The Civil War


I was 11 years old when The Civil War started.  Not the war itself, clearly, but the PBS documentary that first ran in 1990, starting just over a week after my 11th birthday.  I was aware of it, my middle school band even played a simple arrangement of Ashoken Farewell at our holiday concert that year, but I was too young for 10 hour epic PBS documentaries, no matter how well produced or acclaimed they were.  It just wasn’t right for my attention span.

It’s been just over 21 years now since that original broadcast.  It’s rerun on PBS numerous times since then, especially during pledge drives, had VHS and DVD releases, and landed on Netflix streaming.  It wasn’t until recently that the series actually interested me, not until I got to work on a novel set in and around the era of the American Civil War.  Researching still isn’t something I’m entirely comfortable with, but I’ve become engrossed by the era.  Even though the war in our book happens very differently, it’s important to know what happened in the real war, what was going on outside the battlefields, how life was led.  And that’s why we added The Civil War to our streaming queue and started watching it.

I’m not going to get obsessed by the Civil War.  I’m not going to devote my life to it.  When this novel is over and the next one travels west with the railroad, I’ll probably step away from the battlefields of the east.  But I’d like to say…I understand it now.  I can understand why people devote so much time to this war, so much fascination, just what it is about this conflict that draws so much more of the American imagination than any war either before or since.  It’s odd that it took so long.  I was born abroad, but since returning to the states as an infant I’ve never lived outside the Confederacy.  Virginia, Alabama, Texas, back to Virginia, college in North Carolina, it’s always been right there at my doorstep, but it’s just a period that I never devoted much thought to.

My wife and I watch the show oddly.  We’ve been doing some research, looking up those real life characters who are hanging out in the background of our novel.  They’re never active in the plot itself, but they influenced it with their earlier actions.  Yesterday we actually exchanged a high-five when two of them, Richard Gatling and John Ericsson, showed up on-screen, both in photographs we immediately recognized.  The documentary almost turns the war into a spectator sport for us, as we identify by photos those who were crazy sons of bitches, who were the heroes, and who were the villains, all from our understanding of the war coming into this project, and from our research.  When Ericsson is described as cantankerous we actually laugh, as we cast him as the emotional, and even occasionally cruel, inventor.  Largely because Gatling looks too much like Santa to comfortably vilify.  Seriously, that’s him to the right.  Ho ho ho, little Susie, if you’re really good I may bring you a machine gun for Christmas.

We laughed at what was almost a running gag early in the war, Northern generals being traded in and out of their commands.

And then the fighting starts.

We’re almost experiencing the war as it was lived.  I suppose that was the intent of the documentary.  Go into the war expecting it to be a quick and easy affair, until the fighting actually starts.  It’s odd.  I know the statistics.  Right around 2% of the population of the United States was killed in the conflict, the equivalent of 6.25 million people today.  It’s a staggering number.  Perhaps too staggering.  It takes the individual fights, the isolated battles, for those numbers to make any sense.  It takes the slaughter at Shiloh.  And then I realize that I can understand those who obsess with the war, who get drawn into its history and want to learn more, but not those who glorify it.

We’re three hours, two episodes, in.  It makes interesting viewing while I’m writing, though it does force me to put aside the story at times.  It also has me looking around the Northern Virginia area, where we’re lousy with Civil War history.  There’s a minor battle site within walking distance of my house, and Manassas is only a half hour’s drive away.  I’ve never been to these sites, but I’ll probably start when the weather warms.  Especially to see those parts of the war that are the same between established history and our book’s timeline.

Damn that war.

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