On the morning of April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers fired a single mortar at Fort Sumter, touching off a conflict that would kill 620,000 people, end slavery in America, and tear the country apart for four bloody years. On the 150th anniversary of that historic moment, writes Ken Burns at The New York Times, it's fair to ask "whether in our supposedly post-racial, globalized, 21st-century world those now seemingly distant battles of the mid-19th century still have any relevance." But in fact, the war's lessons have never been more relevant. Racism, the underlying problem that led Americans to take up arms against each other, continues to haunt the nation. And America's increasingly partisan politicians, who can't seem to agree on anything, would do well to remember the great pragmatist Abraham Lincoln, who rose above the fray when "the full consequences of our failure to compromise" were laid bare. And still, we struggle to really understand what the war was all about. Here, an excerpt:

In the years immediately after the South’s surrender at Appomattox we conspired to cloak the Civil War in bloodless, gallant myth, obscuring its causes and its great ennobling outcome — the survival of the union and the freeing of four million Americans and their descendants from bondage. ...

The result has been to blur the reality that slavery was at the heart of the matter, ignore the baser realities of the brutal fighting, romanticize our own home-grown terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, and distort the consequences of the Civil War that still intrude on our national life.

Read the entire piece at The New York Times