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Our Views: Fighting old battles
Spat over Civil War anniversary becomes the latest issue to divide us 150 years later
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What is supposed to be a commemoration of one of America's most significant historic events is going to wind up being — what else? — another source of national division.

That would be the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the Civil War, the touchstone event in our nation's history.

The Civil War split our indivisible nation into two warring countries for four long, bloody years. More Americans died in that war — more than 600,000 combined from both sides — than in every other U.S. war combined. Entire Southern towns lost a generation of manhood. It took another generation for the South to recover and rebuild, economically and otherwise, and some of the war's effects lingered well beyond that.

Many feel it was a war that forged our nation from a gathering of disparate states into a true union, for a number of reasons. And it purged from our Constitution the original sin of slavery.

As the celebrations of the anniversary begins, that wound has been reopened yet again.

Last week, the first anniversary events were held in Charleston, S.C., where the war's first shots were fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. It included a full dress Secession Ball to mark the anniversary of the state seceding from the U.S., the first steps toward war months later.

The NAACP protested the event, claiming that it's wrong to celebrate the states' rebellion against the nation over the issue of preserving slavery. In their eyes, such events are an attempt to turn back the clock to the antebellum days of masters and field hands, each assigned to their respective levels in the social strata.

That school of thought holds that the war was all about slavery, both its preservation and eventual abolition, and the idea that one group of people could be kept at arm's length from prosperity and self-determination by the nation's white majority.

Yet to those marking the event, the Civil War celebration is simply a way to honor the bravery of those who fought and died to protect their homeland, regardless of the cause. Many believe the Civil War was more about the division of power between federal and state governments and the oppressive forces of Washington imposing their will on a free people.

Does that last part sound familiar?

Such was the conflict then, but we have new ones to keep us occupied 150 years later. And like the cannon fire on Fort Sumter that April day, last week's event in Charleston was the first volley in a debate that will only grow hotter as the war's anniversary approaches.

The question is a valid one even for those somewhere in the middle of the debate who have no use for slavery but still believe such a key even in U.S. history is worth remembering. How do we mark the Civil War appropriately and walk the line between celebrating the significance of the event and the valor of those who took part but still recognize it as a time of bondage for many Americans?

Was it a war to end the subjugation of a race of people? Or the "War of Northern Aggression" meant to deny Southern states their constitutional rights? As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in-between. Yet those on both extremes could use the event as a wedge issue, a jumping off point for other divisive topics.

But when it comes to remembering the war and its causes, we can't ignore or rewrite a key chapter in our nation's history because the storyline doesn't fit the narrative we prefer.

As with so many other subjects for discussion, it would be nice if we could eliminate the anger and mistrust long enough to take a more objective look at an event that clearly is important enough to acknowledge, whether or not we turn it into something more.

For those concerned that any such events glorify the days of slavery, it's worth noting that a) that institution would not have ended without the war being fought, and b) the Union won. As a result of victory, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and subsequent amendments granted citizenship and voting rights to black Americans.

In light of that success, a celebration should seem warranted. It was a war, most historians now agree, that was both inevitable and necessary to bond our nation.

There's nothing wrong with marking the valor of soldiers who served nobly, regardless of their cause. Many from our nation and others who answered the call, whatever the reason, did so to protect their homes and families, not to further a political ideal they often didn't fully understand. And right or wrong, they remain our ancestors, great-great grandfathers and uncles who did what they felt, at the time, was the best way to serve their homeland.

It's one thing to vilify politicians who led the rebellion, but the mere boys who wore gray for the South weren't the enemies of the Union then or now, and most proved so by becoming good American citizens again once the conflict ended.

Yet it is also reasonable to expect those who mark the occasion to do so with respect for the bitter cause at the root of the conflict. Whatever other reasons were cited, it's clear that slavery was at the crux of the states' desire to break with the union. It is only right, then, to make sure any celebrations maintain respect for those who may view it from that perspective.

If we can honor this anniversary with sensitivity to each other's points of view, we can do so with dignity and reverence. If not, we will allow it to become yet another method to bludgeon each other and increase the divide between us that seems to grow wider each year.

We fought one Civil War 150 years ago, and by all accounts, it was not pleasant. It would be nice if we could avoid a second one as we recognize the first.

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