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How we still fight the Civil War

Fort Sumter surrendered to the rebels again last week with what one observer called "measured enthusiasm," compared to the Civil War centennial celebration 50 years earlier. For that, South Carolina, a grateful war-weary nation thanks you.

Fifty years ago, the opening engagement of the Civil War, still remembered by many Southerners as the "War Between the States" or "the War of Northern Aggression," was celebrated with more bombast and about 65,000 more participants.

With Confederate battle-flag-waving exuberance, war remembrances across the South turned into defiant celebrations of racial segregation, a last gasp for the "Lost Cause" against the rising tide of the civil rights movement in the new television age.

With that in mind, black politicians and civil rights leaders today have called for "commemorations, not celebration" for the sesquicentennial. Some commemorators, particularly in the South, grumble and scoff at such "political correctness." But it makes sense. The four-year fight left more than 620,000 dead. That's nothing to celebrate. But it's always worth remembering.

New events sometimes make me wonder if we have forgotten the bitter lessons of that war -- or whether we never quite stopped fighting it.

We hear echoes of the past erupting in leaders like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who raised the possibility of secession from the Union two years ago if Washington did not mend its "oppressive" high-spending ways. A few days ago I was relieved to see the governor ask President Obama for federal disaster help with his state's massive wildfires. Welcome back to the Union, governor.

Echoes of present-day politics and constitutional debates echo throughout "The Conspirator," a riveting new film written and produced by Robert Redford. It focuses on the remarkable mystery of Mary Surratt, the only woman to be tried and executed in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

A particularly memorable moment comes when she is asked by her skeptical attorney why she was such a staunch supporter of the Confederacy. She asks him if he's ever fought for something "larger than yourself." Of course he has. He's a battle-wounded Union Army veteran. "Then we are the same," she says.

Not quite. They fought for different sides. She sided with those who fought against the Union to keep up their rights, most prominently the right to hold humans in bondage.

Since those humans included some of my ancestors, I cannot sympathize with Surratt or her fellow conspirators, one of whom objects to being overseen by "a Negro guard." But moments like that helped me to understand what the North was up against, despite the Union's advantage in numbers and weapons.

It also helped me to understand why so many shattered, embittered Southerners after the war latched onto "the Lost Cause," a romanticized interpretation of the conflict that emphasizes Confederate heroism and downplays the importance of slavery.

It also helps to explain some of the energy behind Civil War re-enactors. "It is to show," as one Confederate officer told me years ago, "that our ancestors did not make the final sacrifice in vain."

Indeed, no one wants to be told that their great sacrifices counted for nothing. Besides, if anyone should understand lost causes -- how it feels to be a minority that is patronized, stigmatized and ridiculed by a condescending majority -- it is black Americans. Yet, the best lessons from our past show us how well we can work toward a better future -- together.

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