05/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering A Divided Nation

There have been, to date, 3,468 issues of the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to U.S. soldiers since the advent of that merit of prestigious service in 1861. Half of them were awarded in the conflict that tested the Union the most dearly, our own Civil War.

Excerpted from the Center for Military History:

Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, Company I, 19th Massachusetts Infantry. Place and date: At Fredericksburg, Va., 13 December 1862. Entered service at: ------. Birth: Groveland, Mass. Date of issue: 16 December 1896. Citation: Seized the 2 colors from the hands of a corporal and a lieutenant as they fell mortally wounded, and with a color in each hand advanced across the field to a point where the regiment was reformed on those colors.

Rank and organization: Contraband, U.S. Navy. Entered service at: Virginia. G.O. No.: 32, 16 April 1864. Accredited to: Virginia. Citation: On board the U.S. Steam Gunboat Marblehead off Legareville, Stono River, 25 December 1863, in an engagement with the enemy on John's Island. Serving the rifle gun, Blake, an escaped slave, carried out his duties bravely throughout the engagement which resulted in the enemy's abandonment of positions, leaving a caisson and one gun behind.

Rank and organization: Musician, Company C, 55th Illinois Infantry. Place and date: At Vicksburg, Miss., 19 May 1863. Entered service at: Woken, Ill. Birth: Portage County, Ohio. Date of issue: 2 3 April 1896. Citation: A drummer boy, 14 years of age, and severely wounded and exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy, he persistently remained upon the field of battle until he had reported to Gen. W. T. Sherman the necessity of supplying cartridges for the use of troops under command of Colonel Malmborg.

These three honorees are representative of a struggle so deeply felt and widespread that no limit of age, color or past or future could have anticipated its heroes. All joined in, and with courage and honor, repaired a nation so broken, so bereft of hope, that words could no longer prevent the spilling of blood.

No fewer examples, in nature or in number, of courage of conviction and purpose might be cited on the opposite side of the war between the states. But, in sadness and with respect to the excellence of their fighting men, that for which the South fought was an inferior cause in the estimation of the Union. But for the failure of the brilliant yet reluctant Booby Lee at Gettysburg, there might have been two Americas, each with its own list of Medal of Honor honorees. Instead, Lincoln delivered the immortal address of the Union. The legalities still lag the message and the resolve. We are, and will always be, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, or we shall perish and not be missed.

For some, those old divisions still throb from wounds to dignity and community. Justice was the issue. Whether it is the purview of government to establish and enforce nobler rules of human conduct towards each other was the issue, rather than to just defend the summary of various claims of individual rights. Slavery was the issue in 1860, rights of an individual's property versus the rights of the humans they, somehow, owned. Self evident. The three honorees above fought in favor of abolishing injustice to all men. The scars of that fight are the deepest of all that we will forever bear as a country, and are the scars that define our worth as a nation.

Now, America is as divided as it has been at any time before or since the Medal of Honor was conceived. At issue is conduct, again. The rift is not as glaringly obvious as the subjugation of persons based on color. But do not doubt it is about conduct. Some want to control the more obnoxious excesses of private enterprise, whether it be the health insurance industry, oil, banking, or Wall Street. Others find controlling harmful conduct an invasion of their personal liberties. It is as if criminality were liberty. Holding human beings as slaves was a liberty to be defended in the South of 1860.

Those who oppose law controlling the harm caused by industry find a convenient shadow threat from the last century with which to tar any and all of the making of law. They raise the specter of communism.

Law making is not communism, and the conviction that it is so is as inferior as was the cause of the South in the Civil War. Justice is justice, free and clear of any socioeconomic system. Harm to the public, enslavement, by whatever degree, of the public to dictates of an unelected autocracy of business, is not just. The Union exists to prevent just such harm. The Union has gone to war within itself to prevent just such harm.

As the battle lines are already drawn and now the rhetorical excess becomes a household debate, it may again become a test of men like these Civil War honorees. Let us hope that the excess in argument does not, this time, produce a result as trying of the Union as did the strife that created the Medal of Honor.

Or is secession and promoting inflammatory speech and lawlessness just an empty posturing by a criminal class bent on exploiting any and all unhealed wounds? The list of our Medal honorees does give proof, so far, that their posturing is in vain.