When I was little, my parents and I would watch television together. Usually, our TV diet consisted of evening news, Jeopardy! at 7:30, and  if I was lucky  an 8pm show like MacGuyver or Full House. But for a few nights in September of 1990, my parents let me stay up a little bit later than usual to watch something entirely different: a PBS documentary about the Civil War.

Of course, I was six at the time, and remembered very little about Ken Burns’s film except the constant pledge breaks, the lack of live action, and the fact that I got to watch TV past 8:30pm for almost an entire week! But my parents had the foresight to break out the blank tapes, set them on EP, and tape all ten hours for posterity’s sake. And re-watching The Civil War became a Campbell family tradition, just like our Christmas re-watch of It’s A Wonderful Life followed by home videos of me as a toddler.

Over the years, I started to pay more attention during our annual ritual, which (not surprisingly) gave me the impression that the Civil War was as natural an interest to a ten-year-old as dinosaurs were to a five-year-old. Part of it was school: I’d learned some of the major milestones of American history in first and second grade, and had been encouraged to read Carolyn Reeder’s Shades of Gray alongside more traditional books like Call of the Wild and Redwall. But I owed most of my interest, I’m convinced, to an accessible documentary that rewarded multiple viewings, and parents who managed to get me to learn  usually during summer break, no less  without me realizing it.

Thanks to them, my interest in the Civil War outlasted math drills, piano lessons, language tapes and the other extracurricular education activities to which my parents occasionally subjected me over the years. Patience, hard work, and repetition were impossible to muster in front of a piano keyboard, but in front of the TV they were much easier to muster.

In time, I internalized more and more of The Civil War and the Civil War. I learned each musical cue by heart; I learned which voice actors read which historical quotations; I learned the dates, names, and historical significance of battles and figures and armies. And I learned to look beyond Ken Burns, also. I scoured my local library system for each one of the silver-jacketed Time-Life series that I would take home every few months. I memorized the Gettysburg Address entirely without prompting. I played primitive computer wargames, where I commanded armies of ASCII symbols on 16-color EGA battlefields.

But there was a problem. I lived in the Pacific Northwest, on the other side of the country as Chickamauga and Vicksburg, and over a thousand miles from Picacho Peak, the site of the westernmost Civil War battle. As much as I had gotten to know the war through books, music, and TV, and as much I knew it as part of my national heritage, it still seemed remote. Even more so as our tapes grew older and deteriorated with use and age; the pictures and music began to distort, and every year, the Civil War grew further and further out of reach.

A marriage, of all things, brought it back to life for me. In 1995,  my dad announced that we were going to my aunt’s wedding in Maryland, and instead of just flying out there, we’d make a road trip out of it. Over the course of ten days, we would visit places like Mt. Rushmore, Pictograph Cave State Park, and Little Bighorn, and finish with a tour of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Gettysburg.

Even today, I remember quite a bit about our trip. I got bitten by a horsefly at Mt. Rushmore, saw my first supercell thunderstorm in South Dakota, and tried (and spat out) liver pâté for the first time at my aunt’s wedding. But most of all, I remember the battlefields where I walked over ground that was, and still is, hallowed. I had my picture taken on the Burnside Bridge at Sharpsburg and at Blackburn’s Ford at Manassas. I looked down from the top of Cemetery Ridge and Marye’s Heights. I even stood at the spot where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain ordered the 20th Maine to fix bayonets and, by doing so, allegedly saved the Union army.

In Intruder in the Dust, William Faulker said that every Southern boy dreams of being in Pickett’s Charge. Well, for a week in late July of 1995, I did them one better: I got to let my imagination run wild on the battlefield itself! (It helped, too, that I’d convinced my parents to get me some Civil War swag, which included a felt hat, an “authentic” lead bullet, and a photocopy of the Gettysburg Address on fake parchment paper).

We came back home exhausted from our road trip and aching for a respite from cramped hotel rooms and tents. But after we got settled in, it seemed only right to break out the old, worn-out VHS tapes and re-watch The Civil War. For the first time, in fact, we watched all ten hours not over the course of a week but in one long weekend, just before school started for me. Maybe it was because I had actually touched and seen the places that I’d been visiting every year with Ken Burns and company, or maybe it was just because my family and I were on our sixth viewing by that point. But I felt like I knew what I was watching in a way that I never had before.

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DARRYL CAMPBELL was once called an "elitist young author" by Fox News's John Stossel. He is an assistant editor at The Bygone Bureau, an online travel and culture magazine, and his writing has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor, and Hyphen Magazine. He can also be found on Twitter.

6 responses to “Twenty Years of The Civil War
The Tradition”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    Darryl, this is a wonderful evocation of childhood—-of dutiful and bored child Darryl to increasingly more intrigued and self-educating adolescent Darryl. And, throughout, you’ve fascinated us with the Civil War events, as well.

    Nice piece of work.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    Lovely piece, Darryl. Nice work.

  3. Joe Daly says:

    Welcome aboard, Darryl! We can never have too many young elitists in here.

    I was a Civil War buff growing up- visited the battlefields, read the books, etc., but have since fallen out of touch with that passion. Thanks for bringing me back to the good ol’ days.

    And in other news, I’m officially salty at you because I bought Ken Burns’ entire DVD series on baseball and have yet to sit down and watch a single disc. Huge guilt trip. Thanks.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      The baseball series is great, Joe. I can’t even tell you how much I enjoyed it.

      I grew up in Virginia, Darryl, which I’m sure played a significant role in my own interest in the Civil War. That interest is very common in Virginia. When I was maybe four, my family took a vacation to Gettysburg, and I naturally visited every battlefield in my home state. At one of them, I bought a Confederate razor blade as a souvenir. It, of course, had rusted quite a bit, and it eventually flaked until nothing was left.

      Incidentally, my name is Daryl (though it’s been spelled as your name is spelled, as well as numerous other ways, including, curiously and consistently, “Darly”); but everyone knows me as Duke, which I hope you, too, will call me. Welcome to TNB.

      • Cheers, thanks for all the comments and welcomes! I’ll be writing more on this over the next few weeks, in the run-up to the 20th anniversary on the first airing of The Civil War on the 20th of September.

        In the meantime, Duke, I can definitely sympathize with the spelling confusion. When someone has to write down my name for the first time, they have about a one in 8 chance of getting it spelled right.

        And Joe: speaking of Baseball, there’s going to be the additional “10th Inning” epilogue broadcast on the 28th. Which is as good an excuse as any to start watching!

  4. Dana says:

    “I played primitive computer wargames, where I commanded armies of ASCII symbols on 16-color EGA battlefields.” That made me laugh out loud!

    What an unusual, nerdy and delightful family tradition, Darryl!

    I’m not much of a war fan in general, but I bet if anyone could get me interested, it would be Ken Burns.

    My boss just recently brought in a box of books on the Civil War and wants us to sell them on ebay or Craigslist, including eight 600 page volumes by Allan Nevins. Any offers? 😉

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