Reflecting on Civil War with courage, candor, conciliation

Published 8:29 am Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Guest Column
by Bob McDonnell

Virginia has begun the four-year period marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

A prosperous, dynamic and diverse Commonwealth is attempting to remember, understand and put into proper perspective one of the most painful and bloody periods in the history of Western civilization. This is not going to be easy.

I know that from firsthand experience.

In the century-and-a-half since the armistice was executed at Appomattox, few states have undergone as many changes or witnessed such stunning growth and progress as our commonwealth.

Our borders have been fixed for 147 years, but our culture, community and breadth of opportunity have been incredibly dynamic. These changes have made Virginia a stronger and better place.

But they have also made our collective “memory” — how our diverse society remembers and processes the events in its collective history — much more complicated.

In earlier times, Virginia’s dominant culture was defined by relatively few, and basic civil rights were excluded for many. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of that culture — and both were present in abundance, as in any human enterprise — there was a common lens through which to view history.

Those in power wrote a single, narrow narrative. It left out many people, along with their powerful stories.

Modern Virginia is a place of great natural beauty, hope and opportunity, a place refined in the crucible of conflict and renewed in its commitment to the founding ideal of equal liberty and justice and opportunity for all.

We have made progress together in Virginia. The nation’s first African-American governor. An African-American is chief justice of the Supreme Court. The nation’s first official expression of “profound regret” for slavery from a legislature.

A marvelous civil rights memorial in front of the Governor’s Mansion, and a wonderful new portrait of Barbara Johns that I helped unveil recently in the state Capitol.

In my inaugural address, I tried to tell this story of progress and reflect on Virginia’s common history.

I stood on the steps of the state Capitol, looking down toward the James River, the waterway of the settlers. The building behind me was designed by Virginia’s second governor, Thomas Jefferson. Inside it, Robert E. Lee, the son of a Virginia governor, took command of Virginia’s military forces in 1861.

And now I stood there, a descendant of ancestors who were poor farmers in Ireland in the 1860s. An average middle-class kid from Fairfax County became part of that gubernatorial tradition tracing back to Patrick Henry.

Next April our office will issue a “Civil War in Virginia” proclamation commemorating the beginning of the Civil War in our state.

This proclamation will encapsulate all of our history. It will remember all Virginians — free and enslaved, Union and Confederate. It will be written for all Virginians.

While we cannot fully put to paper the definitive collective memory of this period, we are going to at least ensure that all voices are heard in the attempt.

The legacies of the Civil War still have the potential to divide us. But there is a central lesson of that conflict that must bond us together today. Until the Civil War, the founding principle that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights was dishonored by slavery.

Slavery was an evil and inhumane practice, which degraded people to property, defied the eternal truth that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, and left a stain on the soul of this state and nation. For this to be truly one nation under God required the abolition of slavery from our soil.

A modern Virginia has emerged from her past strong, vibrant and diverse. Now, a modern Virginia will remember that past with candor, courage and conciliation.

Beginning in 2011, people will come from across the world to see the solemn battlefields of Virginia, home to more than any other state, and we encourage and welcome that tourism.

Experts will come to conferences and appear on TV and debate the causes, tactics and legacy of the war that divided America, and we encourage that dialog. Perhaps most important, we must do what we are doing today.

We must discuss the “tough stuff” today. Americans black, white and brown can promote greater reconciliation and trust and greater access to the American dream for all, so that there is more peace in our hearts and homes, schools and neighborhoods.

BOB MCDONNELL is governor of Virginia and can be reached at McDonnell delivered these welcoming remarks at the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission’s 2010 Signature Conference entitled “Race, Slavery, and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory.” The event was held on Sept. 24 at Norfolk State University.