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COMMENTARY: McKinney all wet about Lake Pelham
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COMMENTARY: McKinney all wet about Lake Pelham

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Lake Pelham was named in the 1960s for Confederate officer John Pelham (1838-1863) of Alabama who died in Culpeper during the Civil War.

Joseph McKinney’s letter to the editor (Jan. 3, “Culpeper’s Civil War history more complex than Joe Daniel purports”) claims to teach us about Confederate Maj. John Pelham’s brief history during the Civil War.

But McKinney entirely misses the point of local resident Joe Daniel’s worthy efforts to erase racism from Culpeper’s past and present.

I do not understand why McKinney thinks his military service gives him some special expertise. Anyone can read about Pelham in the historical record. When I was Pelham’s age, I was an Army captain leading a Blackhorse Regiment armored cavalry troop in combat in the Vietnam War; big deal. My perspective is similar to Mr. Daniel’s.

By way of context, like McKinney, I also went to West Point, graduating in 1968. We studied the tactics and strategy of the Civil War extensively because of the military lessons that could be learned.

Born at Walter Reed Hospital when my dad was stationed at the Pentagon during World War II, I grew up in Fairfax County surrounded by the mythos of the post-Civil War “Lost Cause.” I went to J.E.B. Stuart High School. My boyhood heroes were “Stonewall” Jackson, Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. I had pictures of all of them, including one of John Pelham, on the walls of my home here in Culpeper.

All of that changed after 2017’s Unite the Right white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. All of those pictures came off my walls. I was ashamed. Even if unintentionally, I had helped perpetuate the idea that glorifying the losers of the secessionist cause—who tried to destroy the Union because they didn’t like the results of an election—was somehow a good idea.

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Nobody will dispute that Pelham was a heroic artilleryman in the service of J.E.B. Stuart. He was mortally wounded along the Rappahannock River near Remington, and he died in Culpeper. I have canoed the whitewater rapids past the exact spot where Pelham fell. And, yes, I have hiked all over Culpeper’s Fleetwood Hill studying the Battle of Brandy Station.

Do you suppose Pelham’s personal slaves helped carry him off the battlefield? Whatever happened to them?

I wonder how many other Confederate officers, born into wealth and privilege, were accompanied by their slaves throughout the Civil War, accommodating their every whim, their every beck and call, polishing their boots after every battle? There is nothing nuanced and complex about that history.

To most people today, the point of the name of Lake Pelham, and the point of the Confederate monument in front of the Culpeper County Courthouse, is that both glorify Jim Crow.

And you can bet that our black brothers and sisters are very aware that they represent a continuing insult to the prospect of a better America, and a better Culpeper.

McKinney’s history lesson does nothing to further this discussion.

The lake should be renamed. Have a contest for citizens to suggest ideas. And remove the statue.

Culpeper County resident Mike McClary is a Vietnam War combat veteran and retired federal executive.

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