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Get Real About History

May 29, 2011
Mike Myer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Apparently we West Virginians are having some trouble being civil about the Civil War. Some of the same divisions that resulted in the nation's worst war - North vs. South and elitists vs. common folks - have sprung up over plans to celebrate the Civil War Sesquicentennial and the birth of our state.

In a nutshell, here are the two new Civil War battles taking place here:

Let's fight the battles in order:

I'm something of a Civil War "nut." I've read countless books about the irrepressible conflict, visited many of the battlefields, even researched my ancestors who fought in the war.

How'd I get started down that path? The Civil War Centennial was being celebrated when I was a boy. I became interested in the war because I saw pictures of some artifacts, and thought the guns looked interesting.

That's it. The same kind of non-serious exposure the four resigned commission members don't approve of got me hooked. Has it ever crossed their minds folks who aren't interested in the Civil War are highly unlikely to attend many dry lectures on the subject - but may, as I did, get hooked by "tourist-oriented events" that spark more interest in the conflict? Apparently not.

Does the education-first crowd not understand the current younger generation would, in the long run, be more likely to study the Civil War as a result of, say, a "Call of Duty 1863" video game than because of an exhibit of old documents?

Yes, educational sesquicentennial events are important. Local residents seem to understand that, to judge from the number and quality of such programs being planned here. But part of the idea of a sesquicentennial observance needs to be arousing the interest of people, young and old, who are more interested in hearing a reenactment cannon go off than in a learned discussion of artillery tactics.

That said, it's important to get education right when it is part of the program. That's why I can see the commission's concern about Edgerton - to a point.

He's wrong about slavery not being the primary cause of the Civil War. It was. Period - though probably not in the way most people think.

And precious few blacks fought in the Confederate army, though many went along with their masters as servants and quite a few were employed digging trenches.

But Edgerton makes quite a few valid points, including some Northerners probably don't want to hear. For example, he stresses racial bigotry was rife in the Union states and he notes Northern politicians had many motives for wishing to restrict Southern power.

Abolition wasn't high on most Northern priority lists.

I don't really know enough about Edgerton to judge whether, on balance, he's a reasonably conscientious scholar with a few wacky points - or someone who could give listeners a very inaccurate picture of the War Between the States and what caused it.

But I do agree with commission members state funds shouldn't be used to promote opinions unsupported by facts. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, we can move on to taxpayers' dollars supporting radical college professors with agendas unsupported by facts.

One final battle about the Civil War Sesquicentennial: Some have suggested it is wrong, wrong, wrong to honor those who fought for the Confederacy in the same way we pay tribute to Union soldiers. Why, those awful rebels were fighting to keep black Americans in slavery!

Few were, especially in West Virginia. Most in gray fought out of loyalty to their states and/or peer pressure. Some bought the states' rights claim. Few Mountain State residents bore arms to safeguard rich plantation owners.

Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of West Virginians had ancestors in the Confederate Army - as a similar number had forebears in blue. Both sides fought bravely and endured great sacrifices. Until Vietnam, more Americans died in the Civil War than in all other U.S. conflicts combined.

So let's not demonize either side - particularly the milions of soldiers in the ranks. Perhaps you view some of those who fought as terribly misguided. And yes, the rebels' cause was a bad one. That does not detract from their courage or the fact that their names are in more than a few family Bibles in our state.

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