Keying off of both Kevin Levin’s and Brooks Simpson’s posts on Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proclamation (an annual proclamation from the Governor’s office for a number of years back) about Confederate History Month (this year’s is actually modified slightly from last year’s proclamation), I felt the need to toss in a few comments of my own. Frankly, it shouldn’t be surprising when it comes to politicians dabbling in history. In recent years, however, it seems almost status quo for politicians to either re-purpose history, or stumble over it (Democrat and Republican alike), thinking that they are doing some service to the general populace… or a specific element within the population. So, it’s not that McDonnell had an historical-related hiccup, it’s just that his office, in carrying-on the trend, continues to present what amounts to… “not-so-much the whole history” of the Confederacy in relation to Virginia’s people. Most certainly, it’s not the history of the people of Virginia in the Civil War/War Between the States/or any other way one wishes to phrase it.
I’m a Virginian with the many family lines going back to European settlement here. Various descendants of those lines, by the way, stayed in Virginia or headed to points west and south… some eventually being in opposite armies by the time of the war. With the exception of my Kentucky and Maryland people (blue and gray in those lines as well), the majority (better than 75%) of my ancestors lived in Virginia at the time of the war. Many of my ancestors wore gray, but that doesn’t mean they loved the promise of the Confederacy. Some embraced the Confederacy and one literally recalled being on picket duty, starving, when word came of Lee’s surrender. I suspect that some joined Virginia regiments because of peer pressure in the community, but I will never know for sure, one way or the other. Some were conscripts, though service records do not reveal this. I also have Virginia Unionists, one who was regularly intimidated and even forced from his home at one point and subjected to abuse. I have leave-aloners, such as the one who regularly evaded Confederate conscript hunters and was eventually pressured to the point where he had enough, and joined the Union army… not because he was a Unionist, but because he was fed up. Then too, I have a Virginia-born relative who joined the Union army in 1861. I have Virginia people who died wearing gray and Virginia people who died wearing blue. All made sacrifices, and that’s easily understood, but “cause” is always much more difficult to ascertain.
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.