Will the Civil War Ever Die?

CAROUSEL - Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bob McDonnell, gestures during an interview in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009.
Bob McDonnell
CAROUSEL - Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bob McDonnell, gestures during an interview in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009.

So much for the naive assumption that our political class had agreed on the general narrative surrounding the bloody mid-19th century insurrection called the American Civil War.

In declaring that April will be Confederate History Month, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell rekindled a dormant controversy about the legacy of the civil war and its proper historical setting. But this was less a mad dash, a la Pickett's Charge than a calculated play to shore up conservative support in a state where the memory of the Confederacy is honored.

The reaction to McDonnell's proclamation predictably split along the left-right axis. Writing in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates titled his post "Proud of Being Ignorant." (Coates wasn't talking about himself. FireDogLake played up the role of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in convincing McDonnell to sign the declaration. And Alan Colmes said the entire affair "seems less like a jovial visit to reruns of "The Dukes of Hazard" and more like a true endorsement and celebration of the Confederacy

A couple of items in the proclamation are worthy of attention:

"WHEREAS, April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse;"

Was it really a "war between the states for independence?" Somewhere, I remember a dispute over slavery - as well as Abe Lincoln being keen to prevent secessionists from destroying the Union. In rearranging the facts, McDonnell has turned the Civil War into a southern struggle for political liberty. Some will make that argument, to be sure. But it's a revision of the historical record.

"WHEREAS, this defining chapter in Virginia's history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;"

That's a very carefully-worded phrase. Not to turn this into something along the lines of biblical exegesis but it McDonnell's bullet point leaves a lot to interpretation. In particular, the suggestion that "this defining chapter in Virginia's history" should be recalled "in the context of the time in took place" (as well as the present) speaks volumes. Without making too loud a fuss, it defines McDonnell as a relativist willing to take a more sympathetic view of the south's decision to break away from the U.S. A. ("You can't condemn the Confederacy because the rebels inhabited a different time and place. Etc.")

There's obviously an argument to be made for that interpretation but the bullet points of a proclamation don't even begin to make the case. This is like Twitter; it's the start of a conversation, not the end point. Yet in very few words, McDonnell sent a feel-good message to the state's conservative base. And what about the blacks? Well, what about them? The Washington Post quotes McDonnell saying that he left out a reference to slavery because "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." He didn't need to elaborate. The message was sent.

It's noteworthy that McDonnell's predecessor, James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, did include the anti-slavery words in the text, while Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine declined to issue the proclamations altogether. But McDonnell, eager not to get upstaged by state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, turned to a playbook that other southern white politicians have used to their political advantage over the decades.

My prediction: It won't be long before the specifics get lost in another mind-numbing debate over states rights, the role of the federal government and race.

UPDATE Late this afternoon, McDonnell issued a statement adding the following language to his original proclamation:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.