Confederate History Month: Slavery should be more than an afterthought

What was Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell thinking when he declared April to be Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery? None of the possibilities are encouraging: Maybe he wanted to pander to Virginians who, even now, romanticize what used to be called the War of Northern Aggression. Perhaps he thought mentioning slavery, the overarching if not the only issue in the war, would be bad for tourism and economic development. Or he simply lacked what is sometimes called moral imagination.

Whatever the explanation, the proclamation, pegged to the fact that Virginia joined the Confederacy in April 1861, has been hastily revised after a public protest. It still commemorates the sacrifices of the war dead and salutes Confederate soldiers who pledged allegiance to the United States after being “overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army.” But now it also contains a paragraph -- one that easily could have been included in the original -- that “the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice.” (Though inserted in the middle of the proclamation, it still reads like an afterthought.)

Politicians put their feet in their mouths all the time -- and just as often have to extract them -- so why is the furor over McDonnell’s proclamation important? Is it really necessary to condemn slavery as evil and inhumane in this day and age? Was McDonnell really so wrong to suggest that Confederate war dead deserve to be honored by their descendants? Was the protest against the declaration just political correctness run amok?

Not as we see it. Anyone familiar with the Civil War knows that the preservation of slavery was not the only motive for secession and that Confederate soldiers saw themselves as defending hearth and home. Nor did every Union soldier feel called to battle by a commitment to emancipation.


Still, slavery was at the heart of the War Between the States, an irreducibly brutal reality that generations of revisionists have attempted unconvincingly to efface. Consider this description of the war by the commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans: “Our Confederate ancestors fought to save our homeland from invading troops and it is our duty to see that their memory is not tarnished but given the respect and honor due them for the sacrifice they gave.”

Like the flying of the Confederate flag, a sanitized portrayal of the Confederacy inspires anger and uneasiness that once would have been regarded -- and not just in the South -- as oversensitivity. We know better now, and so, we hope, does Robert McDonnell.