Bad Idea History Month

Reason No. 117 for why I love Vermont: No Vermont politician has ever suggested we make April “Confederate History Month.”

For those of you whose eyes have been focused solely on Afghanistan, the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction pact and what Kate Gosselin is wearing — you know, real news — earlier this week Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell proclaimed April “Confederate History Month.” The original proclamation said it was important “to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War,” and didn’t mention the teeny, tiny detail that a big reason for their “sacrifices” was the enslavement of nearly 4 million African-Americans (or about one-eighth of the U.S. population when the Civil War began).

On Wednesday, the governor admitted this proclamation needed a little editing and added in a “whereas” that said, oops, slavery was a bad thing and we are all the better for its having been eradicated.

Pundits have tried to explain why the original proclamation didn’t mention slavery, but my favorite response has to go to the governor himself: “I wasn’t focused on that.”


Not focusing on slavery when one looks at the Civil War is a bit like looking at the peak of Mount Everest and not seeing snow, killing cold, oxygen deprivation and ice as smooth and solid as a bowling ball. And yet, somehow, people do it. One of my favorite books on the conflict is actually not about the conflict at all, but how we respond to the war nearly a century and a half later: “Confederates in the Attic,” by Tony Horwitz. Horwitz traveled throughout the South for the book, examining the hold the conflict still has on so many Americans and the way our natural inclination to cheer for the underdog has led some folks to cheer for the South. In one particularly memorable scene, Horwitz finds himself spooning with a group of Confederate re-enactors, trying to keep warm in the damp grass of a faux battlefield one chilly spring night.

I’ve heard people argue that the Civil War was all about secession and states’ rights. It was: A group of states wanted the right to remain economically viable via slavery. And I know that most Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves. I get it. Likewise, I get the whole suicidal valor thing that marked Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. But that proclamation? Needed a little focus.

Now, I have every faith that no Vermont politician would ever want to proclaim April Confederate History Month. Of course, that might not be entirely because we tend to elect such sage women and men here in the Green Mountains. It simply might be that we don’t have a lot of Confederates this far north lobbying for such a thing. Who knows? Someday we might elect a politician who wants Vermont to secede from the union.

I have enormous respect for most of my fellow citizens, but Minnesota once elected pro wrestler Jesse “I have never met a conspiracy I didn’t believe” Ventura as its governor. South Carolina put the deeply religious (and adulterous) Mark “I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail to Argentina” Sanford into its governor’s mansion. And New York has Gov. David Paterson, who has confessed to extramarital affairs and been accused of witness tampering in a domestic abuse investigation. In all fairness, New Yorkers didn’t elect him governor; they elected Eliot “Emperors Club” Spitzer, who wound up resigning.

So, who knows what could happen here? We have a secessionist candidate running for governor. I’ve heard neighbors on both sides of the political spectrum emerge from town meeting muttering that Vermont should secede. This is especially true when either property taxes will go up based on our votes, or the school or town budget will have to be cut — and one of those outcomes is going to happen at 99 percent of town meetings.

Incidentally, mark my words: Someday someone is going to take those three words above, “Vermont should secede,” out of context. They’re going to suggest that I have endorsed secession. Nope. I will state this as clearly as I can: I think secession is one of the few ideas as bad as — well, let’s see — proclaiming April “Confederate History Month.”

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on April 11, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.