Confederate History Month.

Earlier this month, Virginia’s Governor Robert F. McDonnell declared April to be Confederate History Month, saying at the time that

he did not include a reference to slavery [in the declaration] 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.”

Hmm. Right.

So, rather quickly, a bunch of people jumped all over this to call it what it was: A celebration of a violent effort to perpetuate the enslavement of human beings for the benefit of a superior class, by means of treason. Because if you up and secede, that’s treason. It is the very dictionary definition of the word “anti-American.”

And, you know, just off the top of my head, I’m guessing that this was, in fact, fairly significant for Virginia, particularly when one considers that Virginia was, oh that’s right, the capital of the Confederacy. Let’s take a gander at the state’s declaration of secession, shall we?

The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America… having declared that the powers granted under said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States. [emphasis mine]

Well, to his enormous credit, Gov. McDonnell not only backed off within 24 hours, he issued a candid and far-reaching apology:

The proclamation issued by this Office designating April as Confederate History Month contained a major omission. The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed. The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation.
… As Virginians we carry with us both the burdens and the blessings of our history. Virginia history undeniably includes the fact that we were the Capitol of the Confederacy, the site of more battlefields than any other state, and the home of the signing of the peace agreement at Appomattox…. America’s history has been written in Virginia. We cannot avoid our past; instead we must demand that it be discussed with civility and responsibility.
and amended the proclamation with the following passage:
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.
I was deeply impressed by this and felt Gov. McDonnell’s reversal should be warmly welcomed, but (of course) there are many who felt it wasn’t enough, and perhaps more importantly, many who feel it was too much — Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, in fact, went so far as to say this about the controversy over eliding slavery from the history of the Civil War:
To me it’s a sort of feeling that it’s just a nit. That it is not significant. It’s trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter for diddly.
Ah ha. Good to know.

In the meantime, though, there’s a wee internet meme developing that suggests that, you know what? Let’s all mark Confederate History Month. Let’s actually remember the actual history of the Confederacy.

Over at Ta-Nehisi’s place yesterday, he wrote about his sorrow upon learning that the myth that Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery is just that: a myth. He then went on to mention in passing several citizens of the Confederacy who were actual heroes in the struggle for freedom and justice for Black Americans and the preservation of the Union: General George Henry Thomas, Elizabeth Van Lew, Robert Smalls, and Andre Callioux — none of whom I’d ever heard of before in my life.

And so, in an effort to narrow the boundaries of my ignorance a bit, I’ve decided to mark Confederate History Month by learning about the four people Ta-Nehisi mentioned, and write about it here. Since I’ve already gone on for well-nigh 800 words, though, I’ll work on just one person today, and save the others for later. Confederate History Month lasts all month, after all!

General George Henry Thomas

General George Henry Thomas, like General Robert E. Lee, was a son of Virginia — but unlike Lee, he chose to remain loyal to the US Army in its fight to preserve the Union.

“Thomas, like many other soldiers,” writes The Smithsonian Magazine, “was torn by the wrenching decision he was forced to make.” The enormity of his choice can perhaps be divined from the fact that his entire family subsequently turned against him: He was never again in contact with his brothers, some of whom denounced him as a “turncoat,” and his sisters returned his letters unopened, turning his picture to the wall and denying that he was their brother.

Thomas was well-loved and respected by those who served under him, though, with one soldier (a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor) writing that Thomas

looked upon the lives of his soldiers as a sacred trust, not to be carelessly imperiled. Whenever he moved to battle, it was certain that everything had been done that prudence, deliberation, thought and cool judgment could do under surrounding circumstances to ensure success commensurate with the cost of the lives of men. And so it came to pass that when the war ended it could be truthfully written of Thomas alone that he never lost a movement or a battle.

As the war ground on, the dead piling up, the ravages of disease running through the troops on all sides, the US Colored Troops began “filling some of the gaps opened in Federal forces.” But although the Union’s General Sherman was hesitant to put Black soldiers into battle,

Thomas gladly accepted them. In the drastic move from serfdom to freedom, he wrote, it was probably better for ex-slaves to be soldiers, and thus gradually learn to support themselves, than “to be thrown upon the cold charities of the world without sympathy or assistance.”

That last word, “assistance,” is particularly interesting to me, because Thomas had actually been undertaking to provide such assistance his entire life, having taught the 15 slaves with whom he grew up to read — in spite of the harsh laws against such efforts, and in spite of the terrorized atmosphere that overcame the south in the wake of the bloody Nat Turner rebellion, which many blamed on the fact that Turner had been taught to read and write.

General George Henry Thomas – Confederate hero? Probably not. But a hero of the South, and an American hero, for sure.

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Great thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for his blogging about these issues — aside from the beauty of his writing and the honesty of his analysis, his blog is the source from which I gained most of my other sources here. You can read Ta-Nehisi’s impassioned response to Gov. McDonnell’s initial declaration here: “Proud of Being Ignorant”, his “deep, heart-felt happiness” in response to McDonnell’s subsequent apology and amendment here: “Proud of Being Wise”, and his smart, angry, moving response to the responses he was getting to his responses (!) here: “One Last Thought on McDonnell and Confederate History”.

3 Comments

  1. I like this post.

    To go all nautical on you, there’s a parallel to Thomas with David Farragut. Although by 1861 he had fifty (!) years of naval service behind him, including the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, the fact that he was born in Tennessee made his loyalty suspect in the North. He moved his family from Norfolk to new york just before the war began, but even with the massive and immediate expansion of the U.S. Navy, was relegated to an administrative desk job for the first year of the war. It was only in early 1862, when it began to sink in on all sides that this was going to be a long and terrible struggle, that Farragut was given command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. In the end, he proved to be very able commander, and one of the genuine architects of eventual Union victory.

  2. The Civil War was sparked by slavery, but it was, ultimately, a referendum of the power of The States versus the power of the Federal Government, and The States lost. The Confederate States of America wrote a Constitution that basically a carbon-copy of the United States Constitution, save for provisions to ensure a weaker central government. It was lack of a stronger central government that doomed the Confederacy, because rather than uniting them, the weak central government could have its decisions overridden by the States. Jefferson Davis pleaded with Southern governments throughout the war, trying to get them to send supplies, provisions, ammunition, and such, to support the forces in the field, but was always caught between petty squabbles and the strong personalities of state leaders. As such, there was no concerted effort, as there was with the Union, and they failed. Frankly, that should have been the end “State’s rights” altogether, but even now, the Supreme Court keeps the dichotomy alive. If there is a lesson to be learned from The Civil War, it is that a strong, responsive, centralized government is the key to maintaining and enforcing the freedom of the citizenry.

  3. I hope this means we won’t have to listen to any ‘Barbour-as-possible-presidential-candidate’ crap for the next 2-6 years. Or ever.

    I think you and Mr Coates have the right idea: ‘You want history? I’ll give you some f***king history!’

    Me? I just want to throw things.

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