By MARSHA MERCER
Let’s put aside the political fallout from Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s pivot on slavery and the Civil War and consider where we go from here.
First, the McDonnell debacle reminded many people that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is upon us and will loom large through 2015. Second, even though the United States has its first African-American president, the country still struggles with racial and cultural issues borne of the Civil War. And, third, the sesquicentennial is not a cash cow.
The Republican governor’s excuse for failing to mention slavery in his proclamation naming April Confederate History Month was that he had his eye on tourism.
"There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia," McDonnell said.
It was bizarre for McDonnell, in his zeal for fatter sales tax revenues and his desire to please fans of the Confederacy, to overlook the key cause of the war and the historic significance of its observance. And, under fire, he quickly apologized.
My guess, though, is that McDonnell isn’t the only elected official who sees sesquicentennial dollar signs. North and South are united these days by a sluggish economy and tight municipal and state budgets. Additional revenues from Yanks and Rebs are welcome.
And yet, we should approach the anniversary of the bloodiest conflict in American history thoughtfully, soberly and with respect. This is an opportunity to share a learning experience. We deserve more than cheap T-shirts and misplaced nostalgia.
Historians have warned for years that we need to be careful of the narrative we create around the anniversary. Renowned Civil War historian James I. Robertson Jr. helped plan 100th anniversary events during the 1960s civil rights era. Fifty years later, Robertson is head of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studied at Virginia Tech and is guiding preparations for the sesquicentennial.
"This is a commemoration, not a celebration," Robertson told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in September 2007. "There's nothing to celebrate in the deaths of between 700,000 and 1 million American people."
Historian Ted Maris-Wolf, who teaches at the Randolph-Macon College, wrote in an op-ed in the paper in January, “The history of the Civil War must now be told in Richmond as being inextricably tied to slavery -- slavery having been its primary cause, an important factor in its dynamics, and, in its demise at war's conclusion, central to its most significant result.”
McDonnell chose to revive Confederate History Month, which had been started by then-Gov. George Allen, a Republican, in 1997 but dropped by McDonnell’s two Democratic predecessors. He could have included the anti-slavery language used by Jim Gilmore, the last Republican governor who issued such a proclamation, but McDonnell chose to reach all the way back to Allen’s 1997 proclamation, which was silent on slavery.
This was surprising in a state that has taken the national lead on anniversary events. The legislature created a state Sesquicentennial American Civil War Commission to prepare for the anniversary, and the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded about $1 million to “An American Turning Point ” activities, which include a traveling exhibition, permanent online exhibition as well as educational programs.
With increased scrutiny on the message, it won’t be easy to strike the right tone for anniversary events. McDonnell, after first ignoring slavery, then said in his apology: “The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation.”
About 28 states claim Civil War ties, and nearly every town and city of any size has a sesquicentennial planning committee. Some are building new visitors’ and interpretative centers. In their enthusiasm, some communities haven’t yet gotten the message that the anniversary should be more than a celebration cum economic stimulus package.
This week, Clarksville, Tenn., launched its 150th Civil War anniversary activities with Confederate re-enactors firing a replica of an 1841 cannon. News reports quoted local people eager to see more tourists, and the town’s Web site reported, “It is said time heals all wounds and indeed and we are looking at the approaching sesquicentennial of the Civil War in 2011 with a air of celebration…”
After nearly 150 years, we’ve got nearly five years to get it right.
©Marsha Mercer 2010. All rights reserved.