Sunday, April 25, 2010

Virginia, we hardly knew ye

We approach the end of the state of Virginia’s Treason, Secession, and Shooting-Yourself-in-the-Knee Month. Bob McDonnell, the Virginia governor who decreed the festivities, has gone on to boost Earth Day by promoting drilling off the coast of Virginia!

Bob McDonnell may wish to play down his values. A day for the Earth, but a whole month for secession? But realizing that the Confederacy’s great soldier Robert E. Lee thought secession was a bad idea, I wondered whose ox is being gored so badly that Virginia needs a whole month to scratch its ancient wounds.

Do Lee descendants themselves wish to retrieve the family honor? Reputable scholars agree that Lee’s honor wasn’t and isn’t on the block here. The website for Stratford Hall, Lee’s family home (after the loss of Arlington to the United States government), has a descendants-of-Lee family tree. It’s not totally up-to-date, since the last recorded birth was a quarter century ago, but in 2003 Internet sources reported 20 living descendants.

I searched the Internet for suggestions that Lee descendants are active in the secession month movement. They are a remarkably low-profile lot. Hasseltine R. DeButts, Lee’s great-great-great-grandson and born in 1964, holds two patents. His brother William Fitzhugh DeButts’s wedding was reported in the New York Times, but the report focused more on the bride’s family and didn’t mention the Lee connection. Amelia Lee Glover, the youngest on the online tree, seems to be a recent Dartmouth grad. So Lee family muscle, such as it is, is not behind the Organized Soreheads of Virginia.

So who is Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s secesh-minded gov, anyway? His Wikipedia entry tells us he was born in Philadelphia to a family of Irish descent. His father was career military and Bob himself spent time in the military. The two McDonnells saw heavy action on the battlefields of peacetime Germany and Newport News, Virginia. Then, Governor Bob became a salesman. Not very Lee-like.

On the other hand, we all know about those fighting Irish and in fact the governor went to Notre Dame. But the Irish connection is intriguing. Many Irish immigrants fought in the Civil War. Might that be the secession connection?

No, it isn’t. The famous Irish Brigade in the U.S. Civil War was from New York. Overall, though, "About 190,000 Irishmen contributed to both sides of the cause. It is estimated that 150,000 served on the side of the Union and that about 40,000 served the Confederacy. After the conflict was over, more than 130 Irish soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor." The same source suggests that nearly 50,000 of the dead were Irish by birth or descent.

So get that. If Governor "Fightin' Bob" McDonnell is claiming that his military background puts him in a position to honor Lee -- well, why doesn't it seem likely that the great general needs to be avenged by a sunshine soldier? If the Gov is out to avenge his Irish brothers who died on the battlefield, statistics suggest that nearly 80% of the Irish dead died at the hands of the south.

But there's an even more interesting back story to Irish Bob's wrongheaded politicking. In his race to the bottom, blind to the slaveholders of Virginia as he panders to their heirs, Gov. McConnell ignores -- or more likely is ignorant of -- the hard reality that his own blood may have been slaves in the south. Lost in the centuries of agonizing over African slaves in the Americas is the story of Irish slaves sold into New England, Virginia, and the Caribbean before, after, but especially during Cromwell's time.

"In the 12 year period during and following the Confederation revolt, from 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were sold as slaves, as the Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000," reports a history of the Cavanaugh family. [my bolding] In another brief period, at least 100,000 Irish children were taken away from their Catholic parents (who were forbidden by law to even exist and thus had no claim to their own children) to be sold into Caribbean slavery. Some sources quote figures across the entire 17th century of nearly a million Irish sold into slavery; several thousand Scots were also enslaved.

Where did the Irish go? Well, the prettier women were concubines to the planters, but children of these "unions" were also slaves. Frequently the men were more literate than their owners, and were valuable as house slaves and business managers. But their price was low -- they were enslaved to empty Ireland so the land could be redistributed to Cromwell's favorites -- and they were more likely to be beaten to death than the Africans, a luxury item. Speaking from my own pale perspective, I wouldn't be surprised if melanoma leveled many of them. Crafty owners chose to cross-breed them with Africans because their lighter-skinned offspring sold better on the North American continent (especially, of course, the women).

Montserrat alone has a population distinctive because of its mix of Irish and African. From the late 19th century comes this story. "About 100 years after the 1768 rebellion, a ship crewed by Irish-speaking Corkmen dropped anchor at Montserrat....Eventually, as things loosened up a bit, it's said the Montserratans also informed the Corkmen with good humor and a straight face 'Tá sé sin ait, ní fheictear mar Gaeil sibh' - 'That's funny, you guys don't look Irish'"

Another visitor to Montserrat reports: "And then there were the obviously Irish surnames, despite the less than obvious features that went with them: the Burkes, the Collins, the Lynches, the Murphys, the Maddens, the Mullings, the Lanigans, and the Walshes. There were the McCarthys, McCormacks, McDermotts, McDonnoughs, McGanns, McLaughlins, and McMorrises. I found the O'Briens, O'Connors, O'Reillys, O'Haras and O'Meallys -- the list is almost endless, with Madden being one of the least popular, as Madden's is the name of the main undertaker in Kingston."

What can you say about a man -- an elected official in these United States today -- who celebrates the rape, murder, and enslavement of millions of people? You can say that he is free of compassion. You can say that he is ignorant of what "America" is about. You can say that he is calculatedly pandering to a group of people like himself, who envy the perhaps "chivalrous" history of a few Virginians and are pretending a likeness, aspiring to a sort-of-aristocracy among the dead. And who, incidentally, are unimaginative, mean-spirited, and deeply forgetful about what their God intends for them to be.

What can you say about a man who celebrates the rape, murder, and enslavement of a million and more of his own kin? Who sees slavery with the face of his own mother, of his own son, and separates himself out of that image? Out of sight, out of mind, and six degrees of separation counts for naught. Virginia's Governor McCromwell has truly lost his soul.

1 comment:

unbiased said...

You should try to be unbiased.