The cover story of Time Magazine speaks volumes. It's a 19th century picture of Abraham Lincoln with a 21st century computer generated image of a tear streaming down his face. The headline: "Why We're Still Fighting The Civil War." It's a headline that really disturbs me after learning that my great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, fled his oppressive slave master, Edmund Wills, in 1863 to fight for his freedom with the 4th Heavy Field Artillery. It was a heroic story that was lost to my family for more than a century until I logged onto Ancestry.com and realized -- once and for all -- just how critical this epic battle was in American history.
What rattles my brain is why so many Americans are still confused about what the North and South were fighting about. Sandy Wills was NOT confused about the true mission of the war when he and five other enslaved teens who were imprisoned on the Wills plantation plotted their great escape and crossed the Tennessee state line into Columbus, Kentucky to enlist in what they were certain was a battle for their emancipation. These Africans were forced into a world of illiteracy -- but they were acutely aware of the high stakes involved.
Jefferson Davis and his rebels were not confused about the war either. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens brazenly wrote that his new rebellious government was founded upon what he called "the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition." As all hell broke loose, President Abraham Lincoln lamented, "One section of our country believes slavery is right ... while the other believes slavery is wrong ... This is the only substantial dispute."
As the first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 -- there was little confusion in our land about the powder keg that sparked the bloody conflict. April 12, 2011 -- we are still scratching our heads with impassioned and heated debates about states' rights, high tariffs and the southern push-back from the burgeoning industrial revolution in the north.
As a descendant of an African soldier who fought along with 200,000 members of the United States Colored Troops, let me be blunt: Americans need to stop the political spin and get over the fact that The Civil War was about the emancipation of slaves. It wasn't politically correct to boast about it 150 years ago, but why are so many apprehensive to admit it now?
I had the honor of joining Ken Burns at the National Archives' stately Headquarters in Washington, D.C. last week, where Ancestry.com launched millions of newly digitized Civil War records that are now available online for the first time. The famed filmmaker was recently stunned to learn that his great-great grandfather Abraham Burns fought on the side of the Confederacy. Abraham hoped to keep Africans like my great-great-great grandpa Sandy in bondage forever in America. Both Ken Burns and I easily agreed that Abraham Burns and his fellow Confederates were on the wrong side of history. We parted as new-found friends who are not at all confused about the war that our grandfathers fought in 150 years ago. We get it.
Why don't you?
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