Monday, July 4, 2011, is the 235th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the document that paved the way to America's freedom from King George III and England.

For much of its young life, the United States of America has fought for its own freedom and fought to protect or to free people around the world.

A recent vacation, principally to Virginia, provided me an opportunity to get a firsthand view of just what cost our freedom has meant.

The Yorktown, Va., battlefield, site of England's Cornwallis' surrender to George Washington, was inspiring, as was seeing the first American settlement at nearby Jamestowne. While there, an archaeological dig had unearthed the first church in America, a place where historians reported that Pocahontas was married to John Rolfe.

Traveling through Virginia, where much of the Civil War (1861-1865) between the Union and Confederate armies was fought, was a sobering and eye-opening experience. More than 620,000 American soldiers lost their lives in this four-year battle over states rights and slavery issues.

Forty years prior to the start of the Civil War, Thomas Jefferson, our country's third president and himself a slave owner along with Washington, predicted that slavery would be one of the great issues for our country to address. He accurately gauged the issue's impact on a free society.

Numerous Civil War battlefield sites visited brought the Civil War into clarity for me.

It was an incredibly brutal war. Nearly 2 percent of the nation's population died while fighting for the Union and Confederate armies. The topography was unrelenting in its hills and valleys and rivers and streams that needed to be crossed and re-crossed. The glorious victories early for the South at Manassas/Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville among others, showed that the Confederates were up to the task to win their right to live without interference from the Federal Government.

Only in 1864, three years into the conflict, did President Abraham Lincoln finally bring a Union general into the Virginia battlefield area to contend with Robert E. Lee.

History writes that Ulysses Grant understood that to defeat the Confederates, that it would be by attrition. Thus, rather than continue bloody battles, he began a siege of Petersburg, 20 miles south of the Confederate capitol of Richmond. That siege lasted nine months, and once Lee and the CSA government evacuated both cities, it took only eight days in April of 1865 for Grant to force Lee to surrender at the McLean House in Appomatox, Va.

Visiting the first battle site at Bull Run, hiking through other battle locations and seeing Appomatox brought some clarity for me about the Civil War. Our country has fought for the past two and half centuries for freedom. It's sometimes difficult to define, but we as a society should appreciate what our freedom is. Individual liberty, above all, is what Washington, Jefferson, Grant, Lincoln, and yes, even Robert E. Lee, fought for.

Presidential homes for Washington and Jefferson were also on the agenda to see, and both Mount Vernon (Washington) and Monticello (Jefferson) were inspiring.

In recent times, our freedoms have been fought for and protected by our soldiers in the Gulf War conflicts and the war in Afghanistan. We cherish our liberty, and we are willing to fight for it.

Seeing the D-Day WWII Memorial in Bedford, Va., was as inspiring as any site visited. In Washington, D.C., it was the WWII, Korean and Vietnam memorials that brought a sense of what freedom is. Visiting Arlington Cemetery, where more than 300,000 Americans are buried, was emotional. To witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier brought tears to the eyes.

I, like many Americans, sometimes take freedom for granted. No longer will I, though, and nor should any citizen.

On Monday, we should pause and gives thanks to those who have served, and to those who gave the supreme sacrifice to protect and preserve our freedoms that were so eloquently produced with the Declaration of Independence "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Sports Editor Brett Marshall can be emailed at bmarshall@gctelegram.com.