As it happened, my visit to the grave of Robert E. Lee fell toward the end of Confederate History Month, as controversially proclaimed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

As it happened, my visit to the grave of Robert E. Lee fell toward the end of Confederate History Month, as controversially proclaimed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.


Lee is buried with his family beneath the Lee Chapel on the beautiful campus of Washington and Lee University in this charming Shenandoah Valley town. Traveller, the horse he rode throughout the Civil War, is buried just outside the chapel door. A bunch of fresh-picked carrots adorns his grave.


Inside, a bright white statue of Lee lies in repose -- not dead, interpreters say, but sleeping on the battlefield. Save for three dusty Confederate flags behind his head, it's a stark, dignified place.


"I wish no flag but the star-spangled banner," Lee wrote in 1860, before he chose to fight under the stars-and-bars. But there were no flags of any stripe present when Lee was buried here in 1870.


After Appomattox, Lee came to this then-remote place after being offered the presidency of Washington College, then on the brink of bankruptcy. The great general became an innovative educator -- among other things, he created the first school of journalism -- and rescued the school that now bears his name. By all accounts, he was gentle with his students, stressing character over discipline. When walking in procession to a military band, he avoided stepping to the beat.


Lee didn't want the war to start, and once it was over, he did what he could to stitch the nation back together.


Then there's Gov. Bob McDonnell. His proclamation broke open the scab over America's deepest wound -- exactly what the historians and state officials planning to mark the 150th anniversary of that conflict have hoped to avoid.


McDonnell's Republican predecessors had issued similar proclamations, but the last two Virginia governors, both Democrats, had refused. McDonnell's original proclamation outdid his GOP predecessors by leaving out any mention of slavery, prompting loud protests both inside and outside the Old Dominion. He regrouped and added a "whereas" about slavery, which did little to calm the waters.


The larger problem is with the narrative underlying McDonnell's proclamation. In fairly innocuous terms, it talks of the great sacrifices made by Confederates fighting for "their homes and communities and Commonwealth." It echoes the narrative southerners have promulgated for 150 years about the aggressive North's victimization of the noble South.


Confederates and their ideological descendant have spread this myth to counter the northern notion that the Civil War was about slavery. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which lobbied for McDonnell's proclamation, take this denial of reality to an absurd conclusion. "The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South's decision to fight the Second American Revolution," its website says.


Presumably, they were defending the "liberty and freedom" of white Virginians to own black Virginians. The apologists for the Confederacy say it's about states' rights, not slavery, but states' rights to do what? It's not like Lincoln was threatening to impose health care reform on the South. The only states' right at issue was the right to preserve slavery.


Arguments about yesterday are often really arguments about today. Today's neo-Confederates, Jon Meachum wrote in a recent New York Times column, are reinforcing the ideology of tea-party conservatives. They would like the Civil War to be seen, he wrote, as "more of an ancestral skirmish in the Reagan revolution, a contest between big and small government."


Fifty years ago, this kind of politics derailed the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. The Cold War was at its height, and officials pushed the creation of a federal Civil War Centennial Commission in hopes that retelling the story of America's fiery ordeal would unite us against the Communist threat. Gen. Ulysses Grant III was named to head the commission, and he turned out to be as effective at that job as his grandfather was as president.


The centennial was also during the height of the civil rights movement, and the historic commemorations were immediately put to use to advance contemporary agendas. Civil rights advocates focused on the unfinished business of emancipation, protesting a segregated hotel where the commission held its meetings. Southern state officials pushed the states' rights narrative, using "lost cause" rhetoric to defend Jim Crow laws.


Confederate flags flourished to an extent they hadn't since Lee's defeat. They were given new prominence in state capitals and added to state flags. No longer a response to Lincoln's armies, the stars-and-bars shouted defiance at Martin Luther King's marchers.


As politics disrupted Civil War commemorations, John F. Kennedy fired U.S. Grant, replacing him with James "Bud" Robertson, a young Virginia Tech historian, who ratcheted back the battlefield ceremonies, removing the politics and much of the public interest from the centennial.


There is no federal commission organizing the Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration, Richard Lewis of the Virginia Tourism Corporation told me, in part "because of the political minefield we just ran into" with McDonnell's proclamation. Some states, including North Carolina and South Carolina, are making no effort to mark the anniversary. Others, Pennsylvania included, are not using the term sesquicentennial because "no one can pronounce it, no one can spell it, and no one knows what it means."


But Virginia is embracing the anniversary, and determined to do it right. Its Sesquicentennial Commission (www.virginiacivilwar.org) includes Prof. Robertson, who advocates an entirely different approach to avoid the disaster he witnessed 50 years ago. They are de-emphasizing military history and focusing on multiple narratives: What the Civil War meant to black Virginians, to women, to children; what happened leading up to the war; what happened after.


They are convinced real history, presented right, will bring people together, informing present controversies instead of inflaming them. Robert Cook, who wrote a history of the troubled centennial, hopes the flag-waving and political ax-grinding will give way to the recognition of the horrors of that conflict. "The ghastly stench of death, not the romance of war, should pervade this commemoration in a way that it did not during the centennial," he wrote in a History News Network piece.


For months, members of the Sesquicentennial Commission had been seeking a meeting with McDonnell, Lewis said, to let him know how carefully they were trying to navigate the historical and political waters. Before the meeting could be scheduled, McDonnell surprised them with his unfortunate proclamation.


McDonnell, and others looking for the right notes to hit in recalling the Civil War, should come to Lexington and get reacquainted with Robert E. Lee, a man who loved both his state and his nation, who came to hate war, and who wrote that he "rejoiced that Slavery was abolished."


Lee stopped fighting his fellow Americans while the stench of death still hung over the Virginia countryside. The rest of us should follow his lead.


Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.