Virginians really want to promote an inclusive and complex commemoration of their state’s past, then the Old Dominion’s governors need to drop BOTH the Confederate History Month and the Black History Month proclamations. Instead, create a new tradition–Virginia History Month. By its very name, the event exams the Commonwealth’s 400-year history in totality. That allows for a fuller understanding of the ways in which painful chapters in the state’s history (slavery, Civil War, segregation) connect to one another, and affect ALL the state’s citizens.

    I know that I’m going to receive some major flak for the above suggestion, but there it is.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2010 @ 7:13

      You make an excellent point. I worry about the very same thing re: Black History Month as it also segregates an important aspect of the past from the overall narrative. We do need to move in the direction that you suggest.

    • Richard Apr 9, 2010 @ 12:34

      Your comments are what any reasonable person would try to achieve. I was wondering what took so long for this to occur in this world of hypenated Americans.

  • Sherree Apr 8, 2010 @ 6:30

    I could not agree with you more, Kevin. Robert Moore always brings a voice of reason to this continuing conversation. In addition, I think you have quite a few contributors to your blog who are white southerners “native to the south” , and who are not Lost Cause devotees.

    We do need to move beyond our comfort zones, and when we say this, what do we mean? I will leave that question an open ended one for your readers to contemplate.

    Personally, I would like to see McDonnell brought to task for canceling the school breakfast program. (I am not sure if this legislation has just been proposed, or if it has actually been enacted) There are children in the mountains of Virginia, and no doubt in the cities, too, who come to school hungry on Monday because they have not eaten over the week-end. The cancellation of the program directly impacts their lives and their health. Most of these children will never study the Civil War, because most of these children will not go to college. That is what this issue is about, as it ever has been–keep men and women voting against their own self interest in any way that is convenient. The last political campaign I worked on in Virginia was Henry Howell–“Keep the Big Boys Honest”. Nothing has changed. McDonnell’s proclamation, and his apology, have absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War. Both are about remaining in power. In that respect, nothing has changed since the secessionists won the debate in Virginia.

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