Correction to This Article
This article about Virginia's observance of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War misstated James O. Horton's university affiliation and his title. He is the Benjamin Banneker Professor Emeritus of American Studies and History at George Washington University, not professor emeritus of African American history at George Mason University.

Va. seeks balance in marking Civil War's 150th anniversary

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010

RICHMOND -- When Virginia and the rest of the nation set out to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War in 1961, the party got off to a rocky start.

Intricate plans were made to mark the military conquests of the Confederate and Union armies, but little attention was paid to the experience of individuals -- soldiers, civilians and slaves.

A massive reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run at Manassas was marred by too little water and too few bathrooms. Most jarringly, some adopted the events as an opportunity to celebrate the Confederacy in the face of the burgeoning civil rights movement.

At last, President John F. Kennedy called on a 31-year-old historian to take over as the centennial's executive director, refocusing it on sober education.

Virginia has turned to the same man -- James I. Robertson Jr., a history professor at Virginia Tech and a Civil War expert -- to help the state avoid the same kinds of problems as it prepares to mark next year's 150th anniversary of the start of the war.

With Robertson's guidance, a commission established by the General Assembly to plan the state's sesquicentennial events has spent four years trying to avoid the impression that they will amount to a celebration of the Confederacy.

There are no Confederate battle flags on the commission's homepage. One of its first events is a scholarly conference titled "Race, Slavery and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory." Commission members, a bipartisan collection of 15 legislators, historians and others, even shy from the word "celebrate," preferring to use "commemorate" instead.

"We're going to make it a serious thing, an all-inclusive thing," Robertson said.

'Brother against brother'

Virginia officials hope they can attract tourist dollars from war buffs from across the country during four years of events in the state with more Civil War battlefields than any other. The commission, founded in 2006, is funded through a $2 million annual appropriation from the legislature, as well as private grants.

But they are keenly aware that Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy and home to many of its most famous figures. The commonwealth got a reminder of the sensitivities involved when Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) declared last month Confederate History Month, a proclamation he said would bring attention to the 150th anniversary.

McDonnell quickly apologized after facing stinging national criticism for omitting references to slavery. But an amended version that called slavery an abomination did not satisfy those who thought it was still too deferential to Virginia's role in a losing rebellion.

At a recent event marking the preservation of a new 85-acre section of the battlefield at Chancellorsville, McDonnell told a crowd that the 150th anniversary will be about more than the Confederacy.

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