Virginia’s Republican governor Bob McDonnell has declared April “Confederate History Month” in an effort to promote tourism and praise the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers, reviving a tradition begun in 1997 by Republican George Allen, repeated by Republican James Gilmore, and then ignored for eight years by Democratic governors. How to honor the heroics of a rebellion largely fought to maintain the right to own black people has always been a touchy subject, but Gilmore tried to find a balance by including language in his proclamation about the evils of slavery, and even the contributions of African-American Virginians to the Union effort:
WHEREAS, the Civil War was a fratricidal conflict that divided families, relatives and friends, where brother fought against brother, and where over 3,500,000 Americans, including over 400,000 African-Americans, both free men and slaves, fought or participated in a war which saw over 600,000 of their fellow countrymen, including over 40,000 African-American soldiers, killed….
WHEREAS, it is fitting to recognize the historical contributions of great Virginians who served the Union with honor, such as Sergeant William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, a son of Norfolk who fled slavery to become the first African-American soldier to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor at the siege of Fort Wagner where he was struck by three bullets….
McDonnell, however, didn’t think that this language was necessary. In fact, he didn’t feel the need to mention slavery at all. Not even once. Because, unlike Gilmore, McDonnell just doesn’t think it was a “significant issue” in the war.
According to McDonnell’s proclamation, Virginia — whose population, at the time of the Civil War, was 30 percent slave — fought the war “for independence.”
The funny thing is that McDonnell does allude to slavery in the proclamation. He says Virginians “fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today,” and states that the Civil War should be studied “both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live,” suggesting that, yes, we now understand that they were wrong about the whole slavery thing. But he doesn’t just say it. We guess explicitly condemning slavery, of all things, would just be too insulting to the people the proclamation is meant to impress.