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Civil War's lasting family legacy Phillip Brents | Sat, Apr 30 2011 12:00 PM

The American Civil War, or as those who live below the Mason-Dixon might call it, the war for southern independence, began 150 years ago April 12,when Confederate forces fired on the Union enclave at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, S.C. It ushered in four years of bloody conflict that often pitted brother against brother and father against son.

When it was over, a new nation forged with unimagined liberties for all was born.

Today, in our era of unabashed freedom, the war seems so long ago - its moral testament minimized in the wake of the horrors of two world wars and numerous other global conflicts that have engaged American troops.

And, in an increasing number of cases, that ancient war remains foreign to a large segment of today's immigrant population.

Most everyone can name the first president of the United States. But who was the president of the Confederate States of America?

Well, Jefferson Davis, any Southerner will answer.

My family can touch this conflict. It brought utter chaos to the Brents family of Conway County, Ark.

The Confederacy was founded on the issue of states rights, specifically the right of white men to own slaves. I cannot defend the latter but my family could only do what it considered right at the time.

When the Confederate government of Arkansas sent out a call for its men to defend their land from northern invaders, they heeded the call. Five Brents men - all brothers or cousins - enlisted in the 36th Regiment, Arkansas Infantry. Only two came back home.

More American men died in the Civil War than in any of the previous wars combined. The war produced more than a million casualties and 620,000 dead. It is estimated that a staggering 18 percent of all Southern men aged 13 to 43 died during the war.

By war's end, 10 percent of the Union army was comprised of black men. Forty thousand died trying to free their brothers and sisters from bondage.

They all gave the ultimate sacrifice. They died for their country, whether wearing blue or gray.

When Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth assassinated U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in the days following Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's fateful surrender at Appomattox, Booth was not hailed as an avenging hero in the defeated South. He was reviled, as the ensuing 12-year occupation known as the Reconstruction only brought added wrath from angry northerners.

The citizens of Vicksburg, Miss. refused to observe Independence Day for 80 years.

Following Reconstruction, the South was devastated in turn by the Great Depression. There was a huge exodus of poor westward in search of a better life. Many found their pot of gold by working in aircraft factories in the San Diego region during World War II.

After the war, many remained here, my family included, providing South County with a population base of hard-working, God-fearing folk. They brought a bit of the South to southern California.

One hundred fifty years later, many issues still divide Americans - be they racial or social or otherwise. You can buy a house on Lick Mountain in Conway County - the gateway to the Ozarks - for $37,000 but one fifth of children under the age of 18 live in poverty.

When Lincoln waged war on his countrymen, his goal was to preserve the Union. But something far nobler arose from the ashes of Sherman's infamous "March to the Sea."

Before the Civil War, the United States of America was referred to in the plural sense. After the war, it has become singular. No one disputes that now.

Brents is The Star-News sports editor.

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