April 2010 was Confederate History Month in Virginia, proclaimed so by its Governor, Bob McDonnell. This month-long celebration was to lead these southern citizens to
to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present ….
In this original proclamation Virginians were not urged to reflect on how slavery had contributed to the country’s descent into civil war. In fact Brandon Dorsey, of the Sons Of Confederate Veterans, successful lobbyist for this state action, felt that the civil rights issue of slavery gets too much attention when the Civil War is remembered. You can listen to his comments here, in Michael Martin’s NPR essay “When Slavery Overshadows Confederate History.” National attention and public outcry forced the Governor to concede that he had made a mistake, and the final proclamation contained the clause:
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 attribute my current family research and study to the outrage this political episode provoked in me. I realized that I had the documents to interpret this history from a very personal place, and that by writing my family’s story I could contribute to a broader conversation about our country’s racial history. The comments to the article cited above are representative of the beliefs held by various groups and individuals, and many of them not accurately grounded. In taking The Civil War and Reconstruction Era course I am developing my arsenal of facts to counter misconceptions and promote rational discussion.
A discussion that is justifiably overshadowed by slavery.
Author’s Note: What began as a mere dabbling into my family roots has become a robust investigation of my family history. Slowly the search has become centered on the lives, decisions and events of the Civil War era, 1850-1880, as they shaped the physical and mental landscape in which my grandparents and parents lived. Here I repost an essay from last summer, in which I first grapple with how those past lives reached out to touch my childhood, my mental landscape.
I am American by birth, Virginian by the grace of God.
And like many southern white children of the 1960′s I grew up in a culture that wore its defeat like a thick woolen cloak draped around one’s shoulders, adorned by the tales of our brave soldiers J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson. To be Virginian was to represent your family and your state with honor, as demonstrated by that great leader Robert E. Lee. You may not believe in the cornerstone argument BUT you must honor your duty to the motherland and your family, and rise to their defense!
While the institution of slavery was mentioned, pro-slavery racism and its sibling Jim Crow segregation were not discussed. Ever so subtly children inherited their parents’ mistrust and loathing of all things Yankee, and even with a Yankee mother I could not escape this net.
I remember walking the hall of my high school, surrounded by my black and white friends, laughing and taunting the plain clothes police officer lurking in the dark corner–present to protect any little white child from unruly mobs. Discussing the latest desegregation violence in Boston, one of my gang cried,”Ain’t so easy, is it, Yankee Boy!” We all hated the hypocrisy of the Yank, whose finger pointed to the South as the crucible of all American sin and never at himself, ignoring the seeds of racism within his factories, cities, and governments.
All this anti-Yankee sentiment persisted into my adult discussions of the Civil War, and I continued the tradition of defeat. The Civil War was about states’ rights, far more than it was about slavery. Most southerners didn’t even OWN slaves, and many who did were right kind to them. Yankees always think they are so moral and pure, but even they didn’t like free blacks and took drastic measures to ensure that freedom and liberty to the emancipated did not equate into white men’s jobs. And so it was until I began my genealogical journey.
In census documents, deeds and wills, slavery became slaves–people that my people owned, like the trees they sold for lumber and the hogs they raised to butcher. My people participated in one of history’s slave cultures, using the commodity of bonded labor to produce commodities like tobacco to be sold in a global economy. To ignore the stories of slaves, even if they are only names found in documents, is to ignore black pioneering in the United States. What is contained in my family’s papers, documents and stories will be shared whenever and wherever possible.
For me, it is time to drop the cloak of defeat, and be a true Virginian, honoring all the people who contributed to the development and promise of that state, and to all of these United States.
Transcribed today: my great-great grandfather’s words:
Camp Suffolk, Va.
Feb. 20, 1863 D. I. Van Buren,
Col. & Ass’t Adjt. Gen of 9 Corps d’ Army (?)
I have the honor hereby to tender my Resignation of the Captaincy of Company H of the 130 Regiment, New York State Volunteers, which post I now hold.
It is with unfeigned regret, that I find myself compelled to take this step during the of my country’s imminent peril; but the labors, the exposures,and the watchings of the past six months’ service here, have made such inroads on my health, that it is evident I can no longer perform the severe duties of a Captain of Infantry, either creditably to myself, or effectively for my country. In such case, honor and patriotism alike demand, that the sword I am no longer able to wield with due energy, I resign to stronger hands. (Please find Surgeon’s Certificate enclosed.)
Praying for my Country’s Early and Honorable Peace through Victory over her Insolent Foes,
I have the Honor to be, Sir,
Your Most Obd’t Serv’t,
Capt. Comdg Co H, 130 Reg’t, N.Y. S. Vols