Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell commemorated Union and Confederate soldiers while condemning slavery as an "evil and inhumane" institution in an address Thursday marking 150 years since the first major land battle of the Civil War.
The broad-based remarks at Manassas National Battlefield Park helped kick off the state's sesquicentennial Civil War commemoration, which the Republican governor said will recall the "extreme sacrifices of citizens, soldiers, slaves and freed who lived and died here in the nation's greatest battle."
Mr. McDonnell's comments were well received on an issue that has proved thorny for previous Virginia governors - who typically attempt to balance the pride among some residents in their Confederate heritage with the solemn acknowledgement of the state's history of slavery.
Rather than honor the era, Mr. McDonnell emphasized the lessons of the historic conflict, in which 600,000 Americans were killed.
"I think it's a great opportunity to look at the amazing progress thats been done in creating the Founders' vision of a more perfect union," he told The Washington Times. "In Virginia, we've got an incredibly diverse state with 8 million people, the nation's first [elected] African-American governor, and with all that diversity, we're the eighth-most prosperous state in the country - so that's to be celebrated," he said.
"What happened here with 10,000 people dying is certainly to be commemorated and appreciated, but it's not a celebration," he said.
Delegate Luke Torian, Prince William Democrat and a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, applauded Mr. McDonnell's approach.
"As the official leader of the commonwealth, there are certain events he's going to participate in, but I think he's going to do so with sensitivity," he said.
The issue of Civil War commemoration has been a thorny one for governors of Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy and the site of many of the most notable Civil War battles.
George Allen, a Republican, was pilloried by some for proclaiming April as Confederate History Month during all four of his years in office.
Mr. Allen's successor as governor, James S. Gilmore III, also a Republican, continued the tradition while acknowledging slavery in his proclamations. But he eventually renamed April "Virginia's Month for Remembrance of the Sacrifices and Honor of All Virginians Who Served in the Civil War."
The next two governors, Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, each declined to issue any such proclamation.
Mr. McDonnell revived the tradition after he was elected in 2009, proclaiming April 2010 "Confederate History Month." But he took blistering criticism for omitting any mention of slavery in his proclamation. He apologized, amended the proclamation to condemn slavery as "an evil and inhumane practice," and later said that the omission "was an error of haste and not of heart."
He also issued a lengthy, inclusive proclamation this year dubbed "Civil War History in Virginia Month."
"There's always opportunities for human error when proclamations like that are drawn up," Mr. Torian said. "I think he was very regretful of that omission and then sought to correct the matter."
Democratic strategist Paul Goldman said the mistake may follow Mr. McDonnell as he is increasingly mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick, but it likely won't hurt him.
"It's past him," he said. "If he were nominated for national office, it would come up, as it always does. It's not going to be a problem for his national ambitions. Will it come up again? Yeah. But it won't be a problem."
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