In a bit over two years, it will be 150 years since Confederate troops opened fire on the Federal forces inside Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Four years and 650,000 dead later, the guns fell silent.
We have just elected our first African-American President. This singular act brings to focus the long road for Americans of every region and race over the past century and a half. From the battlefields of Shiloh, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and the Wilderness, to lynchings and the KKK, to a woman who refused to sit in the back of a bus and a preacher who decided his time to stand against tyranny had come, to today, the legacy of slavery and the bloodbath of the Civil War still haunts us. It is not just a moment in our collective history, but the central defining moment of our nation.
In the midst of the current economic crisis, it is easy to forget such historical anniversaries. In fact, many would say that any Federal or State dollars going toward remembering the sesquicentennial would be better used toward mitigating the damage caused by the financial collapse. Ironically, this argument was used in the Great Depression as well, when the 75th anniversary of the war was remembered. In those days, there were still a few old veterans surviving. Despite the Depression, FDR ordered the remembrance events to be conducted anyway, even going as far as using the US Army as support for the famous "final encampment" at Gettysburg in 1938.
We should not use the current crisis as an excuse to not remember the war. That most painful time of our history, and the concordant suffering of both the victims of the war and the tragedy of the post-war African-American experience, should be studied and brought to the fore. We should take our children to the battlefields, to the reenactments, and to the museums. Our new dollar coins, instead of celebrating Presidents, should be used as teaching tools, showing people like Ulysses S. Grant, William Lloyd Garrison, Clara Barton, William T. Sherman, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, Sojourner Truth, and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. The painful memories of the war and its aftermath should be brought into the open light and discussed.
It is time for Congress to pass S. 2802 and H.R. 1131 and establish a national Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission; both bills have languished since 2007-2008. In addition, the critical need to save endangered battlefields should be continued and sponsored by Congress as well, with the passage of S. 1921, the Civil War Battlefield Prevention Act of 2008. [Correction: The CWBP Act of 2009 passed on January 15, 2009, thanks to the hard work of Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) and his staff. My heartfelt thanks to the Senator and his overworked but always appreciated staff )
We have the chance, as a People, to finish the healing process of the Civil War so that future generations will not only appreciate the sacrifices of that time but the wisdom of our generation in saving a legacy for them.