150th anniversary raises some nagging questions

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Print this page by Robert Powell

When I was growing up in Georgia in the early 1960s, the Civil War was part of my everyday life. The centennial was under way, churning out millions of souvenir army caps and toy muskets.

My next-door neighbor, Mack McKenna, and I equipped ourselves and refought the war every day after school. After one backyard battle, I trudged into the kitchen and announced to my mother, “If I had been alive during the Civil War, I would have fought for the North.”

She immediately sat me down for a lecture about the conflict. I did not know at that time that she had won a United Daughters of the Confederacy essay contest during her own childhood. Finally she stopped and asked why I wanted to fight for the Yankees.

“Because I’m tired of losing to Mack McKenna,” I blurted out. “He’s from Pennsylvania, and he always wins because the North won the war.”

Nearly 50 years have passed since then, and I’m still trying to come to terms with the war as a Southerner. I suspect I’m not alone.

This year will mark the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year observance that is expected to draw many visitors to Virginia. But it won’t be simply a rehash of the centennial. The Virginia sesquicentennial observance promises to emphasize the critical role that slavery played in the conflict. The sesquicentennial commission, for example, sponsored a conference, “Race, Slavery and the Coming of the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory,” at Norfolk State University in September. Efforts also are under way to promote Trail to Freedom sites in Fredericksburg and Stafford County, where 10,000 Virginia slaves crossed the Rappahannock in the 1862 to seek freedom behind Union lines.

Ironically, while the centennial was being celebrated 50 years ago, Civil Rights leaders were fighting for the fulfillment of equal rights promised by emancipation. 

For too long, African-Americans were not part of the national conversation about the war. A kind of cultural armistice had prevailed since the late 19th century, in which people from the North and the South tacitly agreed that each side had fought valiantly for its cause and no one was in the wrong.

This truce allowed the South to nurture the “Lost Cause,” a civil religion that venerated Confederate heroism while glossing over slavery.

The Civil War, in fact, seemed to define the South. Even as a young child, I was keenly aware that I lived in a region that was different from the rest of the country because it had been defeated in war.

But the Lost Cause myth is slowly slipping away. Gov. Bob McDonnell got a quick history lesson when he proclaimed last April as Confederate History Month without any mention of slavery. After a stinging backlash that made national news, he apologized and amended the proclamation.

In fact, in the past 30 years, Virginia has gone from being a holy ground for the Lost Cause to be being a battleground for historic symbols.

When Arthur Ashe died in 1993, a multi-sided melee ensued over where to place a statue honoring him in Richmond, his hometown. One faction wanted it on Monument Avenue to balance the parade of statues honoring Confederate heroes. Another group argued that a monument to a 20th-century tennis player would be out of place with the street’s historic theme. Yet another side contended that no memorial to Ashe, an author and Civil Rights activist as well as sports champion, should share a street with Southern “traitors.” The statue finally was unveiled on Monument Avenue on July 10, 1996, Ashe’s birthday.

With fights like this, it isn’t surprising that some people would prefer to ignore the Civil War anniversary altogether. But the fact is, the war was America’s epic event, and it is worth our attention. More was risked and more was lost than in any American endeavor before or since.

The Revolution created the United States of America, but well into the 19th century many citizens, including founding father Thomas Jefferson, referred to their home state as their “country.”  That changed with the Civil War. As the author Shelby Foote once noted, at the beginning of the conflict people would say “the United States are.” By the end, they were saying “the United States is.” A collection of states had become one nation, and there was no turning back.

As our perceptions change about an event that happened 150 years ago, a couple of questions still persist: Is it possible to honor Confederate warriors but disown their cause? And what, in fact, does it mean to be a Southerner today?
Maybe we can find some answers during the next four years.

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