The Right Way to Honor Confederate and Civil War History

Don’t ignore the evils of the past, but do some good for the future. Save battlefields.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell's apology--for honoring Confederate veterans without bothering to mention the evil of their cause--is appropriate. The Civil War was about slavery. For 40 years before the South opened fire on Fort Sumter, Americans argued, bit, and scratched over every square mile added to the expanding nation, and whether new states and territories would be "slave" or "free." Finally, they took up arms. Lincoln found it politically convenient to declare that the North was fighting for "the Union," but it was slavery that the South seceded to save.

There may come a time to dwell on the great bravery, or superb generalship, of the Confederate armies without mentioning the depravity of slavery. But for now we need to keep Stonewall Jackson in the same class as Nazi Gen. Erwin Rommel, and remember to denounce the hideous regimes they fought for. Both armies showed grit and courage at Gettysburg and Shiloh, but only the Union had God on its side.

American history did not end in 1865. For a century after, too many Americans, North and South, nurtured systematic racism. And it has long been a specialty, among some southern politicians, to use the Confederacy, or its flag, as code for white supremacy. I don't know why McDonnell and his Republican colleague, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, have chosen to launch their terms with a series of divisive acts, but they do so within the context of history. And, sadly, it's not Bobby Lee that some folks pine for, as much as Jim Crow.

Is there a constructive way to honor the Confederate dead? As it turns out, there is. We can join to save the land they bled on.

I have written here before about the good work of the Civil War Preservation Trust and the many local or statewide organizations like it, which struggle to save Civil War battlegrounds from the developers' bulldozers. Americans from North and South serve, without rancor, side by side, in this cause.

Preserving the battlefields honors the dead, while uniting the living. Modern day Yankees and Rebs stand together on Cemetery Hill, and are stirred by the site of the long slope that bore Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, and ache for the young men and boys, in blue and in gray, who died there.

Virginia has been a leader in the preservation effort, this former Virginian is proud to say. Huge chunks of endangered land outside Richmond and Washington, D.C., have been saved through the public-private efforts of state and local government, and organizations like the CWPT.

It is true that times are tough, and budgets are stretched. But we only have one chance to save these grounds. Once they are paved, they are gone. Who knows? The collapse in real estate prices might persuade the current landowners to give a discount to a ready public buyer. There are other things than money in this world, and the CWPT is very good at making landowners who help save battlefields feel like heroes.

So here is some unsolicited advice for Governor McDonnell, and others who want to remember the Confederate dead: Make something good come out of all this and, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, promote the cause we can all support. Save the Chancellorsville and Wilderness battlefields, and the other endangered sites throughout Virginia and the South. You'll honor your heritage in a noble manner. You'll preserve inspiring vistas, and precious green space, for your descendants. And you will leave hallowed ground, for all our children to roam, and learn the lessons of history.

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