Ken Plum: A hundred fifty years ago

kenplum2The first person I ever knew who wrote a weekly newspaper column was a teacher in the high school I attended who wrote a column during the period 1961-1965 entitled, “A Hundred Years Ago: The Civil War Day By Day.” He did not have to think of a new topic every week; he simply reported what was known to be going on a hundred years before during that week.

I do not propose to revive his idea for a weekly feature other than for this week when 150 years ago Richmond was being sacked and burned by federal troops and when President Abraham Lincoln had visited the capital of the Confederacy on April 4 and on April 9 Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. Activities have been going on for several years sponsored and encouraged by the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission the General Assembly established to commemorate this period of history.

Civil War historian and president of the University of Richmond, Edward L. Ayers, is quoted in the press as saying that, “People are beginning to see, in a way they didn’t see before, that you can’t walk around history. You can’t walk away from history. You have to walk through history to get to any future that’s worth having.” The institution of slavery and the attempted use of states’ rights as an argument to protect it are difficult to understand today. We need to learn from the events of the past lest our ideological differences lead us to events that future generations will similarly find difficult to imagine or rationalize.

Jane and I took a mini-vacation recently where we went to the Blue Ridge Mountains and stayed in a log cabin that had been built from logs from a previous cabin that had been occupied by a man who died in the Civil War at age 28. We had to lower our heads as we walked about the cabin so as to not hit the beams in the ceiling, and the sleeping loft had only the warmth that seeped through the floor. Our “roughing it” in a cabin as we had been wanting to do for a long time was made infinitely easier by a gas heater as an auxiliary to the fireplace and a bathroom with running hot water that had been added to the back.

One thought that continued to pass through my mind while we were there was why the young man who lived in the original cabin and who clearly was not a slave owner would leave his home and go to fight a war when his neighbors not far to the west had split off to form the new state of West Virginia because they did not support slavery or secession. The answer I am sure is as complex as understanding the Civil War itself, but the War and the thousands of its personal stories remind us to take a close look at our personally held beliefs as well as our public policies to ensure that they do not include the kind of discrimination that marked the events of 150 years ago.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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