There are few subjects that I really know a lot about, but one is definitely the Cult of the Lost Cause, or the fetishization of the old Confederacy and all its supposed glory. Thanks to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who recently decided it was a good idea again to declare April Confederate History Month, now we're all going to learn a lot more about it. Before I tell you what I think about this, allow me to digress with a little Tuttle family history:
Back in the hills of western Virginia, I grew up worshiping Robert E. Lee. I often joke that I didn't know the South lost the War of Northern Aggression—this is actually what one of my schoolteachers called it—until I got to college, and even then I went to the library to check after somebody broke the news to me.
In the hollows and small towns where I lived, my Scots-Irish kin and I loved Stonewall Jackson even more than Lee. He was the ass-kicking, lemon-sucking Presbyterian who practically won the war singlehandedly, until (a) his arm got shot off and (b) he died. I remember as a little boy staring, mouth agape in awe, at what was left of his long-dead horse, Little Sorrel, at the Virginia Military Institute Museum, not far from my home.
I imagined the one-armed Stonewall riding along on Sorrel, chopping the heads off those invading Yankees and making the world safe for…what, exactly, I wasn't sure. But in my 10-year-old head, I was sure it was noble and fine and honorable. After all, we were proud Virginians, and that was even better than being an American. Even Stonewall's last words seemed almost Shakespearean: "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees."
I'm a direct descendant of Confederate soldiers. My great-great-grandfather suffered a terrible leg wound on day one at Gettysburg, fighting for the South. My grandmother was a proud member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and I remember her coming home after meetings wearing her little pin made out of cotton blossoms. Today I live in a building in Alexandria that was once burned by the Union, and even my middle name comes from Gone With the Wind, which was—and still is—my mom's favorite movie.
I describe my Rebel bona fides to make what I'm about to say more dramatic: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's decision to throw a bone to the Sons of Confederate Veterans and proclaim April Confederate History Month is a terrible, terrible idea. If I can borrow the supposed last words of John Wilkes Booth, it's "useless, useless." McDonnell took a Louisville Slugger to a hornet's nest that had been humming benignly in our state for eight years. To compound the problem, his first proclamation made no mention of slavery. He was forced to apologize, in no small part because of condemnation from his African-American benefactor, Sheila Johnson, of BET fame. The contrite governor found religion and called slavery "a stain on the soul of this state and nation."
Don't get me wrong—I'm proud of my ancestors, and if I had been a Virginian in the 1860s, I would have no doubt been fighting for the South. It's ridiculous to say otherwise. But guess what? It's not the 1860s, and I'd like to think we've all—even Southerners—evolved a little in the last 150 years or so. And guess what again? The South lost. It's true. I looked it up, remember? And the reasons for the war weren't "noble and fine and honorable," like I thought they were when I was a little boy worshiping false idols and ogling a dead horse.
I'm a man now, and I don't think the state that I love so much should be celebrating the Confederacy, whether the decree mentions slavery or not. And I don't need the government to assign a month for me to honor my ancestors. I go to visit my Confederate great-great-grandfather Romulus Tuttle's grave in Tinkling Springs, Va., now and then, and I stand there in silence and try to honor his memory. Any other Southerner can do the same for his kin, without a politician's proclamation, especially one that gratuitously hurts African-American Virginians. Imagine if your governor signed a document honoring a cause whose goal was to keep your ancestors enslaved. And please don't start up with me about how the Civil War was about states' rights, not slavery. Sure, it was about states' rights—to own slaves.
This latest Rebel controversy reminds me of a few lessons I learned on a trip I made recently to Port Royal, Va. I'm a Lincoln buff, so I went to visit Garrett Farm, the spot where Booth was killed. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find. To get there I drove down a one-way lonely highway about a mile past the site, made an illegal U-turn, and then pulled over at what I thought was the historical marker, only to find I wasn't quite there yet. I hopped back in the car and drove a bit more until I saw another tiny sign pointing the way into the woods.
I pulled over on the shoulder as the cars whisked by at 70 miles per hour and walked along a little path in an unremarkable median until I came upon the spot of the last refuge of our nation's most notorious scoundrel. Or at least I think I did. There wasn't much there to mark the site where Union soldier Boston Corbett shot Booth dead with a Colt revolver. Just woods and brush. The old barn Booth hid in is long gone, and every last little scrap of detritus has been stolen by Civil War treasure hunters. The only thing they didn't steal was the sign that said don't steal stuff, and a headstone marker placed at the site by, of all people, Confederate sympathizers.
That was sort of jarring, but when I looked down at it I was delighted to see that someone had placed a single Lincoln penny on the marker, heads up. It was a silent protest and wry joke all in one, and I was moved by the small gesture. I also thought that the place where Booth met his ignominious end, hard to find and in the middle of a brushy roadside median, was a fitting tribute to someone who killed our greatest president in a last-ditch effort to disrupt the Union. As I walked out of the woods, I couldn't help but smile. Today Booth is rotting in hell, and a black man is president of the United States.
Maybe next year, if McDonnell feels the urge again to honor the Confederacy, he can take a different approach: why not place some small marker in the middle of that lost patch of woods between those two remote highways? Anyone who wants to visit it is more than welcome to take that long, lonely drive. The rest of us can all move on at last.