Allen C. Guelzo: Slavery, Treason, and True Southern Courage

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and the author of “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.”]

“I am no minister of hate,” wrote the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1871. But as he watched Northerners in the years after the Civil War turn to teary-eyed embraces of their former Confederate enemies at postwar reunions and veterans’ meetings, he was appalled. “May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between ... those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.”

Douglass can be forgiven a certain measure of resentment toward the Confederacy. After all, he was born a slave in Maryland, escaped as a runaway in 1838, turned to a public career as an abolitionist newspaper editor and lecturer, and sent two sons to fight in the Union Army.

But he had a point that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) might have been wise to ponder before Tuesday, when he proclaimed April as Virginia’s “Confederate History Month.”

Just what is it, exactly, that Governor McDonnell is proposing to honor?...

The problem lies with something else McDonnell airbrushed out of his initial proclamation: slavery.

The proclamation describes the Civil War as “a four year war between the states for independence.” That is true, but it’s like saying that the Titanic sank because it filled up with water....

...And you do not have to dig very far into the letters, diaries, and speeches of Confederate soldiers and civilians to find out how important the defense of slavery and white racial supremacy was to them....

The brouhaha over the proclamation forced McDonnell to issue a belated codicil to his proclamation Wednesday, apologizing for the omission of slavery. But this will probably only have the result of forcing celebrations of the Sesquicentennial further into the shadows, as it dawns on the politicos that any public mention of the Civil War is going to alienate some constituency.

The only thing worse, as Frederick Douglass might have warned us, than remembering the Civil War wrongly, is not to remember it at all.

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