Gov. McDonnell Honors Civil War History the Right Way

The Virginia governor has been in hot water for his remarks honoring the Confederate cause, but probably not anymore.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I have given Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell a tough time in this space. But the other day he did a great thing. And I am going to lay the praise on thick.

On Tuesday, McDonnell presided at the dedication ceremonies at the Wagner Farm on the Chancellorsville Battlefield, a Civil War site saved from the developers’ bulldozers by the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Civil War Preservation Trust.

The governor has been in hot water lately, for his proclamation honoring the Confederate cause, in which he omitted to mention slavery. I suggested that if McDonnell and other southern politicians want to honor the South’s heritage, they should do it by joining with northerners, and the descendants of slaves everywhere, in preserving the endangered battlefields of the war between the states on the eve of its 150th anniversary.

Turns out, McDonnell was way ahead of me. During the ceremony, the governor signed into law a bill permanently establishing the Virginia Civil War Sites Preservation Fund, which will provide matching grants to organizations like the trust, so that private-public partnerships can buy up threatened land. And McDonnell announced that $300,000 in new grants would be immediately available, to preserve seven small but valuable sites around the Old Dominion. As a stopgap measure, the fund has already helped save 2,000 acres at 24 battlefields.

“It is the finest program of its kind in the country,” said CWPT President James Lighthizer. With them was Republican William Howell, the Speaker of the House of Delegates, another friend of battlefield preservation. And Dr. Lauranett Lee, the curator of African American history at the Virginia Historical Society.“

These living landscapes are outdoor classrooms with an unparalleled capacity to connect students and lifelong learners to history,” said Lee, “in a powerful and personal way.” Other guests spoke of the advantages that historic preservation can bring—open space, tourism, wildlife habitat—to nearby communities. The Pentagon might take note, as well, and send today’s soldiers to study the land. The Wagner Farm was the site of one of Robert E. Lee’s greatest tactical maneuvers—a great sweeping flanking movement by Stonewall Jackson, that surprised and routed the Union Army on May 2, 1863.

$300,000 is not a lot of money, not when you’re competing with developers for land in the exurbs of Washington or Richmond. But it’s a start. And private donors, through the Trust and other such organizations, will be encouraged, knowing the state will continue to match the money they contribute.

“We remember every soldier—in blue or gray—who was part of our country’s tragic conflict,” said Howell.

And—get this—the legislation establishing the fund was passed by the Virginia legislature unanimously. We don’t need to divide, to remember. We don’t need to argue, to honor. We don’t need to hate, at all.

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