Running scared on Confederate history

By Richard T. Hines, Alexandria

Twenty years after Gen. Robert E. Lee rode into Appomattox and surrendered his tattered army, ending the War Between the States, a memorial chapel was built in Richmond in memory of the 260,000 Confederate soldiers who died during the conflict.

The organ in the chapel was donated by a group of Union veterans from Lynn, Mass. One of the contributors to the soldiers’ home that surrounded the chapel was Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. And a Union private from Massachusetts donated his annual pension to support the home.

Back then, folks argued — as they do today — over why the war was fought. Some said slavery. Some said tariffs. Others said the Constitution. One captured Confederate soldier, as he was being marched off to prison, was asked, "Why are you fighting?" He is said to have grunted, "Because you’re here."

Of course, the truth is that men fought for different reasons. But once the war was over, they handled their arguments about it with mutual respect and courtesy. Today in the Old Dominion, this has been lost, and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and former senator George Allen (R) — possibly to their surprise — find themselves embroiled in the latest debate over honoring our ancestors.

The whole brouhaha began when McDonnell signed a proclamation honoring Confederate History Month. That seemed innocuous enough. After all, we have innumerable heritage commemorations, including, of course, Black History Month. But before the ink had dried, McDonnell’s political opponents descended on him hammer and cudgel, all but branding him pro-slavery.

In panicked reaction, McDonnell vacillated. First, he added an anti-slavery statement to his proclamation. When that did not appease his opponents, he did a full about-face and announced there would be no more Confederate History Month Proclamations on his watch. And, finally, he required the removal of the flags of the old veterans at their own chapel in Richmond. Their descendants had unwisely left the land and chapel of the Soldiers Home in trust to the Commonwealth of Virginia.

We need to recall that slavery began in Virginia in 1619, not 1861. Indeed, Virginians such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Patrick Henry, George Mason, John Marshall and a host of others were slaveholders who also opposed slavery. Yet they had to deal with the day-to-day reality of an inherited institution, while looking forward — they hoped — to its final abolition by peaceful and orderly means. It is quite easy to revere Confederate history without being pro-slavery, but McDonnell doesn’t seem to understand this. His eyes seemingly set on higher office, he took up the banner of "politically correct" history.

Naturally, the Post gushed that McDonnell’s decision "took guts," and soon George Allen jumped in. Allen’s political problem is his "macaca moment," which got him branded a racist in his last campaign. Perhaps seeing a way to put this behind him before he announces his next bid for the Senate, Allen offered up praise for McDonnell. And McDonnell’s political alter ego, former Virginia and national Republican chairman Ed Gillespie, added his "amen," hailing McDonnell’s transformation as proof that Virginia has been reborn as "the Dynamic Dominion."

We’ve been arguing over the causes of our great war between brothers for 150 years, and no doubt we’ll go on arguing for another 150. But today one group – the one that insists the war was fought over slavery alone — tolerates no disagreement. Confederate chapels, history months and monuments, they say, should be banished, and the history books rewritten to exclude other points of view. Anyone who dares disagree gets called a racist. Allen and McDonnell have given us proof of the power of that charge.

A pair of Confederate flags have flown over the Confederate Memorial Chapel in Richmond since 1887. Those two flags did not trouble the Union soldiers who donated the organ to the chapel; nor did they trouble Ulysses S. Grant. They honored the bravery of thousands of Virginians, most of whom did not believe they fought to defend slavery. But McDonnell panicked when attacked by those who would never support him politically. This was an act of political courage?

The two Virginia leaders who should be praised for their courage on this issue are not Allen and McDonnell but former governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, Democrats who had enough respect for the descendants of Confederate soldiers to allow the flags to fly at the chapel throughout their terms in office.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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