Slavery's role not insignificant

Brag Bowling and I have a lot in common. We both care a lot about history. We just happen to come down on opposite sides of the Civil War. Sort of.

Bowling is the commander of the Virginia Division of The Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization dedicated to the proposition that the South is getting a raw deal in a lot of history books and in the public's memory about the war.

I gave him a call after Virginia's Gov. Bob McDonnell backpedaled a bit on a proclamation he had signed at the urging of Bowling's organization. The proclamation designated April as Confederate History Month in Virginia. It also threw McDonnell into a hot mess, particularly with his African-American constituents, because it omitted any mention of a prominent cause of that war: slavery.

Worse, when reporters asked him about the omission, he dug himself deeper. There were "any number of aspects to that conflict between the states," he said, but "I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia." Eh? Is slavery not "significant?"

It just so happened that my wife and I recently spent a weekend in Charlottesville to see Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello, an intellectual Disneyland for history buffs and a place where slavery is very significant. With knowledgeable tour guides, we took a mental trip back in time. We also discussed horrifying examples of how, as Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared in the Dred Scott decision, slaves "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Cleverness, good fortune and the mercies of one's master were a slave's only protections from assault, abuse or separation from the rest of his her family. These are not insignificant aspects of history in Virginia or anywhere else.

McDonnell acknowledged his "mistake." He added a paragraph to describe slavery as an "evil and inhumane practice," which now annoys Bowling, who calls the addition inaccurate. "Virginia did not leave the Union to defend slavery," he said. "Virginia seceded after President Abraham Lincoln called up troops to invade the lower South. Virginia was solidly pro-Union but refused this intrusion on their sovereignty. It had nothing to do with slavery."

But Virginia did join the Confederacy, I reminded Bowling. What, I asked, about Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens' declaration in his historic 1861 speech that the breakaway government's "cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition?" Bowling admitted he had not read the entire speech. I strongly advised him to do so and we will talk again. He said he looked forward to it. So do I.

I'm not mad at him. Our brief yet cordial conversation offered a reason why McDonnell as a savvy Southerner should have known better than to fall into this Confederacy stew. He inadvertently stumbled into a second Civil War, a continuing clash between the dueling memories of African-Americans and "Southern heritage" whites.

As a descendant of the Confederacy, Bowling has a lot in common with me, a descendant of Southern slavery. The Sons of Confederate Veterans are spiritual descendants of the "Lost Cause," a post-bellum movement and philosophy that sprung up after the war to justify the Confederate cause as noble, chivalrous, militarily clever and only incidentally tied to slavery.

Both of us agree that too many people oversimplify the causes of the Civil War as either all about slavery or nothing to do with slavery. The truth of history is always more complicated than that and too many people don't take history seriously enough.

Each of us wants our side of history to be known and told "accurately." Most of all, neither of us wants to be told that our ancestors' suffering, struggles or hardship count for nothing.

Contact Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, at cpage@tribune.com.