When I was growing up, our family often visited Andersonville National Cemetery and Historic Site. It is a very somber place to visit, given the horrors that occurred there during the Civil War. So, while some kids were taking weekend trips to amusement parks, water parks, the beach, or wherever else y’all went, I was traipsing around a cemetery!

My dad used to tell us all kinds of stories about things that happened there. With his talent for story-telling, we never knew whether he was recounting something he had read, or if he was just pulling something out of his ear.

I guess I never really understood my dad’s interest in the Civil War until just a few weeks before he passed away, when we received a packet from one of his cousins that contained a typewritten family history. Here’s an excerpt:

Thomas Marshall Tomlinson- born 1846 and died March 7, 1914. At age 14 or 15 he enlisted in the Confederate Army. Served as a Drummer boy in Gen. Lee’s Regiment. Later in other Regiments. He was captured at the end of the war at Gettysburg. He was held there for nearly a year. His father found him in an outdoor barbed wire enclosure, and released him when he came there to claim Lee’s (another son) body. He married Sarah Ida Reeves (our mother) in 1896. He was 21 years older than she, but they were very happily married. They had 4 children…. One of these children became my dad’s father.

I don’t know if my dad knew that his grandfather was a Civil War POW or not, but I imagine that he did. His great-uncles also served, I believe as medics, in the war, and of course one was killed at Gettysburg. Though these brothers served on the Confederate side, there were likely ancestors who served with the Union.

His connection with the Civil War didn’t end there. My dad grew up in northern Virginia, and he often talked very fondly of the “two old-maid sisters” that he helped with their farm in Manassas, apparently on property that was adjacent to, or actually a part of, the Battle of Bull Run, with their house serving for a time as a field hospital. He said that it was not unusual for him to find Civil War artifacts (buttons, bullets, etc.) when he was working around the farm, and that the sisters had a container where they tossed such things.

If you’ve ever been to Andersonville, you know that the landscape- both the prison site and the national cemetery- is dotted with noble monuments from many northern states. With its rows of white, uniform grave markers the cemetery itself is almost a living entity, a monument, a memorial to so many veterans who have passed away. What was a place of unspeakable horror has become a place of honor for those who have made unfathomable sacrifices in service to our nation. It is a place of redemption.

I’m glad that my parents instilled in me an understanding of how my history intersects with the history of this great nation where we live. It was this connection that gave me a foundational sense of gratitude for the privilege of living in the United States. It was this connection that made me understand that, as an individual, I have the right and the responsibility to practice good citizenship by keeping a strong work ethic, being kind, voting, keeping the law, showing respect for others (the deserving and the undeserving) and serving my community. It is this mindset that has kept our imperfect nation very powerful these many years. Sadly, as these older generations pass away, we can see the deterioration of such standards, and consequently the deterioration of our nation.

It is clear that the solution is not going to be found in our political system. The solution is simple, though easier said than accomplished, and that is for mothers and fathers, for grandmothers and grandfathers, to instill in their children and grandchildren the understanding of what it means to be a good American- that it takes all of us doing our part to make our nation great. To teach the concepts of sacrifice and service and how they relate to our history as a nation, and our future. To instill in them a deep sense of patriotism for this nation that will make them want to make American stronger. And to start today, before we forget what it means to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.