During this year, milestone anniversaries of U.S. involvement in three major wars are being observed, and in the century between the end of one and the beginning of the other the nation grew from being an isolated backwater into its modern role as a world power.
In the century since the end of the third of these wars, the nation has continued to grow, as it has tried to fulfill the ideals set forth in the earliest days of the republic.
From the time of the War of 1812, which was drawing to a close 200 years ago, to the time of the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago, the country secured much of the territory and set the foundation for the industry that would provide the natural and economic resources to propel the nation to the forefront of world affairs. So powerful would the country become that 100 years ago, when World War I broke out in Europe, the Old World powers across the Atlantic were looking west to see what the United States would do. The scales of what had been a stalemate would end up being tipped in favor of the side the U.S. joined – though there were certainly other factors at play.
Throughout this period in history, Harford County has had a front row seat. Skirmishes were engaged on Harford's soil during the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and plenty of Harford sons went to the front during the first world war, including the man for whom the Main Street Armory building in Bel Air was named, Gen. Milton Reckord.
This week, this past Monday to be exact, also marked the 150th anniversary of the battle in which the only Harford-born person to have ever been awarded the Medal of Honor was injured. His story joins the American experience with regard to war and how that relates to the country's maturity in accepting the lofty proposition that all are created equal. Though the notion is enshrined in many of the country's founding documents, the Constitution as first enacted failed to extend this vision to all people.
The Civil War, in which Sgt. Hilton was mortally wounded at the Battle of New Market Heights in Virginia, helped to rectify part of the issue, as it put an end to the American disgrace of being among the last nations on earth to allow slavery. Sgt. Hilton was something of a rare individual in his day. An African-American, he was born free prior to the Civil War to parents who had been freed by their owners.
He distinguished himself in battle, which earned him the highest of American military honors, yet African-Americans would remain second class citizens for generations.
By the time of the World Wars, people of color continued to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, although in second class segregated units. Even so, the heroics of African units have become fairly well documented, and the ability of those soldiers, sailors and marines to prove themselves on the figuratively level ground of the battlefield has gone a long way in leading the rest of the nation in the right direction of recognizing the importance of that all are created equal ideal.
The U.S. Army was among the earliest of American institutions to have been desegregated — a process that, while hardly seamless, would have allowed for people to advance based on their abilities rather than be held back because of skin color.
As people advanced in rank and standing in the services, the balance of society would end up following, though often reluctantly.
Though recognition that all are equal remains an ideal, that ideal is closer to being realized today in the U.S. than ever, thanks to sacrifices and heroics on and off the field of battle by the likes of Sgt. Hilton..