On April 12, the United States began the commemoration of the Sesquicentennial (150 year anniversary) of the Civil War.  Over the next 4 years, Americans will reflect on their national history, recreating dozens of battles and remembering many momentous events.

Once a collection of east-coast states struggling to form a union, the United States has grown to become a world superpower. Its presence is felt all over the world, acting as a model many countries try to emulate.

During the celebration of this great American conflict, I believe it is our duty to remember perhaps the most trying time in the history of the United States.  For 4 years the strength of the Union was tested as the Confederate states attempted to create their own nation.  Many thought the war would be short with little violence.  Four years later, 600,000 Americans were dead, and many more wounded, cut down by their friends, brothers, and fellow countrymen.  No other war matches its casualty numbers.

For many, the Civil War evokes bitter memories and controversies.  The celebration of Confederate history is a touchy subject that tends to spark heated debates.  These 4 years, however, were not solely about Southern slavery and the mistreatment of African-Americans, for the Civil War was not solely about abolition.

Certainly it is important to acknowledge and discuss the parts of American History of which we are ashamed.  This is the only way of understanding the legacy of where we are, how far we have come, and where we still must go.  We should also address and celebrate the broader themes of the Civil War; tens of thousands of men took up arms to fight for honor, country, and ideals larger than themselves.

Both Union and Confederate soldiers fought for what they believed were basic American ideals.  For some, this meant defending and upholding the sacrifices made by the Founding Fathers less than a century earlier.  To men of the North, the Union was an example for the rest of the world of liberty and democracy.  Failing to restore the Union would have meant disappointing their forefathers who fought to create the Union, as well as countries around the world who looked to the United States as a beacon of liberty.

Others emphasized the American ideal of fighting to defend one’s way of life from tyrants.  Like their forefathers before them, the men of the Confederacy saw themselves as fighting for their personal freedom against the tyranny of the North, trying to infringe on their way of life.

Unfortunately, Americans do not know their history as well as they should.  While I find this to be a tragedy, it does not mean that the opportunities of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War have to be wasted.  Whether one knows when the Battle of Gettysburg was fought (July 1-3, 1863), or who the president of the Confederate States of America was (Jefferson Davis), the important thing for America to do over the next 4 years is to reflect on the gravity this war had on our history and the many sacrifices soldiers and civilians made.

Over the course of the next few years Americans will witness reenactments and commemorations of battles and events that shaped our nation’s history in fundamental ways.  This is an exciting time for the country, a time to remember one of the most important eras in our nation’s young history.

Finally, I encourage people to look into the history of their own hometowns and states.  The Civil War affected the lives of every American in one way or another.  Even if a full-scale battle did not happen in your state, an interesting historical event might have happened in your own backyard.

Mike Johnson is a junior history major who focuses on nineteenth century America.  He would like to point out that the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 will coincide with the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  He can be reached at mjohns32@nd.edu.